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Sudan’s rich past

This article is over 19 years, 6 months old
Today Sudan is portrayed as a warzone. But a new exhibition reveals it was once one of the most civilised societies on earth, says Charlie Kimber
Issue 1919

WHICH country has the most pyramids from ancient times? Of course, everyone knows the answer is Egypt—except that actually it’s Sudan.

Sudan has more than 270 pyramids—just one example of a society that, for most of human history, was in the vanguard of civilisation.

Looking at the media’s coverage of Africa, and most recently Sudan, you would think that this is the “heart of darkness”, a continent of savagery, war and backwardness.

Sudan is just one example of how the continent was, for most of human history, the “heart of enlightenment”.

The first use of colour pigments in human history took place in Sudan, tens of thousands of years ago. Some of the world’s first pottery was made there, far in advance of anything produced by the Egyptians. Some of the earliest cities developed in Sudan. Four thousand years ago Kerma, the capital of the kingdom of Kush, was a massive metropolis, the first in sub-Saharan Africa.

Many of the first archaeologists to explore the area believed that Sudanese objects were “too good” to have been made by Africans. They were explained as mere offshoots of Egyptian culture which, it was wrongly assumed, was itself an expression of a Mediterranean, and therefore European, culture.

A wonderful new exhibition at the British Museum, “Sudan: Ancient Treasures”, brings together art and other objects to demonstrate powerfully how African people, and the cultures they mingled with, produced wonders at a time when most Europeans were dazedly dragging themselves from bogs.

Derek Welsby, the exhibition’s curator, told Socialist Worker, “We wanted to give a sense of the complexity of cultures which have gone to make up present day Sudan.

“We hope that people will understand the way that historical and environmental factors have produced this rich culture, and be in a better situation to understand events like those now in Darfur. The exhibition also stresses that there is now a much greater focus on the indigenous roots of Sudanese culture. It is not simply an annexe of Egyptian development.

“It absorbed those outside influences and also shaped them, all from the basis of its own development.

“There are important examples of cooperation between cultures. One example is a 10th century jeweller’s mould. It was found at a Christian site but was used for casting Koranic inscriptions.

“We’ve got Christian sites where there are clearly Muslims living as part of the resident population. We have Muslim tombstones found adjacent to ones inscribed in Greek, Old Nubian and Coptic.”

The first evidence of settlers in northern Sudan dates back around 300,000 years. By 70,000 years ago there was widespread human settlement, and the people had produced a wide range of stone tools. They were some of the first people to use the grinding stone.

In one of the many interesting climatic changes in the area, what we now call the Sahara desert began to retreat about 8,000BC, creating a lush and fertile area around present-day Darfur.

Hippopotamuses and giraffes roamed, and the human population grew quickly. Pottery appeared at this time, along with the domestication of animals.

Agriculture (crop growing) followed soon after. This meant far more food could be produced, but it also meant that the larger population was more dependent on a stable climate—just as the climate changed rapidly for the worse.

Around 5,000BC the desert began to advance and the mass of the population drifted towards the Nile, the longest oasis in the world. Around 3,000BC there was a complex society in Egypt and the same development further south in Sudan. This was a class society, seen clearly in the rich graves of an elite and the much more humble graves of the many.

There followed a centuries-long period of interaction between the rulers of Sudan and Egypt. Sometimes this was based on trade and cooperation, more often on conquest.

The second Kingdom of Kush conquered most of Egypt, and eventually ruled an empire stretching from the borders of Palestine to the Blue and White Niles. The Temple of Amun at Kawa, built by the Kushite King Taharqo in 680BC, shows the wealth of the elite in this period.

It had columns sheathed in gold, doors made from cedar of Lebanon, and walls covered with relief paintings.

It’s interesting to compare this advancement in Sudan with what was happening in, say, the north European offshoot of Britain at the same time.

It was the start of the Iron Age (750BC to AD42). The BBC website says about this period, “There are few surviving spectacular ruins from Iron Age Britain. There was no major construction of cities, palaces, temples or pyramids.”

And the reason? The society was not complex or developed enough to support such construction.

According to curator Derek Welsby, “Kush remained a major power for over 1,000 years. Kushite culture is a rich amalgam of that of Egypt—whether Pharaonic, Persian, Greek or Roman—and indigenous African traditions.”

The collapse of the Kushite Empire was followed by the Christian Nubian society from about AD600.

The Nubians fought bitter battles against Arab armies from the north, but then, in AD652, signed a peace treaty which led to centuries of trade. Islam advanced though much of Sudan over a period of 800 years, as local rulers invited in Islamic scholars to help extend their technological knowledge.

Sudanese rulers also decided to ally themselves with the powerful Islamic states to the north rather than fight them. By 1500 the country was largely Islamic. The history helps explain why, for example, everyone in Darfur now is Muslim.

The British Museum exhibition goes up to the end of the 19th century, the period of British colonial conquest. Given that Sudan has a proud and rich history, it is even easier to understand why its people rose against imperialism and foreign domination.

The British General Gordon was sent to take control of Sudan in 1880s and, in an early example of “humanitarian intervention”, the British covered his real motives by claiming that his whole mission was to wipe out slavery.

Gordon rather blew that story by then proposing to appoint Zebehr Pasha, the king of the Sudanese slave trade, as ruler of Sudan.

Gordon’s imperial dreams were shattered by the great popular rising led by Muhammad Ahmed (the Mahdi).

His forces killed Gordon at Khartoum in 1885. Thirteen years later the British reconquered Sudan after the butchery at the Battle of Omdurman.

In the British Museum you can see armour, flags and other materials from the battle, though they give little sense of a massacre that saw 11,000 Mahdists killed and only 48 British.

This exhibition will not tell you the solution in Darfur now. But it will destroy some myths. It shows how the whole of Sudanese history is about the mixing of cultures, about richness in diversity, and about the way people from Arab and African ethnic backgrounds have cooperated, intermarried and lived together for many centuries.

For example, Suleiman Solong, the 17th century founder of the Fur dynasty whose descendants today make up a large part of the population of Darfur, was of mixed ancestry, the son of an Arab father and a Fur (“African”) mother.

It also demonstrates the great lie of imperialism that African people were backward and at best childlike compared to Europeans.

Look at Sudan, and realise that it is the slave trade, capitalism and colonialism that have held Africa back.

“Sudan: Ancient Treasures” is on until 9 January in the West Wing of the British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1. Exhibition is free but you are requested to give a donation to Oxfam or Save the Children. For details go to

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