Portraits of a Nation: The Tenacious Beauty of Sudan

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April 6, 2017 by katmcdaniel

Did you know that Sudan contains more pyramids than Egypt? There is much beauty hidden in this war torn land.

800px-Sudan_sat.jpg

Satellite Image of Sudan

Sudan is largely a country of desert, the Sahara reaching deeper and deeper into the nation with every passing year. Ancient civilizations once flourished here on the banks of the Nile: Kerma, Nobatia, Alodia, Makuria, Kush, Meroë- their names fade into legend. Nubia, the area of Sudan and Lower Egypt along the Nile, developed alongside and equal to the more famous kingdom of Northern Egypt and was ruled by its own line of Pharoahs. The name Sudan comes from Arabic: bilād as-sūdān, the “lands of the Blacks”. These were proud lands for centuries, but today are war torn and famine infested. We must never forget that human civilization is a fragile thing.

This is the first of a series of posts on Sudan, focusing on the beauty and artistic creativity of that nation. It is a gallery of images which have been shared online by photographers traveling and working there. Christopher Michel, David Stanley, Mark Fischer, Petr Adam Dohnálek and Arsenie Coseac have made their work available with Creative Commons Licenses. Click on the captions beneath the the photo collages to see their full albums and link to more of their images. Synkroniciti is indebted to the generosity and boldness of these travelers and artists. I encourage you to follow them.

Travel to Sudan is not easy, nor is it encouraged. The Darfur region, Blue Nile, and Southern Kordofan states are listed as off limits by the U.S. State Department, but, to be honest, the U.S. Embassy’s reach does not extend far outside the capital of Khartoum. Armed conflict is heaviest in the south of the country, where terrorism, warfare and violent crime abound. Genocide has been attempted in the provinces of Darfur and war crimes have occurred in various places across Sudan and South Sudan, which gained its independence in 2011. Both countries have been terrorized by corrupt governments, lawless military forces, disease and famine. This series will concentrate on the northern nation.

Faces of Sudan

© Christopher Michel with CCLicense

The Sudanese are descended from a combination of indigenous East African peoples and immigrants from the Arabian peninsula. By recent estimates, Sudanese Arabs make up around 70% of the population. Sudan is also home to 18 other ethnic groups and almost 600 subgroups speaking more than 100 languages. Nubians, Nuba, Zaghawa, Copts, Fur and Beja are among those groups. Most Sudanese are Muslim (around 97%), with Christians and adherents to indigenous religions filling out the mix. South Sudan, on the other hand, is less than 20% Muslim.

© Arsenie Coseac with CCLicense

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Home

What does home look like in Sudan? Most are built of mudbricks or thatch, or a combination of both. Mudbricks may be covered with stucco and painted. Many houses consist of a single room, which may be round or rectangular, while others contain multiple rooms. There are also apartment buildings in Khartoum and other large cities. Some homes are designed for permanent use, while others are simple shelters for semi-nomadic families who move about the desert with their livestock. It is common for permanent residences to include a walled courtyard or garden on premises.

Toteil, Sudan, near Eritrea © Petr Adam Dohnálek with CCLicense (wikipedia)
© Christopher Michel with CCLicense

In the slums outside of Khartoum, where refugees cluster and the government periodically knocks down homes on the pretense of urban planning, one can see people eking out their lives in houses cobbled together from sticks, cloth and cardboard. If they are lucky, they may have a wall or two that survived demolition. If the government ever makes good on its promise to build new homes with electricity and water, it isn’t likely that refugees and the poor would be able to live here. Unlike the nomads, these people don’t have anywhere to go.

Demolition Area, Mayo, Khartoum © Arsenie Coseac with CCLicense

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Khartoum

Khartoum is a sprawling city at the confluence of the Blue Nile, flowing from Ethiopia, and the White Nile, flowing from Lake Victoria. The waters mass together here on their journey north into Egypt. The metropolitan area comprised of Khartoum, North Khartoum and Omdurman, three neighboring cities separated by the Nile and its tributaries, is home to over 5 million people.

© David Stanley with CCLicense

The bulging form of Burj al Fateh, also known as the Corinthia Hotel, is prominent on the skyline. The five star hotel, which opened in 2008, was built and financed by the neighboring government of Libya and has 18 guest floors, 173 rooms and 57 suites, with 6 restaurants, a gift shop, a club lounge, a spa and fitness center, Turkish baths, a gym, and courts for squash and tennis. Designed to mimic the shape of a billowing sail, it is known pejoratively as Khaddafi’s Egg, named for the former Libyan dictator.

© Christopher Michel with CCLicense

On Fridays before sunset, except during the month of Ramadan, crowds gather in Omdurman at the Tomb of the 19th century leader Sheik Hamed al-Nil for a festive celebration of Islam featuring Sufi dervishes praying, singing, chanting, drumming, dancing and whirling as inspiration takes them. It’s a very colorful, happy expression of faith which is, incidentally, a major draw for tourists.

Khartoum Dervishes © Mark Fischer with CCLicense

Khartoum has an easy-going façade, but there is much hiding beneath the surface. Like any large city, Khartoum contains diversity which creates flashpoints for animosity: rich and poor, Arabs and Africans, Muslims and Christians. The situation in refugee camps and slums like Mayo is dire for the poor. Skin bleaching has become a trend in many places in Sudan as young people try to look less African in order to improve their living conditions. The Sudanese government continues a disturbing tradition of seizing Christian churches without compensating the community, repurposing or selling them for profit. These injustices are not unique to Khartoum, but the lack of legal recourse in Sudan has allowed them to become highly institutionalized.

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Scenes of the Northern Desert

© Christopher Michel with CCLicense

The deserts of Sudan are wild places where civilization will always be tenuous. The desperate need for water and the fearsome aspect that nature takes here, full of scorching heat and immense sandstorms, called haboob, which block out the sun, create a profound isolation from the rest of the world. While fighting is intense in the southern part of the country, where there is water and oil in close proximity, the northern reaches see less human interference. To call the desert safe would be neither correct nor prudent, but there is freedom in not having accessible desirable resources.

© Mark Fischer with CCLicense

These deserts do contain small communities, full of tenacious people. Whether it’s a scrubby rural town, a well that provides sustenance to nomadic herders, or an archaeological site preserving the glories of Sudan’s past, life depends on the wise use of water. Sets of communal jugs can be found in such places, used by humans and and their animals. The threat of illness due to the shared vessels is outweighed by the extreme danger of dehydration. Despite, or perhaps because of, the difficulties in these desert outposts, there is a certain good humor, a certain quirkiness that plays out in the juxtaposition of donkeys and Toyota trucks. Life out here is no stranger to the beauty and resilience of absurdity.

© Christopher Michel with CCLicense

There is so much history to be seen here, evidence of the early Nubian civilizations, which built beautiful temples and pyramids; the Romans, who never quite managed to get a toehold in Nubia after conquering Egypt; the Coptic Christians who introduced Christianity and built churches; and finally the Arab travelers who brought Islam and dotted the desert with small shrines where the traveler may pray and seek temporary shelter. The Nubian desert which so resists human habitation and meddling also preserves these fragments of the past.

© Christopher Michel with CCLicense

There are 228 known pyramids in Sudan, more than three times the number that exist in Egypt. They are smaller, more intimate tombs than their cousins in the north, but many are beautifully detailed and well preserved. None of the Sudanese sites is as well known as Meroë, an ancient city on the east bank of the Nile that served as the capital of the Kingdom of Kush for centuries. The Meroitic civilization will be the focus of our next post on Sudan, but here’s a little sample, since I promised you pyramids.

Meroë © Christopher Michel with CCLicense
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