Sudan is not an easy place to get to. I went to the Sudanese embassy in Sana'a armed with my passport, 2 photographs and some dollars. Striding up to the counter in the dingy basement consular section, I thrust my documents through the window at the man behind the desk, and announced confidently, “I would like to visit Sudan, where can I find an application form?” The man looked at the passport dubiously, then up at me with what can only be described kindly as stupefaction, glanced back down at the passport, and finally said mournfully, “Impossible.”
This was not a promising start. “Really?” said I, “surely there must be a way?” He told me to take a seat in the waiting room. About an hour later he motioned me to the door, “you must get an authorization from the Ministry of Information in Khartoum, then you must being a letter from your embassy here in Sana'a and then we can issue the visa.” He said this gently but in a manner that suggested this was a quite impossible task. I wrote to the tour operator in Khartoum and gave him this information. He wrote back saying it was no problem, he could get the authorization from the Ministry and would send it to me by email. I should then print it out and bring it with me to the airport where I would pay for the visa on arrival.
I mistakenly believed that this operator had organized Ewan McGregor's bike trip through Sudan. He did not and it is as well I did not know this until after I had arrived in Khartoum because without this belief I would have had no confidence in him. He almost always replied promptly but not with the answers to my questions, not the least of which was how much the trip was going to cost. This was important because there is no way to get cash in Sudan – there are any number of banks and ATM's but only if you have a bank account in the country, while credit cards are worthless. As a traveler, this irritates me almost more than anything else. The Persians 'invented' methods of money transfer almost two millenia ago, and in 1331 it was easier for Ibn Battuta to get and transfer money than it was for me in Sudan in 2009.
Me in the dunes of Meroe
Shortly before I left for Tanzania I was given a rough price which I already thought was very expensive, but the final figure was much more because a whopping 20% tax was added which had heretofore never been mentioned. And the operator now announced he wanted his money transferred via Western Union rather than a bank, because the bank took too long to deposit the money into his account and took too large a fee. I digested this glum information sitting in the lobby of the Regency Hotel in Khartoum, formerly the Hotel Meridien. Perhaps thirty or forty years ago it had been fashionable, now it was a depressingly shabby, ill-lit foyer of gloom; a ready-made location set for a remake of 'The Shining'. It is at moments like this that I ask myself anew what I am doing and why? I do sometimes wish I could come up with a better answer than “inexplicable tenacious compulsion”.
There was a great deal of paperwork to be done so I stayed in Khartoum while papers fluttered to and from various ministries; one was an application form for a camera permit. Amongst other things it asked you for the make and type of the camera, what you intended to take pictures of and informed you in no uncertain terms that under no circumstances were you allowed to take pictures of beggars or slums, airports, bridges, military vehicles or posts. I fleetingly wondered if the authorities had heard of Google Earth.
Sudan is the largest country in Africa with a territory of 2.5 million square kilometers or just under a million square miles. Sudan, a derivative of the Arabic word for black, means 'land of the blacks' and Sudan was known in antiquity as the 'Land of the Black Pharaohs'. Between 2500BC and 500AD successive dynasties based in Kerma, Nabata and Meroe left more pyramids than in all of Egypt, temples, tombs and ruined capital cities. By the 6th century in the wake of the defeat of Meroe by the Ethiopian Axumites, Coptic Christianity arrived in Sudan with the formation of three Christian states; Nobatia, Makuria and Alwa. Although Islam arrived in the mid 7thcentury from Egypt and Arabia and later from West Africa, Christianity endured until the 16th century with the arrival of the Funj 'Black Sultanate' under Amara Dunqas. The first Islamic kingdom was based in Sennar on the Blue Nile, south of present day Khartoum. This kingdom in turn ended in 1821 with the arrival of the Ottomans under the Cairo-based Mohammed Ali Pasha.
I went to the Sudanese National Museum which though small has an interesting collection of stone statuary and sarcophagi, beads, everyday houshold items and pottery, but the highlight must surely be the first floor collection of Christian frescoes which date from the 8th to the 15th centuries; curiously, all the faces are white.
Nubian Christian art
In 1882 Egypt became in effect a British protectorate but the Egyptian 'Ottomans' were left to 'oversee' Sudan. In the meantime a local insurgency force led by the Mahdi, Mohammed Ahmed, was gaining strength, and after defeating the Egyptians at Obeid in 1883, the Mahdi's forces overran large parts of the country including Darfur and Kordofan in western Sudan. General Gordon arrived in Khartoum in February 1884 sent by the British to evacuate the Anglo-Egyptian garrisons, but he had other ideas and set about the defense of the city. He consolidated the south, west and east but in April the Mahdi's forces cut all communication with the north and the Siege of Khartoum began. Despite the opposition of the British goverment, public opinion demanded action to support Gordon, and belatedly an expeditionary team was put together which did not reach Khartoum until January 28, 1885 by which time it was too late. Two days earlier the entire garrison had been overrun and slaughtered, including Gordon whose head was cut off and stuck on a pike. The Mahdi became the effective ruler over most of what is now Sudan, forming an Islamic state with strict adherence to Sharia law, although he died less than six months after his victory.
The Mahdi's tomb, Omdurman
In September 1898 General Kitchener, sent to reconquer Sudan, defeated the Mahdi's forces at the Battle of Omdurman. The Ansar al-Mahdi (helpers), led by Mohammed Ahmed's successor, Abdullah al-Taashi were annihilated; fighting with spears in old-fashioned battle tactics, they were mowed down by the field guns and artillery of combined British, Egyptian and Sudanese forces. The Mahdi himself escaped only to be killed shortly afterwards at the Battle of Um Diwaykarat. Omdurman today is an extension of Khartoum lying on the opposite bank of the White Nile. I went to have a look at the remains of where the battle took place and to see the Mahdi's tomb as well as the sufi cemetery.
Sufism is widespread throughout Sudan and most families will count at least one sufi adept. The main, and possibly the oldest, Sufi order is the Gadriyya, but there are about 14 different sects including the Shadhiliyya, Khatmiyya, Sammaniyya, Idrissiya and Tijaniyya.
Sufi cemetery, Omdurman
Almost 70% of Sudanese are Muslims, about 20% are Christian, with the remainder practicing animism; since the civil war in the south, an increasing number of Christians live in the north and the division of 'Muslim north' and 'Christian south' is not as marked as it perhaps once was.
Sudanese coffee and incense burner
At the cemetery we sat on tiny stools in an open air, makeshift cafe and had Sudanese coffee. Every Friday there is a large procession of Sufis but on other days of the week, people still come to visit graves and a small industry has built up whereby women, and only women, prepare tea and coffee on small charcoal braziers. A lovely habit which is also extremely practical is to present a tiny incense burner on the tray with the coffee. Not only does it smell delightful but it successfully keeps away flies and mosquitoes.