The Cathedral of Sai

In a dried out river channel on the northern part of the island, there is a site that has been proposed by Jean Vercoutter – the first director of French archaeological investigations on Sai – as the Cathedral of the island, based on the four standing granite columns, as well as the knowledge of the existence of a bishopric on the island as testified in written sources. Despite its undoubted importance, the site has been neither recorded in detail nor excavated, mainly due to the preference of the researchers for the monuments of the earlier periods.

According to the field recording system developed in Friedrich Hinkel’s Archaeological Map of the Sudan, we have labelled the cathedral site as 8-B-500. This consists of the main mound with the columns, which seems to continue northwards until a location where three column bases are standing on the surface, as well as mounds with other features of probable medieval dating. The bases seem to fit with the four standing columns, but today they are located rather away from the original (?) position. Actually, the expected fourth one is to be found in the fortress of Sai, some two kilometres southwards!

Although the investigation of this set of structures is very promising archaeologically and will eventually be the centre of our activities, we have decided not to ‘touch’ it yet. The reasons are simple: the site has been used as a crossroads for people moving between the western side of the island to the eastern side, where the ferry crossing to the mainland is located.

In order to create an archaeological site that the islanders would be proud of, we had meetings in February 2009 with the local heads, who agreed to our proposal to deviate this road and block the site from cars and animals (donkey and chariot are widely used in Sudan) in the start of our second season. The blocking of the site will not be made with an artificial wall, however; instead we will use the cultivation zones themselves, thus turning a factor of possible destruction into an agent of protection. This change will be reinforced by the building of a gate to the east (entrance for visitors) by the locals themselves, who will also be responsible for its maintenance. The positive way they had reacted in previous calls by Sudanese and foreign archaeologists to respect the archaeological boundaries of this and other sites is a fine guarantee for the future of the cathedral site.

As to our future work there, in its early stages it will aim at providing the aforementioned protection. The investigation of the extent of the site will follow, so as to eventually incorporate in the delimited archaeological zone all the features of the site, including the Medieval cemetery to the northeast and the Islamic-period tower to the northwest.

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