Sudan’s heritage: The story of Khartoum

Mohammed Elrazzaz, Thursday 7 Feb 2013

Ahram Online traces the footsteps of Egyptian and Sudanese history in the capital

Tomb of the Mahdi in Omdurman

“Egypt is the gift of the Nile,” said Herodotus. What would Herodotus have said if he had visited present-day Khartoum?

Khartoum is where the White Nile and the Blue Nile finally merge into one river, which continues its journey on all the way to the Mediterranean.

The site where the two Niles meet in Khartoum, known as Al-Mugran, is a spectacular one; more emotionally moving than aesthetically inspiring, especially for an Egyptian who has spent a good part of his life drinking this very same water and thriving on the countless gifts that this river has given Egypt since the dawn of time.

Nevertheless, this is definitely not the only reason one should visit the Sudanese capital. Colonial houses, bustling souqs, nineteenth-century fortifications, and the tomb of nineteenth century Islamist leader the Mahdi are all among the attractions, but it is actually a museum that happens to be an almost obligatory starting point to understand the Sudanese history and appreciate its splendours.

National Museum of Sudan

A visitor to the National Museum of Sudan is greeted by an avenue of stone lions, a row of columns from the ancient town of Faras and two colossi from Tabo.

Inside the museum, the collection is arranged chronologically following the succession of different cultures throughout Sudan’s history: the ground floor includes artefacts, statues and other objects from prehistory, as well as from the Kerma, Napatan and Meroitic periods, ending in Late Meroitic pieces. Moreover, it has some Pharaonic objects like the eighteenth-dynasty black granite stele of the royal scribe Amnemhat. 

The second floor is dedicated to the Christian and Islamic periods, and has an incredible set of Christian Nubian wall frescoes, mostly from the Faras cathedral which once stood somewhere between Egypt and Sudan (before being flooded by Lake Nasser in the 1960s).

Among the biblical scenes depicted are the Adoration of the Magi, the Nativity and the Passion of Christ.

The Faras frescoes were not the only gem to survive permanent submersion by Lake Nasser. In the museum garden, one can visit three temples that were salvaged as part of UNESCO’s epic campaign to save the monuments of Nubia in Egypt and Sudan (over 20 monuments were relocated).

The first of the three temples is the Kumma Temple, built during the reigns of Queen Hatshepsut  (15th century BC), and the Pharaohs Tuthmosis III and Amenophis II, and dedicated to the god Khnum, the main deity of the Cataract region. The stones of this temple still bear inscriptions made by nineteenth-century European explorers.

Then comes the Semna Temple, erected by Tuthmosis III in honour of the enigmatic Nubian deity Dedwen, and the Buhen Temple, built by Hatshepsut and dedicated to the Falcon God Horus. The temple still bears elegant coloured reliefs and is arguably the most beautiful of the three.

The Mahdi’s Omdurman

"We are told that the British and Egyptian armies entered Omdurman to free the people from the Khalifa's yoke. Never were rescuers more unwelcome." Winston Churchill on the Battle of Omdurman.

Crossing the river to Omdurman, we had a first stop at the relics of the fort built to defend the city against the British during the Mahdist War

In 1821, Ibrahim Pasha (son of Muhammad Ali) founded the city of Khartoum as part of the Egyptian campaign in Sudan. The heavy-handed policies practiced by Egypt there eventually led to escalating frustration, and the British involvement finally gave way to armed resistance, championed by Muhammad Ahmad ibn Abdullah, who had proclaimed himself to be the promised Islamic redeemer the Mahdi.

The Sudanese people still refer to Abdullah as the Mahdi, and admire him greatly despite his controversial teachings and his cruel methods.

It comes as no surprise given the fact that this man managed to achieve the unthinkable: liberate Khartoum from Anglo-Egyptian control in 1885 following a siege that started the year before.

The Mahdi died a few months after conquering Khartoum, and his successors managed to thrive only until 1898, when Anglo-Egyptian forces took control of Omdurman once and for all.

Finally we arrived at the Tomb of the Mahdi, a striking conical silver dome surrounded by four smaller domes on all four corners amid trees and soaring palm trees. The site remains to be a popular destination among visitors that –among other things- come to pay respects to the Mahdi.

Right across the street is Bayt al-Khalifa, the house of his successor, Abdullah Toarshain, now serving as a museum of the Mahdist Era, an era that still echoes in the writings of such historical figures as Winston Churchill, who actually participated in the battles against the Mahdists and left a vivid account in his book, The River War.

The river, again, stretched beneath us as we crossed the bridge back to Khartoum. The memories we made in this historical place are many, but one stands out: the smiles of the Sudanese people as they welcomed us with genuine happiness, shaking our hands firmly and murmuring “ahlan ya ibn el-nil” (welcome, son of the Nile).

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