Mohamed Adim performs a flying leap in celebration after taking the South Africa Embassy Cup on Laa Kalaam at the Khartoum Racing Club. Racing takes place on most Fridays between October and May, with the Sudanese Derby in April as the highlight.
Sudan – Long Read

Ruins of ancient temples, palaces and pyramids

Photo by Richard Dunwoody

Sudan – Long Read Ruins of ancient temples, palaces and pyramids

Hello Sudan, still the third largest country in Africa – and the Arab world – despite splitting off the new country of South Sudan in 2011. Straddling the Nile valley, it is historically linked to its Egyptian neighbor to the north and travelers will find a desert landscape filled with the ruins of ancient temples, palaces and pyramids.

Minty Clinch
Minty Clinch Travel Writer

Unraveling the desert treasures in Nubia in northern Sudan is not for the fainthearted. For those untuned to antiquity, 2000BCE-300CE is a bewildering time frame: too many obscure centuries with too few points of reference. Almost none in my case, I reflect glumly as our Toyota Hilux rolls smoothly northwards on the highway out of Khartoum. In Egypt, much of the remote but often well-preserved past is neatly charted along the banks of the Nile, an open book by comparison with the Kingdom of Kush. Although the great Nile bend between the Fourth and Sixth Cataracts – dramatic barriers to the free flow of navigation before the Aswan High Dam cut Sudan off from the Mediterranean in the early 1970s – was its lifeline, its Nubian tribal territories sprawled through the desert around it.

At 454 kilometers, we turn right for Old Dongola, the starting point for our first bump across an uncharted sandscape. Shadi, the cheery driver, proudly announces that he learned his trade in a vehicle he stole when he was 14. Such early training has served him well: I would defy any racecar driver to equal his skill over Saharan dunes and volcanic rocks. Our target is Jebel Barkal, Nubia’s legendary holy mountain. Visible from afar, the red sandstone monolith stands 98 meters high above the Nile city of Karima. Clambering up to its flat top at dusk, I head for the standalone shard that marks the best overview of the Temple of Amun and the ancient city of Napata laid out below.

The next morning, Dr Timothy Kendall wipes the sweat from his brow and smiles like a kid in a chocolate shop as he takes a short break from his mission to dig it up. The vice president of the International Society of Nubian Studies sees the chance to spend the next five years researching life as it was lived in the capital of the middle, and most successful, Kingdom of Kush as a fitting reward for a distinguished career at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

“Our project is jointly funded by Qatar and Sudan, so we have the resources to do the job properly,” he says, pausing to watch his team meticulously sweep sand from crumbling stones. “We used magnetometry to survey the area around the existing sanctuary, but sandstone doesn’t have the same resonance as other rocks so it only revealed the entrance to a much larger complex. With that as a starting point, we’ve now discovered the outlines of six more minor temples and one vast one.”

Elevated to Unesco World Heritage status

He speaks with the enthusiasm of a man who has given his life to a largely unfamiliar civilization in a country he sees as seriously misunderstood, especially by his compatriots. In the 18th dynasty, circa 1500BCE, the Egyptians came across Jebel Barkal during their conquest of the Kush, the tribal power base in northern Sudan for the previous 500 years. Impressed by the table with the distinctive shard, they designated the land directly below it as the birthplace of the ram-headed Amun, a major Egyptian deity with associations with Thebes (now Luxor) dating back to the 21st century BCE. Building with due magnificence, they created the temple and Napata, jointly elevated to Unesco World Heritage status in 2003.

After his accession in 1279BCE, the influential Egyptian Pharaoh Rameses II broke with tradition by coming to Napata to be crowned. His long life and successful rule established Amun rather than Karnak, the great temple at Thebes, as the primary source of energy, giving the city a high profile for the next 600 years. Excavations during the 20th century have already yielded some 40,000 artifacts, most now stored in the basement of the Archaeological Museum in Khartoum.

“Even archaeologists can find it difficult to make sense of a site, but this one provides outstanding insights into the Egyptian world,” Kendall says. “As they used barter rather than money, there won’t be any coins. From a layman’s perspective, the most rewarding aspects of the dig are representations of the chariot wars and the diverse faces of Amun. We may find him with a ram’s head or in primeval form as a rearing cobra, identifiable by a royal diadem.”

After centuries playing second fiddle to the Egyptians, the Kush got their moment in the sun when King Piye headed north, circa 720BCE, to capture Thebes and Memphis, establishing the 25th – or Nubian – Dynasty in Egypt. After his death, two of his sons from four wives deployed chariot armies manned by thousands of slaves to make even greater inroads into parts of what are now Libya, Syria and Palestine. Their victories set the stage for their brother Taharqa, who reigned over the extended territories with majesty and wisdom from 690 to 664BCE. As soon as his less talented cousin Tantamani succeeded him, the Kush were ruthlessly driven back to their homeland, ending Nubian supremacy in Egypt for ever.

Graveyard for 21 kings and 52 queens

With Kendall’s insights in mind, I follow the elusive timeline as we thread our way through the black volcanic cones in the Bayuda desert to Meroë, the royal city that replaced Napata as the Nubian capital in 300BCE. The steep, narrow structures – their heights ranging from six to 30 meters and set out in a row on a sandy bluff – make an impressive graveyard for the 21 kings and 52 queens and princes who ruled the third and final Kingdom of Kush from 300BCE to 300CE.

As in Egypt, the bodies were mummified and liberally supplied with precious objects and sacrificed animals for their journey to the other world. Normally, these were placed underground near the sarcophagi but, unluckily for Meroë, a 19th century Italian plunderer hit on a stash of gold when he randomly took the top off the nearest tomb. The discovery triggered a decapitation rampage – futile, as he didn’t find any more treasure – and left Meroë with some 70 pyramids with jagged tops. The burial chambers are richly decorated with bas-reliefs, their color lost for the most part, but their scenes of Horus and Anubis – gods with falcon and jackal heads respectively, negotiating over the scales of justice – are as vivid as the day they were carved.

On the last part of the journey, the sands are silky soft when we set up our tents in remote wadis and eat dinner under a million stars. In March, northern Sudan has perfect camping weather, often very hot at high noon but deliciously cool after dark. With the energy generated by eight hours of dreamless sleep, we set out enthusiastically on our quest for the perfect Kush male.

During his excavations from 1913-16 at Kerma (the first Nubian capital, dating back to 3000BCE), Harvard’s distinguished Professor of Egyptology, George Reisner, identified this mythic being as wide-shouldered with large hands and feet, and well-defined musculature in his arms and legs. I find him magnificently carved in divine forms – primarily Amun and Apedemak, the lion-headed warrior god – on the exterior temple walls at the trading post at Naqa. In its Merotic heydey, the bas-reliefs were painted vivid sparkling gold; nowadays the glitz has worn away, leaving them subtly golden-red, but no less impressive for that.

Face down in the dirt

“Frankie! Frankie!” The cries ring out over Khartoum racecourse on Sudanese Diplomacy Day. Laa Kalaam, winner of the South Africa Embassy Cup, bucks and plunges under the jockey perched bravely on a postage-stamp saddle. With a flash of green and white silks, Mohamed Adim launches into his Frankie Dettori victory leap, gloriously airborne one moment, face down in the dirt the next as his toe catches in the stirrup. The Sudanese, who know and love their racing, greet his gallant failure with wild applause.

Although Islamic law, introduced by President Nimeri in 1983, forbids gambling as well as champagne, the Friday afternoon meeting on a dirt track overlooked by a mosque on the outskirts of Khartoum is still a highlight of the winter season. Established by the British in 1908, the Khartoum Racing Club is a remnant of Empire, but both sport and ruling body survived Independence in 1956, hosting Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip for an afternoon at the races during their state visit ten years later.

My traveling companion, Richard Dunwoody, combines his first career as a champion steeplechase jockey and dual Grand National winner with his second as an equine photographer, so we return from Naqa in good time for the races. While Richard uses his knowledge of racing protocol to gain access to assorted holy of holies, including the weighing room, I watch tall men in white jellabiyas and intricate turbans gather in the stands. Typically, they include politicians, businessmen and presidential relatives, with a smattering of ambassadors and foreign dignitaries. Two hours before the first race at 4pm, a water lorry sprays the track in front of the spectators, its thumping diesel eclipsing tinny Arab music designed to get them in the mood.

On Diplomacy Day, so named for sponsors from Pakistan, Qatar, South Africa and Iraq, the races are over six or seven furlongs with an average first prize of $600. After the first special award for the most beautifully bred horse has been announced, some 20 contenders burst out of distant stalls in a dust cloud. It’s hard to say who is winning until they emerge onto the watered ground on the finishing stretch. Excitement reaches a crescendo as the jockeys lash the frontrunners with a force that would incur a lengthy suspension under European rules of racing. Stragglers receive equally unsympathetic treatment, though with ever diminishing response as they trot hopelessly past the finishing post.

A ban is not a blackout

While losing owners start noisy fights with officials, accusing the starter of sabotaging their horses in the stalls, winning ones head jauntily up the steps to receive flashy gilt trophies. In the shady paddock area, tea and coffee sellers do good business. Likewise illegal bookmakers. In Sudan, as elsewhere, a ban is not a blackout.

Out on the track, I enjoy entertainment between races. First up, a demonstration of Pakistani wrestling, then a stirring performance of the  cumbla peace dance performed by a group from the Nuba mountains near the border with South Sudan. The men, strikingly dressed in grass skirts, anklets made of rattling tin cans and horned headpieces, rotate vigorously, while their womenfolk jig up and down, waving feathers. Nothing unusual about that: the men are always the peacocks here.

With no funding from betting, prize money has declined over the past 30 years and with it the quality of the horses but Ahmed Ali, the 31-year- old Secretary of the Treasury of the Racing Federation of Sudan, is optimistic about the future. He pinpoints Darfur as the industry’s epicenter. “They have a million horses,” he says, “and race crowds of 40,000, whereas we’re lucky to get 1,500 here.” These statistics seem unlikely for a genocidal province in a constant state of emergency since hostilities broke out in 2003, but who am I to argue with a suited dandy sporting a cane topped with a horse’s head?

Certainly Darfur, a pastoral province the size of Spain in the west of the country, is the cradle of Sudan’s racehorse and camel breeding. Most of the brood mares are Barbs – Arabs crossbred with British and American thoroughbreds. According to Ahmed Ali, the racing federation is currently sending imported stallions to studs in Darfur, many of them privately owned by sheiks who want to improve their blood lines. Meanwhile, the civil war between President Omar al-Bashir’s murderous troops and the Sudan Revolutionary Front, a liberation army composed of indigenous non-Arabs of African and Bedouin origin, rages on, so foreigners will be a rarity for a while yet.

His pony is tiny but fiery

In peaceful Khartoum, racing takes place on most Fridays between October and May, with the Sudanese Derby, held in April, as the climax. The racecourse is also Khartoum’s equestrian center, its stables rented to locals and foreigners, who use its facilities for tent pegging, show jumping and dressage. Polo, always a British colonial staple, was reintroduced seven years ago by the current Mahdi, Abdul Rahman, the great-grandson of Mahdi Mohammed bin Abd Allah, the messianic redeemer who killed General Gordon during the Siege of Khartoum in 1885.

A bulky man in his 40s, he smiles benevolently down on the foot soldiers as he awaits his Saturday game. His pony is tiny but fiery in every sense. Originally grey, it is now a uniform flaming scarlet, its coat comprehensively hennaed to the eminent horseman’s taste. Raising his whip, he gives the order for battle to be joined. Relaxed and elegant in the saddle, he leads his red team into the long shadow of the mosque, its terracotta minarets glowing in the setting sun. In a capital city notably short on public entertainment, it is no surprise that the track is one of the hottest tickets in town.

Although there are daily flights to Khartoum from many European cities, it would be tame to miss out on Lord Kitchener’s classic overland journey from Khartoum to Cairo. The Sirdar (Commander in Chief) arrived in Sudan with the glint of battle in his eye as the 19th century neared its end. Fifteen years earlier, the British Army had been humiliated and its leader, General Gordon, killed by the infidels during the Siege of Khartoum. For Kitchener, it was payback time.

If he could join me in Khartoum’s bright yellow Bahri station in 2015, he would recognize the simple track running across the Nile towards the Mediterranean 1,755 kilometers to the north. As he should, because he built it. To defeat his sworn enemy, Mahdi Mohammed bin Abd Allah, he needed to transport heavy artillery southwards from Aswan on the Egyptian- Sudanese border to the railway town of Atbara by train so as to avoid the cataracts on the Nile. Never one to shirk a challenge, he forced the track through burning desert heat at two kilometers a day.

We have got, The Maxim gun, and they have not

On the evening of September 1, 1898, with the guns primed for action on the battlefield at Omdurman across the Nile from Khartoum, 25- year-old Second Lieutenant Winston Churchill drank champagne with his peers. After a copious luncheon the next day, he rode with the 21st Lancers in the British Army’s last cavalry charge before warfare moved on to tanks and trenches. By nightfall, the victorious Sirdar surveyed 9,700 Mahdi dead. “A good dusting” was his verdict on a most satisfactory day.

“It was the marvellous military railway that sealed the fate of the Dervish power,” Churchill wrote in My Early Life, but satirical poet Hilaire Belloc put it more succinctly in his famous couplet: “Whatever happens, we have got, The Maxim gun, and they have not.” The next year, the Atbara-Khartoum section of the track was completed, a supply line for the colonizers until Independence 56 years later. “It brought letters, newspapers, sausages, jams, whiskey, soda- water, and cigarettes that enabled the Briton to conquer the world without discomfort,” said Churchill as he headed home.

In the afternoon heat, Richard and I wait in Bahri’s marble hall under high ceiling fans for the weekly train to Wadi Halfa. A sleek Chinese import slides in, disgorging passengers and departing as noiselessly as it had come. Some time later, a ramshackle hybrid rattles to a halt beside the single stone platform. It is disappointing that diesel has replaced steam as a coke-fired locomotive would have completed the picture nicely, but it’s a selfish thought as stokers would be fried alive in the heat.

In due course, we trundle across the river bridge to Omdurman and on to Atbara, still Sudan’s rail hub, with Kitchener’s steam engine on display in the gardens of the National Railway Museum. Installed in a compartment with twin beds and an electric fan, I make friends with Barbikar, a man of many words, none of which I understand. He is an adept chai wallah, absorbing the movement of the train as he pours black tea, or coffee flavored with ginger and cloves, into tiny glasses. In the shadowy dining car, we wash down meatballs, falafel (chickpea mini burgers) and kissra (bread made with sorghum flour) with Pepsi Cola.

Please stay as long as you like

Our diesel chugs through rice paddies and orchards near the river bank, then veers into the desert to cut off the huge Nile bend. Small towns dominated by minarets are replaced by stations identified only by numbers, with sand on the line causing impromptu stops in the middle of nowhere. As the shovel detail trudge into the distance, passengers stretch out luxuriously on the shady side of the train, glad of the respite from their wooden seats. Thirty-five hours later, we arrive inconveniently in the darkest hour before dawn, but bang on time.

In 1964, Wadi Halfa’s handsome waterfront drowned in the newly-formed Lake Nasser, a victim of the Aswan High Dam built by the Egyptians to increase their control of the Nile. Nowadays, the desolate outpost comes alive on Tuesday afternoons when the MV Sagalnaam  leaves for Aswan. With 36 hours to kill, Richard puts in a call to Osama Daoud Abdellatif, his new best friend in Khartoum and Sudan’s richest entrepreneur. Within minutes, a gracious, white-robed cousin arrives in an air-conditioned Landcruiser. “Any friend of Osama’s is a friend of mine,” he says, as he drives us to his private guesthouse. “Please stay as long as you like.”

With just one service a week, the ferry is dangerously overloaded with passengers and goods. In 1993, 300 of the 800 passengers died when Sagalnaam’s sister ship caught fire and sank in crocodile-infested waters just south of the temples of Abu Simbel. The risk becomes alarmingly obvious as we force a passage between barricades of sacks and boxes – containing herbs and spices, henna and dates – on decks, stairwells and companionways, to our cabin below decks. But there are no other options; this is the only civilian route between Sudan and Egypt. With a handful of foreign travelers, the first we’ve met since Khartoum, we are here for the duration.

Waking to the 5am call to prayer is more welcome than usual: Abu Simbel’s crocs lay far behind, our first cold beers in weeks merely hours ahead. The morning passes at snail’s pace as a single Egyptian official completes hundreds of onboard passport checks, but by noon we are installed on the terrace of Aswan’s historic Old Cataract Hotel. Built for the engineers working on the original low dam in 1901, it was a favorite with Agatha Christie, who researched Death on the Nile from her suite, and Churchill who enjoyed regular stays during World War II.

The foaming tankards on our table are a welcome drought-breaker, but there is a sense of loss at leaving so much of an outstandingly friendly country unexplored. Ahead of us, a ship to Luxor and an overnight train to Giza to be wowed by The Great Pyramid and the monstrous Sphinx. Stirring “must sees”, of course, but give me mystical, deserted Jebel Barkal any day.


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