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Raphaelion 2008

Bogdan Żurawski

In November-December 2008, the first stage of the project to rebuild the Raphelion in Banganarti in northern Sudan was successfully accomplished. The Raphaelion is a one-of-a-kind building embodying two functions: that of a church and that of a hospital. Fieldwork was subsidized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within the framework of the Polish Aid program.

The Raphaelion in Banganarti following the end of archaeological fieldwork in January-February 2008. The southeastern corner of the building (arrow in the photo on left) is where a steel model of a dome was installed during the first stage of the rebuilding project in November-December 2008.

The rebuilding of the southeastern corner of the complex and mounting a real-size steel model of the dome that had once covered it constitutes the first stage of a project of reconstruction calculated to run for a couple of years. The present conservation and restoration works were preceded by archaeological excavations (carried out from 2002) and extensive specialist comparative studies.
The prime objective is to reconstruct the body of the Raphaelion in a form as close to the original as possible while ensuring architectural stability and maximum safety for visitors. A key issue to estimate was the soundness of the standing walls and the stability of the ground underfoot taking into consideration changing ground-water tables. The different foundations and mortars used in various parts of the building were examined from this point of view, determining in effect extreme technical parameters of the reconstruction. The building is guaranteed to be safe, even if the adverse factors like rainfall, hurricane winds and high waters in the Nile, occur all at the same time. Moreover, structural building engineers have established the height to which the walls can be rebuilt without repeating the catastrophe from 600 years ago when the building of the Raphaelion started to crack under the pressure of the upper floor and central dome which had risen 12 m above the floor.
Six versions of the reconstruction were considered at the planning stage.

Wersja A rekonstrukcji Rafaelionu z piętrem i kopułą centralną sięgającą

Version A Reconstruction of the Raphaelion with an upper floor and central dome rising 17 m above the floor

Version B Reconstruction of the Raphaelion with a central dome rising 15 m above the floor

Version C Reconstruction of the Raphaelion without an upper floor but with a gallery above the aisles

Version E Reconstruction of the Raphaelion with a gallery instead of the upper floor and a central dome rising 12 m above the floor

Version F Reconstruction of the Raphaelion with an upper floor at c. 6 m above the floor

Version G (approved for implementation) with a dome rising 12 m above the floor and an upper level at 5.40 m above the floor

Version G afforded the biggest safety margins and was evaluated as nearest to the original based on collected archaeological and architectural data. An architectural design for the reconstruction of the complex as a whole and for the dome in the southeastern corner was subsequently prepared.

3D view of Version G of the reconstruction of the Raphaelionu approved for implementation

The first stage of the reconstruction project was centered on the southeastern corner of the building which was the diakonikon of the ancient church. The program called for building up the walls to a height of 4.70 m and mounting a steel model (frame) of a dome on top.

Vertical aerial (kite) photo of the Raphaelion taken in the middle of December 2008. The steel model of a dome can already be seen over the southeastern corner of the complex (at bottom left)

The welding of the steel frame of the dome in real size along with a square base was commissioned to the best welding workshop in the area, owned by Melek Omar Ibrahim. He was given the blueprints and general conditions on 8 November 2008, immediately following the team’s arrival in Banganarti. Work began on the next day. The biggest difficulty proved to be the precise bending of the pipes forming the dome’s ribs.

Welder Melek Omar Ibrahim working on the model of the dome.

Manual bending of torch-heated steel ribs was unsuccessful and after a few failed attempts a special machine, which by a leap of imagination could be called a bending machine, was put together. (It will be used for the other three domes which have the same dimensions as the one prepared in 2008.)

20 November 2008, 8:00 a.m., the steel model of a dome is ready, standing in front of Melek Omar Ibrahim’s workshop in Banganarti

In the end effect, Melek managed to bend all the ribs with the precision of a Swiss watchmaker and welded together a dome with a base diameter of 3.70 m. Ten men carried it through a thick palm grove to the Raphaelion just about 600 m away. The next step was to protect it with an anticorrosive. It was then painted white. Work proceeded simultaneously on constructing a ramp to help mount the dome in place.

21 November 2008, 6:30 a.m. Ten workers carry the steel model of a dome from Melek Omar Ibrahim’s workshop to the Raphaelion.

21 November 2008, 7:00 a.m. The model of the dome reaches the Raphaelion.

Plaster rendering applied to the external walls of the southeastern corner of the Raphaelion. The foil protects the south wall from drying too quickly in the sun.

28 November 2008, 1:00 p.m. The southeastern corner of the Raphaelion with the plaster floating on the walls.

The southeastern corner of the Raphaelion with the steel model of a dome, views from the south, southeast and southwest (starting from the left)

While work on the welding and mounting of the dome was proceeding, inside the Raphaelion attention concentrated on the transferring of the Greek inscriptions found on the pillars in the eastern part of the complex which were to be dismantled. The inscriptions were remounted provisionally on partition walls rebuilt specially for the purpose in the western part of the building. Two of the pillars (F.E.08 on the plan) were dismantled even though the project had called for just one.

Plan of the Raphaelion marking areas of work during the November-December 2008 season: K.I.08 - location of steel dome model mounted in the southwestern part of the Raphaelion; F.E.08 (in red) – two pillars from the eastern part of the complex, dismantled in the course of the current season; S.D.08 – reconstructed partition walls in the western part supporting the inscriptions transferred from pillars F.E.08.

The stacco method was applied for transferring the plaster fragments. The whitewash layer on top was stabilized with Paraloid B67 in a 2% acetone solution. The inscription was protected with Japanese tissue paper (two layers) fixed with a skin glue in water (1 part glue, 7 parts water). The face was then reinforced with two layers of a thin strong polyester fabric which has already been proven superior to cotton and linen during previous transfers. Its cohesiveness practically prevents the penetration of glue and assures good adhesiveness to the wall. The edges of the fabric were mounted on a wooden frame suspended from the roof structure. Once this was done, the pillars were dismantled brick by brick, cutting them away safely from the inscriptions. These were then laid flat on tables and the plaster cut away from their backs leaving a layer no more than 2 cm thick. The inscriptions were then saturated with a water and ethyl alcohol solution (1:1) in order to minimize surface tension. The backs were treated with a dispersion of Mowilith in water (1:10).

The transfers were then fixed with lime mortar onto the partition walls in the western part of the Raphaelion, making sure that particular pieces were exactly in place (this was possible because the western part of the complex is a mirror reflection of the eastern part).

The rebuilt partition walls in the western part of the Raphaelion.

The partition walls in the western part of the building were rebuilt and floated by the end of November 2008. The transfers were fixed in place by December 12. Altogether six transfers were completed and mounted on the new walls, while another two are prepared to be fixed next year.

Plaster transfers from the dismantled pillars in the eastern part of the Raphaelion, fixed on rebuilt walls in the western part of the complex.

Plaster floating was also completed for most of the walls that had already been raised above the standing remains of the Raphaelion in the western and southern parts of the complex. Testing of various plaster compositions yielded the best recipe: slaked lime, sifted coarse sand (ramla hiszna), sifted Nile silt (turab) and water. Local plasterers - Obeida Hassan, Awadallah Abdallah Nasir, Usama Mohammed Hassan – completed the job.

21 December 2008, Chapel of the anargyroi saints Cosma and Damianos after the rebuilt parts of the walls were floated with plaster and missing bricks in the paving replaced. The wall plaster and floor are still damp, hence the dark stains. The photo was taken on the day of the team’s departure from the site.

The Raphaelion project is calculated to take a couple of years. The long-term objective is to stimulate the local economy and to raise local cultural awareness. Banganarti has every opportunity to become what it was once, a thousand years ago – a pilgrimage center teeming with life, visited by people of both religions seeking help for their various ailments. The Raphaelion itself was an added attraction: the hallowed burial ground of Nubian kings worshipped in life as God’s commanders on earth.


The Raphaelion Project is financed by the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and implemented by the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology in cooperation with the National Corporation of Antiquities and Museums in Sudan.