By ISMA’IL KUSHKUSH
Published: March 31, 2013
KHARTOUM, Sudan — Every winter they come and go, like birds migrating south. Most of them nest in downtown Khartoum’s old Acropole Hotel, but they’re not here to rest. They’re here to work in Sudan’s blistering deserts, and the past few years have yielded outstanding results.
For many people around the world, Sudan conjures images of war, instability, drought and poverty. All of those things exist here, often in tragic abundance. But lost in the narrative are the stories of the ancient kingdoms of Kush and Nubia that once rivaled Egypt, Greece and Rome.
Lost to many, that is, but not to the archaeologists who have been coming here for years, sometimes decades, to help unearth that history.
“Sudan is the only country in sub-Saharan Africa that has real archaeology and local teams working,” said Claude Rilly, the director of the French Archaeological Unit in Sudan.
Though its historical importance has long been overshadowed by Egypt, its neighbor to the north, Sudan’s archaeological record is pivotal to understanding the history of Africa itself, experts say, and a wave of new discoveries may be adding crucial new information.
“The history of Sudan can play a role for Africa that Greece played for the history of Europe,” Mr. Rilly said enthusiastically. “People have been living here for 5,000 years” along the Nile, he added. “It is difficult not to find something.”
One overlooked fact is that Sudan has more pyramids than Egypt, in places like Nuri and Bijrawiyah, though they are smaller and not as old. In the town of Sedeinga in northern Sudan, for instance, Mr. Rilly and others excavated 35 small pyramids in the past few years, a discovery that points to what he called an ancient “democratization of pyramids.”
“Anyone who could afford it built one,” he said. “It was for social distinction.”
The pyramids at Sedeinga are built close together. Made of mud brick, they range in height from under three feet for children to as high as 32 feet for nobles.
Not far from Sedeinga is the town of Dukki Gel, where a Swiss archaeologist, Charles Bonnet, has been working in the area for 44 years. He focuses on the ancient civilization of Kerma — so much so that his friends call him Charles “Kerma” Bonnet — which flourished around 1500 B.C. Mr. Bonnet’s colleagues say that his research has greatly added to the understanding of 1,000 years of Sudan’s ancient history.
“I discovered a Nubian city in Dukki Gel with original African architecture from around 1500 B.C., and in a cache we found 40 pieces of seven monumental statues of black pharaohs,” Mr. Bonnet said. In late 2012, he found what he believes are the city’s walls.
At the height of its military power around 750 B.C., the ancient kingdom of Kush in northern Sudan ruled over Egypt and Palestine, inaugurating what historians call the rule of the 25th dynasty and the black pharaohs.
In the heartland of the Kush kingdom, Richard Lobban Jr., an American archaeologist who has been visiting Sudan since 1970, works mostly in the area of the Island of Meroe, which was added to Unesco’s World Heritage sites in 2011. Along with colleagues from Russia and Italy, Mr. Lobban uncovered an ancient and previously unknown Merotic temple in late 2011.
“The orientation of the temple has the sun directly pouring into the temple twice a year,” said Mr. Lobban, suggesting that it was dedicated to the ancient Egyptian sun god Amun.
Ancient Meroe, known today as Bijrawiyah, was a second capital in the kingdom of Kush from around 300 B.C. to 350 A.D. It was a major center for iron smelting, earning it the nickname “the Birmingham of Africa” by historians. Meroe was often ruled by queens, known by the title “kandake,” and boasts scores of pyramids similar in shape to the one exhibited on a one-dollar bill.
“We hope to excavate further and deeper and find still more of the missing pieces of this ancient puzzle,” Mr. Lobban said.
As fruitful as it may be, archaeology in Sudan faces many challenges, including the difficulty of protecting sites from development projects. There has even been a literal gold rush, in which many young Sudanese head to the desert in search of gold but occasionally find artifacts instead, leading to a rise in illegal trade in relics.
“Someone was arrested recently for trying to smuggle a statue,” says Abdel-Rahman Ali, director general of the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums.
Financing archaeological efforts has also been low on the list of priorities for the Sudanese government, but in February the government signed a $135 million agreement with Qatar that would provide money for 27 archaeological missions, the renovation of the Sudan National Museum and the development of tourism projects.
“Archaeology in Sudan is getting ready for a boom,” says Geoff Emberling, an archaeologist from the University of Michigan, who has been working in the town of El Kurru.
The impact of new archaeological discoveries has generated interest beyond the ring of specialists.
Since South Sudan split off from Sudan in 2011, Sudan’s economy has been hard hit because most of the oil is in the south. In January 2012, South Sudan shut off production in a dispute with Sudan. An agreement between both countries now promises to send the oil through the north for a fee, but some in Sudan have been searching for new sources of hard currency, including tourism.
Sohaib Elbadawi is a member of Sudan Archaeological Society and heads a private group working on establishing a five-star resort near the ancient site of Jebel Barkal.
Showing a model of the project in his office in downtown Khartoum, Mr. Elbadawi said that foreigners told him, “ ‘You have a history, but you don’t know how to market yourself.’ ”“There are voices rising in Sudan that tourism should be a source of income for the country after separation,” Mr. Elbadawi added optimistically.
Sudanese archaeologists are also conscious of current opportunities.
“We have been working to illuminate Sudanese heritage through exhibitions held abroad, such as in France and Germany, and we are planning for exhibitions in Qatar, Japan and Korea,” said Mr. Ali of the National Corporation for Antiquities.
Of course, it will take years for Sudan to turn itself into a tourism attraction, if it ever can. The lack of fully developed infrastructure and facilities, United States sanctions that bar the use of major credit cards, a maddening bureaucracy and, above all, political instability stand in the way.
But archaeologically speaking, the bounty is evident.
“This is a land of great history indeed,” said Mr. Lobban.