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Published: February 7th 2020
We flew to Khartoum following the Nile, as everyone seems to have done: Generals Gordon and Kitchener leading armies, Victorian explorers seeking its source, Bob Geldorf leading Band Aid. Bob even stayed in our hotel, the venerable Acropole. Bombed and battered since 1952, the Acropole is still the place to stay. Over breakfast journalists talk of politics, archaeologists of their exploration plans, aid workers of renewable energy.
We sail down the Blue Nile, at a low ebb at this time of year, to the confluence with the White Nile. Waters from the Abyssinian mountains meeting those from Lake Victoria. Both rivers are muddy brown today. The Blue Nile should be the Black Nile, the first explorers misunderstood the local Arabic.
Wandering around town we meet a small marching protest, youngsters singing and shouting on their way to the Prime Minister's office. They wave Sudanese flags and hold up sheets of paper in English and Arabic: “Peace Now”. As we step back out of the way, one of the passing protesters reassures us: “Do not worry, it is only the revolution”.
In late afternoon we go to the grave of a great Sufi leader to witness a whirling dervish
ceremony. It is chaotic. In a large open space drums are being beaten and, around it, a large crowd, all men, chant and do a little bobbing dance. As the drumming quickens so male dancers appear in the space, running, jumping, lashing out with sticks. Many seem totally out of control and, were this not a dry country, you'd think they were drunk. Or demented. It's quite a scene. As the chaos increases and light fades, we decide we'll quietly slip away.
Then we drive north, parallel with the river. Between the road and the Nile, all is green and lush; on the other side it’s desert to the horizon. We take a seemingly random turn off the road into the desert, eventually arriving at temples from the first century AD. They are Kushite temples, but to us they look Egyptian with their splendid reliefs of gods, kings, queens and animals. They stand majestically on small hills in the middle of nowhere, we are their only visitors.
Further north we reach the Meroe pyramids. Set on small hills, there are more than 100 pyramids in two clusters. Dating from the 8th century BC to the 4th AD, the
pyramids have all seen better days, having been repeatedly attacked by treasure hunters. But the pyramids are still mesmerising. Restoration work is being carried out, but the lead archaeologist tells us that funding is hard to find. It has taken two years to restore just one funeral chapel.
We wander through the market in the local town. Donkey carts everywhere and a good selection of goats and sheep; three shoe stalls where the shoes are in a huge heap of mixed sizes and styles. How does anyone ever find the right pair? A shop selling metal doors; another selling maize, dates and many grains that we cannot identify. We are a novelty in the market and the men want to be photographed – there are no women to be seen. The men also want us to fix their teeth, buy their donkeys and take a ride in a 1960s Bedford lorry. Sixty years old and still going strong.
The next day starts with us crossing the Nile on a pontoon ferry. All very basic and wobbly. Then it’s a whole day crossing a corner of the Buyuda desert. The scenery is surprising varied: flat plains of orange sand;
occasional sand dunes; gravel and black basalt rubble areas; striking jagged mountains and even a lake – we thought it was another mirage. In some areas there is no vegetation, in others low bushes and acacia trees.
Wells appear at random, always surrounded by donkeys, goats, sheep and camels. And herders chatting. The water is pulled up by donkeys or a camel - they walk away from the well while attached to a well rope. At one well three ropes are dragged in different directions, each pulling up a huge animal skin bag of water.
Our destination is Karima, a small town at the base of a huge cliff sided rock, Jebel Barkal, which, of course, we have to climb to see the sunset over the Nile and the desert. From the top we also look down on the ruined temple of Amun, glowing in fading sunlight.
There is also another Necropolis of pyramids here. Unlike Egyptian pyramids, Sudanese pyramids are solid and the tombs are underground. We are able to descend into one excavated tomb. The roof is painted with stars, the walls with kings, gods and animals. It was “discovered” in 1916 but it was
already empty. Tomb robbery was common and may have occurred fairly soon after the burial. Just too much temptation for the poor workers who built it?
One local family invite us in for coffee. Their mud brick house is basic, one room is the kitchen and, across the open-air hall, is a larger room – the combined lounge / dining / bedroom for the family of six. We sit on the wooden frame, string mattress beds; wire screens stop the goats from entering. The three teenage daughters make us coffee and tea while an elderly uncle looks on. All the other men are out working with the animals. The girls are to old for state school, which finishes at thirteen, but will not marry until they are older, perhaps eighteen or older. So they run the home for their mother.
They explain that water is very scarce so they bathe over a fire. The bark of a special acacia tree is burned which produces a cleansing smoke. Wearing just a cloak, the woman then stands over the smoke and rubs the smoke onto her body to get clean. Apparently this leave the skin smooth and soft!
also visit an active archaeological site, stabilising a cluster of Coptic Christian churches and a temple in the ruined city of Old Dongola on the banks of the Nile. Polish students are restoring the frescoes. It’s painstaking work, applying glue with a syringe to fix the plaster back on to the stone before cleaning can start with cotton wool balls.
And finally, we are back in Khartoum and off to watch this afternoon's big match – a Nubian wrestling match of course. In an outdoor arena, fit young men wrestle in four minute rounds. We don't understand the rules but throwing your opponent is the key; points are scored and winners are carried shoulder high. When the home side scores, the thousand-plus crowd erupts with cheers and whoops of delight. What a way to end our short stay in this lovely, ancient country.
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