Often referred to as “Dongola al-‘Ajuz,” the capital city of the medieval Nubian kingdom of MAKOURIA. It was situated on the east bank of the Nile about halfway between the Third and Fourth Cataracts. The name is said to be derived from a Nubian word for a hill or high place, perhaps reflecting the fact that the town occupied the top of a bluff overlooking the river.
Nothing is known either of Dongola or of Makouria in pre- Christian times, and the excavations thus far carried out at Dongola have not uncovered any remains of pre-Christian date. Makouria is first mentioned in the ecclesiastical histories of John of Ephesus and John of Biclarum dating from the sixth century, but neither of these sources names the capital of the kingdom. Dongola is first mentioned by name in medieval Arab histories dealing with the attempted Muslim conquests of Nubia in 641-642 and in 651-652. On each of these occasions the newly established rulers of Egypt attempted to extend their dominion over Nubia, and both military expeditions culminated in a battle before Dongola. On the first occasion, the invaders were successfully repulsed; on the second, the battle ended in a negotiated truce, the BAQT. Under its terms the Nubians were left free from foreign domination for over 600 years. As a result, Dongola and other Christian communities in Nubia grew and prospered.
The Fatimid envoy IBN SALIM AL-ASWANI has left a remarkably vivid account of his visit to Makouria in the tenth century, but unfortunately, he gives no specific information about the capital city. However, the information in ABU SALIH’s Churches and Monasteries of Egypt and Some Neighbouring Countries is probably derived largely from Ibn Salim. Of Dongola, he writes: “It is a large city on the banks of the blessed Nile, and contains many churches and large houses and wide streets. The king’s house is lofty, with several domes built of red brick, and resembles the buildings in Al-Irak. . . .” From another Arab source we learn that the royal palace was the only building of red brick. The other houses were of mud, reeds, or straw.
There are many references to Dongola in later medieval documents, dealing mainly with the Mamluk military campaigns in Nubia, but no descriptive information about the town is given. Archaeology shows, however, that the place had a long history, with many episodes of rebuilding. Even the destruction of the kingdom of Makouria in the fourteenth century did not spell the final downfall of its capital, for Dongola became the seat of a local chieftain of the Bedayria tribe. However, the French visitor Poncet described the houses as ill-built and the streets as half-deserted and filled with sand when he passed by in 1698. Tribal chieftains, locally known as meks, continued to rule at Dongola until their power was finally extinguished by the Egyptian annexation of the Sudan in 1821. The new rulers established an administrative center at al-Urdi, about 100 km downstream from Dongola, and this place later came to be called Dongola al-Urdi or New Dongola, and finally just as Dongola. After its establishment, the old city was finally abandoned. Its ruins, which are still very conspicuous when seen from the river, are today usually designated as Old Dongola or Dongola al-‘Ajuz, to distinguish them from the newer administrative town.
The most conspicuous surviving building at Dongola al-‘Ajuz today is a two-story brick structure whose upper floor has been fitted out as a mosque. A stone tablet set into one of the walls proclaims that the mosque was dedicated in 1317. Prior to that time, and perhaps subsequently also, the building is believed to have been the royal palace. Archaeological excavations by a Polish expedition have also uncovered two impressive churches, one having sixteen columns of Aswan granite arranged in four rows, and the other having a cruciform plan like some of the churches in Syria and Armenia. Up to the present, there has been little excavation in the townsite remains at Old Dongola, although the excavations are continuing.
The name of Dongola lives on in the tribal name of the Danaglah (sing., Dungulawi) Nubians—the most southerly group among whom the Nubian language still survives.
- Adams, W. Y. Nubia, Corridor to Africa, pp. 464, 526-30, 583-84. Princeton, N.J., 1977.
- Jakobielski, S. “Polish Excavations at Old Dongola, 1969.” In Kunst und Geschichte Nubiens in christlicher Zeit, ed. E. Dinkler. Recklinghausen, 1970.
- Michalowski, K. “Les fouilles polonaises à Dongola.” In Kunst und Geschichte Nubiens in christlicher Zeit, ed. E. Dinkler. Recklinghausen, 1970.
- Vantini, G. Christianity in the Sudan, pp. 63-64, 137-38, 171-90. Bologna, 1981.