When it comes to archaeology in Sudan, Meroe, the ancient capital city of the Kingdom of Kush, is the first to come to mind. But little do people know that recently, Sudan has become a hub for archaeological research and discovery. Places such as Karima, Musawwarat es Sufra, Old Dongla, Dongola and other areas in the north of Sudan have attracted thousands of archaeologists from Switzerland, Germany, Italy, France and other European countries including the well-known Swiss archaeologist Charles Bonnet, who has been coming to Sudan since 1965 – for over 40 years – and greatly adding to the understanding of 1,000 years of Sudan’s ancient history.
“When I came here to the Sudan, everybody told me, ‘Why are you coming to work here in archaeology? There is no history in Sudan. All the stories are in Egypt,” said the 80-year-old, Bonnet, who helped show that Sudan does not follow in the shadows of Egypt’s history. “In the beginning, I was looking at Egyptian remains in Sudan but very quickly, I grew more interested in the Sudanese history, and I understood that there’s a very rich Sudanese history. I can be sure, today, after so many years of work – and my colleagues did a lot also – nobody will think that there’s no history in Sudan.”
Recently, Bonnet was in Dongola celebrating the arrival of the new year, 2014. Every year, around December, Bonnet, with a team of European archeologists, travels to Sudan where he spends one to three months in the country uncovering the treasure of Dongola, which is the capital of the state of Northern in Sudan, on the banks of the Nile. Dongola was also a province of Upper Nubia on both sides of the Nile and a centre for Nubian civilization as manifested by its many archaeological remains from the Makurian and Islamic periods. In addition, the province of Dongola was part of the Makuria kingdom, which later became part of Egypt after Muhammad Ali Pasha ordered for the invasion and occupation of Sudan in 1820 after which it was designated as a seat of a pasha. Its first governor was Abidin Bey. The victory by General Herbert Kitchener over the Mahdist in 1896 took place in Dongola.
“The Sudanese history is an extraordinary link between Egypt, the Mediterranean Sea and Africa,” said Bonnet. He focuses on the ancient civilization of Kerma which flourished around 1,500 B.C. The former wine grower has opened the second most important museum in Sudan, the Museum of Kerma, where the objects he has discovered stand on display. One of Bonnet’s greatest discoveries was when he found a Nubian city in Dukki Gel with original African architecture from around 1,500 B.C., and in a cache, he found 40 pieces of seven monumental statues of black pharaohs near the bank of the Nile. In late 2012, he found what he believes are the city’s walls. The seven black pharaohs statues, who are also referred to as Nubian rulers, are one of the most valuable finds in the Museum of Kerma and even in Sudan, in general. One of the statues, which was ornamented in gold, was stolen but later returned but without gold.
“These statues belong to the past of Sudan. There were two pharaohs, what we call today, black pharaohs, led this country and Egypt during the 35th dynasty – that means more or less 600-700 BC. And I found other kings belonging to society, population and kingdom of the Sudan. These beautiful statues have been found in a pit two meters deep and in 40 pieces, and we rebuilt these statues – they were broken but it was possible to rebuilt them in good condition – and they are present in the Museum of Kerma,” said Bonnet.
When it comes to the preservation of excavated monuments, artifacts and other valuable objects, Bonnet says it’s difficult. He said, “It’s complicated because in Egypt, for example, or in the Roman world, there are many stone monuments of big quantities and with very strong material. Here, many pieces are done in mud bricks. For example, now we’re in the village of Argu where all the buildings are done in mud. It is difficult to preserve such monuments. We need a lot of money to rebuild parts, preserve some walls and to create a foundation for them.” Bonnet is working in the north of Kerma town where he and his team have found huge fortifications and enormous monuments. “If a hundred people are coming and going up, they will destroy everything. That means we have to restore them and present them to the public to help them understand what we are doing and why we are trying to find the identity of Sudan,” said Bonnet.
In June-July 2014, Bonnet will be visiting Qatar for a project where the Qatari government has allotted $135 million to Sudan for 27 archaeological missions, the renovation of the Sudan National Museum and the development of tourism projects.