Corpus of Wall Paintings from Christian Nubia

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The “Corpus of Wall Paintings from Christian Nubia” is part of the major project “Corpus of the Byzantine Wall Paintings”, which was initiated by the Academy of Athens - Research Center for the Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Art and is carried out under the auspices of the Union Académique Internationale (project number 40/A).

It was first suggested to Alexandros Tsakos by Ioanna Bitha (the person responsible for the Project at the Research Center of the Academy of Athens, under the direction of professor Vokotopoulos), in a meeting during the 21st International Congress of Byzantine Studies, held in London in August 2006. A week later, during the 11th International Congress of Nubian Studies in Warsaw, Tsakos invited Dr. Dobrochna Zielińska to share the responsibilities of implementing this long-term project. The inclusion of the Nubian murals in such a Corpus is based on stylistic and iconographic particularities of the Christian wall paintings from the Medieval churches in Upper Egypt and Northern Sudan. Those particularities separate the Nubian from the Coptic artistic tendencies and link the Nubian painting schools to both the local forms as deriving from the indigenous traditions and the norms of the Byzantine world.

A first attempt to exemplify these principles and a first approach to the material to be tackled were presented in the 27th Symposium of the Christian Archaeological Society of Athens, organized in the Byzantine and Christian Museum of Athens in April 2007. The presentation there was based on the work already conducted in 2006 and completed in the course of summer 2007 at the Sudan National Museum of Khartoum, where Tsakos and Zielińska collaborated for the Rehabilitation of the Permanent Exhibition of Medieval Antiquities, under the auspices of the UNESCO office in Cairo, Egypt.

In fact, the Sudan National Museum hosts the largest collection of Christian Nubian murals. Most of them have been detached from the walls of the churches flooded by the waters amassed behind the subsequent raising of the Aswan Dam. Those come from Faras, Sonqi Tino, Kulubnarti, Meinarti, and Abd el-Gadir. Furthermore, there are the murals detached from House A in Old Dongola, and a single one from the nearby site of Hambukol. All these murals have been catalogued, traced, and photographed, along with the respective inscriptions (both legends and graffiti, in all languages used, that is in Old Nubian, Greek, Coptic, Arabic, and Latin alphabets). The finds from the churches flooded by the waters of the artificial Lake Nasser/ Nubia will constitute the first volume to be published by the Academy of Athens. Subsequent volume should concern the monuments that are still standing – at least until further dams ruin more of the Middle Nile natural and cultural landscape.

Such a publication follows specific norms, set by the Academy of Athens. For example, the following entries should be recorded for each monument: region of provenance and name of monument / architectural type / localization of murals in the monument / conditions of preservation / dating / remarks / inscriptions (legends, graffiti) / bibliography. A rich visual documentation is expected and this is one of the reasons that our little team undertook and has planned visits to all the institutions that have in their possession related material. Until now, the following localities have been visited:

a. Budapest, where all the material from the West Church and a single fragment from the Central Church of Abdallah-n Irqi are hosted.

b. Leiden, where the rest of the material from Abdallah-n Irqi is kept.

c. Vienna, where we studied the material from the church at Naq es-Sheima (modern-day Sayyala, in Egypt).

d. London, for the study the archives of Rosalind Hawkes (Sonqi Tino documentation) and W.Y. Adams (documentation for churches in Abd el-Gadir, Abu Sir, Gendal Irki, Gezira Dabarosa, Meili Island, and Meinarti) stored at the SARS premises in the BM.

e. Oxford, forwork at the Griffith’s Institute on material from the sites of Wadi Halfa, Abd el-Gadir, Adendan (for the South Church), Faras (for the Rivergate and the Citadel Church), and Serra East (for the New and the Central Church).

In the coming years, there are plans to visit the collections in Ghana (Debeira), Spain (Qasar –Ico, Abkanarti), Italy (Sonqi Tino, Tamit, and Ugo Monneret de Villard’s archive) and Egypt (Abdallah-n Irqi, Wadi es-Sebua, Abu Oda, Tamit). The material from Warsaw is already under publication, and Dobrochna Zielińska is in co-operation with the responsible scholar group for the preparation of related plans in the form normalized by the Academy Athens.

The next presentation of the work for the compilation of the Corpus of Wall Paintings from Medieval Nubia will take place in the 22nd International Congress of Byzantine Studies, to be held in Sophia, Bulgaria, in September 2011.