Archaeologists Just Discovered A Massive Medieval Cathedral Complex In Sudan Linked To A Lost Nubian Kingdom

Published July 13, 2021
Updated April 14, 2023

For hundreds of years, the Kingdom of Makuria reigned as a Christian stronghold in Africa. Now, archaeologists may have just discovered the kingdom's largest cathedral.

Old Dongola Cathedral

Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology, University of WarsawArchaeologists believe their find could be the largest Nubian cathedral ever found.

For centuries, the sands of Sudan hid a faint echo of a distant time. In the deserted town of Old Dongola along the Nile river, a team of Polish archaeologists has uncovered the remains of what appears to be a sprawling medieval cathedral. They believe it’s the largest church ever discovered in the region.

The archaeologists had “not expected to find a church but rather a town square which could have been used for communal prayers,” explained Arthur Obluski, who led the excavation for the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology (PCMA) at the University of Warsaw.

But by using remote sensing techniques, they instead came across the ruins of a likely cathedral. The archaeologists were stunned to find the remains of a structure that once stretched 85 feet wide and loomed as tall as a three-story apartment building.

“If our estimates based on the known dimensions are confirmed, it is the largest church discovered so far in Nubia,” noted Obluski in a statement. (The region of Nubia once stretched across parts of present-day Sudan and Egypt.)

Along the structure’s apse walls, archaeologists also discovered wall paintings that appear to date to the 10th or early 11th-century. The images appear to depict two rows of figures, whom the archaeologists suspect to be Apostles. Once, their portraits likely stood 10 feet high.

In addition, archaeologists also came across the remains of a large tomb, which they believe is likely that of a powerful archbishop.

Such discoveries make perfect sense: Old Dongola, at its zenith, stood as a stronghold of Christianity in Africa. Although the town is deserted today, it once thrived as the capital of the Makuria Kingdom.

Archaeologists In Dongola Cathedral

Artur Obluski, Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology, University Of Warsaw. An archaeologist at work in the cathedral ruins.

From the 6th century to the 14th century, the Makuria Kingdom made up one of three Nubian Christian Kingdoms, which at their peak ruled over an area the size of France and Spain combined.

And it’s capital of Old Dongola rivaled medieval Paris in size and contained churches, monasteries, a palace, pottery workshops, cemeteries, and elegant homes.

As the seat of power in a powerful region, the discovery of a cathedral in Old Dongola “is not surprising,” according to Salim Faraji, a scholar of medieval Nubia at California State University, Dominguez Hills.

“Old Dongola was the seat of a powerful Christian kingdom in Medieval Nubia that conducted foreign diplomacy with Muslim Egypt, Byzantium, and the Holy Roman Empire,” Faraji explained.

“The archaeological find further confirms the very important role of the Kingdom of Makuria and its imperial and ecclesiastical center Old Dongola.”

But although powerful in its day, Old Dongola has long since faded into the annals of history. The Kingdom of Makuria, noted Obluski, was “a fairy tale kingdom” but is now a “forgotten one.”

Dongola Cathedral 3d Projection

A. Wujec/Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology, University Of Warsaw. A 3D visualization of the newly discovered structure in Sudan.

However, Obluski is part of a long line of archaeologists determined to reveal the secrets of this lost kingdom. Since 1964, Polish archaeologists have dug at the site in hopes of better understanding the fall of Christian Dongola and the development of pre-colonial Africa.

Despite their long focus on the region, the discovery of the cathedral could change old assumptions. In the 1960s, archaeologists found a church outside the city walls — and assumed that people primarily worshipped there.

Thus, the discovery of a larger, more elaborate cathedral in the center of town could mean that archaeologists have more to learn about how people lived and worshiped in Old Dongola.

And there is much more to discover at the site. Obluski noted that the cathedral in Old Dongola bears a striking resemblance to one found in the Nubian city of Faras, located to the north.

The cathedral in Old Dongola appears to be much larger, but Obluski suspects that archaeologists can use the Faras cathedral to better understand the find at Old Dongola.

“The sounding [test trench] in the apse is approximately 9 meters deep,” Obluski explained. “This means that the eastern part of the building is preserved to the impressive height of a modern three-story block of flats.

“And this means there may be more paintings and inscriptions under our feet, just like in Faras.”

After reading about the cathedral discovered in Sudan, check out these 25 photos from Sudanese refugee camps. Or, look through these rare Francis Frith photos of 19th century Egypt .

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
Adam Farley
Adam Farley is an Assistant Editor at All That's Interesting. He was previously content director of and deputy editor of Irish America magazine. He holds an M.A. from New York University and a B.A. from the University of Washington.
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Fraga, Kaleena. "Archaeologists Just Discovered A Massive Medieval Cathedral Complex In Sudan Linked To A Lost Nubian Kingdom.", July 13, 2021, Accessed June 23, 2024.