Medieval pilgrims journeyed deep into Africa, archaeologists discover

medieval
The Kingdom of Makuria is the quintessential forgotten civilization. Very few people have even heard of it, yet it ruled southern Sudan for hundreds of years and was one of the few kingdoms to defeat the Arabs during their initial expansion in the 7th century AD. Makuria was a Christian kingdom, born out of the collapse of the earlier Christian kingdom of Axum. Makuria survived as a bulwark of Christianity in medieval Africa until it finally collapsed in 1312.

Now excavations of some of its churches at Banganarti and Selib have revealed that this kingdom was a center of pilgrimage, attracting people from as far away as Catalonia, in modern Spain. The 2,300 mile journey from Spain to southern Sudan is a long one even today, but imagine when it had to be done on horseback, walking, and boats powered only by sails and oars. Yet an inscription records that one Catalan named Benesec made the journey almost a thousand years ago, probably to pray for a cure to an illness. “Benesec” was a popular Catalan name in the 13th and 14th centuries.

MedievalAnother inscription with an accompanying painting shows a Muslim man, Deif Ali, making a pilgrimage to the church to pray for a cure to his blindness. This isn’t as unusual as it might sound. In regions where religions mingle, some people will go to holy places of the other religion. When I covered the Hindu pilgrimage of Kumbh Mela for Reuters back in 2001, I met Christians, Muslims, and Sikhs all coming to be a part of the religious festival.

Makurian artists produced some amazing religious frescoes, like this image of the birth of Jesus, courtesy Wikimedia Commons, and this closeup of St. Anne, also courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Both come from the cathedral of Faras, an important Makurian city.

The churches are in southern Sudan, not the new Republic of South Sudan. The nation of Sudan (the northern one) has many sites of archaeological and historical interest and is a popular destination for adventure travel.