The Great Enclosure of Musawwarat es Sufra, one of the major ancient monuments of northern Sudan and inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2011, is a well known but enigmatic complex of temples and other buildings, corridors, ramps and courtyards. The parts of the labyrinth-like building complex, which covers c. 45.000 square metres, were erected in the third century BC, i.e. at the beginning of the so-called Meroitic period (c. 300BC-AD350) of the Kushite realm. The function(s) of various parts of the building complex as well as the purpose of this unique site are still contested. Recent hypotheses include interpretations as a pilgrimage centre, a 'national shrine', a royal hunting palace, the main sanctuary of the Meroitic god Apedemak and others. Today it is generally accepted that the monuments of Musawwarat were part of an important religious centre and that it attracted visitors from afar – even from beyond the Meroitic realm.
Rather little is preserved of an official decorative programme that could enlighten us with any certainty on the function of this unique site. However, thousands of graffiti, informal pictorial and inscriptional incisions, adorn its sandstone walls. Many of these stem from the Meroitc period but also from the younger post-Meroitic, Christian and Islamic periods. The graffiti, which name and depict gods, humans, animals - sometimes arranged in scenes, and which show symbols, objects and others, may hold a key to the interpretation of the diachronic use of this site. They allow, for example, a rare view into the interplay between (official) state and (inofficial) folk religion and practices. The diachronically different preferences in motifs additionally illustrate culture change, which is apparent, for example, in the appearance of the camel and the associated changes in the socio-economic, political and symbolic realms, and in historical dynamics. In any case, the graffiti are thought to have been left behind by the numerous visitors to Musawwarat and to reflect the superregional importance attached to this site.
The project proposed here aims at making accessible online the full corpus of graffiti at Musawwarat es Sufra, thus providing a prerequisite for research into this extensive collection of visual data on the Northeast African past.