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Unearthing the Past: Rare Christian Art Discovered in Medieval Monastery

A photo of a scene depicting King David. Adrian Chlebowski.

Enigmatic complex of rooms found in Old Dongola reveal unique figural scenes and inscriptions.

Archaeologists from the University of Warsaw have uncovered a mysterious complex of rooms in a medieval monastery, featuring rare Christian art and inscriptions that offer a glimpse into the history of the African state of Makuria.

In an extraordinary find, archaeologists from the Polish Center of Mediterranean Archaeology at the University of Warsaw discovered a complex of sun-dried brick rooms at the Old Dongola medieval monastery on the Nile. These rooms were adorned with figural scenes unique to Christian art, shedding light on the history of Makuria, one of Africa’s most prominent medieval states.

Old Dongola: Makuria’s Capital and Seat of Power

Old Dongola, located over 500 km north of Khartoum, was the capital of Makuria, which converted to Christianity by the sixth century. Despite Egypt’s Islamic conquest in the seventh century, an Arab invasion was repelled in 651, leading to the Baqt Treaty and a lasting peace until the 13th century.

Christian Art: A Treasure Trove of Vivid Mural Paintings and Inscriptions

Archaeologists made the discovery while exploring houses from the Funj period (16th-19th century CE). Within the main monastic complex, they unearthed a well-preserved church with vibrant murals and inscriptions in Greek and Old Nubian.

Beneath the floor of one house, they found an opening to a small chamber with walls adorned with unique representations, including depictions of the Mother of God, Christ, and a scene with a Nubian king, Christ, and Archangel Michael. The scene featuring the Nubian king and Archangel Michael finds no parallels in Nubian painting.

Decoding the Inscriptions

Dr. Agata Deptua from PCMA UW is presently examining the inscriptions found alongside the paintings. An initial analysis of the Greek inscriptions has uncovered texts originating from the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. The main scene features an Old Nubian inscription, which, after a preliminary reading by Dr. Vincent van Gerven Oei, includes references to a king named David and a prayer to God for the city’s protection.

The inscription likely refers to Dongola and King David, one of Christian Makuria’s last rulers whose reign marked the kingdom’s decline. Researchers believe the painting may have been created as the Mamluk army approached or during the city’s siege.

Mysteries Surrounding the Complex of Rooms

The enigmatic complex of rooms presents numerous puzzles. These small spaces, constructed from sun-dried brick and topped with vaults and domes, lie adjacent to a revered structure known as the Great Church of Jesus. This sacred edifice is thought to be Dongola’s cathedral and the most significant church in Makuria. Arab sources suggest that the Great Church of Jesus incited King David’s attack on Egypt and the subsequent capture of the ports of Aidhab and Aswan.

Future excavations may provide answers regarding the mysterious structure and the rare Christian art it is home to. The primary objective for this season was to protect the exceptional wall paintings, with conservators operating under the guidance of Magdalena Skaryska, MA. The conservation team was a collaborative effort between the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology, the University of Warsaw, and the Department of Conservation and Restoration of Works of Art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw.

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