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Pictorial Graffiti from the Ghazali Northern Church, Sudan: An Overview

In: Journal of African Archaeology
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  • 1 Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology, University of WarsawWarsawPoland
  • | 2 Independent scholar WarsawPoland
Open Access

Abstract

The aim of this paper is to present pictorial graffiti executed on the walls of the Northern Church of the Ghazali Monastery located in what is today the Northern Province of Sudan. The graffiti were recorded during research by the Polish-Sudanese mission at the monastic complex. This paper explores the symbolic meanings of the graffiti as well as possible rationales behind their locations. Some of the depictions have overt religious meanings and may be interpreted as “graphic” prayers. This category of graffiti includes representations of Christ, angels, saints, female figures and horse riders. Other depictions seem to refer to daily life in Nubia – the graffiti abound in motifs such as camels, horses, boats and human beings.

Abstract

The aim of this paper is to present pictorial graffiti executed on the walls of the Northern Church of the Ghazali Monastery located in what is today the Northern Province of Sudan. The graffiti were recorded during research by the Polish-Sudanese mission at the monastic complex. This paper explores the symbolic meanings of the graffiti as well as possible rationales behind their locations. Some of the depictions have overt religious meanings and may be interpreted as “graphic” prayers. This category of graffiti includes representations of Christ, angels, saints, female figures and horse riders. Other depictions seem to refer to daily life in Nubia – the graffiti abound in motifs such as camels, horses, boats and human beings.

1 Introduction

The graffiti are found on the walls of the Northern Church of the Ghazali monastery situated in Wadi Abu Dom in the Bayuda Desert, Northern Sudan (18°26′31.14″ N; 31°55′52.73″ E) (Fig. 1).

Figure 1
Figure 1

Location of a Ghazali monastery

Citation: Journal of African Archaeology 2021; 10.1163/21915784-20210014

Drawn by Szymon Maślak

1.1 An Overview of Political History of Nubia in the Middle Ages

The monastery was located within the territory of the Kingdom of Makuria, one of the three political entities formed in the Middle Nile Valley after the collapse of the Meroitic Empire in the 2nd half of the 4th century CE. From north to south, these new states were Nobadia (between the 1st and the 3rd Nile Cataract), Makuria (between the 3rd and the 5th Nile Cataract) and Alwa, the southern extent of which has yet to be determined. In the course of the 6th century, all three kingdoms joined the Christian community, which boosted their economic development and gave them access to contemporary networks of power, culture and ideas. In the 7th century, the Nubian kingdoms held off the Arab invasions, setting the border of Islam in the Nile Valley at Aswan for the next 700 years. At the turn of the 7th century, Nobadia and Makuria united under the king Mercurius. The gradual decline of Nubian kingdoms started in the last quarter of the 13th century and was linked to increased activity of Arab tribes in the region, as well as to devastation caused by Mamluk invasions. During the course of the 14th century, Makuria dissolved into several petty kingdoms, while Alwa survived in vestigial form until the beginning of the 16th century, when the founders of the Funj sultanate delivered the coup de grâce.

1.2 The Monastery of Ghazali

Ghazali is a quintessential coenobitic monastery, as indicated by its spatial organisation. It was erected between 680 and 720 CE, probably by the king Mercurios (Obłuski 2018, 164). The monastic compound was surrounded by a stone wall. It had several functional areas dedicated to the monks’ various activities including those spiritual, industrial, sanitary, and related to life necessities (Fig. 2) (Obłuski & Korzeniowska 2017, 602; Obłuski et al. 2018, 159–160). The spiritual part of the monastery featured two churches. The so-called North Church was a three-aisle basilica with a roof supported by two rows of columns. In the late tenth/early eleventh century, the church underwent structural changes that turned it into a basilica with a central dome. In the same period, another church, the so-called South Church, was built of sun-dried bricks to the south of the first one (Obłuski 2014, 200; Obłuski et al. 2015, 427). There were two sanitary complexes in the monastery. The first was located in the area to the east and northeast of the North Church. It contained a row of 15 toilets and bathing areas. In the late tenth/early eleventh century, the toilets were moved to the Northwest Annex. The western part of the monastery was an industrial area featuring a monastic mill, an oil press, a kitchen, as well as a leatherworking or rope production workshop (Obłuski 2019, 65). To the south of this complex were the monastic refectories and a room in which the monks stored water. To the east of the industrial area was the dormitory, which initially consisted of six cells, each housing three monks, and was subsequently expanded by adding six more cells. In the northern part, flanking the main entrance to the monastery, were storage spaces: the eastern for food, and the western for liquid commodities. On the west and north, the monastery was abutted by annexes, all built of sun-dried brick. The northern one may have served travellers who wished to rest in the neighbourhood of the monastery. The monastic cemetery lies to the south of the complex. An iron-smelting site, which was founded at the same time as the monastery, was located to its south-east (Obłuski 2019, 65).

Figure 2
Figure 2

Representation of Christ from the Ghazali Northern Church, western wall

Citation: Journal of African Archaeology 2021; 10.1163/21915784-20210014

1.3 State of the Research

The monastery was partly excavated in the 1950s by Peter Lewis Shinnie and Neville Chittick. Their work, “Ghazali – A Monastery in the Northern Sudan”, mentioned that the walls of the Ghazali Northern Church were covered with large numbers of graffiti, including not only personal names and Christian monograms, but also drawings of saints and animals (Shinnie & Chittick 1961, 10). In 2012, archaeological research at the site was resumed by the joint Polish-Sudanese Ghazali Archaeological Site Presentation Project (G.A.S.P.), carried out by the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology, the University of Warsaw and the National Corporation of Antiquities and Museums. In the years 2014–2018 the project was funded by the Qatar-Sudan Archaeological Project. In the course of the works, the monastery was fully excavated and protection, conservation and restoration works were carried out. The latter included consolidation of the endangered architectural structures and restoration of the northern wall of the Northern Church as well as of the main gate to the monastery. At the end of the project, information panels were installed to facilitate tourist visits at the site. During the works of the G.A.S.P. project, the pictorial graffiti were recorded by Szymon Maślak and traced by Małgorzata Korzeniowska. Some parts of the graffiti were incised so shallowly that they proved illegible in the photos. Thus, we decided to trace all of them to enhance their documentation. However, it must be taken into consideration that tracing can be biased, as it is a graphic interpretation based on subjective perception. The inscriptions recorded on the walls of the Ghazali Northern Church comprised 158 personal names, monograms and a prayer, and the assemblage of pictorial graffiti encompassed 116 depictions. However, some representations remain unidentified, and some graffiti are only partially preserved due to losses in the plaster. The complete catalogue of the assemblage will be published in a monograph devoted to the site of Ghazali.

2 Graffiti Tradition

Derived from the Italian word graffiare (“to scratch”), the term graffiti literally means “incised inscriptions”. However, modern definitions extend the meaning to include not only text, but also sketches and drawings (Schneider et al. 2004, 959). In archaeology, the word “graffito” is used to describe an intentional modification of a surface made or altered by human intervention, which is not connected with building processes (Kleinitz 2014, 94). Even though graffiti are not elements of the original state, definition, or function of a place (Navratilova 2008, 12), they are usually located within a public area and are meant to be visible to a target audience.

Both in the past and today, the execution of graffiti has been a common practice, but the social meaning of this activity has changed. In the modern understanding of the term, graffiti are an illicit form of activity. In the past, graffiti functioned as an effective, socially accepted medium of communication. The creation of graffiti in holy places was a universal religious practice, medieval Nubia being no exception. The most spectacular example in the region is the assemblage of graffiti from Banganarti, which includes a variety of figures (Żurawski 2019, 87), as well as over 1000 visitors’ inscriptions written on church walls (Łajtar 2020, 10). Christian symbols and inscriptions appearing in rock art were also significant part of the religious landscape of the Fourth Cataract area (Edwards 2006, 59). The tradition of creating votive graffiti was not a new phenomenon in medieval Nubia, as this religious practice was popular already in the Kushite period. Its importance is indicated by textual and figural graffiti left in temples, for instance in the Great Enclosure at Musawwarat es-Sufra (Kleinitz 2014, 97–102), in the funerary temple near the pyramids at El-Kurru and on the pyramids themselves (Davis & Emberling 2019, 31), as well as in the temple of Isis at Philae (Pope 2019, 79–80).

3 Repertoire of Motifs in Pictorial Graffiti from the Ghazali Northern Church

3.1 Christ

On the walls of the Ghazali Northern Church there are three figures that can be identified as representations of Christ. They do not form larger, complex scenes with other depictions and seem to be placed randomly on the walls.

The full-figure representation of a standing Jesus is located on the eastern part of the southern wall. He is shown as a bearded man dressed in a sleeved garment, with arms bent at the elbows and drawn together at chest height. The identification is made simple by a cross depicted behind the head, forming what appears to be an incomplete cruciform halo. The cruciform halo consists of a cross and a halo, but diverse variants of it are attested in Nubian iconography (Jakobielski et al. 2017, 254, 299). In Byzantine tradition, the head of Christ is always set in a cruciform halo, therefore this element permits secure identification of the figure. The hand gesture is peculiar and finds no parallels among known representations. Nevertheless, the other features mentioned above are common for representations of Christ in Nubian wall paintings. A good example is the depiction of Christ from the baptistery in the Faras Cathedral (Jakobielski et al. 2017, 331). The studied graffito does not adhere to the Nubian canon in every detail, but it appears fairly certain that the graffiti maker was well acquainted with it.

A representation of a bust of Christ is placed on the southern part of the western wall. The head of Jesus is represented against the backdrop of a cross (another variant of the cruciform halo), and it leans towards the left (Fig. 3). The composition of the representation may be the result of the graffiti maker’s inspiration by monumental art. In Nubian wall paintings there are numerous scenes in which the head of Jesus is tilted (Fig. 4). Good examples are found in scenes from the Passion Cycle and the Baptism of Christ at the Monastery on Kom H in Old Dongola (Martens-Czarnecka 2011, 141).

Figure 3
Figure 3

Kite photo of the Ghazali monastery

Citation: Journal of African Archaeology 2021; 10.1163/21915784-20210014

Photo by Miron Bogacki
Figure 4
Figure 4

Fragment from the scene of the Deposition from the Cross, south aisle, east wall, Faras Cathedral

Citation: Journal of African Archaeology 2021; 10.1163/21915784-20210014

After Jakobielski et al. 2017

In the central part of the southern wall there is one representation of a head with a genuine cruciform halo – the feature permitting unambiguous identification of Christ. Nonetheless, depictions of solely the head of Christ are absent from the iconographical programme of Nubian churches. A similar representation of Christ’s head can only be found in rock art from the Fourth Cataract area (Gabriel & Karberg 2011, 95).

3.2 Female Figure or a Figure Dressed in a Monastic Cape?

On the western part of the southern wall, close to the gate, there is a representation of a figure wearing headgear (Fig. 5). There are two possible identifications of this head cover. It might be a maphorion (Greek: Μαφόριον) – an over-garment covering the hair and shoulders (Jakobielski et al. 2017, 98). In Nubian wall paintings, this headgear is characteristic for representations of female saints, especially Virgin Mary (Fig. 6) (Jakobielski et al. 2017, 98), and of donatrices (Jakobielski et al. 2017, 297). The other possibility is that it is a monastic cape worn by monks. In Nubian murals, holy anchorites and bishops are also shown wearing this monastic vestment (Innemée 1990, 162).

Figure 5
Figure 5

Female representation from the Ghazali Northern Church, southern wall

Citation: Journal of African Archaeology 2021; 10.1163/21915784-20210014

Figure 6
Figure 6

Virgin Mary and Child enthroned, north aisle, north wall, Faras Cathedral

Citation: Journal of African Archaeology 2021; 10.1163/21915784-20210014

After Jakobielski et al. 2017

3.3 Angels

On the walls of the Ghazali Northern Church there are four depictions of angels. All of them are situated on the southern wall. They seem to be individual representations rather than constituents of more complex scenes. Neither do they appear in groups. The executors of the graffiti seem to have placed the angel graffiti randomly.

In the eastern part of the southern wall there is a representation of a figure with wings and a crown (Fig. 7) that seems to take the form of a diadem with three pinnacles surmounted by small crosses. A similarly depicted attribute is found in Nubian wall paintings (Fig. 8). In monumental art, the crown was common for representations of archangels in general – not only for Michael, who is shown crowned as commander of the Heavenly Host (Jakobielski et al. 2017, 368), but also for Gabriel and Raphael (Jakobielski et al. 2017, 369).

Figure 7
Figure 7

Representation of the angel from the Ghazali Northern Church, southern wall

Citation: Journal of African Archaeology 2021; 10.1163/21915784-20210014

Figure 8
Figure 8

Representation of Archangel Michael from the scene of Three Youths in a fiery furnace, Faras Cathedral, west wall of the nartex

Citation: Journal of African Archaeology 2021; 10.1163/21915784-20210014

After Jakobielski 2017

One of the figures located on the wall of the Ghazali Northern Church is shown wielding a sword and wearing a crown. Although the most distinctive angelic feature – the wings (Strauss & Olbrich 2004 v I, 332) – is not clearly visible (lines on the right side of the figure may be part of a poorly preserved wing), other attributes allow us to suggest this is a figure of an archangel. Nubian murals abound in representations of archangels with swords. However, a sword was an attribute of both Gabriel and Michael, and it is impossible to say which of the archangels is represented here based on this element alone. An unambiguous identification is sometimes possible thanks to an accompanying legend (Zielińska & Tsakos 2019, 81). This is, for instance, the case of a representation of a sword-bearing archangel by the west entrance of the Faras Cathedral. There, a legend above the head identifies the figure as Gabriel (Łaptaś 2003, 138). If a representation of an archangel is part of a bigger composition showing a scene described in a literary source, the context may facilitate identification. This methodological approach helped Tomasz Górecki to identify a composition from Faras presenting an archangel handing over a sword to a rider-saint. Górecki recognised it as an illustration of a story described in the Coptic Encomium of Mercurius, in which Archangel Michael appeared to Saint Mercurius in a vision (Górecki 1990, 536–537).

In the studied graffiti repertoire there are two more figures depicted with wings. One is located in the middle part of the southern wall, while the other one is placed in its eastern part. Despite the fact that these representations do not resemble representations of angels on Nubian murals (the graffiti are cursory in character), what permits identification is the presence of wings. In Christian art, angels are always portrayed in human form with wings and a halo (Strauss & Olbrich 2004, 332).

3.4 Horses with Riders

In the Ghazali graffiti assemblage, there are three representations of horse riders, which may be attempts to represent warrior saints or one of the Three Magi. All equestrian motifs are located on the western wall and the horse riders are no exception. The depictions are surrounded by representations of people with horses and horses alone.

One of the graffiti located on the northern part of the western wall presents a rider on a galloping horse (Fig. 9). The animal has very good proportions: slender trunk, head with narrow forehead, small ears and attenuated mouth. The human figure is also shown with great attention to detail; he seems to wear conical headgear with ornamentation. Compositions with galloping horses and horse riders wearing conical caps are typical for depictions of Magi (Fig. 10). Headgear of this type represents Phrygian cap, which is supposed to indicate the Eastern provenance of the Magi (Martens-Czarnecka 2011, 138). The representation bears a strong resemblance to the depictions of the Three Magi known from Nubian art. The closest parallels are the scene of the Coming of the Three Magi from the Nativity composition located in the north aisle of the Faras Cathedral, on the eastern wall (Jakobielski et al. 2017, 246) (Fig. 10) and the representation of the Three Magi from the eastern wall of the north vestibule of the Faras Cathedral (Jakobielski et al. 2017, 131). The precision of this depiction is worthy of note. The dexterity of the author of this graffito was remarkably high. One may even suggest that this image was created by an artist.

Figure 9
Figure 9

Depiction of a horse rider, Ghazali Northern Church, western wall

Citation: Journal of African Archaeology 2021; 10.1163/21915784-20210014

Figure 10
Figure 10

Part of the Nativity scene, north aisle, east wall, Faras Cathedral

Citation: Journal of African Archaeology 2021; 10.1163/21915784-20210014

After Jakobielski et al. 2017

In Nubian Christian art, the position of the animal in horse-rider representations varies depending on the motif. In two other representations of mounted riders from the Ghazali graffiti assemblage, the animals are also shown in swift motion, but standing on their hind legs and beating the air with their forelegs. This type of composition is common for representations of holy warriors known from Nubian wall paintings, for instance a depiction of a holy warrior from the north wall of the south aisle of the Abdalla Nirqi Church (Monneret De Villard 1957, plate XI), or a representation of a warrior saint from Abd el-Gadir (Monneret De Villard 1957, plate VIII). Since the horse-rider graffiti lack any other details, it is impossible to say which warrior saints the Ghazali graffiti makers wanted to depict.

In the horse rider graffito located on the central part of the western wall, the animal is shown in a very realistic manner: the trunk is slender and the rump is rounded, the four limbs are depicted with hooves, and the tail is suspended and long. The depiction of the rider is rather cursory in character. Different in terms of style is a horse-rider graffito located in the southern part of the western wall. It is crudely incised and the proportions of the horse are distorted: the trunk is too massive compared to other parts of the body. The figure is likewise rendered in a sketchy manner.

3.5 Horses with People

Aside from the holy warrior themes, depictions of horses appear also in other scenes that include human figures. The Ghazali graffiti assemblage features two compositions representing interactions between people and horses. The first scene, which is located in the central part of the western wall, depicts a human figure that seems to be leading a horse on a rope (Fig. 11). The other one, which is also placed in the central part of the western wall, shows a man and a horse standing at some distance one from the other. The similar style of rendering may indicate that they were intended to form one composition.

Figure 11
Figure 11

Depiction of a horse keeper from the Ghazali Northern Church, western wall

Citation: Journal of African Archaeology 2021; 10.1163/21915784-20210014

It seems that the authors of these graffiti wanted to portray horse keepers. The representations are daily life scenes absent from Nubian monumental art dated to the Makurian period. These depictions seem to testify to the importance of horses in the life of the inhabitants of the Kingdom of Makuria.

3.6 Horses

Not only scenes with horses, but also three individual representations of these animals, have been recorded on the western wall of the Ghazali Northern Church. Two of the horses are shown in a position typical also for the representations of horses known from Nubian wall paintings, rearing and beating the air with their forelegs. Even though individual representations of horses do exist in monumental art, they seem to be part of unfinished compositions (Jakobielski et al. 2017, 441).

Among the studied graffiti, there is one representation of a horse, which in terms of composition does not resemble wall paintings – the animal is shown standing, or walking. This depiction seems to be an attempt to document local fauna.

3.7 Camels with Riders

In the Ghazali graffiti assemblage there are four representations of camel riders. All of them are located in the middle part of the southern wall. They are not clustered one close to the other, which means that they were not meant to be part of one scene.

All camel-rider representations abound in details and are similar in composition. Three show mounted warriors equipped with spears and shields. With the exception of one representation, the camels are shown carrying loads (Fig. 12). All animals except one are depicted walking slowly. In the exceptional representation, the camel’s hind and front legs are stretched, respectively, backward and forward, which may suggest that the animal was shown galloping. The dissimilarity in details of these graffiti may suggest that they were executed by different authors.

Figure 12
Figure 12

Depiction of a camel rider from the Ghazali Northern Church, southern wall

Citation: Journal of African Archaeology 2021; 10.1163/21915784-20210014

Based on the fact that the camel riders are shown in movement and that they are carrying loads, it can be assumed that by creating these representations the graffiti makers wanted to document journeys across the Bayuda Desert. One should not forget that the Wadi Abu Dom was an important trade route (Shinnie & Chittick 1961, 7). Moreover, a cross attached to one of the camel rider representations may indicate that the author of this graffito wanted to take recourse to Christian faith while praying for a safe journey on camelback.

3.8 Camels with People

Among the camel representations from Ghazali there are also two scenes that feature camel keepers. In one of the compositions located on the southern part of the western wall, the human figure is shown leading a camel on a rope. In another scene, a human figure stands next to a camel and holds a kind of whip in the left hand, which may indicate that the person is a camel driver.

Even though the scenes do not refer to the primary function of the building and are not unambiguously Christian in their meaning, there are some factors that enable us to assume that the representations of camel keepers were executed during the occupation of the monastery. A study of rock art stratigraphy revealed that the ‘camel horizon’ flourished during the post-Meroitic and Christian medieval periods (Kleinitz 2012, 47). This fact suggests that camel-anthropomorphic motifs can be dated to the Makurian period. The said representations attest strong relationships between people and animals.

3.9 Camels

Camel depictions are the most common motifs in Ghazali graffiti. They are found on the northern, southern and western walls of the Northern Church. In general, these depictions are scattered, however some groups of representations can also be recognised. The biggest cluster of camel motifs can be traced on the easternmost part of the southern wall.

There is a great variety of representations of camels. There are no two similar depictions, and each camel has slightly different proportions. Also the ways of portraying particular elements of the body vary from one representation to another. All camels are depicted standing sideways, facing left or right; some seem to be in motion, while others are standing still. Such diversity in the representations of camels may result from the fact that they were incised by different graffiti makers, who based the depictions on observations of these animals in their natural environment. In some cases the camels are shown with harnesses, which would suggest their use for riding or carrying loads, as well as emphasize their use by people rather than merely being representations of the local fauna.

There are also two depictions of camels with marks on their bodies (Figs. 12, 14). Each of these marks is different and may indicate ownership of the animals. It is well known that in Nubia some tribes looked after camels owned by others (Milburn 1990, 1). As a result of this practice, camels had to be branded. So far, no exact parallels to the marks in the camel graffiti from Ghazali have been found. While representations of domestic cattle with bells and brand marks on the upper hind leg are common in rock art from the Fourth Cataract area, they do not resemble the marks on camels from Ghazali graffiti, which are more intricate and less geometric (Gabriel & Karberg 2011, 95). Nevertheless, it seems probable that the marks on the animals from Ghazali are a form of property branding.

Figure 13
Figure 13

Depiction of a domesticated camel from the Ghazali Northern Church, western wall

Citation: Journal of African Archaeology 2021; 10.1163/21915784-20210014

Figure 14
Figure 14

Depiction of a camel with the sign on the back from the Ghazali Northern Church, southern wall

Citation: Journal of African Archaeology 2021; 10.1163/21915784-20210014

Both the scenes showing camels with people and the individual representations of these animals testify to their great importance in the daily life of medieval Nubians. Camels played a vital economic and social role in the Kingdom of Makuria. Although camels were introduced in northeastern Africa in the first millennium BC (Bakhiet 2006, 222), they probably were not in widespread use in the local economy prior to the 5th century AD. Camels assumed the role of an indispensable pack animal when the climate became more arid and access to water grew problematic (Bakhiet 2006, 220). Even in modern Sudan camels are vital for the economy of nomadic peoples; the sale of young, male camels is a major source of income for herders, and the size of herds is an indicator of social status (Shuiep et al. 2013, 1). It seems that camels might have been of similar importance for the inhabitants of the Kingdom of Makuria. The fact that camels were a means of subsistence might have been the reason why the authors of graffiti wanted to ask for divine protection over their animals. Even though camels are not part of Christian symbolism, their representations might have been votive in nature.

3.10 Other Zoomorphic Representations

Aside from camels and horses, Ghazali graffiti makers also depicted other animals occurring naturally in the monastery’s surroundings. There are two depictions of birds, one of them detailed and relatively well preserved. The bird has a big rump and a long, curved neck. The closest visual parallel is a representation of a bird on a Meroitic earring.1 Despite some differences, both depictions seem to represent similar bird species. The tradition of depicting birds, mainly geese and ostriches, on the walls of religious buildings goes back to the Meroitic times, as seen in the Great Enclosure in Musawwarat es-Sufra2 and in the funerary temple in el-Kurru.3 In these cases, as at Ghazali, the birds may represent the local fauna.

The Ghazali graffiti assemblage also includes some unidentified reptiles and quadrupeds. Representations of quadrupeds are known from various Nubian contexts: the church of Archangel Raphael in Banganarti (Żurawski 2019, 97), Musawwarat es-Sufra,4 el-Kurru5 and rock art in the Fourth Cataract area (Kleinitz 2012, 35–36). According to some scholars, animal graffiti were placed on the walls of sacral buildings to ensure success in hunting or pasturing. They might also be interpreted as substitutes of animal offerings (Żurawski 2019, 97).

3.11 Boats

Numerous representations of boats were recorded on the walls of the Ghazali Northern Church. Analysis of their distribution pattern shows that these motifs were not part of larger, more complex scenes, but were rather unrelated drawings. Still, graffiti makers tended to represent boat themes close to other depictions of vessels, which led to a concentration of ship images on the southern wall. There are two clusters of boat themes located close to the entrance; one is situated on the west side of the passage and the other on its east side. A concentration of boats is also found in the easternmost part of the southern wall. The fact that boats forming part of these groups represent different vessel types and are situated at some distance one from the other (around 0.5 m) may suggest that these graffiti were not meant to depict a procession or fleet, as is the case of the boats petroglyph from Us Island (Kleinitz 2007, 68), or graffiti from El Kurru (Williams 2019, 43), where boats of the same type are depicted very close to each other.

Almost all boat graffiti on the southern wall of the Ghazali Northern Church are located in the bottom sections of the wall. This may suggest that the distribution of these representations is not completely random, being rather a result of a deliberate choice. However, when it comes to the northern and western walls it is difficult to say anything specific about the placement of the graffiti; boats do not appear in groups. There are two boat images on the northern wall and two on the western wall.

In the Ghazali graffiti assemblage there is a group of boats characterised by each boat having a central mast and sail with identifiable forestays and backstays extending fore and aft from the top of the mast down to the deck on both sides. Inner lines on the sail that are sometimes visible in the images may constitute schematic representations of the rigging. Two boats bear a resemblance to vessel graffiti found on the roof of the Khonsu Temple at Karnak. In both cases the sterns are high and the masts are surmounted by crosses. Helen Jacquet-Gordon identified a group of closely spaced out boats from the Khonsu Temple as a procession and dated them to the Coptic period (Jacquet-Gordon 2003, 103). The scholar interpreted this group of boats as an illustration of a pilgrimage. In this case, the destination might have been a church established in the ruins of the Khonsu Temple (Jacquet-Gordon 2003, 103).

Some of the boats at Ghazali are depicted as relatively simple constructions. Two boats are presented without a mast and boasting a slightly rounded hull with both ends extended high. The right-hand end terminates with an oval element that may represent the bow (Fig. 15). Slightly similar in shape is a depiction of a boat carved in rock on Us Island (Kleinitz 2007, 69). Some cargo boat representations bear similarities to the vessel graffiti from Ghazali: In Late Roman art, for example, there are depictions of boats with flat and thin hulls whose ends extend high. Such a shape of the hull enabled transportation of large amounts of cargo. This is illustrated by a representation of a transport vessel with cargo on a Late Roman gravestone from the Musei Vaticani (Fig. 16) (Pekáry 1999, 59). The boat has a hull similar in shape to that of the ship graffito from Ghazali. Despite obvious differences between the vessels (the Late Roman one has a mast with a sail) it is possible that both of them were used for transportation purposes.

Figure 15
Figure 15

Depiction of a boat from the Ghazali Northern Church, western wall

Citation: Journal of African Archaeology 2021; 10.1163/21915784-20210014

Figure 16
Figure 16

Boat representation from Musei Vaticani

Citation: Journal of African Archaeology 2021; 10.1163/21915784-20210014

Boat depictions on the walls of the Ghazali Northern Church are diverse. Despite the fact that the vessels seem to represent different types that might have performed various functions, they all share one feature, namely, all the ship graffiti are relatively large. It is interesting that also at other Christian sites boat images are among the biggest representations (Cohen 2017, 121).

The diversity and attention to detail in the depictions of boats suggest that the graffiti were attempts to document reality rather than copy motifs from murals. There is no doubt that boats were part and parcel of the daily life of the inhabitants of the Nile Valley and were closely associated with trade, commerce and wealth. The fact that the Ghazali monastic complex is located only 15 km from the Nile river may suggest that the graffiti makers were simply representing elements of their daily life.

On the other hand, there may be more to these depictions than being mere documentaries. According to Jitse Dijkstra, who studied the Christian pictorial graffiti from the Temple of Isis in Aswan, a boat depiction dated to Late Antique or Medieval periods can be viewed as a manifestation of a long-standing Egyptian practice of leaving a representation of a boat in a temple after a safe trip to a holy site (Dijkstra 2012, 73). This interpretation might also be applied to the boat depictions from Ghazali. More generally, boat representations on the walls of churches were interpreted as votive offerings made by sailors (Meinardus 1970–72, 31). Some scholars believe that vessel graffiti may have been a means of expressing a plea for a successful outcome of a prospective journey (Bryer 1966, 5). Andrea Babuin and Yannis Nakas, who studied the ship graffiti from the church of Prophitis Elias in Thessaloniki, suggest that the possible authors of this kind of representations were merchants that had entrusted their fortunes to a particular vessel, or pilgrims travelling by boat to Holy Places (Babuin & Nakas 2011, 15). Regardless of geographical location, creating vessel graffiti on walls of churches was a ubiquitous practice in the Byzantine and medieval Christian culture.

In Christian Nubia it was also common to leave boat images on the walls of sacral buildings – a prime example being the boat graffiti from the Anchorite’s Grotto from Faras (Griffith 1927, 81–90). Here the graffiti were interpreted as requests to the patron of this place for protection over likely the main source of income of the graffiti makers (Obłuski 2019, 54). It is probable that the inhabitants of the Nile Valley were willing to boast of their wealth and in this way pray for their well-being.

4 Spatial Analysis of Graffiti Placement

The majority of the pictorial graffiti analysed here are independent representations. The biggest concentration of depictions is found on the outer face of the southern wall of the Northern Church (around two-thirds of the assemblage). While graffiti are sparse in the middle part of this wall, the western and eastern parts are densely covered with images (Fig. 17). This may be related to the accessibility of these parts of the wall; in the vicinity of the entrance there is a concentration of depictions, which appear on both the eastern and western sides of the gate. In the part of the wall located in the interior of the South Church, only some representations have been recorded.

Figure 17
Figure 17

Illustration of the southern wall, showing location of graffiti

Citation: Journal of African Archaeology 2021; 10.1163/21915784-20210014

Drawn by Bartosz Wojciechowski

Around a quarter of the studied graffiti are situated on the western wall. In its northern and middle parts, the images are evenly spread out (Fig. 18). There is no overlap of the depictions. The biggest concentration of the representations is on the southernmost part of this wall.

Figure 18
Figure 18

Illustration of the western wall, showing location of graffiti

Citation: Journal of African Archaeology 2021; 10.1163/21915784-20210014

Drawn by Bartosz Wojciechowski

On the northern wall there are nine representations, which, compared with other walls, is a rather small number (Fig. 19). They do not form clusters, which may be due to the limited accessibility of the northern wall to passers-by; the northern wall is located on the inner side of the monastery, close to the dormitories of the monks. What is more, complex compositions and representations consisting of two elements are also lacking. The graffiti are evenly spread out along the entire length of the wall and do not overlap.

Figure 19
Figure 19

Illustration of the northern wall, showing location of graffiti

Citation: Journal of African Archaeology 2021; 10.1163/21915784-20210014

Drawn by Bartosz Wojciechowski

An examination of graffiti placement reveals that the distribution of the images does not seem to have followed any distinguishable pattern or system like, for instance, the iconographic programme of Nubian churches. In the Upper Church at Banganarti, pictorial graffiti are also distributed throughout the walls with no obvious reference to the building’s sacral topography (Żurawski 2019, 92).

However, it seems that the graffiti were not placed completely arbitrarily on the walls of the Ghazali Northern Church; concentrations of specific motifs, grouped in set locations ascribed to specific wall sections, are most characteristic in this respect. These clusters of images do not make up larger, more complex scenes, but rather constitute groups of unrelated drawings executed on different occasions. It seems that the Ghazali graffiti were created by many individuals over a considerable span of time. The fact that one motif is repeated many times in the same part of the wall can be explained in behavioural terms: one meaningful depiction may have encouraged other people to create similar representations.

5 Dating of the Graffiti

A closer examination of the repertoire of themes preferred by the Ghazali graffiti makers has revealed that some of the representations are definitely connected with the primary function of the building and were executed during the occupation of the monastery. However, there are also motifs that might as well have been created after the abandonment of the monastic complex. The study of the architectural context in which the depictions appear can help to date the studied material more precisely.

An analysis of architectural changes allows us to narrow down the dating. In the 10th/11th century CE, the so-called Southern Church6 was constructed against the southern wall of the Northern Church (Obłuski 2014, 197). The arcade construction of the northern wall of the Southern Church was physically connected with the southern wall of the Northern Church. As a result, the arcade construction of the Southern Church partly covered some of the graffiti located on the southern wall of the Northern Church (Fig. 17). Two camel graffiti were partly obscured by the mud-brick construction (Fig. 17). One of the depictions is only partially preserved, as the rear part of the camel was covered by the construction of the Southern Church (Fig. 14). One of the images is almost complete, but the camel’s lower legs are concealed by the mud-brick structure attached to the wall on which the depiction was executed (Fig. 12). This proves that some of the graffiti were created before the construction of the Southern Church (10th–11th C.).

There is also a possibility that some images were incised by visitors to the Southern Church. It was a ubiquitous practice in Christian Nubia to create inscriptions containing personal prayers (Łajtar & Ochała 2017, 303), or even pictorial graffiti on the inner walls of churches (Osypińska & Żurawski 2015, 309).7 The assumption that some of the graffiti were executed by people visiting the Southern Church might not be entirely fallacious. Should the graffiti have been made during the occupation of the Southern Church, then they can be dated to the 10th/11th century.

In the studied assemblage there are two graffiti (Fig. 17) that were located above the mud-brick walls of the Southern Church. When the construction of the Southern Church was completed, this depiction must have been covered by a pillar of that building. This may indicate either that the representation was created before the construction of the Southern Church (i.e. before the 10th/11th century), or during the period when the mud-brick construction of the Southern Church started to fall apart and this part of the plaster became accessible again.

Some of the graffiti were executed on the westernmost part of the southern wall (west of the entrance), where another construction once adjoined it (Room Z) (Fig. 18). This feature is dated to the 10th–11th century (Obłuski 2014, 197), as debris from the first phase of the Northern Church (680–720 CE) was re-used as its building material. This indicates that the graffiti covered by this construction were created either before the building of this architectural component, that is, before the 10th–11th century, or when the construction began to disintegrate and this part of the plaster became exposed.

6 Conclusions

The repertoire of Ghazali pictorial graffiti is very diverse and encompasses a large number of different themes. Taking into consideration both the selection of the motifs and the placement of the graffiti, it may be assumed that the depictions were created when the monks still ran the monastery (from 680–720 to 1225–1275 CE) and the incised representations attest to the religious importance of this place.

Some of the motifs incised on the walls of the church are undoubtedly Christian in their symbolism and appear also in Nubian monumental art. This category encompasses representations of Christ, female saints, angels, holy warriors and the Magi. The creation of these types of motifs might have approximated religious practice. By creating images of these holy figures, the graffiti makers most probably wanted to worship them and entrust themselves to their protection. These representations are expressions of religious adoration, and therefore they can be treated as “graphic” prayers. The Middle Nile’s long tradition of devotional graffiti predating Christianity (Davis & Emberling 2019, 31; Pope 2019, 79–80) was continued in the Ghazali monastery.

The presence of a large number of pictorial graffiti that do not seem to have an overt religious meaning is more difficult to interpret. The daily life scenes depicting camel and horse keepers seem to indicate the importance of animals in the life of inhabitants of the Kingdom of Makuria. The representations of camel riders may commemorate the journeys of traders or travellers who might have wanted to cross the Bayuda Desert. The need of the authors of graffiti to depict themselves (quite often as animal keepers, or camel riders) can be interpreted as a request for intercession to Jesus, Virgin Mary, or saints.

The popularity of depictions of camels can be explained by the important role of these animals in the Nubian economy. The images may be treated as requests for protection over what was likely the main source of income of the authors of the graffiti. The images of boats might have a similar meaning as the camel representations. It is probable that the authors of boat graffiti wanted to pray for prosperity. Additionally, these representations might have expressed the need for assistance and reassurance before long voyages.

To sum up, the Ghazali assemblage is a fine example of the enduring tradition of executing graffiti in the Middle Nile Valley. This tradition can be traced thousands of years back and is still very much alive. Religion, daily life and the natural environment dominate among the subjects of the drawings. The great diversity in style of depiction of particular motifs suggests that a large number of people were involved in the creation of the Ghazali graffiti. Based on the fact that some themes (Christ, archangel, horse riders) look like almost exact copies of the representations known from Nubian wall paintings, an assumption that some graffiti were created by artists can be postulated. This hypothesis is advanced based not only on the abundance of visual information inherent to some representations, but also on the high artistic value of the graffiti. However, there are few examples of such works of art, while in majority of the cases the authors do not seem to have possessed special artistic skills.

Even though the study of the pictorial graffiti from Ghazali has provided some new information, the assemblage requires comparison with graffiti from other Nubian sacral buildings. It was a common practice to incise images on the walls of Christian buildings in the whole Kingdom of Makuria. However, the pictorial graffiti from other sites are rarely published in reports or articles (Osypińska & Żurawski 2015, 297–316; Żurawski 2019, 87–104). Undoubtedly the problem of pictorial graffiti on Nubian sacral buildings is understudied and deserves more attention.

Acknowledgements

The start of fieldwork conducted by the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology on the Ghazali site was possible thanks to the approval of a new project by the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums in 2012. In years 2014–2018, the project was funded by a grant from the Qatar-Sudan Archaeological Project. We are indebted to Szymon Maślak, who recorded the graffiti and Małgorzata Korzeniowska, who traced the depictions. We are grateful to Dobrochna Zielińska for her comments on the iconography of saints and archangels in Nubian paintings. We would like to express our gratitude to Bruce Williams from the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago for the comments on boat graffiti from Ghazali.

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Online Catalogues

  • https://www.mfa.org/collections/object/earring-with-bird-pendant-145351

  • https://musawwaratgraffiti.mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de/

  • https://exhibitions.kelsey.lsa.umich.edu/graffiti-el-kurru/temple_animals.php#ta

1

See the catalogue: https://www.mfa.org/collections/object/earring-with-bird-pendant-145351.

2

See the catalogue: https://musawwaratgraffiti.mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de/.

3

See the catalogue: https://exhibitions.kelsey.lsa.umich.edu/graffiti-el-kurru/temple_animals.php#ta.

4

See the catalogue: https://musawwaratgraffiti.mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de/.

5

See the catalogue: https://exhibitions.kelsey.lsa.umich.edu/graffiti-el-kurru/temple_animals.php#ta.

6

The Southern Church is made solely of mud-brick and seems to have been a temporary construction. It was erected on the occasion of the rebuilding of the Northern Church.

7

On the inner walls of the Banganarti Upper Church there are numerous pictorial graffiti. Some animal images occupied even quite prominent places on the walls but did not damage the murals. The graffiti practitioners showed some respect to the holy figures. It might mean that the graffiti are contemporary with the occupation of the church.

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