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Thursday, 13 January 2011

Sudan - time to visit?

Sudan and its people are in the news - those in the southern half of the country have been voting in a referendum to see if Africa's largest country should be split into two, a move which could bring a lasting peace to the area. 
The country has a rich past. On an organised tour of the north just before Christmas, I was amazed by what still remains. The Nubians - the 'Black Pharaohs' who ruled the ancient kingdom of Kush, and for a time, Egypt, for more than a thousand years until around 350 AD - built temples, palaces and Roman-style baths.

 But their most spectacular creations were pyramids. Smaller and steeper than their Egyptian counterparts,  they cluster together on three main sites in the desert, near Karima, at Nuri and at Meroe (pictured). There are around 220 of them - more than in the whole of Egypt, though little-known to tourists.

A highlight of our stay in Karima  (about a day's drive north of Khartoum)  was a dawn climb up this sacred mountain, Jebel Barkal. It was thought to be the home of the Egyptian sun god, Amun. The sandstone outcrop to the right was likened to a cobra.

On its western side is a small royal cemetery with around 20 pyramids.

We crossed weird and beautiful landscapes.......

........and saw ingenious systems to irrigate the fields alongside the Nile.

Away from the Nile, most of northern Sudan is desert, and  life is hard. Nomads (and their flocks) trek up to ten miles to get water from deep wells. Their homes are often a framework of branches,  covered for shelter by matting which is rolled up when they want to move on. (No-one else will touch this framework, so they can come back to it time and time again.) But one family we met were adamant that they preferred this simple existence to living in a city.

Everywhere, people were dignified but friendly - there was no hassle and no begging. Whenever we stopped, children appeared out of nowhere, full of curiosity. This little boy used the sand to show how he could write his name.

Watching the sun rise over the Nile from the top of Jebel Barkal, I could only hope that the referendum brings peace. Sudan's turbulent past has discouraged visitors, but perhaps that will now change, and more people will come to marvel at the remains of this rich and ancient civilisation.

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