Dongola: Citadel (Sudan), 2009

Dongola (Sudan)

Dates: 24 January – 6 March 2009

Program: Citadel – SWN, Monastery on Kom H, Mosque/Throne Hall restoration project, geophysical survey, site mapping, Hammur cemetery mapping (MtoM project).


Co-directors: Prof. Włodzimierz Godlewski and Assist. Prof. Adam Łajtar

Cristobal Calaforra-Rzepka – paintings restorer

Barbara Czaja-Szewczak – textiles restorer

Katarzyna Danys – pottery expert

Urszula Dąbrowska – paintings restorer

Tomasz Herbich – geophysicist

Robert Mahler – physical anthropologist

Wiesław Małkowski – topographer

Szymon Maślak – archaeologist, documentalist

Grzegorz Ochała – registrar

Dawid Święch – geophysicist

Prof. Jacques van der Vliet – epigrapher

The digging season of the University of Warsaw expedition to Dongola lasted from January 24 through March 6, and encompassed work on the Citadel (SWN – complex of royal edifices), the Monastery on Kom H and the Mosque/Throne Hall in the lower town. The team also continued mapping of the central part of the site and a geophysical survey of the dense urban architecture on Kom P. Mapping of a 5th-6th century cemetery at Hammer, a locality 5 km from the Citadel, was also carried out within the framework of the Early Makuria research project (MtoM).

The extensive building discovered five years ago is thought to be the palace of the kings of Makuria. Most recently, digging was localized in two sectors: the northeastern part and the northwestern one with room B.I.37 in the western part of the edifice. In the northeastern part, under the ruins of the 16th century House H.6, excavators uncovered two corner halls belonging to the royal palace (B.I.46-47). The northern of the two units still preserved the vault over the ground floor and the upper-floor paving [Fig. 1], establishing the

Fig. 1. Plan of the Palace of Ioannes (2009). Original architecture from the beginning of the 7th century. Including residential and household units from the 16th-17th century (PCMA – S. Maślak)

height of the ground floor at 4.50 m. This unit turned out to be the northeastern corner of the palatial edifice. The finds, mainly locally produced ceramics [Fig. 3] with a spattering of imports from Egypt [Fig. 2], as well as numerous amphora sealings, have confirmed earlier findings from other parts of this extensive structure. It is now clear that the structure was destroyed by Mamluk invaders in the end of the 13th century. The northwestern part of the structure built against the citadel wall in this sector turned out to have been razed to the ground by Mamluk troops. Following this event, additional defense walls were constructed by the Makurians until finally the ground-floor rooms were filled in and life continued in the rooms of a renovated upper floor.

Fig. 2. Pottery imports from Egypt: deep footed bowl (ADd.09.080), Egyptian glaze, 13th/14th century (top left); amphora (ADd.09.355), Aswan production from Egypt, 6th century (right); amphora (ADd.09.154), Nile silt, Egypt, Mareotis, 7th century (bottom left) (PCMA – W. Godlewski)

Fig. 3. Local Makurian ceramics: vessel (ADd.09.082), clay, Makuria, Dongola(?) 13th/14th century (top left); bottle with image of a dove (ADd.09.234), clay, Makuria, Dongola(?) 7th century (bottom left); kettle (ADd.09.357), clay, Makuria, Dongola(?) second half of 6th century (bottom right). At top left, mud stopper from an amphora (ADd.09.332), made of marl clay (Egypt?) with superimposed Nile-silt stopper (Makuria), evidence of customs levies(?) 6th-7th century (top left) (PCMA – W.Godlewski)

Room B.I.37 in the western part of the royal edifice was cleared down to the brick pavement. It yielded a rich assemblage of tableware: plates, small bowls, bottles and vases, representing most probably a local Dongolan potmaking tradition [Fig. 3] from the 7th century. Also richly represented were amphoras, those produced locally as well as imports from Middle Egypt (LR.7) and the Mareotis region in the neighborhood of Alexandria [Fig. 2]. These imported Egyptian amphoras stand in evidence of a profitable wine trade, supplying wines from the north to the Makurian capital in fulfillment of a political and commercial treaty (baqt) concluded by Makuria with the Caliphate in the middle of the 7th century. A number of amphora sealings made of marl clay, obviously from Egyptian amphoras, had secondary sealings of Nile silt introduced on top of them, presumably already in Makurian territory [Fig. 3, top left]. This is the first recorded proof of such practices and it points to some form of customs clearing operational already in the 7th century on the northern borders of Makuria. It would demonstrate very efficient control on the part of Makurian officials over goods brought from Egypt.
Even more intriguing material was discovered in a small test trench excavated under the floor in the northwestern corner of the room. A large number of Aswan amphoras [Fig. 2, right] coupled with quantities of fragmented glass vessels have confirmed for the first time the close trade relations that are presumed to have existed between Makuria and Byzantine Egypt in the 6th and 7th century. Locally produced tableware, occasionally richly decorated, was also found in this trench [Fig. 3, bottom right]. Other finds here included a massive metal key and copper strips embossed with male busts closely resembling imperial portraits on coins. These metal artifacts will be taken to Poland for conservation. But the biggest surprise came with the discovery of the remains of a large water basin of sandstone. The carvings on the front wall consist of a centrally positioned leonine head flanked by the figures of rams [Fig. 4].

Fig. 4. Front of a sandstone water basin (ADd.09.358) from the Palace of Ioannes (B.I.37), Makuria, 6th century (PCMA – W. Godlewski)

The latter are shown in relief, their forward-facing heads carved in the round. The rounded side walls were covered with an elaborate guilloche in relief, encompassing a cross motif in the design. The decoration on the basin was executed in different techniques putting into doubt the contemporaneity of the carvings on the front and sides. About 65% of the basin was discovered in this trench and there is a good chance that more fragments will be found once the rest of the room is explored under the floor.
The archaeological context of this find is dated to before the end of the 6th century. It is the first example of accomplished Makurian sculpture and it appears to have been executed in Dongola. The basin must have belonged to the residents of whatever building had preceded the Palace of Ioannes on the Dongolan citadel. Fragments of this earlier structure in the form of a red-brick pavement and the foundations of the south wall (B.IV) have already been uncovered under the palace ruins in past seasons.

In the Monastery on Kom H, two crypts located by Dr. Stefan Jakobielski in the 1990s in the Northwestern Annex were now reopened. Altogether 14 burials had been made in the two tombs [Figs 5-7], one of these being the archbishop of Dongola Georgios known to have died in 1113. His funerary stelae had been found in place. The other burials presumably belonged to other bishops of Dongola but more studies on the robes and crosses found with the skeletons [Fig.8] are needed to verify the identification. The anthropological examination of the bones was carried out by anthropologist Robert Mahler while the robes were carefully documented and preserved by textiles restorer Barbara Czaja Szewczak, who will continue the conservation project in Poland.

Fig. 5. Crypt 1 (T.28). After reopening in 2009, view from the west (PCMA – W. Godlewski)

Fig. 6. Crypt 1 (T.28). West wall with Greek and Old Nubian texts, after restoration (PCMA – W. Godlewski)

Fig. 7. Crypt 2 (T.27). After reopening in 2009, view from the west (PCMA – W. Godlewski)

Fig. 8. Cross (HDd.09.002) from Crypt 2, wood, 11th-12th century (PCMA – W. Godlewski)

The southern of the two crypts, which was the one in which archbishop Georgios was buried, had the walls covered with texts written in Greek, Coptic and Old Nubian. In the 1990s, this epigraphic discovery had excited much interest in the scholarly world, but a full documentation had not been possible with the burials in place. Now the texts were studied and the documentation was checked by Prof. Adam Łajtar (University of Warsaw) and Prof. Jacques van der Vliet from the Netherlands. The two epigraphists are in agreement that the redaction of both Greek and Coptic texts – fragments of four canonical gospels and extensive excerpts concerning the dormition of Mary, invocations, magical signs, lists of names and a colophon – were prepared with utmost care, testifying not only to a good knowledge of the languages and literature, but also to the richness of the monastery library or the private library of archbishop Georgios.
The southern crypt was also documented and the wall plastering in it preserved prior to full conservation in the future.

The Throne Hall of the Makurian kings, which was turned into a mosque in 1317, is the only completely preserved building with an upper floor in Dongola. In 2008, a group of experts from Poland, funded by the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, developed a program for the conservation and adaptation of the building. This year a Polish-Sudanese project supported by the US Embassy in Khartoum started preservation works in the Mosque. The first stage is the restoration of wall paintings in the Central Hall on the first floor where the mosque was located. Restorers Cristobal Calaforra-Rzepka and Urszula Dąbrowska, assisted by Sudanese colleagues, uncovered three successive layers of murals on the west wall of the room. Damaged quite severely by rain water dripping down the walls, the dozen or so paintings are homogeneous from the iconographic point of view: images of rulers of Makuria under the protection of divine personages – Mary, Christ – and saints [Figs 9-10]. This type of representation of Makurian kings is well known from the Pachoras Cathedral of Paulos and other Makurian churches. More restoration work will be carried out in the future, but already it is clear that the interpretation of the building as a throne hall of Makurian kings was fully justified.

Fig. 9. Crowned king with scepter, fragment of a painting. Central Hall, west wall on the first floor of the building, 9th-10th century (PCMA – W. Godlewski)

Fig. 10. Christ, figure from a Makurian representation of the Holy Trinity, part of a scene depicting the protection of a king. Central Hall, south wall on the first floor of the building. 12th-13th century (PCMA – W. Godlewski)

Site mapping of the central part of Dongola encompassing the Citadel and its neighborhood, as well as of a cemetery situated in the locality of Hammur 5 km north of the ancient town was carried out by Wiesław Małkowski (University of Warsaw) assisted by Grzegorz Ochała (Polish Academy of Sciences).
Geophysical surveying of 4 ha of the town on Kom P, conducted by Tomasz Herbich (IAE PAN) and Dawid Święch, resulted in a distinct magnetic map of the urban settlement.

[Text: W. Godlewski]

W. Godlewski:
A. Łajtar:


Late Roman, Byzantine and Medieval

Dongola 2008

Excavations of the Citadel in Dongola have already brought to light a building identified as a palace of the Dongolan kings (B.I) and a cruciform commemorative structure which stood right next to the palace entrance from the south (B.III). Three other structures identified in the near vicinity of the palace entrance courtyard (B.V., B.VIII and B.VIII) have yet to be examined more extensively in order to determine their function. These buildings were all functional from the first half of the 7th through the 10th century., that is, from the formative stages of the Makurian kingdom to its heyday. One of the tasks of the present season, which lasted from 28 January to 7 March 2008 and was directed by Włodzimierz Godlewski, was to explore these structures.

The Dongola Citadel – site SWN. View of palace B.I from the north with the arcade of the northern entrance in the trench in the foreground and a fragment of the second stone arcade into the ground floor corridor.

The palace B.I is the biggest building in the complex discovered so far on site SWN as this sector on the Citadel is called. The best estimates places its area at more than 1000 square meters. The southern entrance, which was used by those arriving from the river harbor, gave access directly to the residential upper floor. The most recent work uncovered the entrance from the north. It was a broad stone arcade that opened onto the ground floor and through another stone gateway into a long corridor with stores on either side, occupying the western end of the palace and adjoining the riverside citadel fortifications.

The outer northern entrance rose to a height of 3.50 m, the width being 2.50 m. The name of the founder, King Ioannes, appeared in a monogram on the keystone. Ioannes is the first Dongolan ruler known today by name and his rule fell in the first half of the 7th century. He is assumed to have preceded King Qalidurut known from Arabic sources, the ruler who defended the town heroically against an Arab raid in AD 651.

Stone arcade of the northern gateway to the palace (site SWN B.I)

Monogram of King Ioannes and rosette decoration from the arcade of the northern palace entrance (site SWN B.I)

Building B.V lies to the south of the small commemorative monument (B.III) uncovered in 2003. It was erected on a central plan, apparently in the 9th century. With sides measuring 21 by 15 m it was a medium-size structure, obviously domed, the cupola rising from four round pillars. The walls were of baked brick, finely plastered and painted. In the eastern end, the walls survive to a height of 3.80 m, while in the western end they appear to have been removed down to the pavement floor (in the early 20th century apparently). At this point (the structure has yet to be cleared of the fill) all that can be said with certainty that it was an official building, most likely sacral in function, and must have been connected with the palatial complex on the citadel.

Plan of Building B.V (2008) on the Dongolan Citadel

Fragment of a wall painting from the northern wall of Building B.V on the Dongolan Citadel

Exploration of the terrain to the north and south of the palace complex revealed further structures: B.VII built onto the façade of the palace B.I and B.VIII adjoining the façade of B.V. Both were raised of mud brick and the walls are estimated to survive to a height of at least 3 m.

The other site, which started to be explored in the northwestern corner of the Citadel in the previous season, is C.1. A large mud-brick building (B.VI) uncovered here (the full size is not yet known) is situated at the edge of a rocky cliff, rising steeply from the river at this point. So far, a big hall has been explored, its ceiling supported of six columns constructed of brick, and a number of chambers of different size in the southwestern part. While it was certainly in use in the 11th-12th century, there is no doubt that its beginnings fall at a much earlier date.

Building B.VI on site C.1 in the northwestern part of the Dongolan Citadel, view from the south.

Meriting attention among the registered objects from the citadel excavations is a vessel painted with a frieze of birds adoring a cross, dated to the 9th century. Two locally-made amphorae still had stamped mud stoppers sealing their necks. More than a hundred such amphora stoppers have been recovered from the palace so far, but always in connection with amphorae imported from Egypt. The present find proves that the same practice of sealing the contents of wine amphorae, known from Egypt, was common in Makuria.

Vessel with a frieze of birds adoring a cross, found in the palace on the Dongolan Citadel

Amphora neck with a stamped mud stopper still sealing the neck (from the palace on the Dongolan Citadel)

Excavations in Building B.VI (site C.1) yielded a small bronze coin, significant because it is a Byzantine issue of the 6th century, the first such find ever to be made in Dongola. It appears to have been used as jewelry. From the same context comes a bronze cross (still before cleaning) which appears to have had plastically shaped arms.

The lower city south of the citadel, located on the rocky river bank, dates to the latest period in the existence of Dongola, the 19th and early 20th century (although earlier occupation in this area is very likely). These remains have been documented now, including the surviving east town wall defending it from the east and south. More attention was extended to a structure preserved at ground level and apparently older than the rest of the architecture (S.40). Its clearing yielded china tableware and two bronze coins of the Egyptian khedive Abbas Hilmi (1848-1854). Also found was a two-sided ostracon in Arabic, most probably of 19th century date, containing a list of deeds made out to more than a dozen persons, presumably residents of Dongola.


Coin of Abbas Hilmi (1848-1854) from the lower town south of the Dongola Citadel

Ostracon with a list of deeds in Arabic (19th century ?)

W. Godlewski: