For the last three decades, Sudan’s repeated encounters with political violence and sectarian strife have colored its reputation in the international community. Much of the Western world viewed the country as a pariah state until the ouster of Sudanese strongman Omar al-Bashir in 2019. Even Sudan’s transitional government has struggled to shake this past as it wrestles with the legacy of its predecessor’s rule, including the question of whether to surrender al-Bashir to the International Criminal Court. However, a pair of recent discoveries hints at the wider arc of Sudan’s history.

In May, specialists from the Polish Center of Mediterranean Archaeology at the University of Warsaw announced that they had uncovered the remnants of a medieval cathedral in Old Dongola, a historic site in Sudan’s north. The archeologists linked the cathedral to Makuria, a Christian kingdom that claimed Old Dongola as its capital. For much of the Middle Ages, Makuria dominated the historical region of Nubia, a stretch of the Nile today held by Egypt and Sudan.

Two months after the Polish scholars’ find, a team of archeologists from Italy, Sudan, and the United Kingdom published an article in the scientific journal PLOS One discussing their own discovery “of thousands of diachronic funerary monuments.” The structures, located in the region surrounding the eastern city of Kassala, sat arranged in what the analysis called “galaxy-like aggregations.” The study analyzed burial mounds “of uncertain origin” and “visually striking” tombs. The researchers attributed the latter structures to Sudan’s Beja ethnic group and described the tombs as “related to medieval Islam.”

The uncovering of these archeological sites speaks to Sudan’s history as a cradle of civilizations, both Christian and Muslim. The peoples of Makuria converted to Christianity following visits from missionaries from the Byzantine Empire prior to the seventh century, and the kingdom battled the Arab, Muslim armies of Egypt for much of its history. Makuria even besieged the Egyptian capital of Fustat in the eighth century and provided support to the Crusades in the 12th.

Sudan civilizations

Ruins from the Church of Granite Columns, Old Dongola, Sudan. International researchers recently discovered remnants of a medieval cathedral at the historic site in north Sudan.

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Whereas Makuria collapsed centuries ago, the PLOS One article notes that the Beja, one of many minority groups in Sudan, “have inhabited the region for 2,000 years and still cherish the ancient tombs as their own kin’s.” Other sources suggest that the Beja have lived in the area comprising Egypt, Eritrea, and Sudan for as much as 4,000 years or since “time immemorial.” The Beja interacted with a number of civilizations over the millennia, from the Roman Empire to Makuria itself, and contact with Arab settlers set in motion their gradual conversion to Islam.

While conflict appears as a recurring theme in the distant past of the Beja and the history of Makuria, diplomacy played just as big a role if not a larger one. Makurians engaged with Byzantium, the various Muslim dynasties that controlled Egypt, and even the Holy Roman Empire; the Beja, for their part, formed treaties with their Arab neighbors in the seventh and eighth centuries. The Beja also maintain a unique system for conflict resolution that scholars have studied.

In what the anthropologist Richard Lobban ranked among “the most durable of all treaties in diplomatic history,” Makuria participated in the Baqt, a seventh-century peace treaty with Egypt that lasted another 600 years. Lobban has likewise taken note of “parallel baqts with the neighboring Beja,” an indication of the cultural interplay at the center of Sudanese history.

By unearthing this multicultural past, Sudan can start to bury the legacy of racism and religious intolerance.

The archeological records offer an opportunity to reshape the narrative around Sudan, better known for the charges of genocide that followed conflicts in South Sudan and Darfur than as a key juncture in human history. By unearthing this multicultural past, Sudan can start to bury the legacy of racism and religious intolerance that characterized al-Bashir’s Arab-, Muslim-centric regime. Indeed, Makuria represents just one of the Christian civilizations that flourished in Sudan, and, like the Beja, many other non-Arab peoples with rich histories have called the country home.

The direct involvement of Sudanese officials in the Beja discovery signals the provisional government’s interest in promoting a different side of Sudan. Habab Idriss Ahmed, one of the authors of the PLOS One article, serves with the Sudanese National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums, abbreviated as “NCAM.” He oversaw the multinational team’s investigation of the Beja tombs.

Sudan civilizations

The excavation site of a Medieval Nubian cathedral recently discovered in Old Dongola, Sudan. (Photo
Polish Center of Mediterranean Archaeology at the University of Warsaw)

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In the last two years, NCAM has redoubled its work to protect Sudan’s cultural heritage. Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok appointed Hatim El Nour, a Sudanese-born “in-house archeologist” for an Italian travel agency, to lead NCAM in these efforts. Under the transitional government, NCAM has collaborated with French and Turkish experts to restore parts of its collection and is renovating the National Museum of Sudan in cooperation with the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, better known as “UNESCO.”

The recent Makurian and Beja discoveries suggest a promising future for archeology in Sudan.

NCAM’s endeavors and the recent Makurian and Beja discoveries suggest a promising future for archeology in Sudan, which, without exaggerating, can boast that it has more pyramids than Egypt. At the same time, al-Bashir hardly represented the only obstacle to the diversity-focused excavation of Sudan’s cultural heritage. Just last year, floods submerged parts of the Island of Meroë, capital of the Kingdom of Kush, and treasure hunters ruined another historic site.

A conference held in February signals how Sudan might navigate these challenges and preserve its multicultural past. Arranged by NCAM and the Polish Center for Mediterranean Archaeology, the “Old Dongala Stakeholders Meeting” saw officials from Sudan, the European Union, and UNESCO discuss how best to develop, promote, and protect the historic site. Other attendees included representatives of the Qatar-Sudan Archaeological Project, an initiative involving not only the governments of Qatar and Sudan but also France, Germany, and Italy.

Just as a partnership between an NCAM archeologist and his British and Italian counterparts underpinned the uncovering of the Beja tombs, so might wider collaboration between Sudan’s provisional government and its allies in the international community preserve the nation’s archeological record. Sudan, UNESCO, and European countries already came together at Old Dongala earlier this year. To continue celebrating Sudan’s rich past, they must keep cooperating to save it.