Skip to main content
European Commission logo print header

Urban Metamorphosis of the community of a Medieval African capital city

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - UMMA (Urban Metamorphosis of the community of a Medieval African capital city)

Reporting period: 2021-06-01 to 2022-11-30

UMMA (Arab. أمة - community) is a multidisciplinary project aimed as the first study of the liminal phases of a Christian African community inhabiting Dongola, the capital city of Makuria (modern Sudan). It concerns the metamorphosis of its urban community into a new entity organized along different social and religious paradigms. UMMA aims to explore transition from Christianity to Islam as well as urban transition from the capital city to a city-state. The project analyzes the impact of two factors, the weakening of the central authority and migrations of Islamic Arab tribes, on the kingdom’s capital city and its community. The notion that the project explores is that a complete breakdown of this urban organism and its hinterland was avoided thanks to cooperation established between the remaining local community and migrant population groups arriving in the period under consideration. The project seeks to identify strategies of interaction between the local community and the newcomers, as well as patterns of survival of the old traditions on household level. UMMA lays foundations for further enquiries into evolution of precolonial African communities and seeks to provoke a general discussion on social changes in urban environments. It unfolds a whole new research perspective on the period from the gradual decline of the kingdom of Makuria (14th-15th cent. CE) to the Egyptian invasion in 1820, which is virtually absent from scholarly enquiry to date.
So far we have carried out a non-invasive archaeological survey, augering tests, excavation of ca. 7000 m2 of the site, as well as initial material studies. Despite their preliminary character, the results allowed us to lay foundations for studies on the early modern Sudan and considerably contributed to the reconstruction of the African history in general. The major achievements thus far are the results of the non-invasive survey and progress in material studies. The survey delivered the first detailed urban layout of the early modern (16-18th cent) African city, which will now serve as a basis for spatial analyses, as well as comparative studies. We have also contributed to the development of non-invasive archeological survey methods by confirming the effectiveness of the ground-penetrating survey in sand-covered plateaus and densely occupied settlement sites in the Nile Valley.

The material studies allowed for preparation of typologies for the pottery, smoking pipes, glass beads and glass bangles that can be used by other researchers. The macroscopic study of beads suggests several origins of beads reaching Old Dongola: Europe (Venice, the Netherlands, Bohemia, and Bavaria), where the majority of beads were produced, as well as Hebron, Egypt and South Asia. There are several known glass production centers that manufactured bangles in the Ottoman period, including Hebron, Egypt, the Lebanese coast, India, and Yemen. European centers, in turn, were rather less likely sources of bangles found in Sudan. Research carried out on bangles housed in museum collections has not been able to offer dating spans more precise than a period between the 16th and 18th century. The well-stratified Old Dongola finds, combined with elemental analyses done at the Field Museum, Chicago, might shed new light on their chronology.
Three crucial discoveries were made during fieldwork, and one was a result of desk-based research in the archive of the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology. These finds considerably contribute to our knowledge on the history of Sudan and can without exaggeration be called groundbreaking and spectacular. Two of the excavated finds are documents: a letter of King Kashkash, thus far known only from oral traditions collected at the beginning of the 19th century, as well as a document most probably mentioning the renowned Muhammad b. ’Isa (Suwar al-Dahab), the first qadi (Islamic law judge) of Old Dongola. The third field discovery is an enormous church in the middle of the city, which, due to its location and size, is likely the cathedral of Dongola, the most important church of medieval Nubia. Lastly, the archival search yielded a Judaeo-Arabic letter concerning a slave, which is still under study. It seems to indicate the involvement of the Jewish diaspora in the trade of slaves in 17th-century Sudan.

The main activity in the project is fieldwork, and by the end of the last season we started to excavate archaeological layers that are important for the project research questions, though not yet dated to the targeted transition period. In the coming season, we expect to acquire information regarding the religious and social metamorphosis that occurred after Dongola lost its status of capital city. Excavated material selected for archaeometric analyses is very likely to deliver a wealth of new information about the dating of the archaeological contexts, as well as about links of the Dongolese community with the outside world. We have also started to prepare space syntax analyses, which should allow us to investigate the spatial organization of the city, as well as perform a series of analyses based on the distribution of artifacts (identification of gendered spaces, etc.). Further excavations inside the cathedral, where dwellings were constructed in the Funj period after the building had lost its sacral function, may deliver information of utmost importance for the study of religious transition in Dongola. At the end of the project, we also expect to achieve a complete turnaround in relations between archaeologists, local communities and state-level stakeholders. If all the parties agree on the sustainable development plan based on the cultural values of the site, it may not only earn Old Dongola a UNESCO World Heritage Site nomination, but also set UMMA as a pilot project demonstrating how archaeology can contribute to the rebuilding efforts of new democratic authorities.
Open Day
Open Day
Results of GRP survey showing urban layout of Old Dongola in 17-18th cent.
Visitors during Open Day