Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 November 2006
Issue No. 818
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Polish activities upstream

All eyes on Nubia

One of the most important achievements during the Nubia Salvage Operations under the auspices of UNESCO in the 1960s was unquestionably the discovery of an ancient cathedral in Faras which contained wall paintings preserved in excellent condition. As a result of four years of investigation and conservation by a Polish mission under the direction of K Michaowski, these magnificent and unique paintings can today be seen in special galleries in the National Museums of Warsaw and Khartoum.

The discovery can be regarded on a par with the most important archaeological discoveries of the second half of the 20th century, and certainly among the most significant achievements of the Nubian campaign. Once the architectural decorations and inscriptions of the church had been studied, including the cathedral's foundation stela and the famous List of Bishops of Pachoras, the conserved wall paintings can be said to have had a considerable impact on the establishment of Nubiology as an independent discipline.

Conservator Józef Gazy single-handedly managed to devise a system by which to protect and, at the same time, remove no fewer than 120 paintings from the ancient mud-brick walls of the cathedral and transport them safely to their new destinations in Poland and Sudan. Polish restorers working under Hanna Jêdrzejewska in Warsaw and Gazy in Khartoum then completed the conservation process. The paintings were mounted on new ground, and the innovative technical approach which was developed for the project permitted easy transport of individual wall paintings.

When the excavations in Faras were closed in 1964, the Polish Centre shifted its focus to a new site in Dongola, the ancient capital of Makuria, one of the most important African kingdoms of Late Antiquity and Mediaeval times (encompassing from the sixth to the 14th centuries). The discoveries made there include four cathedrals which were erected successively from the close of the sixth century through to the end of the ninth, as well as several churches, royal palaces, citadel fortifications, storied private houses with bathrooms, a huge monastery and pottery workshops.

The monastic complex has yielded numerous inscriptions which have been preserved in situ, as well as wall paintings -- mainly religious, although the first genre scenes in Nubian painting have now been recognised. This observation has recently been augmented by new finds from a commemorative structure at the Citadel where murals completed in the tempera technique -- not before evidenced in Nubia -- is of a class that points to a royal workshop operating in the seventh century. This, along with evidence of other artisanship and workshop activities such as the smelting of iron, pottery and glass production, the manufacture of building materials and stone architectural decoration carved in sandstone and granite, not to mention the laying of mosaic floors in imitation of patterns seen abroad, are proof of an elevated Makurian civilisation with a strong Byzantine tradition, but one which at the same time presented a highly creative and independent approach, certainly as far as architecture, wall painting, and tableware ceramics production are concerned.

In 1971 the Polish Centre expanded its research programme in the Sudan to cover the Early Neolithic period: Excavations began at Kadero near Khartoum, where graves with funerary goods as well as stone-working workshops have proved of considerable importance for understanding the rich Neolithic of the central Nile valley. The Archaeological Museum in Poznañ (associated with the Polish Centre from the beginning of work at Kadero) houses a sizable set of these Neolithic objects which, augmented by objects from the National Museum in Khartoum, stands at the core of a permanent exhibition of Nubian archaeology, second in importance in Poland only to that of the Warsaw Faras Gallery.

Polish archaeologists also worked in Banganarti, 8kms south of Dongola, where two monumental churches have been discovered, one on top of the other. The lower one dates to the eighth to ninth centuries and represents the variant plan (cross circumscribed over a rectangle) that was the Dongolan architects' distinctive creative contribution to world sacral architecture. The surviving high- quality murals have been preserved on the walls. The upper church is a huge complex containing numerous commemorative chapels with murals probably representing the rulers of the kingdom of Makuria in the 12th and 13th centuries. More than a 1000 graffiti written in Greek and Old Nubian which have also been preserved on the walls are of extreme importance for the history of Makuria. The church is currently in the process of being restored and prepared for exhibition under a permanent shelter.

Notable is that, for the first time ever, excavations are being carried out the eastern bank of the Nile near Kareima, between Dongola in the north and Zuma in the south. The Southern Dongola Reach Survey (SDRS) directed by Bogdanurawski was mounted by the Polish Centre in cooperation with the Research Centre of the Polish Academy of Sciences and the Archaeological Museum in Poznañ. So far a few hundred archaeological sites have been identified and provisionally interpreted, and a dozen or so tested: Kushite temples (eighth century BC to third century AD), tombs from the Post-Meroitic period (fifth to sixth centuries), and mediaeval strongholds.

The launch of a new dam construction project in the region of the Fourth Cataract necessitated an extensive international salvage effort that has activated teams from Britain, USA, Germany, Hungary and Italy. Joining them in the field are expeditions mounted by the Polish Centre in association with the National Museum in Warsaw and the Archaeological Museum in Poznañ.

The opportunity was taken in 2005 to open a five-year research programme concerning Early Makuria, the objective of which is to determine the social and economic circumstances at the root of the transformation of Meroitic society into a Makurian one in the sixth century. Work has started on the fortifications of Merowe Sherig and two large cemeteries at Tanqasi and Zuma in the region of ancient Napata, both believed to be royal burial grounds. The results of the first two seasons have so far exceeded all expectations and the team is anxious to follow up on its work over the coming seasons in the field.

In Khartoum, a documentation programme carried out in 2004-2005 prepared the way for a detailed catalogue on the objects of the completely refurbished National Museum and the next step will be a comprehensive catalogue of all the paintings in the collection.

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