War, poverty, and drought – those are the kinds of words that come to people’s minds when they hear of the country, Sudan. However, an overlooked fact is that the Afro-Arab country is home to one of the greatest archeological sites in the African content.
In the recent years, archaeologists have been coming into Sudan to unearth the country’s ancient history, which tells the stories of the ancient kingdoms of Kush and Nubia. In fact – overshadowed by the history of its neighboring country, Egypt – Sudan has more pyramids than Egypt, in places like Nuri and Bijrawiyah, though they are smaller and not as old.
For more than a millennium, the Kingdom of Kush covered much of modern-day northern Sudan, developing a distinct and strong culture and industry. At the height of its power, it even ruled Egypt for a century, as its 25th Dynasty, and later negotiated with the Roman Empire as an equal.
Archaeologist Steffen Wenig
On 28 May 2013, German archaeologist and professor, Steffen Wenig – distinguished in the field of Meroitic Studies and Sudanese archaeology – delivered a public lecture at UCL Qatar on Musawwarat es Sufra, a unique archaeological site in Northern Sudan. The lecture provided an overview of the art and archaeology of this important phase of the history of Sudan, based on more than three decades of research and excavations. “The Sudanese people must be proud of their great history,” said Wenig.
Wenig has a long history with Sudan. He first came to Sudan in 1958 as a student when his professor, Dr Fritz Hintze, did a survey in the Butana, which is a region in Sudan that includes most of the state of Al Qadarif plus parts of the states, Kassala, River Nile, Khartoum, Al Jazirah and Sennar. “I was deeply impressed by the monuments I saw. From this time onwards, I switched over to Sudan Archaeology, although I was a student of Egyptology. In 1964 and 1966 – working at the Egyptian Museum in Berlin (East) – I was asked to join Professor Hintze’s excavations at Musawwarat. Finally, since 1990, I was in Sudan every year until 2004,” said Wenig.
Professor Steffen Wenig has worked at various sites in Sudan. He has worked as curator and as deputy director of the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, before becoming Professor for Meroitic Studies, and later for Sudan Archaeology, at the Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany. He organised several major exhibitions on Meroitic art and archaeology, and has edited numerous volumes on the subject.
What makes Musawwarat es Sufra unique?
Musawwarat es Sufra is unique in so many ways. According to Wenig, the Great Enclosure, the big hafir, and the re-erected Apedemak Temple built by king Arnekhamani (about 235 – 218 B.C.) are some of the greatest sites one can see at Musawwarat es Sufra. “Everything was built by the Kushites in the Meroitic period (late 3rd B.C. – around 300 A.D.). Partly they applied Egyptian features (hieroglyphs and reliefs), but many features were of indigenous origin like column basses in the shape of animals (lions and elephants), the triple proteomes above temple entrances or columns in the shape of striding male gods, which are not found elsewhere,” said Wenig.
Musawwarat is widely known for the Great Enclosure, which is one of the major ancient monuments of northern Sudan and inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2011. It’s well known for its enigmatic complex of temples and other buildings, corridors, ramps and courtyards. The parts of the labyrinth-like building complex, which covers c. 45,000 square metres, were erected in the third century BC, i.e. at the beginning of the so-called Meroitic period (c. 300BC-AD350) of the Kushite realm. “We consider the Great Enclosure as a complex of religious meaning, where from time to time festivals were celebrated. Most probably pilgrims came from all over the country to attend these festivals (indications are thousands of graffiti – mainly pictures – scratched on the sandstone walls). It seems that the ‘Holy Wedding’, the unification of the king and the queen to create the successor – was celebrated here We have indications – the hofrat el dukhan for example,” said Wenig. “The Kushites had schools of potters and painters. In the arts, the Kushites adopted ideas from other areas like Egypt, Greece and Rome. Stone buildings were never built to live in. These were religious edifices. The people stayed in houses of bricks or huts of mats and grass. They are much cooler. The culture of the Kushites developed from the Egyptian one but the Kushites added many own features and accepted influences from non-African cultures which makes the Kushite culture in the Meroitic time unique.”
Comparing Musawwarat es Sufra to other archaeological sites in Sudan and Egypt, Wenig said, “The archaeological site of Musawwarat es Sufra is unique. The Great Enclosure has no parallels in the whole Nile Valley. Meroe has three pyramid cemeteries. The pyramids are much smaller than the Egyptian ones, but the sites are impressing for their number of pyramids.” Meroe is an ancient city on the east bank of the Nile and was the capital of the Kingdom of Kush for several centuries. Similarly to the sites in Musawwarat es Sufra, Meroe has been added to the UNESCO’s World Heritage sites in 2011. More than two hundred pyramids in three groups, of which many are in ruins, mark the site of the city of Meroe. They are identified as Nubian pyramids because of their distinctive size and proportions. “Nearby [Musawwarat] is the ‘Royal City’ where since 1910 excavations were done. The city of Meroe is not comparable to Egyptian residences. Garstang found the so-called ‘Roman baths’ consisting of a basin and at the rim were statues and paintings of Hellenistic style,” added Wenig.
Musawwarat is also home to several hafirs including the big hafir, which is the biggest in ancient Sudan with a diameter up to 250 m and the only one in Sudan, which has been partly studied. Hafirs are used for the water supply. In Musawwarat, you may also find other edifices like the Temple for the indigenous deity Apedemak and others.
Unique yet unknown
Although known for its uniqueness as an archaeological site to archaeologists, Musawwarat’s historical significance is unknown not only to the international community but also to the Sudanese community itself. “I studied history, architecture, art, painted pottery from Lower Nubia which was more sophisticated than that from Egypt and other subjects of ancient Sudan. What I published is known to scholars but not to the general public…although sometimes archaeological monuments were represented on Sudanese bank notes or even on stamps, the knowledge about the great past of the Sudan is widely poor in the country,” said Wenig. “The Sudanese tourism to archaeological sites in the country is much less than the tourism from abroad. I think the main reason is that the pre-Islamic history is poorly known in the Sudan because it is not taught to the youngsters in schools.” From Wenig’s experience, when Sudanese visit archaeological sites in their country, it’s mainly for educational purposes. Visitors are usually mainly students, who are studying archaeology and/or history. “But we observed that they don’t know that these monuments have to be protected. They climb on walls and scratch on the walls. This is another problem – nobody of the accompanying professors cares about the preservation of the monuments,” added Wenig. Although there are guards, hired by NCAM (National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums) to guard Musawwarat, Wenig says that’s not enough. “If there is no interest in ancient history, you cannot convince people that they should be proud of their great history. Several people knew me while working in Sudan. They even came from time to time to visit the expedition team. But nonetheless this number was limited. We had more foreign visitors than from Sudan,” he said.
There are some companies, both foreign and Sudanese, who bring tourists to archaeological sites. During 2003 and 2004, when Wenig last visited Sudan, tourists had to seek permission from NCAM to visit sites, and pay US $10 per site. “But the number of tourists from abroad is very often depending on the political situation in the Sudan. Negative reports in western media prevent many people from travelling to Sudan. These reports about Darfur or Kordofan are generally exaggerated,” said Wenig.
Preserving Sudan’s history
Many of the objects from Sudan especially those from Musawwarat es Sufra and Meroe are now housed in Berlin, Germany. That has been the case since 1975. According to Wenig, at that time, only duplicates of the finds were given to the excavator due to the license conditions. Since 1999, no object has been allowed to go abroad. “But bringing objects to other countries has nothing to do with colonialism,” Wenig said. “In my opinion, objects from other cultures are important ambassadors. Those foreigners, who come as tourists to Sudan, have seen objects in western museums. They want to learn more about these cultures.”
Though much of the objects and findings have not been preserved in Sudan itself, archaeologists like Professor Wenig have put in the effort to restore and preserve objects in the Open Air Museum in Musawwarat, which is situated within the Great Enclosure. “We stored objects of some importance. Two columns in the shape of striding deities were restored; round columns with reliefs in Egyptian style were likewise restored. Blocks with graffiti from different periods were placed on mastabas made of burnt bricks. The museum was opened in 2004,” said Wenig.
Since before its independence, Sudan’s political climate has been gloomy. But recently – after the secession of South Sudan in 2011 – civil conflicts and wars have intensified especially in Darfur, Abyei and other parts of the country, leaving people to flee the country and others not to want to enter. As a result, “the colleagues at NCAM are concerned and worried about the situation of archaeological monuments in the Sudan. But there is a severe shortage of money. Not enough trained people, not enough guards, the few are badly paid. Every year, there are robberies or destructions of monuments, mostly by Sudanese,” said Wenig. However, according to the New York Times, financing archaeological sites has been the least of the Sudanese government’s priorities, but in February the government signed a US $135 million agreement with Qatar that would provide money for 27 archaeological missions, the renovation of the Sudan National Museum and the development of tourism projects.