The Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology, University of Warsaw (PCMA UW) has received funding from the ALIPH Foundation to preserve a church with valuable wall paintings in Old Dongola, Sudan.
ALIPH Foundation supports the protection of cultural heritage in conflict zones. It funds measures to limit the risk of destruction, conserve and restore the heritage to local communities.
Dongola, located between the 3rd and 4th Nile cataracts, is a city founded in the late 5th century. It was the capital of the medieval kingdom of Makuria. The PCMA UW expedition has been working there since 1964. Currently, the ERC-funded project “UMMA – Urban Metamorphosis of the community of a Medieval African capital city” directed by Dr. Artur Obłuski is underway there.
The archaeological site features many traces of the former grandeur of the city, including a citadel overlooking the Nile, St. Anthony’s Monastery (Kom H), as well as more than a dozen churches, and the oldest preserved mosque in Sudan. Among the most important and spectacular finds are polychrome church interiors.
As the project team discovered the winter season of 2021, heavy rains and adverse weather conditions had damaged some of the buildings, as well as the modern roofing erected to protect them. The priceless paintings in their interiors were therefore vulnerable to destruction. The Church of Archangel Raphael (so-called B.V.) required the most urgent conservation efforts.
The Church of Archangel Raphael was discovered by Prof. Włodzimierz Godlewski, and systematic excavations were carried out there since 2007. Along with the archaeological work, conservation of plaster and wall paintings was initiated. The church is located in the southern part of the Citadel, on the bank of the Nile. It features wall paintings: about 40 depictions of saints, archangels, patriarchs and Nubian dignitaries. The paintings were executed al secco on lime plaster.
Between 2015 and 2017, the church was completely excavated and roofed over, allowing conservators to safely continue the work. Since 2018, restoration works has been carried out under the supervision of the Academy of Fine Arts. Due to the poor state of preservation of the paintings, they involve primarily protecting the paintings from further destruction and strengthening the degraded plasterwork. However, due to harsh weather conditions and strong winds, the shelter over the church was destroyed. It was rebuilt, but as a result of a couple of years of exposure to weather conditions, the roofing is not stable. Heavy rains and the pressure of sand also caused a breach in the eastern wall of the church, which was rebuilt in early 2022. External protection of the church is necessary to carry out further conservation work.
The project, which received a $15,002 “Emergency Relief” grant from the ALIPH Foundation, is called “Emergency Measures to Preserve the Church of Archangel Raphael, Old Dongola, Sudan.” It involves the construction of a two-tier roof (designed by Prof. Romuald Tarczewski, Wrocław University of Technology, and Joanna Wyżgoł, M.Sc.), which will protect the building from external conditions. This is the first step in realizing a holistic concept for the preventive protection of the church, enabling the implementation of new solutions for the protection of sacred buildings in Old Dongola.
Thanks to the support of ALIPH