Republic of Sudan
“The Forgotten Land of the Pharaohs”
The Republic of Sudan (from now on referred to as just Sudan in deference to South Sudan) is a country with over 6,000 years of human history and full of sharp contradictions which can prove to be somewhat difficult to reconcile. On the one hand, the country’s modern history is plagued with catastrophic events including famine, civil war, genocide and partition of the country itself. On the flip side, what Sudan offers its few hardy visitors is a recherché commodity; the chance to experience tourist-free its unspoilt cultural and historical heritage, dramatic desert scenery, an incredibly friendly welcome and more pyramids than the average camera can cope with. The jewel in Sudan’s crown is its rich Pharaonic history; it is the custodian of a multitude of temples and hundreds of pyramids, many more than its illustrious northern neighbour Egypt. From the perspective of this latter point, Sudan is undoubtedly one of the great under achievers in terms of world tourism.
A Brief History
The history of Sudan is composed of a diversity of contrasts, a melting pot of many ethnic groupings Egyptian and Nubian, African and Arab, Islamic and Christian. This has created a rich and complex tapestry ranging from the glorious heights of the Pharaonic dynasties to the tragic depths of civil war. Known in ancient times variously as Nubia, Lower Egypt and Kush, the region we know today as Sudan was inhabited by a primordial sophisticated people who produced petroglyphs of the local wildlife; meticulously carved onto flat rock faces these stylistic images date back almost 6,000 years. By the 3rd millennium BC planned agriculture had developed, which enabled the growth of settled populations, crop production and the domestication of animals. The First Dynasty Egyptian pharaohs (3100-2890 BC) sent military expeditions into the region in search of gold and the procurement of slaves. By the 15th century BC the Egyptians controlled much of the country and built many impressive temples as monuments to their gods. By the 2nd century BC the major power player in the region was Rome. Christianity arrived in the country in the 6th century AD courtesy of the newly Christianised Romans, it would flourish until the late 13th century which heralded the arrival of Islam through the advances from Egypt of the Mamelukes.
The last years of the 18th century saw the arrival of the Ottoman Turks, they seized the opportunity for power in the region left by the vacuum created in the wake of Napoleon’s chaotic failure to conquer Egypt. The Ottomans promptly installed their own puppet leader in Sudan.
The latter part of the 19th century saw the rising influence across Sudan of the charismatic holy man Mohammed Ahmed - proclaiming himself to be the Mahdi the prophesised redeemer of Islam – he avowed to liberate Sudan from Turkish rule. Unnerved by the Mahdi’s growing support and influence, and anticipating a perceived threat to their position in neighbouring Egypt, London sent in an Egyptian army led by a the British officer William Hicks to quell the rebellion and restore order. Hicks’ army was routed, which resulted in the British Prime Minister Gladstone sending the military hero General Charles Gordon to Khartoum in March 1884 to restore order. Resolved to hold onto Khartoum and wait for London to send relief troops, Gordon dug in as the Mahdi’s army besieged the city. Arriving belatedly in January 1885, the relief column found that Khartoum had already fallen and that Gordon had perished in the battle. Britain wept over its tragic loss and the legend of Gordon of Khartoum was born. Ten years later in 1895 in the European inspired “Scramble for Africa”, Britain returned to Sudan to address its unfinished colonial business. Just over half a century later on the 1st January 1956 the British flag was lowered for the last time; colonial rule was terminated and the independent country of Sudan was proclaimed.
Sudan’s early years of independence were littered with civil war, military coups and the odd democratic interlude. The early 1990’s saw Sudan elevated to the position of pariah state through its support of Saddam Hussain during the first Gulf War, additionally it offered sanctuary to Osama Bin Laden and allowed him to set up al-Qaeda training camps in Sudan. The ongoing civil war culminated in the displacement of over a million of Sudan’s population and ultimately the genocide that occurred in the Darfur region between 2003 and 2008. Following a referendum on independence, Africa’s largest country was split in two and in July 2011 South Sudan became the continents newest nation, separating from the Republic of Sudan in the north. Prior to the separation 80% of Sudan’s gross domestic product (GDP) was from oil revenue, upon separation the majority of the oil fields fell within the new borders of South Sudan. The Republic of Sudan now relies on gold production, hibiscus cultivation and is the world’s largest producer of gum Arabic.
This wonderful journey begins in Sudan’s capital city Khartoum, it is here at the confluence of the Nile where the Blue Nile and the White Nile meet that was the raison d’etre for Khartoum’s foundation here in 1821. Our city tour commences at the National Museum which is a repository for innumerable treasures from Sudan’s ancient and medieval past; the undoubted highlights of the museum collection are to be found in the museums gardens. Enclosed in protective glass structures are three remarkable Egyptian temples, rescued from the flood waters of Lake Nasser when the Aswan Dam was built in the 1960’s, they have been faithfully reconstructed here. These magnificent monuments are contemporary with the Egyptian Middle Kingdom dating to the reigns of Queen Hatshepsut and the pharaohs Tuthmosis lll and Amenophis ll.
The Khalifa’s House is a rather ramshackle building, now a museum, redolent with objects relating to the historical encounter at the tail end of the 19th century between General Gordon and the Mahdi. A short distance away stands the Mahdi’s Tomb with its glittering silver dome; a pilgrimage to this site is incumbent on all Sudanese as an affirmation of their faith. The original tomb was blown up by the British, the present one is an exact copy which was rebuilt in 1947. The rather splendid St Matthews Catholic Church is a building somewhat out of place in a strict Islamic country like Sudan. Built over a 60 year period at the culmination of the 19th century, this attractive building with its fairy tale turrets and large rose glass window serves as a focal point for Khartoum’s small Catholic community.
The next morning we leave Khartoum in two Toyota 4X4 Land Cruisers equipped with sand ramps, shovels, tents, all the necessary equipment needed for the adventure that lays ahead in the unforgiving Sahara Desert. Hours of driving through relentless desert scenery eventually end at the complex of temples at Naga. The Lion Temple is a beautifully preserved example of Kushite architecture, fronted by a massive pylon and adorned with large carved reliefs of King Natakamani and his queen Amanitore. These iconographic figures, portrayed in triumphant poses are symbolic representations of the monarch’s victories against the enemies of the Kushite Empire. Next to the Lion Temple is a bijou structure usually referred to as the Roman Kiosk due to its classical architectural style, incorporating a plethora of columns surmounted with florid Corinthian capitals and Roman style arched windows. The third temple in this delightful complex is the Temple of Amun built in the 1st century AD by King Natakamani. Accessed via a short avenue of sculptured rams seated on pedestals, this temple adopts a traditional Egyptian floor plan of an outer court with a colonnade, which approaches a hypostyle hall containing an inner sanctuary chamber. Delicate relief carvings adorn the walls and columns. The temple is currently being excavated by a team of German archaeologists and is in the process undergoing sympathetic reconstruction.
The temple complex of Musawwarat Es Sufra consists of three major structures, the Lion Temple, the Elephant Temple and the Great Enclosure. Much bigger but less well preserved than the temples at Naga, the complex is believed to have been a cult centre and pilgrimage site for the god Apedemak, and dates to around the 3rd century BC. The Great Enclosure is generously adorned with beautiful carvings and ancient graffiti, more recent visitors have also left their monikers, among them the French adventurer Frederic Cailliaud in 1822. Partially intact buildings, tumbled columns, exquisite iconography and half buried blockwork makes this complex a highly evocative photographic proposition.
After a long day on the road, and a bone shaking one off road, we arrive at Meroe our base for the next couple of days. Our accommodation here is in a permanently tented campsite with furnished tents and en-suite bathrooms. Aside from the luxury of the accommodation, the real wow factor of this location is appreciated best when you are comfortably seated on the veranda of your tent. You are now treated to the incredible vista of more than 60 pyramids just a couple of hundred metres away. Isolated on the edge of the desert, these pyramids are a world away from the egregious tourist hoards at their more famous counterpart in Egypt.
Out here in the desert, due to the lack of light pollution the night sky is covered in a spectacular blanket of stars, for a city dweller like myself this is a sight to gaze on in awe. Prominent in the sky is the constellation of Orion, particularly apposite in this land of pyramids. There is a postulated theory that the placement of the pyramids of Giza in Egypt are an earthly representation based on the position of the stars in the Orion constellation.
A short walk from our luxury camp site is the Northern Royal Necropolis of Meroe. Dating to around the 3rd century BC it comprises a grouping of over 60 pyramids. In the middle of this complex is a small modern pyramid, this was restored in the 1980’s in an effort to recreate Kushite building techniques; its smooth rendered exterior providing a paradigm of how the pyramids here would have originally looked. This complex is the largest concentration of such monuments at any site; overall Sudan has a plenary of more than 200 pyramids. The nearby Southern Royal Necropolis is the older assemblage of monuments, it dates to around the 8th century BC and contains some 30 pyramids. A short distance away are the heavily ruined remains of the Royal City, mainly with the outlines of decayed buildings being all that is visible. The city was the capital of the Kushite Kingdom, and would have had a population of around 25,000 at its zenith. The one building of any substance is the Temple of Augustus, thus named as a bronze head of the Roman emperor was found on this site. The ruins are currently being excavated by a team of German archaeologists. Photography at these sites is the stuff of dreams, magnificent structures, perfect light and not another person anywhere in my camera’s sightline.
Whilst Meroe does not have the kudos or the monuments on the scale of those at Giza in Egypt, what it offers the sparsity of visitors that make their way here is the opportunity to revel in a deserted site, the antithesis of which were it in Egypt would be overrun by millions of tourists every year. The pyramids at Meroe are Sudan’s most popular tourist attraction, but in a country where tourism is barely in its infancy this is a relative term – anyone visiting the site is liable to have the pyramids and the desert all to themselves. Sudan’s pyramids differ from those in Egypt in that they are smaller and pitched at a sharper angle, they also have a pylon gate in front which leads into a small chapel. The burial tomb is cut into the rock beneath the pyramid, unlike in Egypt where the mortuary room is situated in the body of the pyramid. The largest pyramid at Meroe stands at 30 metres high with a build angle of 70 degrees.
Atbara is the home of Sudan’s railways, it is therefore appropriate that the country’s Railway Museum was established here. Several wonderful old steam locomotives sit proudly in the museum grounds, all incidentally manufactured in England. Inside the museum is an eclectic assortment of memorabilia including tickets, timetables, goods invoices and old photographs.
Today we venture off road into the Bayuda Desert, it is a seemingly endless journey across a barren stone covered desert-scape punctuated by sharp black basalt mountains. It is difficult to see how people live and survive here where temperatures are regularly in excess of 40 degrees Celsius. The landscape is a featureless, desolate dust and heat bowl, where almost nothing grows. The Bisharin nomads that live here raise cattle which they then sell to buy food. Living here is a harsh hand to mouth existence and our brief interaction with these proud people is a humbling experience.
We arrive in Karima our base for the exploration of Jebel Barkal and the adjacent ancient sites. The great red sandstone butte of Jebel Barkal dominates the surrounding area, and was regarded by the ancient Egyptians and the Kushites to be the abode of the god Amun, and thus a holy mountain. At the base of the mountain is the Temple of Amun, built by the Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmose III in the 15th century BC. The entire temple area is a hive of activity as archaeologists are in the process of excavating the site. We were extremely fortunate to be given a personal tour of the dig by the head archaeologist, a rare privilege indeed to have untrammelled access to tour and photograph an active dig. Gradually being uncovered from the desert sand, the temples ground plan has so far revealed two large colonnaded halls leading into a sanctuary at the base of the mountain. The excavation team were at the time of our visit exposing several small anti-rooms, trowels and hand brushes laboriously removing the mass of sand that has enclosed this site for thousands of years. A short distance away is the Temple of Mut, dedicated to the Egyptian sky goddess, the bride of Amun. This structure is a major ruin, again currently under excavation. The main points of interest here are the two enormous columns with capitals carved in the image of the goddess Hathor. To the west of Jebel Barkal is a small royal burial site of 20 pyramids dating to around the 3rd century BC. In contrast to the partial ruins of the nearby temples, these perfectly preserved pyramids with their steeply angled sides elegantly faced with local sandstone - the most intact in Sudan - provided the ideal pictorial foreground to experience and record a majestic desert sunset.
A short distance from Karima, and a nice distraction from pyramids and temples, we visit the site of a petrified forest, where thousands of fossilised tree trunks lie all around and about creating a surreal visual landscape. Currently a desert region, in the distant past this area was well irrigated and fertile. At some point in time it was flooded and the indigenous trees were submerged, volcanic ash then covered the area, the ash was absorbed into the trees which eventually over time turned them to stone.
After a relaxing boat trip on the River Nile we drive through the desert to Nuri and back on the pyramid trail. The 12 or so passé monuments here were mainly in a dilapidated state of repair - crumbling and weather-beaten the desert sands seem to reclaim them before your eyes - which somehow added to the overall aesthetic attraction of the site. Dating to the early 7th century BC, the largest of the pyramids belongs to the Nubian king Taharqa and stands 29 metres square at its base with a large rock cut burial chamber situated beneath. The sandstone used to build these structures was softer in composition than the stone used elsewhere, so consequently these pyramids have suffered rather badly from the effects of weathering.
This morning we head north following the course of the Nile towards Egypt and into the Nubian region of Sudan. The landscape here becomes greener and the Nubian villages we pass through nestle sandwiched between sand dunes and palm trees. These traditional Nubian houses have mud brick walls which are beautifully decorated with intricate patterns, animal depictions and floral motifs. We continue our journey to the unassuming contemporary town of Kerma which conceals an illustrious past. Kerma was, at its zenith, the capital of the first independent kingdom of Kush dating back to around 2400 BC. A densely packed walled city, it was blessed with fertile agricultural land, and became wealthy as a way station on the trade route between the sub- Saharan lands to the south and Egypt to the north. Kerma’s Archaeological Site gives a scant glimpse of this rich past. A mud brick constructed religious complex sits atop a rocky outcrop and is surrounded by the foundation outlines of a vast array of assorted buildings. The adjacent modern museum is a repository of arresting exhibits and displays a vivid chronology of Kerma’s historical timeline. A short distance away near the village of Tombos are numerous granite quarries, here can be found the remains of a huge statue of the pharaoh Taharqa, simply abandoned here in the desert some 3000 years ago. One of the 25th Dynasty of Pharaohs dating to c 664 BC, Taharqa’s funeral pyramid is the largest of those visited at the complex of Nuri. Nearby Wadi Sebu is the depository for an astonishing collection of petroglyphs. Carved on the rock faces are hundreds of animal images, their lineage ranging from prehistoric through to Egyptian times. Beautifully preserved by the dry desert climate they are a tantalising and intriguing insight back into pre-historic times.
Our overnight stop involves pitching a tent and camping in a picture postcard setting in the desert. Nestling in the sand dunes with the sky above carpeted with a blanket of stars dinner is served up. Lentil soup with cardamom and ginger, humus, green salad and aubergine salad, chicken, chips and pitta bread, and pineapple for desert. A feast fit for a king all washed down with endless cups of sweet tea.
A short ferry ride across the Nile takes us to the village of Sesibi - the most southerly point of expansion of the ancient Egyptians into Nubia - and the site of the atmospheric ruins of the Temple of Akhenaten dating to around the 14th century BC. Akhenaten was the heretic pharaoh who ended the worship of the innumerable gods in the Egyptian pantheon in favour of just one, Aten the sun god. Akhenaten also abandoned Egypt’s religious capital city of Thebes and relocated to his new religious capital of Amarna. After his death the traditional polytheistic religious practices were reinstated and Akhenaten was discredited, his reign all but expunged from Egyptian history. Interest in the heretic pharaoh surfaced when his tomb was discovered in 1907, his profile was raised further with scientific evidence ascertaining that he was the father of the boy-king Tutankhamun.
This fantastic adventure continues with a visit to the Temple of Soleb, built by Pharaoh Amenhotep lll in the 14th century BC, it is one of the most spectacular and best preserved Egyptian temples in all of Sudan. The temple layout is similar to that of the Temple of Luxor in Egypt which was also constructed by Amenhotep. The walls and columns of the temple are sumptuously covered in hieroglyphic inscriptions and bas-relief figures, many depicting Amenhotep’s conquest of Nubia and its people. A photo shoot here at sunset is just the perfect end to a wonderful day. A 3 minute walk from the Temple of Soleb is our overnight accommodation. Comprising a collection of mud brick buildings, this homestay guesthouse is surrounded by a compound wall and painted with highly coloured motifs in the traditional Nubian fashion. Each bedroom has 3 beds and no furniture, electricity only works between 6pm and 11pm, there are 2 outside loos and 2 cold only showers. Luxury it was not, but none the less wonderful to immerse yourself in village life and experience Nubian hospitality first hand.
An interesting stop on our travels today is the market in New Dongola. Here the ubiquitous beast of burden is the donkey carrying people and transporting all sorts of merchandise. Markets are always fascinating places to explore, great for contact with people and they always provide wonderful photo opportunities. The cemetery at Old Dongola is the final resting place for Sudan’s Sufi holy men. Here they are interred in mud brick conical domed tombs, the ordinary folk of the town are buried in the ground all around these structures. As in keeping with Moslem culture the dead are buried on their side facing towards Mecca.
Our final day of this wonderful adventure involved a 350km drive through the desert, returning to our starting point of Khartoum. Our hotel here is the height of luxury, and after 3 days travelling through the desert with no shower facilities, it is a real pleasure to take a hot shower and wash away all that sand.
This peregrination through Sudan was the most spectacular of holidays that is instantly catapulted up into the top 3 of my ”best ever” list. Pyramids and temples galore, all completely free of tourists, it was like these magnificent structures were put there just for our benefit. Few foreigners will have explored the isolated pyramids of Meroe or have walked through the columned halls of Amenhotep’s Temple of Soleb, it was a real privilege to be one of those few. Interacting with a people who are friendly and welcoming in the extreme, was an absolute delight. Camping out in the desert with our meals catered for by fantastic cooks that accompanied our trip, was an experience that will linger in the memory for many a year.
This is a trip to indulge in that requires no second thought; an adventure that is pure hedonism from start to finish. Sooner or later, no doubt, mainstream tourism will discover Sudan, so before it becomes Coca Cola-ised get out there and experience this wonderful country, a fantastic time is guaranteed.