The rich history of the ancient Nubian Kingdom of Dongola
Following the collapse of the Kingdom of Kush during the 4 th century BC, a political vacuum was left in the region it controlled, now modern day Sudan and southern Egypt. This void was filled by the emergence of a number of smaller Nubian kingdoms. The most well-known of these successor states was the Kingdom of Dongola, or Makuria, which had its capital in the city of Old Dongola, located on the east bank of the Nile. The modern city of Dongola is situated 80 km (49.7 miles) downstream on the opposite side of the bank.
The emergence of Old Dongola
Whilst the Kingdom of Dongola may be the most widely known successor of the Kingdom of Kush, its origins are rather obscure. It has been suggested that during the 8 th century AD, Makuria united with its northern neighbor, Nobatia, perhaps under King Merkurios, to form a single state. The site chosen to serve as the kingdom’s new capital was Old Dongola, which was originally a fortress. It is said to have been built during the 5 th century AD, as it occupied a strong defensive position. Located on a spur, it is cut off from the rest of the plateau to the east by deeply incised valley. Steep falls protected the northern and southern sides of the fortress, whilst the Nile ran along its western side. From this vantage point, the fortress dominated the area, and allowed it to control movement, be it of people or of trade. It did not take long for people to settle in Old Dongola, and the fortress developed quickly into a town.
The Nile at Old Dongola ( Carsten ten Brink/Flickr )
The Christian Kingdom of Dongola
One of the most distinct features of the Kingdom of Dongola is that it was a Christian Kingdom. It is recorded that during the 6 th century BC, Christianity was propagated in the Nile Valley from Aswan all the way south to the confluence of the White Nile and the Blue Nile at modern day Khartoum. The Byzantine missionaries were responsible for the spread of Christianity in this region. As a result of the Byzantine ecclesiastical writers, information was recording regarding the successor states of the Kingdom of Kush at this point of history. According to the writers, this part of the Nile was divided into three parts – Nobatia, Makuria, and Alwa (the southern-most state), all of which were converted to Christianity. Whilst Nobatia and Makuria were united, Alwa remained a separate state on its own, perhaps until the beginning of the 16 th century.
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The churches of Old Dongola
One effect of the conversion to Christianity was the construction of numerous churches. It is said that the new churches quickly replaced pagan temples and royal tomb monuments (both of which originating in Pharaonic Egypt) as the prestige symbol of a both a church and the state. In the state of Alwa, the Armenian traveler Abu Salih wrote that it had possessed 400 churches. However, it is claimed that archaeological excavations at Soba, the capital of Alwa, have uncovered very few buildings that may have been churches, and that Abu Salih might have overestimated their number.
Prestige could also be expressed through the quality of churches. Not only were damaged churches torn down, but churches that were still perfectly functional were also destroyed at times so that a larger one could be built in its place. In Old Dongola, a church dubbed the ‘Old Church’ was demolished so that the ‘Church of the Granite Columns’ could be built over it. This was the largest church constructed in medieval Nubia, and may have served as the city’s cathedral. Although the churches’ exteriors were generally plain, its interiors were beautifully decorated with frescoes. Some of these pieces of art are now displayed in Khartoum’s National Museum.
Wall painting from a Nubian church on display at the Khartoum Museum. It depicts the story from Daniel 3 of the three youths thrown into the furnace. ( Wikimedia Commons )
A 900-year-old medieval crypt
Apart from churches, monasteries were also established in the Christian kingdoms of Nubia. At one of these monasteries in Old Dongola, a 900-year-old medieval crypt was discovered in 1993 by the Polish Mission to Dongola. It was, however, only in 2009 that the crypt was excavated. In the crypt, archaeologists discovered the naturally mummified remains of seven males. Based on an epitaph found nearby, it is believed that amongst those buried in the crypt was an 11 th/12th century archbishop named Georgios, whose seat might have been at the ‘Church of the Granite Columns’. On the walls of the crypt were inscriptions written in Greek and Sahidic Coptic. These inscriptions included excerpts from the four Gospels, magical names, as well as signs and a prayer given by the Virgin Mary. These inscriptions were meant to protect the occupants of the crypt from the forces of evil.
The demise of the Kingdom of Dongola
The Kingdom of Dongola maintained peaceful relations with its northern neighbor, Fatimid Egypt. When the Ayyubids came to power in Egypt, however, a more aggressive policy was applied towards the Kingdom of Dongola, and the new rulers of Egypt waged war regularly against them. Nevertheless, the Kingdom of Dongola continued to survive until its final demise in the 14 th century at the hands of another Egyptian dynasty, the Mamelukes.
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Last of the traditional Nubian houses, Dongola, Sudan ( Wikimedia Commons )
Featured image: Ruins of the Church of the Granite columns, Old Dongola, Sudan ( Wikimedia Commons )
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