Newly discovered cathedral in Dongola – Polish research in Sudan

Archaeologists working in Old Dongola (Sudan) found the remains of what may be the largest church known from medieval Nubia. Newly discovered cathedral could have been the seat of an archbishop governing the church hierarchy over a 1000 km-long stretch along the Nile, between the 1st and 5th cataracts. The archbishop of Dongola oversaw the bishop of Faras, whose cathedral with its famous wall paintings was discovered by Prof. Kazimierz Michałowski 60 years ago.

Trójwymiarowa wizualizacja nowoodkrytego kompleksu il. CAŚ UW - A. Wujec
3D visualisation of the newly discovered complex
il. PCMA UW – A. Wujec

Polish archeologists in ancient Dongola

According to, Assist. Prof. Artur Obłuski, the head of the Dongola expedition and the director of the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology of the University of Warsaw (PCMA UW), this discovery changes not only our knowledge about the city itself but also the way we reconstruct the history of the Nubian church.

Dongola was the capital of Makuria, one of the three Christian Nubian kingdoms. Archaeologists from PCMA UW have been working there since 1964, continuing the research initiated by Prof. Kazimierz Michałowski after the success of his work in another Nubian center – Faras, the capital of Nobadia.

In 2021, archaeologists cleaned the wall of the church’s apse, together with an adjacent wall and the nearby dome of a large tomb. The structures are located in the very center of the city. The walls of the apse, which was the most sacred place in the church, are decorated with paintings depicting two rows of monumental figures. It is the largest apse so far discovered in Nubia: it has a diameter of 6 m, and the width of the church to which it belonged is approx. 26 m.

Prace badawcze w absydzie fot. CAS UW - A. Chlebowsk
Works in the apse
photo: PCMA UW – A. Chlebowski

The project leader,  Assist. Prof. Artur Obłuski, describes the discovery as follows:

If our estimates based on the known dimensions are confirmed, it is the largest church discovered so far in Nubia. It’s size is important, but so is the location of the building – in the heart of the 200-hectare city, the capital of the combined kingdoms of Nobadia and Makuria. Just to the east of the apse, a large domed building was added. We have a great analogy for such an architectural complex: Faras. There too, the cathedral stood in the center of the citadel, and to the east of it was the domed tomb of Joannes, the bishop of Faras. However, there is a major difference in the scale of the buildings. The dome over Joannes’ tomb is 1.5 m in diameter, while the dome over the Dongolese building is 7.5 m.

A newly discovered cathedral in the middle of the citadel

Archaeologists assume that, just like in Faras, the large church in Dongola served as a cathedral, next to which a tomb of dignitaries, probably bishops, was erected. The confirmation of this hypothesis will have significant consequences for Nubiology. Until now, another church located outside the citadel was considered to be Dongola’s cathedral, a building whose features would influence the religious architecture of Nubia over the centuries.

XVII w. dzielnica mieszkalna powstała na pozostać makuryckiego kościoła fot. CAŚ UW - A. Chlebowski
Domestic compound from 17th century built on top the Makurian Church
photo: PCMA UW – A. Chlebowski

If we are right, it was a completely different building that set the trends.

  • – says Obłuski.

The newly discovered catherdal stands in the middle of the citadel that is surrounded by a wall about 10 m high and 5 m thick. The excavations have shown that this was the heart of the entire kingdom in the Makurian period as all structures uncovered there were of a monumental character: churches, a palace, and large villas belonging to church and state elites. Test trenches dug in the building have yielded promising results.

As Obluski explains:

The sounding in the apse is approx. 9 m deep. This means that the eastern part of the building is preserved to the impressive height of a modern three-storey block of flats. And this means there may be more paintings and inscriptions under our feet, just like in Faras.

Sondaż wykopaliskowy w absydzie kościoła fot. CAŚ UW - A. Chlebowski
Test trench in the apse
photo: PCMA UW – A. Chlebowski

Conservation of paintings

Therefore, among the team members are conservators from the Department of Conservation and Restoration of Works of Art of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, working under the supervision of Prof. Krzysztof Chmielewski. Their immediate task is to secure the discovered paintings on an ongoing basis, and in the long term, to prepare them for display. Unlike at Faras, they can be left on the church walls.

Konserwator przy pracy, zabezpiecza nowoodkryte freski zdj. CAŚ UW - M. Rekłajtis
Conservator at work in the newly discovered apse
photo: PCMA UW – M. Rekłajtis

In order to continue the excavations, the weakened and peeling wall plaster covered with painting decoration must be strengthened, and then carefully cleaned of layers of earth, dirt and salt deposits that are particularly harmful to the wall paintings. When a suitable roof is erected over this valuable find, it will be possible to start the final aesthetic conservation of the paintings.

– explains Prof. Chmielewski, adding that this type of rescue conservation requires the involvement of considerable resources, time, and skilled specialists.

The next excavation seasons in Dongola are planned for the fall of this year and the winter of 2022.

Prace dokumentacyjne nowoodkrytej katedry fot. CAŚ UW - M. Rekłajtis
Documentation work on the apse
photo: PCMA UW – M. Rekłajtis

Author: PCMA UW/ Agnieszka Szymczak 

Editor: Julia M. Chyla

Source: PCMA UW press release

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