Medieval “Christ” Tattoo Found on 1,300-Year-Old Body in Sudan

Summary: A 1,300-year-old body was discovered in Sudan with a tattoo combining the Greek letters, chi and rho, an abbreviation of the title “Christ.”

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And the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region. – Acts 13:39 (ESV)

Lora Gilb | Evidence

Chi-Rho Symbol of Christ

Kari Guilbault, a bio-archaeologist at Purdue University, was studying the body of a 1,300-year-old man, discovered at a burial near an ancient monastery in Sudan, when she observed a mark on the body’s right foot. Further examination revealed that it was a rare tattoo combining the Greek letters, chi and rho, a common symbol of Christ at that time. This is only the second time a medieval tattoo has been ever found during excavation in the region of Nubia.

“It was quite a surprise to all of a sudden see what appeared to be a tattoo when I was working with the Ghazali collection,” Guilbault said in a statement from the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology, University of Warsaw (PCMA). “At first, I was not certain, but when the images were processed and the tattoo was clearly visible, any initial uncertainties were removed.”

Even though Guilbault is a specialist in medieval tattooing practices, she called the finding “totally serendipitous” because she was not looking for tattoos at the time but taking photos for documentation.

Once the mark was discovered, Guilbaut employed full-spectrum photography and specialized image editing software, techniques originally meant for studying cave paintings, to better reveal the details of the tattoo.

The small tattoo contains a Christogram, a religious symbol that first appeared around 324 AD. Besides the chi-rho monogram abbreviation of Christ, the tattoo also depicts the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha and omega, a representation of the Biblical belief that God is the beginning and the end of everything.

Medieval Nubia Tattoos

The mysterious and rare tattoo sparked various theories. Perhaps it was a marker of a spiritual journey, according to Dr. Robert Stark, the leader of the bio-archaeological study of the Ghazali remains. The orientation of the tattoo, facing the owner, suggests it had a private meaning rather than public. The location of the tattoo on the man’s right foot may have been a reference to Christ’s death on a cross, as his foot would have been pierced with a nail.

When studying ancient remains, there is usually no way to know about an individual’s faith. Guilbault pointed out that, “one of the big questions is how can we tell someone was religious and this is one of those tangible markers of their Christian faith. This is a really fine example of how a person’s faith was a part of their life and their body.”

It is astonishing that the man’s foot tattoo lasted over a thousand years but because of the arid conditions of Sudan many of the Ghazali cemetery remains have been naturally mummified. Fortunately, for the preservation of the tattoo, the part of the man’s body that had been mummified included his legs from the knees down.

Researchers are unsure if the man was a monk or not. His grave was not in the cemetery of the monastery’s monks but in one nearby, perhaps used by people living in the surrounding area. Estimates for the man’s age of death are between 35 and 50 years old.

This discovery overturns a previous theory that only women had tattoos in medieval Nubia, as the only other ancient tattoo ever found in the area was on a woman who had a monogram of Saint Michael on her inner thigh.

Modern restoration of the fresco containing the Christian Chi-Rho symbol along with the Greek letters alpha and omega, from the Roman Villa at Lullingstone, British Museum, London. (credit: I, Udimu, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Ghazali Archaeological Site

The monastic site of Ghazali is one of Sudan’s best-preserved archaeological sites. Besides the tattooed man, there have been other interesting finds, including two terracotta monk figurines of fired clay. Also, many inscriptions have been uncovered, making Ghazali the source of the second-largest known collection of inscriptions in Sudan. On the walls of the northern church within the monastery, 137 inscriptions have been recorded, along with 93 funerary inscriptions from the cemeteries.

The site is located in the Northern Province of Sudan in the Wadi Abu Dom region of the Bayuda desert, about 12 miles from the modern town of Karima and almost 10 miles from the Nile River. When the monastery was in use, the area was called Nubia and included land that is now part of Southern Egypt and Northern Sudan.

Ghazali Monastery. (credit: Mapcarta)

Excavations began at the Ghazali site in the 1950s and were led by Peter Shinnie, Neville Chittick, and Sayed Nigm ed-Din Sherif, on behalf of the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums (previously the Sudan Antiquities Service). After two archaeological seasons the team was able to clear the church, dining area, and several other rooms.

Between 2012 and 2018, Prof. Artur Obłuski led an investigation of the site with a Polish-Sudanese team from the PCMA. His team unearthed a second church and a complex of sanitary rooms, a feature never before found in Nubia. These discoveries provided evidence that the size of this monastic community was considerable and the site played a role as a pilgrimage center.

Four cemeteries with more than 2,000 burials were also recorded by the team. The graves differed in their architectural forms and contained many inscriptions. Cemetery 2 with around 800 graves was labeled the burial place of the monks who lived at the monastery. The man with the tattoo was found in Cemetery 1.

Currently, Dr. Robert Stark of the PCMA and his colleagues are studying and cataloging the human remains from hundreds of graves in the area to learn more about the background of the local population who lived there in medieval times.

Monastic site, Ghazali Archaeological Site Presentation Project. (credit: Polish Center of Mediterranean Archeology University of Warsaw)

Monasticism in Nubia

Christianity quickly spread into north Africa in the first centuries of the 1st millennium. Monasticism appeared in Nubia soon after the country converted to Christianity between 540 – 570 AD. Nubian monks modeled their lives after the monks of Egypt, Palestine, and Byzantium by living, praying, eating, and working together.

Researchers uncovered separate areas that served various purposes including churches, dormitories, dining halls, and kitchens. They also found a mill with silos and an oil press, the first ever discovered in Nubia.

Along with daily spiritual activities of prayer and worship, the monks also participated in manual labor. An iron-smelting site was unearthed outside of the monastery, as well as evidence of a garden which grew medicinal plants for healing. The area also contained the remains of a small village.

The Alpha and Omega of the Monastery

The medieval Christian monastery was most likely founded between 680 and 720 AD by King Merkurios and was in use until the 13th century. The population was the largest during the mid-10th and mid-12th centuries, numbering around 72 or more people. Researchers base this estimate on the number of seats in the enlarged dining room, the number of toilets in a new extension, and a possible upper level in the living quarters.

The monastery gradually fell into decline in the second half of the 12th century and by the end of the 13th century ceased to function. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the site was a famous landmark for travelers including Linant de Bellefonds, Richard Lepsius, Sir John Gardner Wilkinson, and Pierre Trémaux.

The ruins of a monastery at the Ghazali archaeological site, as depicted in a 19th-century painting by Karl Richard Lepsius. (credit: scan by NYPL, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Bible and Tattoos

Tattoos have been the subject of controversy within the Christian faith in modern times. While the New Testament is silent on the subject, there is a passage in the Old Testament that some have pointed to claiming that getting tattoos is wrong.

You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the LORD. – Leviticus 19:28 (ESV)

This command was given after Moses brought the Israelites out of Egypt. God wanted his people to be set apart from the nations around them. If we look at this particular command and the reason for not making cuts or tattoos on one’s body, the phrase “for the dead” stands out. Many commentators think it most likely refers to the pagan practice of tattooing connected with idolatry and superstition.

While Christians today do not follow all aspects of the Mosaic Law, we can still take an important principle from this command about being careful if we choose to get a tattoo. Thinking about why we want a certain tattoo and what message will the tattoo send are good questions to think about. For example, a tattoo honoring a false god, idol or superstition, would not be a good witness or be pleasing to God.


This discovery highlights the spread of Christianity’s influence during the first centuries. Additionally, “Documentation of this tattoo from Ghazali brings forth numerous questions about the practice of tattooing and signs of faith in medieval Nubia,” notes the PCMA statement. As the study of the human remains from the graves of Ghazali continues, who knows what other surprises will emerge, giving more clues about the people who lived there during medieval times. So far, the most interesting discovery has been the Christ tattoo, but what else is waiting to be found?

The site will be turned into a tourist-friendly monastery with support from a grant by the Qatar-Sudan Archaeological Project, making it a destination worth a visit and a moment of contemplation. Keep Thinking!


TOP PHOTO: Christian Chi-Rho tattoo image of top side of the right foot. The picture was taken with a full spectrum camera and digitally enhanced using ImageJ software with a DStretch plugin. (credit: Kari Guilbault, Polish Center of Mediterranean Archeology University of Warsaw)

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views the Virginia Christian Alliance

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