Sudan is a giant, but not as giant as it used to be. South Sudan became a separate country in 2011 and Sudan is half its size nowadays. Still, Sudan is one Africa’s biggest countries and an interesting and highly recommendable destination to visit. Few foreigners have heard of the ancient Kingdom of Kush, walked among the isolated pyramids of Meroe (far more numerous and yet less crowded than those in neighbouring Egypt) or witnessed entranced the whirling Sufi dervishes of Omdurman. Yet those who do make it here are invariably enchanted by Sudan's easy-going nature, its varied, fascinating history and the warm welcome they receive unexpectedly from the Sudanese people. Besides the evident attractive of Meroe and the Desert, Sudan offers many more attractions of the beaten track and where few tourists venture. Here is where Last Places can offer you its ‘savoir faire’.
We have been operating in Sudan since 2012 and we have seen the evolution of different internal social and political troubles in the peripheral provinces of the Islamic Republic of Sudan. It is here where the most interesting tribal societies in Sudan live and can be visited. In Blue Nile Province we meet the nomadic Felata heavily tattooed and with unique hairdos. Deep in the bush we find one of Africa’s most isolated tribe, the Komo Ganza who still roam naked between the Sudan, South Sudan and Ethiopian borders and that still scarify their faces and bodies. A bit northwards we reach another hidden secret of Sudan, Dinder National Park with one of the last healthy lion populations in the Horn of Africa. The safari will lead us to Kasala, Islamic traditional town where we will meet several ethnic groups; Beja warriors, Kunama matriarchies, and in the remote mountains Gumuz Animists who outstand for their music and dances. For real adventurers we can offer a trekking experience in isolated Jebel Marrah Mountains in the centre of Darfur or discover what is left of the mythical Nuba tribes of Kordofan. Last but not least we can end the journey in the coral-bedecked wrecks off the Red Sea coast and visit the Otoman phantom island-city of Suakin.
Sudan is an unpolished tourist offering that will certainly not disappoint.
Also known as Nubian.
Population & Ecosystem
1 million Nuba, divided into more the fifty different tribes live in the Nuba Mountains (North and South Kordofan). The Nuba Mountains are rocky, with cultivable hill slopes and valleys. Though they dominate the landscape, the area covered by the hills themselves is less than a third of the total area of the Nuba Mountains; the remainder of the land is extensive clay plains, some forested, some farmed. It is some of the most fertile land in Sudan-a fact that is both a blessing and a curse to the Nuba. While drought-induced famine is almost unknown in the Nuba Mountains, the fertile soils have also attracted the attention of outsiders.
Economy & Society
The Nuba are mountain agriculturists, with hill terraces and larger cultivations on the plains. Their main crops are millet, sesame, corn (maize), groundnuts (peanuts), beans, onions, cotton, and tobacco. They also keep cattle, sheep, goats, donkeys, fowl, and (except in Islamized areas) pigs.
Nuba communities are now under government-appointed chiefs. Marriage payments are made in livestock, weapons, and other objects and by agricultural service. Kinship descent among the Nuba is, broadly speaking, matrilineal in the south and patrilineal elsewhere. Varying degrees of Islamization may be observed among the Nuba, and Arabic is used as the lingua franca.
Culture & Religion
Facial and body scarification is still practiced by some Nuba tribes in remote hill areas. Body paint is something rare nowadays but when the region is more peaceful it will probably see a comeback of the body decoration through bright colours. In some areas the lower incisors are removed in both sexes. Male circumcision is now more widely practiced and big ceremonies with music and dancing are organised for the occasion.
There is a wider similarity among almost all the tribes in the Nuba Mountains as far as customs and traditions are concerned, to the extent that makes one believe that there is is fact a "unity of culture" among all the Nuba tribes. What is known locally as "Sibir" is one of the most important traditions which is practiced extensively and almost covers the whole area of the Nuba Mountains. Sibir is a range of ceremonies take place in a festive nature, which does occur annually to indicate the beginning of different seasons of human activities in the Nuba Mountains. For example: Sibir of Fire, of Cultivation, Wrestling, Hunting, Sowayba (a store in which the Nuba keep their crops) and Kambala dance.
In our attempts to shed some light on the life-style of the Nuba people, I will give in detail examples of some customs and traditions practiced in the Nuba Mountains.
There are more than twenty difference Sibirs and ceremonies in the Nuba Mountain, and they differ according to tribes.
Sibir is a festival that takes place twice or more every year and it differs from an area to another in the Nuba Mountains. The festival is attended by the youngsters as well as the elders and animals are slaughtered. Kujur (the rainmaker) would ask all the people especially the rich to bring a large number of cattle and goats and he would perform some magical ceremonies on these animals and mark them with some white ashes as an indication that these animals have become for the "strangers". The animals would then be stabbed with spears and the cows’ hamstring cut from behind to bring the animal into submission, then the animal would be slaughtered. Then, people would rush to take the blood of the slaughtered animals after the Kujur takes his sufficient amount and pour it in a gourd and spray it out over the guests and relatives for blessing. After that all the food and slaughtered animals that brought from every village for Sibir, would be taken to the Kujur’s house where all the people would eat and drink. Then dancing would start and continue daily for the whole week. During this time the Kujur would baptize a suitable candidate to practice formally as a new Kujur.
The Fire Sibir is considered to be one of the greatest Sibir to the Nuba. It takes place after the cultivation season, precisely in November of every year. In that day cattle-herders would hold their cattle from going to graze, and would not allow the animals to graze only after the Sibir had performed and that the Kujur had sprayed some water of blessing on the animals. The Kujur, in that day, would call upon all the people, men and women, together for a festival, which he has prepared for them. The house of the Kujur normally located at the top of a hill above all the houses of the ordinary people of the village. When the people arrive at the house of the Kujur they would find that he had prepared all the food and a kind of beer known locally as Mariesa. The Kujur also would provide a large number of animals to be slaughtered for his guests who are visiting him in his house. The Kujur’s house would contain some smooth stones decorated sticks and spears and a range of necklaces, heads of wild animals and birds and some snakes. The Kujur’s house is never empty of the locally made items from clay and gourds. Then the Kujur would perform some ceremonies and mutter some meaningless phrases, and then light a huge fire on the grass, as a leader to this process after that the participants on the top of the hill would cut green grasses and lay it on the fire and then would beat who they want to beat from relatives and people they know believing that this act will drive away the evil from these people. If a young man at that time was able to beat a girl of his dream with such grass, that means he would be the suitable candidate to marry her, the same thing applies to the young ladies as well.
After the blessing was performed, the locals would disperse after this visit to the Kujur’s house in which even the leaders of the village would not escape the beating from the local as far as the decision is coming from the Kujur in that particular day. The locals would run after their leaders and beat them while the fire is lit and the hills echoed to the sound of the loud screaming and the laughter of the locals. Then the Kujur would ask the locals to bring string beans and peanuts to be grilled under a big Ardieb tree which usually located at the side of a road, and this would be considered as a banquet to be eaten by the passers-by and not to be taken home by anybody. Then the Kujur, leading the precession, would declare that the fire would be lit on the dry grass around the village. Then he would set a day for the Sibir’s big festive day, where the people would prepare food and drinks in their houses in that particular day. That festive day is considered to be Eid, in which reconciliation would take place between the antagonists in the village. The whole month would be considered for forgiveness and blessing for good health. After that the local would play and dance on the musical tones of the local instruments like Bukhsa and Rababa and so on for three days.
The Nuba people for many years have been known in the West for their distinctive culture, and they are culturally vivid and physically diverse ethnic group inhabiting central Sudan. Among the many cultural activities which the Nuba have, is 'Kambala Dance'.
The Kambala is a spiritual dance originating in Sabori village near Kadugli, which perhaps was founded in the early 18th century during the reign of Mek Andu of Kadugli. This traditional and ceremonial dance has been passed on from one generation to another up to today. Now Kambala is a popular dance and it is one of the main national dances which are performed on special occasions and it had been performed outside the Sudan as well.
The word Kambala has no definite meaning but it is associated with boys' maturity and adolescence, an important age for the Nuba boy. At this age the boy is considered to be mature enough to be second in command in the house after the father. Therefore Kambala is principally a ceremony to mark the induction of age-set boys into manhood. It's performance is usually initiated by the Kujur, a powerful man in the Nuba society: he is like a chief and sometimes known as a rain-maker. The Kambala dance itself has much to do with bringing up Nuba men to be brave, courageous and audacious like a bull. This is demonstrated by dancing and making beating rhythmic sounds like a bull.
A Kambala dancer traditionally wears Buffalo horns which are tied to his head with a long white turban and on the top of each horn is attached a colourful piece of cloth, and sometimes he wears a nickel or beads on his neck put by either his sister or his mother. The dancer also wears around his waist a thin rope or leather belt encircled by long thin strips up to his knees, which are usually made from branches of palm trees. Around his arms and legs, he ties bundles of small balls made also from the branches of palm trees and containing small beads (stones) to make rhythmic sounds. In his hand he holds a horsetail attached to small piece of wood which he swings across his face while dancing.
The performance of the dance follows a special ceremony which is carried by the Kujur who announce the start of Kambala dance and generally takes places during the mid-raining season and usually in August and it continues for 28 days until the end of harvest.
At the early days a ceremonial whip was kept in Sabori with the Kujur, who decides when the time has come for it to be taken to the house of the Mek, or king, together with a sacrificial goat or lamb. However, this tradition was changed a little bit at the time of Mek Rahhal who he decided to keep the whip with him. The distribution of the whips and permission for the performance of the dance were then carried out by the mek of Kadugli and usually the whips are sent to three main places around Kadugli: the first one to Murta and Miri Juwa (inside Miri), the second from Sabori to Kadugli to Miri Barra (outer Miri) and the third one to all areas south of Kadugli whose people speak Kadugli language.
When the day for Kambala to start is announced all the young men who have reached 12-14 years of age are publicly summoned to attend. The women file into the arena and start to sing in a circle, while the referees or whip-holders take up their positions and they usually stand far from the dancing circle. Each boy is led dancing into the arena and then suddenly he comes out from the dancing circle, dancing towards the whip-holder and presents his naked back to the whip-holder and submits to lashing without flinching. He will never turn away from the whip-holder until a woman comes and stands between him and whip-holder and then he will continue dancing back to the arena where the women will sign for him and for his bravery. The women singers will mock the cowardly ones who show sign of pain, and they sing and praise those who stand silent and show no movement at all while they are lashed. These young men demonstrate their skills at dancing and their ability to withstand pain which is the main exercise of this ceremonial dance.
All the young men will continue to dance and queue up to receive their lashes which continue until sunset while the dance and the ceremony continues until around midnight that day. The boys are led to special rooms where they are kept for 28 days of singing and dancing. After that moment the whip is passed on around the villages after the mek has given his blessing. Traditionally, at the end of the 28 days there will be no Kambala dance. However, it is performed sometimes for special occasion.
One of the famous Nuba traditions, well-known from the pictures of George Rodger and Leni Riefenstahl, is stick-fighting. This is rarely practised today. One of the Nuba tribes most well-known for stick fighting is the Moro.
The Moro area, which is located half-way between Kadugli and Talodi, is occupied by the Moro tribe one of the largest tribes in the Nuba Mountains. The Moro people maintain and practice very ancient traditions as long as they live. There is no way that these traditions, as part of their ancestral heritage, be abandoned.
The stick-fighting is a contest conducted by, as the name indicates, a stick and a shield between two contestants, This sport is always carried out at the end of autumn and the beginning of harvest, and it is completely forbidden during the cultivation season, in case it puts the youths off their work. Stick fighting is part of the ceremonies that follow the harvest, in which thanks is given to God for providing a good harvest. It is embedded in the spiritual traditions of the people.
The fight always begins by an invitation from one tribe to another. The invited tribe may detain the dispatched envoy just for provocation and excitement. The hosts have to make their way to fetch their messengers; and, thereafter, they engage in fighting. Another way of starting the competition is by symbolic provocation. For example, a man, aged 17 - 20 years old, may hold the hands of his rival’s fiancée for a couple of minutes, or cut her bracelets made from beads. When a would-be her husband hears about this, he instantly declares the fight by tying a handkerchief or piece of cloth on his competitor’s house at night, so that the contending should begin in the next morning.
The fight can be between two individual fighters from different villages, or between two villages themselves, fighting collectively.
There are special arenas set aside for this fighting where every athlete arrives with his equipment. Though the sport may be potentially lethal, every fighter ties ribbons of thick cloths or torn blankets around his body to lessen the effects of the stick blows. Some contenders put hats made of seeds or even mud on their heads for protection, and the heads are decorated with butter as indication of great wealth.
While the stick-fighting is performed, girls sing continually, praising one fighter as a bull, a leopard, an elephant or a lion; and, on the other hand, scolding the competitor as a coward, a hooligan and a womaniser.
Since the sport can be fatal, the participants say their prayers before heading to the assigned squares just in case they may come back as dead bodies. These stick-fighters can be Christians, Muslims or followers of African noble spiritual beliefs. Before the beginning of the match, human circles are formed and, as a sign for starting the competition, the old or retired fighters initiate the game by skirmishes.
If one of the fighters is badly hurt, he will be compensated with a symbolic reparation, such as cow.
The stick fighting has merits and demerits. Its merits include:
1. It is a means of maintaining social and clan ties, since every one who travels outside the region is keen to return home for the occasion, so that he may not be accused of cowardice.
2. The fighter never commits adultery, nor does he philander with women, to maintain his stamina.
3. The fighter usually lives with cows in their fence, drinking their milk and looking after them.
4. The most important role of stick fighting is to inculcate the virtues of physical bravery and the ability to withstand pain. A good stick fighter will be a good warrior.
The demerits are:
1. The possibility of mutilation of the fighter’s face.
2. The breaking of his legs or arms that may cause a permanent disability, and even death in some instances.
Because of the dangers of stick fighting, in recent years the South Kordofan Advisory Council has restricted it. The fear is that young men will be injured or killed in this sport. At times of celebration such as SPLA day there are demonstrations of stick fighting but the old-style of combat is now very rarely found.
Regarding religious practices we see that despite widespread Islam among the plain Nuba tribes, in the hills the religious practices are still linked with the old African agricultural rituals; animal sacrifices are made to ancestral spirits; and priestly experts and rainmakers have an important position.
Also known as Felata, Fula, Fulani or Mbororo.
Population & Ecosystem
300.000 Falata live in the forested savannah plains between El Obeid (Kordofan) and Ad Damazin (Blue Nile). The Falata are a sub-group of the much larger Fulani, a tribe that is spread across much of West Africa. The reclusive Falata people are a Semitic tribe that migrated from western Africa to greater Sudan starting in the 19th century, reportedly settling in the region on their return from a pilgrimage to Mecca.
Economy & Society
The Falata in Sudan are semi-nomadic, mixing farming with shepherding. Although some Fulani tribes travel seasonally with their flocks, the Falata have a permanent home they live in for half of the year. They only travel during the dry season, when grazing lands and water are scarce. Many of the men have multiple wives. Since cattle are a symbol of wealth among the Falata, brides are sometimes chosen because of the amount of cattle they own.
Falata society is divided into casts. The fairly rigid caste system of the Falata people has medieval roots, was well established by the 15th-century, and it has survived into modern age. The four major castes in their order of status are ‘nobility, traders, tradesmen (such as blacksmith) and descendants of slaves’.
On top of the pyramid there are the Dimo, meaning ‘noble’. The Dimo are followed by the artisan caste, including blacksmiths, potters, griots, genealogists, woodworkers, and dressmakers. They belong to castes but are free people. On the lower part of the pyramid there are those castes of captive, slave or serf ancestry. The Fulani castes are endogamous in nature, meaning individuals marry only within their caste.
Central to the Falata people's lifestyle is a code of behaviour known as pulaaku, literally meaning the ‘Falata pathways’ which are passed on by each generation as high moral values of the Wodaabe, which enable them to maintain their identity across boundaries and changes of lifestyle. Essentially viewed as what makes a person Falata, pulaaku includes:
Munyal: Patience, self-control, discipline, prudence
Gacce / Semteende: Modesty, respect for others (including foes)
Hakkille: Wisdom, forethought, personal responsibility, hospitality
Sagata / Tiinaade: Courage, hard work
Culture & Religion
The traditional dress of the Falata consists of long colourful flowing robes, modestly embroidered or otherwise decorated. Both men and women wear a characteristic white or black cotton fabric gown, adorned with intricate blue, red and green thread embroidery work, with styles differing according to region and sex.
It is not uncommon to see the women decorate their hair with bead hair accessories as well as cowrie shells. Falata women often use henna for hand, arm and feet decorations. Their long hair is put into five long braids that either hang or are sometimes looped on the sides. It is common for women and girls to have silver coins and amber attached to their braids. Some of these coins are very old and have been passed down in the family. The women often wear many bracelets on their wrists. The women can also be seen wearing a colourful cloth around, the waist, head or over one shoulder.
Like the men, the women have markings (combination of scarification and tattooing) on their faces around their eyes and mouths that they were given as children.
Falata men are often seen wearing solid-coloured shirt and pants which go down to their lower calves, made from locally grown cotton, a long cloth wrapped around their faces, and a conical hat made from straw and leather on their turbans, and carrying their walking sticks across their shoulders with their arms resting on top of it. Often the men have markings on either side of their faces and/or on their foreheads. They received these markings as children. Falata ethics are strictly governed by the notion of pulaaku. Women wear long robes with flowery shawls. They decorate themselves with necklaces, earrings, nose rings and anklets.
One of the most important events in Falata culture is the Gerewol, a yearly ceremony that gathers all the Falata clans so that young members of the tribe can flirt and meet their future wives and husbands. Gerewol happens at the end of the rainy season (late September, early October) but rehearsals and smaller Gerewol ceremonies can be seen all year around. During the Gerewol, dancing and singing become central.
The Falata have a rich musical culture and play a variety of traditional instruments including drums, hoddu (a plucked skin-covered lute similar to a banjo), and riti or riiti (a one-string bowed instrument similar to a violin), in addition to vocal music. Zaghareet or ululation is a popular form of vocal music formed by rapidly moving the tongue sideways and making a sharp, high sound.
The Falata were one of the first people groups in Chad to be converted to Islam. The Falata still hold on to many old Fulani traditions. They believe that family, cattle, strong morals, beauty, poetry, singing, and dancing are the most important things in life.
Also known as Bedawi or Beni Amer.
Population & Ecosystem
300.000 Beja live in the extensive semi-desert plains between Kassala and the Red Sea around the borders of Eritrea and Sudan.
Economy & Society
They lead a tribal pastoral life, with those in the northern territories raising camels, and the southerners raising cattle. In contemporary era, many have adopted a farming lifestyle and become migrant wage labour providers.
The Beja are said to be the descendants of Noah's grandson, Cush (son of Ham). They are a native African people who have occupied their current homelands for more than 4,000 years. During that time, they adopted their Islamic religion. The Beja in Sudan are divided into four tribes: the Hadendowa, the Amarar, the Ababda, and the Beni Amer. They inhabit over 110,000 square miles (284,800 square km) in eastern Sudan. Their native language is called Bedawiya, although many are also fluent in Arabic or Tigre.
The Beja are divided into clans. They are named after their ancestors, and the line of descent is traced through the males. Each clan has its own pastures and water sites that may be used by others with permission. Clans vary from one to twelve families. Disputes between clans are often settled by traditional Beja law; but most day-to-day affairs are managed by the heads of the families. The Beja are a hospitable people, always showing kindness to other clans; however, they are not necessarily friendly to foreigners.
The Beja prefer cross-cousin marriages. After a marriage contract has been made, a large gift of livestock, clothing, and other goods is given to the bride's family. The goal of young couples is to have many male children and to acquire a great number of female camels. Only the wealthiest Beja have more than one wife.
Culture & Religion
The Beja have a uniquely huge crown of fuzzy hair, first recorded in Egyptian rock paintings (circa B.C. 2000). Rudyard Kipling gave them the famous name "the Fuzzy Wuzzies." Kipling was specifically referring to the Hadendowa, who fought the British, supporting the "Mahdi," a Sudanese leader of a rebellion against the Turkish rule administered by the British.
Virtually all of the Beja are Muslims; however, they practice what is known as "folk Islam." Their beliefs are interwoven with a rich variety of traditional beliefs. For example, they believe that men have the power to curse others by giving them the "evil eye." They also believe in wicked jinnis (spirits capable of taking on animal forms) and other invisible spirits. They believe that evil spirits can cause sickness, madness, and accidents. They have adopted many Islamic practices such as repeating prayers, but these prayers are not largely understood.
Also known as Rachaida or Maraziq.
Population & Ecosystem
100.000 Rashaida nomads live in the desert region from the north-eastern borders with Egypt, to the eastern borders with Eritrea.
Economy & Society
Rashaida are traditionally nomadic camel shepherds and move from one place in the desert to another, allow their animals to graze, before packing up their tents and moving on to the next oasis. Rashaida men are excellent traders, using their camels and Toyota pickup trucks to distribute goods imported from Middle Eastern countries—a lucrative endeavour. A portion of their wealth resulted from renting their camels to freedom fighters during Eritrea's 30-year war of independence.
The colourful Rashaida came to Eritrea from Saudi Arabia about 170 years ago. Living in the desert along the coastline of the Red Sea, their homeland extends from Massawa, Eritrea, to Port Sudan, Sudan. The Rashaida are an Arab Bedouin tribe who trace their roots to the Hijaz. Two centuries ago they left the coastal territory in search for food and water, finding refuge in Sudan. They have done well, and are known to be Sudan's largest exporter of livestock. They are famous for their massive wealth of camels, which are hugely popular in Egyptian markets - despite their high prices. There are 65 branches of the Rashaida tribe and nearly 70 percent of the tribe still live as Bedouins.
Money is worthless to the Rashaida, and instead camels indicate social status and wealth. A man who is wealthy in property and money is considered poor by the Rashaida if he has no camels. It was only recently that the tribe began to open up to outsiders, although they remain fiercely observant of their ancient Arab traditions. The Rashaida still follow a social system based on gender segregation. Women are completely forbidden from revealing their faces, except to their husbands at home. Girls are not allowed to choose their husbands and their families decide who they shall marry. They marry only within the Rashaida clan, although you will find the occasional young man or woman breaking from tradition.
Culture & Religion
The tribe, especially its elders, still keep their Hijaz dialect and traditional Bedouin attire. It is rare to find a Rashaida woman wearing Sudan's national dress, the thobe. Instead, they wear burqas studded with seashells, usually made from velvet in bright colours, mostly red. Rashaida women always wear beautiful veils over their faces. This practice begins when they are children so that no man besides their husband will ever see their face. Once when visiting a Rashaida family, I noticed a mother kiss her young daughter - the veil separating her lips from the child's cheek.
Islam is at the core of Rashaida culture. Due to their mobile lifestyle, a family prayer house is central to their worship.
Also known as Baria, Baza or Bazen.
Population & Ecosystem
200.000 Kunama live in the dry hilly borderlands of Sudan, Eritrea, and Ethiopia.
Economy & Society
In the past, the Kunama people practiced nomadism as their way of life but are currently sedentary farmers and pastoralists. Farming is the most important economic activity of the Kunama people. They cultivate millet, sorghum, and legumes. Harvesting is also conducted by the entire community and celebrations made through songs and dances.
The Kunama are a matrilineal and matrilocal people. They enjoy a liberal and democratic way of life with women having high social status and equal property shares. Social attributes among the Kunama is known to have clan divisions into six main groups. These main clans are then divided into sub-clans (formed based on localities). The clans are based on the maternal lineage of the family. The Kunama people are the only ethnic group in the Horn of Africa that base its clans on maternal pedigree. These clans include Lakka, Nataka, Alaka, Serma, Sogona, Akartakara, Shila, Kara, Jula among others. The different clans play different roles such as summoning rain, warding off insects like locusts which destroy harvests.
The Kunama have withstood repeated invasions and raids from more powerful, more patriarchal neighbors. Outsiders often call them by the depreciating name Barià, meaning slaves. For three centuries the Kunama were forced to pay tribute to the Funj Empire of Sudan, who also took many of them captive and enslaved them.
Kunama land is “a territory historically exposed to risk,” and that the Andinnas (trance-priestesses) give expression to collective trauma in their ritual theatre, “transforming the memory of violence undergone.” They enact Otherness and themes of border-crossing, in a way similar to the zar religion. They smoke and use male behaviour, gestures, and voices. They reproduce the gestures, moods, positions or bodies of foreign spirits, of the dominators. They act out raids and counter-raids, with acts modelled on European and Ethiopian armies, such as drills and presenting arms. Some of their songs are battle songs. This is “to control and also emotionally express the violence undergone, and the fear.” That is indubitable, but there may be another dimension we should consider: the activation of protective spirits around Kunama lands. Even the processional route the Andinnas traverse seems to have a protective magical dimension.
Another layer of politics is from recent colonial rule and European religion. The earliest accounts of Andinnas (of Kunama culture generally) come from Swedish and Italian missionaries, and are deeply stained with their prejudices against indigenous religion and culture as pagan superstition. A Swedish letter from Kulluku village refers to the mother of a young convert as a “witch doctor.” The woman may well have been an Andinna.
Kunama women do not stay in the house; they move freely across the land in daily life. Especially young women cover a lot of terrain in bringing home water. For this reason, as well as the strong mother-right customs of their culture, they have the reputation of being “free” among neighbouring peoples. These outsiders, both the Muslim Sudanese and Christian and Muslim Ethiopians, believe that Kunama women hold headship over their men. 1This belief is fortified by the lack of sanctions against Kunama women taking lovers, something that the patriarchal neighbours disapprove and severely punish in women.
Traditionally, Kunama women are free to take lovers as they choose, as a different source explains: “As soon as she reaches puberty, a Kunama girl is given a hut of her own where she can entertain her male friends. She is totally free to choose her own boy-friend, a lover or her future husband. It is very seldom that the Kunama parents would practise pre-arranged marriages for their children.” When an unmarried woman takes a lover and becomes pregnant, her parents ask her who the father is. They ask him if he is willing to marry her. If he refuses, she goes through the ‘Mashkabara’ ceremony. The young man provides a cow to be sacrificed, and the young woman’s extended family comes to mark her passage from girlhood:
The traditional values of the Kunama are communal and strongly egalitarian in many ways. It is a culture of sharing, free of class stratification or of one group lording it over another. Society is organized around the mother-kin, and we have already seen the importance of the Andinna priestesses. However, Kunama women are subjected to female genital excision and even infibulation. These may have been adopted from their patriarchal neighbours, who have invaded and raided and oppressed them for centuries. However it came to be, excision is now deeply embedded in the culture. A third of Kunama women suffer the most severe form, known as infibulation. In this extremely painful ordeal, the clitoris and entire vulva are amputated and the external labia are sewn together into a wall of flesh. Heterosexual intercourse can take place only by cutting the woman open. The Kunama have a name, koda, for the special relation between two women who passed through infibulation together, their legs tied apart to each other.
Andinnas dance for the dead at burial in communal graves, to the same song that is sung for the grain harvest.
This priestess lineage connects with the Kunama ancestors, whose souls come from the spirit-country Arka. In their society, lands are communal, and so if a husband leaves there are no severe consequences. Nevertheless, women are tempted to marry patriarchal men from the wealthier highlands.
The ritual has remained unchanged for 2000 years. The ancestors call women by making them faint at graves. They dance with sword and spear to greet ancestors, to the east and to the west. (The weapons are considered symbols of power, defensive only, and are related to the Meroitic queens of Sudan.) During initiation, the woman falls to the ground, and her hair must touch the spear to connect with the ancestral spirits. The Andina should not be open to all spirits. They call names of the ancestors; a woman touching her hair is a sign that she’s connecting with them. The women not always comfortable as they anticipate what ancestor will come.
The Andina take a different name, Lugus, when in ecstasy. They put on a beautiful, hornlike crown of fat, over an unnamed sacred substance, and wear it during the weeks of the annual rite. The women display entranced speech and gestures, often asking for chewing tobacco, and perform other acts of the spirits. They are forbidden to use water the morning after their initiation; the young Andina clean with sesame and chew it. During several weeks of ritual, they walking over the land, many miles in special iron shoes used only for this occasion. Walking through villages they’re given coffee, tea, sesame. When greeting an older Andina, they kiss her and grab her vulva.
At end of the ritual period, the women dance for hours. They sacrifice a chicken, whose blood they drink, then they roast it and eat with sesame and honey, no other spices. After this finale, the Andina spirits return to their world. A reversed ritual of entranced women takes place over the sword and spear. They symbolically die and are carried back to the village by men, and are said to be able to jump over the huts in their potentized state. One spirit of a very old Andina initially refused to leave a young woman’s body. The initiates stay together on a mat for one night in this return passage.
They awaken in a deep trance, with no memory of the past weeks. Their skin is cut with little stones and herbs and ashes rubbed in, to make a sign so that Andinas can recognize each other. The ritual is repeated every year when the sun and moon appear together on the horizon.
Culture & Religion
Kunama people look quite different to their neighbours. Apart from a darker skin, Kunama women decorate their hairs with metal rings and beads and do complex hairdos. Beaded necklaces and metal anklets and bracelets are still popular among Kunama women too. Kunama young men wear multi-coloured handmade cotton clothes and have uniquely huge crown of fuzzy hair or dreadlocks. In Sudan, most Kunama have been converted into Islam but in smaller communities near the Eritrean border the traditional religion revolving around the figure of the trance priestesses (Andinna) is still alive.
Also known as Komo, Koma, Ganzo, or Gwami.
Population & Ecosystem
2.600 Komo Ganza live in the forested plains of the Blue Nile Province of Sudan. They also live in South Sudan and in Ethiopia.
Economy & Society
The Komo Ganza are shepherds and farmers. They raise cattle, sheep, and goats. Their crops include sorghum, maize, sesame, okra, peppers, cotton, and tobacco. They engage in some hunting and fishing, and also do some trading with other nearby peoples. The men hunt, fish, and do most of the herding and milking, while the women help the men with farm labour. The women also collect honey from the hives in the bush.
Komo Ganza marriages take place by the exchange of sisters from one village to the next. Marriage between close relatives is forbidden. The groom is not required to perform a bride-service (working for the bride's family before a marriage can take place), and a bride-price is uncommon. Polygamy (having more than one spouse) exists, but only a few of the wealthiest Komo Ganza have more than one wife.
Each village (or small group of villages) has a headman who inherits his office and exercises limited authority. He is considered "the Father of the Land." Although families clear and cultivate the fields, individual families do not own the land. Instead, the land collectively belongs to the entire village, under the leadership of the headman. The headman also keeps in his possession the symbolic insignia of the Komo Ganza, such as strings of beads, spears, and village drums.
"Rain-makers" (men who conduct rituals in order to bring much needed rain) also inherit their positions and may sometimes serve as village headmen. In addition, each village has a religious expert who specializes in magic and is subject to inspiration from spirits.
Culture & Religion
Most Komo Ganza follow their traditional ethnic religion. This religion teaches the worship of a supreme god who is considered the creator of all things, and the worship of the spirits of dead ancestors. Divination (the use of supernatural powers), magic, and rain-making are also a part of the traditional religion.
Also known as Bega, Deguba, or Shanqilla.
Population & Ecosystem
90.000 Gumuz live in the fertile forested plains and hills north of Dinder National Park and across the border in western Ethiopia where they number 200.000 people. The Gumuz are primarily located in eastern Sudan. This area is called a "bush-savanna" region because it is mostly flat with some stone hills that are covered with bamboo and other small trees.
Economy & Society
The Gumuz people hunt with bows and arrows. Most breed cattle or farm for a living. They farm their lands together as a clan. When a boy reaches the age of 16, he may work his own farm along with his father's. During the harvest season, they build huts on the fringe of the farmland and live there. They grow millet, sorghum, onion, cotton, tobacco, mango, and various spices. The staple food of the Gumuz is porridge flavoured with a sauce made from leaves, onions, and spices. They supplement their diet with pumpkin seeds, peanuts, fruit, and some insects, and - like many of us - they like to drink coffee. Because they are farmers, trading is important to them, but the lack of roads makes this difficult. They trade most often with the nearby Arab settlers or with the Oromo people from Ethiopia. In exchange for their goods, they receive coffee, cloth, soap, salt bars, and other items.
The clannish nature of the Gumuz keeps their community cohesive, and when there is an infraction, the entire clan involves itself in the punishment. Discipline is meted out for such things as stealing, lying, and wife abuse, keeping drunkenness and idleness to a minimum. When a daughter is ready for marriage, the clans perform a "sister exchange." That is, the newly married man gives his wife's clan a young woman from his own clan to "replace" the woman he married.
Culture & Religion
The Gumuz of Sudan still have a different look to the surrounding tribes. Gumuz women wear nicely designed large aluminium earrings and many beaded necklaces. The older generation has metal nose piercings and body scarification. The Gumuz of Sudan have been forced to convert into Islam in the last 30 years, said this Islam is still superficial and traditional religion is still active in the small mountain villages. Spirits are called mus'a and are thought to dwell in houses, granaries, fields, trees and mountains. They have ritual specialists called gafea. Rebba is their "supreme god who knows all." The Gumuz firmly believe that if a woman drinks milk, she will go bald, and if a man eats cabbage, he will be lazy. If a woman eats porridge while she is making it, they believe she or her husband will become ill.
Population & Ecosystem
Nubia comprises the land along the Nile reaching from just south of Dongola to Aswan in Egypt.
Economy & Society
Agriculture was and still is the basis of the Nubian economy. The scarcity of cultivable land was an outstanding feature of old Nubia. As a result, men migrated to cities to find work, and women were left to do the agricultural work. In Nubia, palm dates are an important subsistence crop. Transplanting palm shoots was governed until recent times by the Coptic calendar. The Sudanese Nubians also use their land to cultivate a cash crop, namely cotton. They have had to cope with the requirements of cultivating vast lands, a practice that they were not used to in old Nubia. Dates are no longer part of the subsistence economy among Sudanese Nubians. Women used to make utilitarian items—plates, mats, clothes, and so forth. Today very few Nubian women engage in craftwork because household needs are readily available to them in the market. After resettlement due to the construction of giant dams in Nubian land, many Nubian men have turned into grocery-store owners and cab drivers. After relocation, both the more accessible roads and integration into the cash economy contributed to an increase in trade activities in Sudanese Nubia.
Prior to resettlement, Nubia was relatively isolated from the Egyptian and Sudanese governments. In Egypt, Nubia was divided into thirty-nine districts, each headed by a government-appointed headman (omda), who acted as the liaison between the district and the government. The town of Eneba was the seat or centre of the Nubian government. In Sudan, there were six districts that served the same political function. The districts in Sudan did not exist before Muhamad Ali's conquest of Egypt and Sudan. The omda also appointed the town heads and the police officers, whose responsibilities included aiding citizens to register births and deaths, dealing with the rare instances of crime, and distributing government aid sent to the Nubian Valley. After resettlement, all of the Nubian groups acquired the new political organization of their respective states, which were in the process of postcolonial nation building.
Disputes and crime were originally handled by the elders of the hamlet, and rarely was a police officer or headman involved. Arab councils—tribunals based on tribal or clan affiliation—intervened to mediate any conflict that escalated (usually conflict over land).
Today traditional social-control mechanisms are used to resolve some conflicts, but, increasingly since 1965, conflict resolution has required more modern mechanisms, for example courts and state-trained police officers.
It is a history that Nubians are proud of, although they complain that the central government has neglected the long pre-Islamic history of their region in favour of a standard Islamist narrative of Sudanese culture. Nubia remains as neglected as any part of Sudan away from Khartoum.
Modern Nubians are divided into three main groups – the Danaqla around the Dongola Reach, the Mahas from the Third Cataract to south of Wadi Halfa, and the Sikurta around Aswan. Each group speaks a slightly different dialect of the Nubia tongue.
Nubian architecture is very distinct to the rest of vernacular architectures in Sudan. Houses sit in a large courtyard surrounded by a high wall. The most notable feature of the building is the gateway. The threshold to the property is often of an exaggerated size and highly decorated with stucco and bright colours. Geometric patterns are popular, but also pictures and symbols that may relate to the family inside – vehicles are popular, as are stars and palm trees. Scorpions and eyes ward off the evil eye, while a book (representing the Koran) and the Holy Ka’aba in Mecca may indicate that the owner has performed the Hajj pilgrimage. Where possible, the gate always faces the Nile. Inside the compound a flat-roofed area provides a sitting area facing the courtyard, with separate entrances for the family and guest to maintain privacy. Houses are typically roofed using split palm trunks, but richer owners may roof their properties with mud-brick domes to help keep the inside cool during the day.
Culture & Religion
In Sudan, the groups also practise facial scarring. Mahas tribal men and women often display three wide scars on each cheek. With the Danaqla tribe, the same scars are found around the temple. Scarification, however, is becoming less and less popular with younger generations.
Music is important in Nubian culture. Unlike Arabic music it is based on the pentatonic scale, and so is more immediately accessible to Western ears. Traditional music features a kisir (five-stringed lyre) and a tar (drum). Nubian ‘pop’ music is highly synthesised and often introduces horns to weave further melodies into a heady jazz mix. Whichever style is played, the themes remain the same – call-and-response chants, love songs and songs in praise of the land. The best place to hear Nubian music is at a wedding. If you’re lucky enough to get invited to one it will be one of the highlights of your trip. A big wedding can last several days. The groom’s family holds an open house, building up to a large wedding feast. After eating, the music and dancing begins. Men and women dance separately but opposite each other in a highly charged and sensual atmosphere. The bride is prepared with smoke baths, then elaborately dressed, bedecked with jewellery, and painted with henna. On the wedding night, the bride and groom go to the Nile to wash to ensure their prosperity. The groom will have paid a bride-price to the bride’s father, which is one reason why first-cousin marriages are popular, as this keeps wealth in the family. Weddings are an expensive business, and the wages of Nubian expats working in the Gulf have greatly inflated bride-prices, causing problems for poor young men at home.
Today, Nubians practice Islam. To a certain degree, Nubian religious practices involve a syncretism of Islam and traditional folk beliefs. In ancient times, Nubians practiced a mixture of traditional religion and Egyptian religion. Prior to the spread of Islam, many Nubians practiced Christianity.
The Gerewol also written Guerewol is an annual courtship ritual competition among the Falata people of Sudan. Young men dressed in elaborate ornamentation and made up in traditional face painting gather in lines to dance and sing, vying for the attentions of marriageable young women. The Gerewol occurs each year as the traditionally nomadic Falata cattle herders gather in one point before dispersing on their dry season pastures.
At the end of the rainy season, mid-October, the Falata gather in a specific area to participate at the Gerewol festival, a meeting of several nomadic Falata clans. Here the young Falata men, with elaborate make-up, feathers and other adornments, perform dances and songs to impress women. The male beauty ideal of the Falata stresses tallness, white eyes and teeth; the men will often roll their eyes and show their teeth to emphasize these characteristics. The Falata clans will then join for their week-long Gerewol celebration, a contest where the young men's beauty is judged by young women.
Gerewol rehearsals and smaller Gerewols can be seen in Chad all year around. It is important to have an informant well connected to the different Falata clans so that the information is verified and transmitted in time.
The music and line dancing is typical of Fula traditions, which have largely disappeared among the vast diaspora of Fula people, many of whom are educated, Muslim, urbanites. This is characterized by group singing, accompanied by clapping, stomping and bells. The Falata Gerewol festival is one of the more famous examples of this style of repeating, hypnotic, and percussive choral traditions, accompanied by swaying line dancing, where the men interlink arms and rise and fall on their toes.
The Gerewol competitions involve the ornamented young men dancing the Yaake in a line, facing a young marriageable woman, sometimes repeatedly over a seven-day period, and for hours on end in the desert sun. Suitors come to the encampment of the woman to prove their interest, stamina, and attractiveness. The participants often drink a fermented bark concoction to enable them to dance for long periods, which reputedly has a hallucinogenic effect.
During the autumn harvest, generally Novemebr to February, festival (called Siber) are held. Which usually include wrestling and dancing. Nuba wrestling is a well-known as a sport; it is traditionally embedded in their culture.
Children were encouraged to practice from an early age, therefore they developed strong bodies and the ability to abide by rules, the also learnt to race, ride horses and go hunting.
Traditionally a wrestling competition marks a ritual ceremony, such as: 'siber', a coming of age, group, bonding ceremony; Community Events, or a Harvest festival, or even a part of a wedding ceremony. Preparations involve ceremonies whereby villagers select their representatives; this is an ongoing process throughout the year. When the day is set, fans begin a campaign to boost support and increase the popularity of their group’s competitors.
Wrestlers enter a boot camp which might last for weeks, depending on the match and how significant it is to them, training and special nutrition is provided. Carnival and many sorts of entertainment accompany the games, songs, dances etc. The winner gains a trophy, lots of gifts and great kudos.
The ongoing conflict in some areas of South Kordofan, where the more traditional Nuba tribes live makes it difficult (not impossible) to witness these fantastic festivals.
National Museum of Khartoum
The National Museum holds many treasures of Sudan’s ancient and medieval past. They’re well-presented and labelled, and give a good narrative of Sudanese history. Spread out over two floors, the ground floor starts with Sudan’s prehistory and covers the rise of Kerma and Kush in great detail. Kerma is particularly well represented through its famous pottery. The Kushite displays show the wide variety of cultural exchange in play throughout the kingdom. Egyptian culture is the strongest influence, shown particularly in the royal statues found at Jebel Barkal dating from around 690BC and the sarcophagus of Anlamani from his tomb at Nuri about 100 years earlier. A clear Hellenistic influence can be seen in the statue of the so-called ‘Venus of Meroë’ and a blue-glass chalice from Sedeinga, with depictions of gods and bearing a Greek inscription ‘You shall live’. A side room on the ground floor has space for temporary displays, often illustrating current archaeological digs.
The upstairs gallery holds the museum’s most unexpected displays – frescoes from Christian Nubia. Despite lasting for 700 years, Sudan’s early Christian kingdoms are little known to the outside world and repeated Sudanese governments have shown little interest in promoting this aspect of their history. I was as ignorant as most on my first visit, and was astounded to find beautiful frescoes depicting Christ and the Virgin Mary, along with a host of archangels, saints and apostles. The style of the frescoes is distinctly Byzantine, reflecting Nubia’s links with the Roman Empire in the east. Most were painted between the 8th and 14th centuries, and were taken from the cathedral at Faras, now submerged under Lake Nasser. The upstairs galleries can be a little dark, so you may want to take a torch with you in order to see the details in the frescoes.
Underneath purpose-built structures in the museum’s grounds are three remarkable temples rescued from the flood waters of Lake Nasser in the 1960s and resurrected here. The Temple of Kumma dates from 1473–1400BC during the reigns of Queen Hatshepsut and the pharaohs Tuthmosis III and Amenophis II. It was part of a series of fortresses built during the Middle Kingdom period to control the movement of goods and troops up and down the Nile. This particular temple was located at the Semna Cataract approximately 60km south of Wadi Halfa, which was then the frontier of Egyptian control. Part of the much larger Kumma Fortress, whose outer walls reached 10m high and 5m thick, the temple was situated in the northwest corner of the settlement and originally surrounded by mud-brick houses and storerooms connected with the everyday life of the priests and the worshippers.
Roughly contemporary with the Temple of Kumma is the Buhen Temple, dedicated to the falcon god Horus. What you see here is an inner temple divided into five rectangular rooms that would, in ancient times, have been surrounded by an outer courtyard with mud-brick walls. When Tuthmosis III came to power around 1450BC he systematically removed the names and depictions of earlier rulers and substituted them with his own. He also enlarged the complex significantly and placed within it stele proclaiming his victories in Libya and Syria. Later rulers altered the entrance way and widened the doors. The temple remained in use as late as AD450, after which time it was partially incorporated into a church.
The third temple is the Temple of Semna, built by the pharaohs of the Middle Kingdom as part of the fortifications at the Second Cataract, 60km south of Wadi Halfa. The temple was dedicated to the Nubian god Dedwen and the main building was constructed from stone, surrounded by a mud-brick wall. Projecting columns known as pilasters decorated the central courtyard and the reliefs, a later addition to the structure, depict Tuthmosis III. The temple remained in use at least until the 7th century BC.
The Ethnography Museum
This museum is located on Al-Gama'a Street in what it used to be the British army club. The museum is a bit run down but it is worth visiting because in it like travelling in time and has some top pieces worth admiring; mainly an Azande war drum (with the shape of a buffalo) and two gigantic Bongo funerary totems that can be seen in the museum’s exterior (left hand side). The museum shows the richness of the desert culture as well as the land that is now the South Sudan. On Fridays it is closed but we the right contacts you can get it open.
Al-Khalifa House Museum
This museum is located in Omdurman near Al-Mahdi's Tomb. It derived its name from the Khalifa Abdellah Al-Ta'aishi, the successor of Imam Mohamed Ahmed Al-Mahdi, who was officially residing at the very same place. This museum was established in 1928 and contains relics of the Mahdist period, Sultan Ali Dinar and Gordon Pasha when he was governor of Sudan.
This museum was built in Al-Obeid town in Kordofan and was opened in November 1965. It was given the name from Sheikan Valley, the site of a battle between Al-Mahdi's forces and hicks Pasha Army in 1883. The battle was won by Mahdi forces and the museum took on the name in memory of the battle. The museum reflects relics dating back to the Mahdist era, besides other archaeological works of art representing all the successive eras of Sudan. The museum further contains some ethnographical collections.
Sultan Ali Dinar Palace Museum in Al-Fashir
This museum was once a place of residence for the sultan as well as a government office for him. When the sultan died, the palace went into the hands of Al-Fashir governor. After that, its ownership was transferred to the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museum which transformed it into a museum.
The museum exhibits antiquities collections which represent the various historical periods of Sudan from the time of the Stone Age to the era of Christianity. The museum also shows some of the materials used by the sultan and members of his family. There are also some relics which represent the civilization of Darfur area.
Clearly visible from the Khartoum–Atbara highway, the pyramids of the Royal Cemetery of Meroe stand alone on a sandy ridge like a row of broken teeth. They are Sudan’s most popular tourist attraction, although in a country where tourism is in its infancy, popular is a relative term – you are still likely to have the site to yourself. The headline-grabbing treasures of Egypt have long overshadowed Sudan’s ancient history, but at Meroe the charm of the unknown is the great attraction – visitors can enjoy the rare sensation that they are discovering a long-hidden secret, without a tout offering a camel ride or belly dance in sight. Instead, it’s just you and the pyramids alone in the desert.
The site is divided into two main clusters – the Northern and Southern cemeteries. In total there are around 100 pyramids, although many of those are poorly preserved or exist only in outline traces. The South Cemetery is the older cluster, dating to around the 8th century BC, and the first kings who made the move from Nuri to Meroe were entombed here. Kings and queens continued to be buried at Meroe until the fall of Kushite rule in the 4th century AD.
While clearly Egyptian in inspiration, the pyramids are quite unlike those at Giza. The most notable difference is in size and pitch. The largest pyramid at Meroe is just under 30m high (or would have been where it still intact) with an angle approaching 70°. The smaller size allowed the pyramids to be constructed much faster and with less manpower, using simple cranes. Tomb chambers were dug directly into the rock below and the pyramid then erected above – a marked difference to Egypt, where the tomb is enclosed in the body of the pyramid. The pyramids have a rubble core encased in local sandstone (or brick towards the end of the Kushite period). The pyramids were then covered with a render of lime mortar to give a smooth gleaming surface, and the bases were simply painted in red, yellow and blue stars. On the eastern face each pyramid has a funerary chapel where offerings could be made to the dead.
The Northern Cemetery is the better preserved, and contains over 30 pyramids in various states of repair. Most have been decapitated. Their sorry state is largely the work of an Italian treasure hunter, Guiseppe Ferlini, who passed through in 1834. Ferlini was convinced that the pyramids contained great riches, and with the tacit support of the Turco-Egyptians, proceeded to pull them down. He struck gold on his first attempt. In Pyramid 6, that of Queen Amanishakheto, Ferlini found a hoard of jewellery in a chamber near the tomb’s apex. This was highly unusual, as grave goods were normally placed with the body in the tomb chamber beneath the pyramid. Thus inspired, Ferlini laboured on with his destruction only to come up blank – his greatest haul after this was nothing grander than some workmen’s tools. The gold, showing distinct Hellenistic influences, eventually found its way to the Egyptian museums in Berlin and Munich, while Sudan was left with a field of smashed pyramids.
Earlier damage was done by the tomb robbers of antiquity. As a result, comparatively little is known about royal funerary practices. Bodies were probably entombed facing east to greet the rising sun. The funerary chapels contain a mix of passages from the Egyptian Book of the Dead and offering scenes, often with Isis in attendance. At the centre of the Northern Cemetery is a small modern pyramid, its bright colour in stark contrast to the chocolate brown of its neighbours. This was restored in the 1980s as an exercise to recreate Kushite building techniques; its smooth rendered exterior gives some idea of how the pyramids would originally have appeared.
The older Southern Cemetery sits 500m south of the Northern cluster. There are over 60 smaller pyramids here, all belonging to the elite of Meroe. Many are totally ruined or lost altogether. A third, western, cemetery also contains noble tombs, including several well-preserved or reconstructed pyramids. Despite the otherwise apparent absence of people, it is sometimes possible to buy souvenirs from craftsmen outside the pyramids.
The holy mountain of Jebel Barkal, a great sandstone butte that dominates this stretch of the Nile, is situated 2km southwest of the centre of Karima (a 15-minute walk or SDG5 in a rickshaw). The ancient Egyptians and Kushites alike believed that the mountain was the home of the god Amun, the ‘Throne of Two Lands’ – Egypt and Nubia. The ruins of a temple dedicated to the god lie at the foot of the mountain. At dawn or dusk, Jebel Barkal still evokes a phenomenal aura and it’s easy to understand why the ancients ascribed such religious significance to it.
Thutmose III, one of the first Egyptian kings to penetrate this far south, built the first Temple of Amun in the 15th century BC. Later pharaohs, including Rameses II, expanded it, turning it into an important cultural centre, as well as a way station for goods from the south destined for the great Temple of Amun at Karnak. When Egyptian influence waned the temple fell into disrepair.
The rise of the Kushites changed the fortunes of the whole region. Jebel Barkal became the centre of the new kingdom and its kings resurrected the worship of Amun. In around 720BC Piye led his armies north into Egypt and captured Thebes. Ownership of the Temple of Amun gave legitimacy to his claim to be the true representative of Egyptian traditions; his successors set up the 25th Dynasty and ruled from Thebes and Memphis as pharaohs. Piye greatly expanded the temple at Jebel Barkal, as did his son, Taharqa. Over time the temple grew to over 150m in length, making it the largest Kushite building ever built.
The temple stretches out towards the Nile, near the bottom of a freestanding pinnacle of rock cracked from the sandstone cliffs. The significance of this pinnacle has puzzled archaeologists for decades. An early observer supposed that it was to have been a giant statue of a pharaoh, far surpassing anything in Egypt at 90m high. A more likely explanation is found in its profile, which (albeit roughly) resembles an ureaus – the protective cobra and symbol of the king. A relief in Rameses II’s massive temple at Abu Simbel in Egypt shows Amun sitting inside a mountain, faced with a rearing cobra. This iconography is found in later Kushite art and almost certainly represents Jebel Barkal. In the 1990s, archaeologists discovered a niche at the summit of the pinnacle carved with hieroglyphics proclaiming Taharqa’s military campaigns against his enemies. This was completely inaccessible (except to the gods) so would have been covered with a gold panel, allowing it to reflect in the light and provide a beacon for miles around. The light of Jebel Barkal would have been clearly visible from Taharqa’s pyramid upstream at Nuri.
The temple is very ruined and much of the structure is covered with sand, but the ground plan is still clear, with a procession of two large colonnaded halls leading into the sanctuary at the base of the mountain, surrounded by several small rooms. At the southern entrance of the temple there are several wind-worn granite statues of rams; these were actually from Soleb further downstream and have been relocated here. There are many scattered blocks covered with reliefs and hieroglyphics.
Old Dongola is a deserted town located on the east bank of the Nile opposite the Wadi Howar. An important city in medieval Christian Nubia that evolved as a meeting point for the caravans coming west from Darfur to Kordofan. From the 4th to the 14th century Old Dongola was the capital of the Makurian State and several churches where built. The ruins of a cathedral are still visible in the site.
Kassala or Kasala is an interesting city built by the Ottomans on the banks of the Gash River and surrounded by gigantic granitic rocks (Taka Mountains). Nowadays it is a market town and is famous for its fruit gardens. Many of its inhabitants are from the Beni-Amer (Beja sub-group) tribe, but also Bilen, Kunama from Eritrea, and a small group of Rashaida nomads can be found in the city and in the surrounding villages. Besides exploring the city markets, and tribal communities Kassala has a delightful old mosque siting at the base of the Taka Mountains. Khatmiyah Mosque is the most important centre for the Khatmiyah Sufi tariqa in Sudan. Mohammed Osman al Khatm founded the order at the end of the 18th century, bringing it to Sudan from Arabia. The mosque is dedicated to his son, Hassan al Mirghani, who did much to spread the Khatmiyah’s teachings until his death in 1869. It is believed to have been built on soil brought by al Khatm from Mecca, making it even more holy. Hassan al Mirghani’s tomb stood on the site of the original mosque, which was destroyed by the Mahdist Ansar in the 1880s. Visitors come to pray to receive baraka (blessings) from the tomb of Hassan, who has been elevated to the position of a wali – the closest that Islam comes to a saint.
The mosque is of plain brick, with a pointed octagonal minaret. The main prayer hall is open to the elements, with its arcades of columns. Attached is the domed ghobba (tomb) of Hassan. The drum of the dome is similarly open and local tradition has it that when it rains the tomb remains dry. There is a very peaceful air around the mosque. Women sit at the threshold selling dates and seeds, boys read the Koran in the attached school and there is a regular stream of people arriving to pray, against the low Sufi chant of La illaha illallah (‘there is no God but Allah’). During Eid al Adha, the mosque is packed with people bringing sheep for the ritual sacrifice. Non-Muslim visitors are welcome, but it is polite to ask before entering or taking photos.
Behind the mosque, the huge boulders of the mountains are a fine place to watch the proceedings, with their views of Khatmiyah and Kassala. It takes nearly an hour to walk to Khatmiyah from the centre of Kassala following the main road southeast; alternatively you can take the bus (SDG1) or a taxi (SDG15). The minaret is clearly visible from the road – any minibus to the village will also be able to drop you off. The mosque is a 15–20-minute walk from Toteil village.
Legend has it that Suakin was once the home of magical spirits: King Solomon imprisoned a djinn (genie) on the island. A ship full of Ethiopian maidens was on its way to visit the Queen of Sheba when a storm blew it off course to Suakin. When it finally set sail again, the virginal girls were astonished to discover themselves pregnant, carrying the seed of the supernatural host.
Most of Suakin’s visitors were the victims of other, worldlier transgressions. Slaves raided from the southern fringes of the Sudanese state – Bahr al Ghazal and along the White Nile – were brought here to be shipped to the markets of Jeddah and Cairo. The Funj, Ottomans and Egyptians all prospered from the trade. The first European to record his impressions of Suakin was the explorer John Lewis Burckhardt, who in 1814 found it a place of ‘ill-faith, avarice, drunkenness and debauchery’. Around 3,000 slaves annually passed through Suakin, including Burckhardt’s own slave whom he sold at the market.
Suakin owed its success to its lagoon location, which was ideal for the shallow draught of Arab ships. A 3km channel was eventually cut through the surrounding reef to improve access. The coral that was dredged up was cut into blocks and used in the construction of the island’s buildings. These were then bolstered with wooden pillars and covered with plaster. A causeway was built in 1880 under the orders of General Gordon to link the island to the mainland. The town’s gate, 1km inland in a straight line from the causeway (and conveniently next to the minibus stand), also dates from this period.
Since the abandonment of the port 100 years ago, Suakin has been decaying rapidly. The island itself is deserted, and you can have the place pretty much to yourself. Most of the buildings are in terrible shape. One of the best-preserved buildings is Khorshid Effendi’s House, on the north-eastern side of the island, which was occupied by Kitchener in the run-up to his campaign against the Khalifa. The fine wooden mashrabiya screens that covered the windows and allowed the female occupants to look out without being observed are long gone, but there is still evidence of the building’s fine decorative stucco. Two other well-preserved buildings are the Hanafi and Shafai mosques, with their distinctive stubby minarets. They were restored during the Turkiyah, but probably date from at least the 16th century. Along the western side of the island is the skeleton of a huge warehouse, a clearing house for both goods and people. Opposite the northern tip is the modern ferry terminal, still re-enacting the pilgrim route to Arabia.
Sudan has some important rock art. Most of the northern part of the country is either desert or semi-desert but there are fertile areas in the Nile Valley and there is a lot of art in these Rocky hills. In the extreme north east is a mountain called Jebel Awaynat on top of which the borders of Egypt, Libya and Sudan all meet. This area is very rich in rock engravings and paintings. South of here is an ancient river valley (ancient tributary of the Nile) with many important engravings and still further south and east of Darfur is Kordofan which is also rich in rock art. Meanwhile, there are rock paintings in the north east along the Ethiopian border. Southern Sudan does so far not appear to have much rock art but there is art in the Nuba Mountains and there is probably art not yet recorded near the Ethiopian border and the border with the Central Africa Republic (CAR).
At the nexus of Sudan, Libya and Egypt, where the borders meet at a point in the Eastern Sahara, a large rocky outcrop known as Jebel Uweinat peaks at an elevation of nearly 2,000 metres. The massif consists of a large, ring-shaped granite mass in the west, with sandstone plateaus in the east divided by deep valleys. Jebel Uweinat is so isolated that, until 1923, the proliferation of rock art around it had never been documented.
This rock art comes in the form of paintings and engravings, commonly of animals and overwhelmingly of domestic cattle – 337 painted sites out of 414 that have been counted contain depictions of cattle and cattle herds, and there are many further engravings of them. There is a disparity in the spread of each artwork technique – the engravings are predominantly at lower levels than the paintings, near the base of the mountain and valley floors, with the paintings at greater altitude. The images shown here come from Karkur Talh, the largest of these valleys, which lies mostly in Sudan.
While cattle are ubiquitous, there are also frequent depictions of humans in various styles, as well as other domesticates, including goats and dogs. The herds of cattle clearly reflect a pastoralist existence for the artists, but there are also indications of hunting taking place, through engravings of wild antelope and dog figures, as well as many engravings of camels.
This variety, and similarities to rock art sites elsewhere in the eastern Sahara, has led to conjecture and debate regarding the date and authorship of these depictions. Were the engravings and paintings made by the same people? Does the difference in drawing styles signify authorship by different cultures and at different times? The difficulties in objective dating of rock art make these questions difficult to answer, but it seems likely that there was a long tradition of painting and engraving here, with much of the ‘pastoralist’ rock art with cattle probably made between 5,000 and 7,000 years ago, some earlier styles possibly as much as 8,500 years ago, and other images such as camels made only about 2,000 years ago or less.
Other than giraffes, the lack of large wild animals depicted (e.g. elephants) may indicate the climate to have been too dry for them, as during this time the area fluctuated in aridity, eventually becoming desert. There are, however, permanent springs at Jebel Uweinat and a more temperate microclimate here may have allowed pastoralists to subsist while the surrounding area became inhospitable. Indeed, despite its present remoteness, evidence suggests millennia of successive human presence, and as recently as the early 20th century, herders of the Toubou peoples were reported to be still living in the area. The camel engravings cannot be much older than 2,000 years, because camels were unknown in Africa before that, and the recent discovery of an ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic inscription from the Early Middle Kingdom serves to confirm that Jebel Uweinat has never really been ‘undiscovered’, despite having been unknown to Western geographers prior to the 20th century.
Dinder National Park
Dinder National Park is Sudan’s biggest protected area with 10.000 km² and probably the only place to spot wild animals in the country. This Biosphere Reserve is located in south-eastern Sudan, and is connected to Ethiopia's Alatash National Park. Recent investigations (2018) point that there could be as many as 183 lions and 198 hyenas living in Dinder National Park. These lions are of conservation interest because they almost certainly belong to the subspecies found in Asia and West, Central, and North Africa. Researchers in Dinder National Park have also sighted 24 different mammal species, including the rare and near-endemic Heuglin’s gazelle, and confirmed the presence of leopard. The diversity and abundance of wildlife in Dinder National Park is impressive and for an outsider also surprising since Dinder National Park is not much advertised and hardly known in internationally accessible scientific literature.
The Suakin Archipelago is a large group of islets found in Sudan in the Red Sea, which has been proposed for IUCN category II, national park. This site covers an area of about 1.500 km².
Jebel Marrah or Marrah Mountains or Marra Mountains are a range of volcanic peaks in a massif that rises up to 3.042 metres. They are the highest mountains in Sudan and an interesting place to visit (nature and ethnography) with special permits and making sure the situation in the region is safe.
The mountains are located in the centre of the Darfur region of Sudan on the border of the states of South Darfur and Central Darfur, with a smaller part of the range in the state of North Darfur. The highest point is Deriba Caldera. The upper reaches of the massif is a small area of temperate climate with high rainfall and permanent springs of water amidst the dry savanna and scrub of the Sahelbelow.
Apart from the Aïr Mountains in Niger which are on the border of the Sahara proper, the Marrah Mountains are the only major mountain range in the otherwise flat Sahel, rising up to 2,600 metres above the plain, but are relatively unknown owing to lack of development and political conflict in the region.
The last eruption occurred around 1500 BC. The centre of activity was Deriba Caldera, and involved caldera collapse following the eruption of pumice and pyroclastic flows which travelled over 30 kilometres from the volcano.
The nearest large town to Jebel Marra is Nyala. The old trekking route to the Jebel Marra crater started at Neretiti, a small town halfway between Nyala andZalingei. From here it was possible to buy supplies and even arrange a guide (or pack donkey) if needed. The route heads straight for Jebel Marra, with a half-day walk to the village of Quaila (called Karonga on some maps), where there is a pretty waterfall in a valley and good potential for camping. The path continues through a canyon up the side of Jebel Marra, passing hot springs along the way. The climb is steep and sometimes indistinct among the rocks. Ahead is the flat-topped peak of Jebel Idwa, Marra’s northern twin. At the top, the path follows the rim of Jebel Marra, offering spectacular views of the crater itself and the surrounding area. The descent is tricky and the path completes nearly half a circuit of the rim before a gap allows passage back down. The green crater bottom provides a stark contrast to the rocky walls of the crater. It is possible to camp in the crater, but the lakes are sulphurous and freshwater springs are tricky to find.
With an early start, one can reach the crater from Quaila and return – or continue descending the opposite side of Jebel Marra – in one day. The village on the eastern slopes of the mountain, Tarantonga, used to have a weekly market on Saturday, with trucks running to Nyala. Attempting this in the opposite direction, it may be possible to hire a guide in Tarantonga. For a longer trek, there are plenty of options in the open country. One possible route could be to approach Jebel Marra from further east, starting in Menawashi (on the Nyala–El Fasher road) and spending several days walking in the rolling hills on the lower slopes of the plateau. The village of Gollol, a day’s walk south of Jebel Marra, was also popular for its waterfalls. The 1:250,000 Sudan Survey Maps on sale in Khartoum are the best available, but given their age they should not be relied upon totally. The central part of the plateau is covered by four sheets, but Sheet ND35 covers most of Jebel Marra itself. A compass is essential, as are waterproofs in the rainy season. Nights are cold throughout the year, so warm clothing and a sleeping bag are also a must. It is best to be as self-sufficient as possible regarding food, so stock up in Nyala as there is little on offer in the villages around Jebel Marra.
The Nuba Mountain region is an island of Biodiversity in southern Sudan (North Kordofan Province). One of Nuba Mountains’ hot spots is Jebel Dair or Dair Mountain. It rises over 1000m above the surrounding terrain and 1451m above sea level. Jebel Dair has been declared Biosphere Reserve due to its rich biodiversity. The ecosystem is composed of dry savannah woodlands, forest ecosystems and a network of streams. It is one of the last area with rich biodiversity of the semi-arid region of North Kordofan. The site counts 112 plant species, most of which are of medicinal and aromatic use. There are also 220 species of birds and 22 species of mammals and reptiles. Dair and Afitti tribal Nuba communities can be found at the feet of Jebel Dair.
A valid passport and a visa are required for travel to Sudan. Applications for visas can be made in advance in the travelers’ home country or in the nearest Sudan Embassy. There is also the possibility of obtaining the Visa upon arrival. Last Places assists all travelers that need any type of help applying for the visa upon arrival or at the embassy. We recommend that passports be valid for six months from date of arrival.
Vaccines and Travel Health in Sudan
A valid yellow fever vaccination certificate is essential for entry to Sudan. Malaria is prevalent in the country. It is wise to take Malaria prophylaxis when travelling through Sudan. Water supply is unsafe to drink, visitors should drink bottle water. Visitors should also avoid eating unpeeled, unwashed fruit and vegetables.
Security in Sudan
Last Places has been operating in Sudan since 2012, after the Civil War that mainly affected what is today South Sudan. There is an ongoing conflict in some areas of Blue Nile Province, South Kordofan, and Darfur. Special permits are needed to visit these provinces (the areas where there is no active conflict). We have been visiting certain regions of these more remote provinces and no problem. The key is knowing well the country and having contacts all around which is the case with Last Places.
When to go to Sudan
Travelers can visit Sudan all year around. Last Places offers trips to Sudan all year around. Said this, dry season –from mid-November to mid-April - allows the traveller visit all tribal areas while whet season – from June to October- may limit the visit to certain remote regions such as Dinder National Park, Blue Nile Province, or Nuba Mountains.
Currency in Sudan
The currency of Sudan is the Sudanese pound and it is divided into 100 piasters (coins). This is not to be confused with the Sudanese Dinar which was phased out in 2007 - do not accept any cash with "dinar" on it.
Bring only foreign CASH into Sudan, preferably US Dollars (often accepted in hotels). Euros are also fairly easy to exchange at banks in big cities. Traveller's cheques and non-Sudanese bank cards are not accepted in Sudan, as neither Visa/Mastercard nor any foreign bank have any presence in Sudan, despite the lifting of the US trading embargo.
Time in Sudan
Electricity in Sudan
In Sudan the standard voltage is 230 V and the frequency is 50 Hz. You can use your electric appliances in Sudan, if the standard voltage in your country is in between 220 - 240 V (as is in the UK, Europe, Australia and most of Asia).
Communications in Sudan
The international dialing code for Sudan is +249. There are many more mobile telephones than fixed lines and the mobile coverage around Juba and other main centers is much more reliable than fixed lines. Internet access is available at most major hotels in Khartoum and high-end hotels of Meroe.
Language in Sudan
The official languages of Sudan are Arabic and English.
Prohibitions in Sudan
Sudan has very strict rules about taking pictures. First and foremost, you need a permit to take pictures (Last Places takes care of this permits before the client arrives in Sudan) which will tell you where you can and cannot take pictures. Photographing or filming military personnel or installations is a quick way to get into trouble. People have been arrested for taking pictures at the confluence of the Blue and White Niles in Khartoum.
Sudan is an Islamic Republic where Sharia Law is applied in all of its territory. It is recommend for both women and men to wear long trousers. For women it is recommended to wear long sleeved shirts and cover their hair when entering a mosque or official building. As a country with Sharia Law, Sudan is completely alcohol-free. The occasional sight of locals drunk on illicit palm wine can cause much disturbance, and punishments for possessing alcohol can include fines and corporal punishment.
Sudan is one of Africa’s biggest countries and a great tourist destination. In this trip we combine the natural beauty of the Wild and unexplored South to meet several ethnic minorities among who the mythic Nuba outstand with the North’s unique archaeological site of Meroe. We will listen to the stories of black mountain kings and black pharaohs thanks to expert guides that will transport us in time.View Trip Details