Sudan's ancient treasures reveal the mighty culture that humbled the pharoahs

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The Sudan of today is ravaged by inter-ethnic violence and on the brink of a humanitarian disaster. Yet 200 millennia ago the area that is now Sudan was at the cutting edge of technological and cultural development, creating what some scholars believe was the world's oldest known piece of art.

The Sudan of today is ravaged by inter-ethnic violence and on the brink of a humanitarian disaster. Yet 200 millennia ago the area that is now Sudan was at the cutting edge of technological and cultural development, creating what some scholars believe was the world's oldest known piece of art.

Now the people of its successive kingdoms, who humbled the pharaohs of Egypt, fought to a draw the power of Rome and held off the might of the Muslim Arabs, are to be recognised in an exhibition at the British Museum.

"Sudan: Ancient Treasures" is the first exhibition to follow the country's story from the beginnings of human life to the present day. Planned for more than five years, to celebrate the Sudan National Museum's centenary, it has assumed a new importance.

Dr Julie Anderson, special exhibitions curator, said: "Hopefully after this, people will know more about the country and it will help them to understand what is happening there now. They will see that Sudan has been significant and powerful, and certainly will be again. It is a country of great potential."

The account begins 200,000 years ago, in a sandstone depression beside the Nile, when the first anatomically modern humans in this part of Africa smeared yellow and red pigments on to a pebble. It was found in a small "paint factory" of coloured ores, some of the earliest evidence of pigments known, according to Dr Philip Van Peer, the excavator.

This could also be the oldest piece of art known from anywhere in the world, the exhibition catalogue suggests. Sudan was then, and would be for millennia to come, well-watered and fertile, but gradually the desert advanced and its people were forced to become nomads or to settle along the Nile. It was in this environment that the first Kushite kingdom developed into an awesome power.

By 1,700BC, the first metropolis in sub-Saharan Africa had developed at Kerma. "They were giving Egypt a good thumping," Dr Anderson said. But Egypt regained its power, swept south to colonise the Kushites and ruled for several centuries.

Dr Anderson explains a well-preserved carving from a temple built on the orders of the heretic pharaoh Akhenaton. His beautiful wife Nefertiti had been depicted on it, but her image was hacked out after his new sun god was overturned by the priests of his successor Tutankhamen.

Her favourite artefact is a small stele showing Queen Amanishakheto being given the breath of life by Amesemi, the consort of the Nubian Lion God Apedemak. The Queen is a heavy-set woman. "This shows her power and her wealth, but also her fertility," she said.

One of the museum's most famous items is the head from a statue of Augustus Caesar, preserved because it was buried in front of a temple at Meroe, the later Kushite capital. "Everyone who came into the temple was stepping on the head of Augustus," Dr Anderson said.

Scripts are also presented - hieroglyphs, Greek, Coptic and the local Meroitic script. The last is one of the great mysteries of archaeology: its sounds can be read but its vocabulary is unknown. "We still need its Rosetta stone," Dr Anderson said.

Where Rome failed to conquer, Christianity triumphed, with missionaries from Byzantium converting Sudan in the 6th century AD. It stayed Christian even after the explosive growth of the Muslim empire from Arabia in the 7th century. But eventually the Christian kingdoms fell apart amid dynastic strife and international conflict. The Islamic Funj in the south took over and by AD1500 Sudan was mainly Islamic. Missionaries from Europe arrived in the late 19th century, establishing religious divisions that still have importance today.

This complicated history explained some of the problems of Sudan today, Dr Anderson said. "It has always been the corridor into Africa, but in prehistoric times there were also east-west movements, as there are again today, of people making the pilgrimage to Mecca. There are more than 100 languages spoken in Sudan; it is one of the world's great melting pots."

She and Dr Derek Welsby, assistant keeper for ancient Egypt and Sudan, the lead curator for the exhibit, wrestled with the complex collation of the objects. Some were excavated only this year. That work was part of the frenzy of archaeology to rescue sites before the completion of the Merowe Dam, which will flood the Fourth Cataract of the Nile for hydroelectricity.

The exhibition runs from 9 September to 9 January. Entry is free but visitors will be asked to make a donation to Oxfam and Save the Children for work in the Sudan. It is part of a programme of events at the museum, titled "Sudan: Past and Present". It will display works of the contemporary artists Osman Waqialla and Mo Abdalla, objects used by the pastoralist Dinka and Bari people from Darfur, and talks, readings and musical performances.

Comments