Early descriptions of the so-called Cathedral of Sai

Since the early 1800s, Sai Island and its antiquities have been attractive to European explorers. The first to successfully cross over to Sai and to describe the antiquities there was Frédéric Cailliaud, as we wrote in the newly published report from the second fieldseason on Sai. Cailliaud later published his journeys in four volumes:

His impressions from visiting the so-called Cathedral of Sai on the 2nd of January 1821 were expressed in the following paragraph:

When I arrived on land, I mounted a donkey; after riding for a league and a half in the north east of this island, I saw four small columns in grey granite, arranged in a square; one can think that this is a work by the Copts; its style is very bad and with no proportions. The capitals, of a baroque taste, are surmounted by the Greek cross; some rubble of earth that neighbour these columns, indicate that these belonged to a small Christian church (Cailliaud 1826, vol. I, 366; translated from French by A. Tsakos).

Lepsius visited Sai on the 13th of July in 1844. He described the “Coptic church” there in the following terms:

Drei Säulen stehen noch mit ihren Kapitälen, eine vierte ist schief; andere Kapitäle liegen umher (Lepsius, Denkmäler, volume V, p. 226).

His description thus informs us that the fourth column at Sai was tilted already in the mid-19th century with the fourth capital nearby.

Lepsius also noted the old town and fortress on the Nile, but he focused on the pharaonic inscriptions there and added no information on the medieval remains.

The oldest photograph of the so-called Cathedral of Sai was taken in 1859-1860 by Francis Frith and published in a volume by Joseph Bonomi and Samuel Sharpe in 1862. We are grateful to Michael Zach (see interview no. 14 HERE) for this reference.

Another interesting reference to the so-called Cathedral of Sai is by Ernest Alfred Wallis Budge, who described the cathedral in the following words:

[T]owards the middle of the island are four gray granite pillars, which mark the site of a Coptic church. Each pillar is a monolith, and has the Coptic cross cut on its capital. A few heaps of rubbish indicate where stood other portions of the church to which these pillars belonged, but every stone of any value for building purposes has been removed (Budge, 1907, The Egyptian Sudan, volume I, p. 463).

Both the photograph and the description of Budge inform us that all other architectural spolia had been removed. We have observed that a nearby saqia-well is lined with sandstone blocks – some of them with engravings of Christian symbols.

These stone blocks must have come from the church. But our search through the old descriptions of the site has not yet revealed any information on when the stone was taken – so it probably happened before the mid-19th century. This is  interesting, because there is a ruined house and an abandoned saqia-well next to the columns. Obviously, the house and the saqia-well were used contemporaneously and in the period after the church was abandoned and before the visits by modern travelers.

We have also not yet found any information about the column bases that are situated at some distance from the columns.

Our excavations at the site started around these bases, and they have never been part of a building at their current position.

Can we conclude that the bases have been in the present location since the columns (and the church) was erected at this spot – probably after being moved from their original location at the fortress of Sai, as we suggest in the second report? We have no evidence yet for when the church was moved, but a good guess would be when Muslim rule was established on the island. Written sources inform that the Ottomans captured Sai in 1584, but the kingdom of Makuria was overthrown by muslims much earlier, when a muslim prince accended the throne of Makuria in 1323. The finding of a muslim grave next to the column bases (see photo above) suggest that Sai may add information on the two centuries between these two events. We hope to return to Sai in order to find answers to these questions and many others.

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