Imagine a place where ancient history is everywhere you look, but tourists aren’t. Welcome to northern Sudan and the confluence of the Nile, writes Rory Ross
How wrong I was. I half expected northern Sudan to be a desert waste south of Egypt, worth visiting only as a bet or a dare. Much of northern Sudan, or Nubia, is indeed a desert waste, but it wraps an ancient history, a ‘lost’ civilisation, dramatic scenery, charming people, and pyramids galore.
Everything about Sudan feels like an adventure. Wherever you go, you will most likely be the only foreign visitor. While Egypt’s ancient heritage has been picked over and trampled upon, Sudan’s is relatively unexplored. New treasures are quietly turning up all the time. If you like pyramids, the desert and the Nile, you should put Sudan on the bucket-list. Khartoum is a dun-coloured honeycomb of flat-roofed hovels forever dissolving into dust or mirages. Every photograph I took looks like it was taken in sepia.
Khartoum was never an ancient metropolis; it was founded in 1823 as a slave hub. Now, there is a sense of anticipation. The civil war ended in 2005. A couple of token skyscrapers stud the skyline. The locals celebrate by charging about in 4x4s.
Sudan’s past and future have never looked brighter. The nucleus of the city is the confluence of the Blue and White Niles. This fact alone makes Khartoum worth crossing several deserts to visit. A Nile cruise is a peaceful way of grasping the local topography.
The city splits into three ‘towns’: Central Khartoum, which hosts the hotels, the palaces and the airport; Omdurman, where the largest markets are; and Khartoum North, the industrial area. In the middle lies Tuti Island, which is devoted to agriculture. I found the confluence of the Niles curiously unheralded.
Expecting a kaleidoscopic scene reminiscent of the Grand Canal during rush hour, all I saw were a couple of fishing boats barely breaking the meniscus. Monitor lizards, egrets and herons live among the papyrus, henna and rotting hulks that line the banks.
Until the 18th century, hippopotamuses flourished here. The wider, faster White Nile has flowed 2,300 miles from Lake Victoria; the deeper Blue Nile has ‘only’ wended 900 miles from Lake Tana in Ethiopia. From Khartoum, the Nile still has 1,800 miles to go before the Mediterranean. This marvel of nature seems to pass the Sudanese by. The ‘kissing’ of these great rivers is met with a shrug.
This flair for understatement is typically Sudanese. The giant egg silhouetted high above the Blue Nile in Central Khartoum is the Corinthia Hotel, Khartoum’s prestige billet. Every capital has its hubristic, visitor-friendly foreign-built splendido, and the Corinthia is Khartoum’s. When Gaddafi laid this nest egg, he asked the Maltese-owned Corinthia group to manage it for him.
The hotel can’t match the Corinthia’s sibling in London for luxury, but it beats London for views. The British have form in Sudan. This was the setting of the last hurrah of Victorian derring-do, the exploration of the White Nile, Gordon’s last stand, Kitchener’s revenge and the Scramble for Africa. The whitewashed Victorian army barracks that peers at the Blue Nile through louvred windows was where General Charles Gordon was killed in 1885 fighting off a nationalist uprising led by Muhammad Ahmad, aka the Mahdi (Redeemer).
Thirteen years later, Kitchener marched in and, with Lieutenant Winston Churchill, crushed the nationalists at Omdurman to reclaim Sudan for the Empire. To rub it in, Kitchener laid out modern Khartoum in the pattern of the Union Jack.
This brought the curtain down on a Gilbert & Sullivan moment in colonial history. Little has changed. Separated only by time and chance, Gordon’s death might have occurred yesterday.
Every Friday afternoon, the dervish ceremony at the Hamad Al-Nil cemetery in Omdurman illustrates Sudan’s role as the go-between of Sub-Saharan Africa, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. This spectacle begins innocuously, with a procession to the tomb of Sheikh Hamed Al-Nil, a 19th-century Sufi leader.
Costumed in jibbas (overcoats) of comic patchwork greens and reds accessorised with leopard skins, dreadlocks, exotic headwear and chunky jewellery, the dervishes solemnly move to a beating drum, chanting ‘La ilaha illallah’ (‘There is no God but Allah’). Incense wards off bad spirits. Soon the dervishes begin to whirl and clap.
The tempo, energy and volume of the drumming rise in gradual crescendo, until everyone reaches a state of frenzied intoxication. And then it stops. ‘This is African Sufi Sunni,’ dismissed one onlooker.
‘The drums, the chanting, the incense are African, not Islam.’ If you drive 130 miles north of Khartoum beside the half-mile-wide brown mirror that is the Nile, and turn right into the desert, you will see what looks like a row of scattered giant teeth standing on parched russet hills.
The pyramids of Meroë date from between 250 BC and the 4th century AD, when this area was the capital of the Kingdom of Kush. For nearly 100 years, the Kushites had their time in the sun when the so-called Black Pharaohs of the 25th Dynasty (744BC to 654BC) ruled Egypt from Sudan. Taharqa, the greatest Black Pharaoh, defended Jerusalem from the Assyrians, and even gets a mention in the Bible. His four-metre granite statue stands in the National Museum of Sudan in Khartoum – well worth visiting.
To put the pyramids of Meroë into context, the people who built them were the successors of the Black Pharaohs. The Kushites had an on-off relationship with the Egyptians. In friendly times they borrowed Egyptian ideas, like pyramids. Whereas in Egypt pyramids were the preserve of kings, in Meroë anyone could build one.
There are 250 in Sudan. The best-preserved of these pointy, miniature Shards are at Meroë, which in 2011 Unesco anointed as a World Heritage Site. Carved and inscribed with images of life 2,000 years ago, they show influences from Egypt, Greece, Rome and Africa.
These pyramids are Sudan’s biggest tourist draw, yet there were only two other visitors when I went there. A half-hour camel ride from the pyramids is the Meroë Camp: 22 tents pitched in the desert overlooking the pyramids. As I sat outside my tent facing the open furnace of the setting sun, drinking in the majesty of the desert and the pyramids, it occurred to me that I was staring at an aftermath.
How could such rich and cosmopolitan people have come from such an arid spot? Answer: it wasn’t always arid. Two and a half thousand years ago, this land was green, not red. Grasses and forests grew where now there is sand. Even 200 years ago lions lived here; today the nearest lion is several hundred miles to the south. What happened?
‘The Meroë were masters at working iron ore to produce weapons,’ says Carla Piazza, an encyclopaedic tour guide who works with Italtours in Sudan. ‘In order to smelt the iron, they needed high-temperature ovens. They cut down trees for fuel – deforestation rapidly led to desertification.’
The following morning, I visited Kabushiya, a railway halt three miles from Meroë. When Kitchener rolled south to crush the nationalist uprising, instead of steaming up the Nile he speed-built a narrow-gauge railway in order to transport artillery. The railway still operates today. Kabushiya market was in full swing.
The streets were ablaze with the colours of woven rugs and shawls, and pyramids of fruit and vegetables. Dressed in radiant white robes, the locals nonchalantly conducted their gran passeggiata. One of them invited me for coffee. A desert race, the Sudanese are infinitely hospitable. The humblest hovel always has a kettle on the go. Excellent coffee is drunk from tumblers. The idea of paying is considered an insult.
This region supplied early Western civilisation with vital ingredients: gold, iron, slaves, concubines, as well as fruit and vegetables. It also supplied the Roman Empire with exotic fauna. Hannibal is believed to have acquired his elephants from the Great Enclosure of Mussarawat in Wadi es-Sufra, an hour’s yomp by 4×4 across the desert from Meroë.
The scale of this enclosure, a hive of temples, parade grounds, courtyards, living quarters and ramps for the animals, all finely carved with lions, elephants and gryphons, shows how important and rich this area once was, although you’d struggle to believe it when you see the surrounding desert stretching to the horizon in all directions.
Cut off by the cataracts of the Nile that made navigation all but impossible, Meroitic civilisation came and went almost unnoticed. We know next to nothing about it; we still can’t decipher their hieroglyphs. Sudan may have provisioned early civilisation, but little of it seems to have rubbed off. The Nile endlessly drifts in one direction only; the civilisation it sustains ebbs and flows.