Sudan’s modern history has been fraught with political and economic instability. Today, Sudan continues to struggle with unrest, even as its citizens seek to move forward after the ousting of the country’s longtime dictator, Omar al-Bashir, on April 11. Many Sudanese lament the fact that their country is only associated with violence and conflict. To them, it is so much more than a warzone.
While visiting Egypt may be on the bucket list of every world traveler, it is not the only country in northeast Africa with a fascinating history. Egypt’s neighbor to the south, Sudan, is home to many archaeological wonders, the remnants of an ancient and powerful civilization dating from centuries ago.
The Early History of Sudan
Over the past 50 years, Swiss archaeologist and author Charles Bonnet has been credited with uncovering some of Sudan’s greatest archaeological discoveries. During his excavation of the land surrounding the southern Nile, Upper Nubia, Bonnet found evidence of the Kush kingdom which had a culture and traditions that were distinct from that of its Egyptian neighbors. By 1500 BCE, the Kush empire controlled a vast territory and continued to flourish militarily and economically through the ninth century BCE.
A Kushite king, Piye, invaded and conquered Egypt around 730 BCE, expanding his territory to include the whole Nile Valley. Piye became the first of the so-called Black Pharaohs—the Kushite pharaohs of Egypt’s 25th dynasty who ruled the land for three-quarters of a century, until the Assyrians captured Egypt. After their defeat, the Kushites retreated to their capital, Napata. At the beginning of the sixth century BCE, Psamtek II, a pharaoh of Egypt’s 26th dynasty, raided Napata, forcing the kingdom’s rulers to move farther south.
The Kushites then designated Meroë, a city situated further down the Nile, as their new capital.
Strategically located where inland African trade routes met caravan trails from the Red Sea, the land around the new Kushite capital was also fertile and resource rich. Meroë’s relative isolation ultimately allowed the Kushites to remain independent and prosperous until the death of Egypt’s Queen Cleopatra in 30 CE. After her death, Egypt came under the control of the Roman Empire, which strained the fragile truce between the Kushites and Rome.
Tax revolts in Upper Egypt eventually led to the Romans raiding Kushite territory. Under the leadership of the fearless Queen Amanirenas, Meroite forces attacked Roman troops in Aswan—the southernmost limit of the Roman Empire. After the hostilities ended, Queen Amanirenas was allegedly able to negotiate a peace treaty with the Roman empire that “favored Meroitic interests over those of Rome.” Meroë then enjoyed relative peace and stability until it was eventually abandoned in the fourth century CE.
Not only were the Kushites expert gold smiths, they were also known for their prolific architecture. They built temples, palaces, and royal baths. Their greatest architectural feat, however, was the Meroë pyramids. Initially, Kushite kings were buried in the Nuri necropolis—the burial place of an ancient city—near Napata, which was a center for the cult of the Egyptian god Amun.
Meroë eventually became the preferred Kushite necropolis around 250 BCE. Over the coming centuries, rumors of Sudan’s pyramids and their legendary riches spread and reached Italian treasure hunter Giuseppe Ferlini who set out to find them. After arriving in Meroë in 1834, Ferlini began blowing off the tops of the Kushite pyramids with dynamite so that he could loot the contents of the ancient tombs.
Protecting the Kush Legacy
In modern-day Sudan, the Meroë pyramids are located 155 miles north of the country’s capital, Khartoum. The archaeological sites of the Island of Meroë became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2011. Although Egypt’s pyramids are larger than those in Sudan, the Sudanese have many more—well over 200. The dry, arid conditions of the country’s northern region have preserved many of the ancient towns, cemeteries, and objects made during the Kushite rule of Sudan.
In the past few decades, the mysteries of the Meroitic civilization and its architecture have attracted some of the world’s leading archaeologists. “Sudan is really one of the most pristine, most amazing archaeological landscapes anywhere in the world,” Neal Spencer, a curator at the British Museum in London, told CNN’s Inside Africa. The remains of the ancient Kush kingdom are an invaluable source of information about ancient African history. Yet, the Sudanese pyramids only receive 15,000 visitors annually, compared with the millions who visit the Egyptian pyramids.
Sudan has been overshadowed by Egypt because of various things, including the history of colonialism, according to Spencer. “Historically, [it] has been looked at by Egyptologists as almost an extension of Egypt, or a shadow of Egypt.” Consequently, Sudan’s pyramids have been all but abandoned. Without protection, these priceless archaeological wonders are at risk of being damaged by the vagaries of time and vandals.
Fortunately, a new generation of Sudanese is looking to preserve the historical sites. One of them has made it his mission to educate his fellow citizens about their country’s history. “I was surprised to see all these things that literally nobody visited,” Mohammed told the BBC. “I wanted to learn more about how to take care of [these places] and make the world [learn] more about [them],” he added. Mohammed set up a camp and began offering free tours on social media to preserve his country’s ancient heritage.
While their country’s ongoing instability may temporarily keep the young Sudanese from preserving the legacy of the Kush kingdom, they, like their homeland’s archeological wonders, will endure and become a part of the proud history that they are eagerly seeking to protect.