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Throne Hall of Dongola, Sudan

Throne Hall of Dongola: Hidden Christian Beginnings Revealed in the Walls of the Oldest Preserved Mosque in Sudan

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Relatively little is known of Sudan beyond the borders of Africa even though it is a country which has been home to significant civilizations and has many fascinating archaeological sites. One of the most imposing of these is the Throne Hall of Dongola, a medieval monument widely regarded as one of the most symbolic monuments in Sudan. The building is protected by the Sudanese government, which is actively seeking to have the hall recognized by UNESCO as a site of international cultural importance.

History of Nubia

The throne hall is the most complete building to have survived from the city of Dongola which, although abandoned for centuries, was once a major cultural, religious, and political center as well as the capital of a powerful Nubian state known as Makuria . The ruins of Dongola are in Northern Sudan and are located on the bank of the Nile.

The Nubians, who emerged after the collapse of the Kushite Empire , lived in what is today Southern Egypt and Northern Sudan. They converted to Christianity at an early date, approximately the fifth century AD, and came under the influence of both the Coptic and Byzantine Church .

The church of granite columns, Dongola (Lucia A / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The church of granite columns, Dongola (Lucia A / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

There were three main Nubian kingdoms, the most powerful being Makuria as it was able to resist continual Arab invasions. The wealthy king of Makuria was a great patron of the arts, especially the period of 1000-1200 AD. However, after Bedouin incursions and plagues, the kingdom went into decline and during the fourteenth century came under the influence of the Mamluk Sultanate which dominated modern Egypt and the Levant. The Nubian Christian state became a dependency of first the Mamluks and later the Ottomans. The distinctive culture of the Nubians all but disappeared because of the spread of Islam and the growing Arabization of the area.

The Throne Hall Of Dongola History

A ninth century Makurian king built the throne hall on a rocky outcrop that overlooked the town of Dongola, not far from the town’s former citadel. This hall was once decorated with beautiful frescoes and murals and the antechamber is believed to have been used to receive visitors and dignitaries.

An impressive staircase, designed to project the power of the Nubian monarch, led up to the second throne hall where the monarch received his guests.

Wise man on horseback, Dongola Hall (Public Domain)

Wise man on horseback, Dongola Hall ( Public Domain )

When the Nubian kingdom began to decline, the hall fell into ruins and was also badly damaged by Mamluk incursions. In 1317 the Egyptian Sultan placed a Muslim on the throne, and this was a critical moment in the process of Islamization of the Nubians. This puppet monarch turned the throne hall into a mosque and added features such as a Mihrab which indicates to worshippers the direction of the Kaaba. Because of Islamic teachings on images, he also ordered the many paintings in the hall to be plastered over and they remained hidden from view for centuries. The hall remained a mosque even after Old Dongola was abandoned sometime in the eighteenth or nineteenth century. Eventually is was excavated by archaeologists from Poland in the 1960s who are still working on the site to this day.

The Art and Architecture of the Throne Hall

The hall is a two-story edifice made from baked brick and sandstone. It is clearly influenced by Byzantine examples and its design was probably based on similar halls in Constantinople.  Many of its features, such as its windows, are clearly Nubian. The hall is 40 feet (12 m) in height, 100 feet (30m) in length and almost 60 feet (18m) wide and was altered several times down the centuries.

The numerous wall paintings are being revealed to the world by archaeologists who are removing the white plaster that hid them for so long. These are clearly based on Byzantine models , but also show Coptic and Ethiopian influences. The paintings only have a limited number of colors and they largely represent Christian iconography and events from the Bible, such as images of archangels, the Holy Trinity, as well as scenes depicting the life of Jesus, although one wall depicts a representation of a Makurian king as a Byzantine Emperor .

Travelling To the Throne Hall of Dongola

Sudan does not have a well-developed tourist industry. The abandoned city of Dongola is hard to get to and quite remote and employing a local guide when travelling to the area is strongly recommended. There is no accommodation nearby, but visitors have the opportunity to camp.

Unique Bee-hive Nubian tombs (de Walick, L / CC BY 2.0)

Unique Bee-hive Nubian tombs (de Walick, L / CC BY 2.0 )

In the past the hall has been closed without notice and it can be difficult to access the interior of the Throne Hall. However, there are many other attractions in the location such as Far Cathedral and the distinctive bee-hive Nubian tombs.

Top image: Throne Hall of Dongola, Sudan                            Source: LeGabrie / CC BY SA 4.0

By Ed Whelan

References

Dziedzic, T., & Tarczewski, R. (2014). Some Problems Related to Making Accessible for Tourists the Throne Room of Makuria Kings in Old Dongola (North Sudan).

Available at: https://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/iass/piass/2014/00002014/00000013/art00010

Obłuski, A., Godlewski, W., Kołątaj, W., Medeksza, S., & Calaforra-Rzepka, C. (2013). The Mosque Building in Old Dongola . Conservation and revitalization project.

Available at:  https://s3.amazonaws.com/academia.edu.documents/32613902/PAM_22_Dongola_Obluski__Godlewski_et_alii.pdf?AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAIWOWYYGZ2Y53UL3A&Expires=1550063605&Signature=QZVbSZvoRMA89N0gXqI4f%2FF%2FWdA%3D&response-content-disposition=inline%3B%20filename%3DThe_Mosque_Building_in_Old_Dongola._Cons.pdf

Ruffini, G. (2012). Medieval Nubia: A Social and Economic History . Oxford University Press

Available at:  https://books.google.ie/books?hl=en&lr=&id=tm-auVKJqYIC&oi=fnd&pg=PP1&dq=history+of+nubia+christian&ots=ygMHjFkxxF&sig=P3RqV71vKj95WvJP_0wRNJpMy4Q&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=history%20of%20nubia%20christian&f=false

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