Sudan - Background information

Natural history
People and culture


Abridged from the History section in Sudan: the Bradt Travel Guide

The history of Sudan is not the history of a single country or a single people: it is the history of competition for resources (both natural and human) and influence amongst different tribes, religions, political factions and colonial powers. Their history bears but a passing relation to the physical borders of the modern nation state. The interplay of supposed contrasts – Egyptian and Nubian, African and Arab, Islamic and Christian – has created a rich but complex past that has encompassed not only the heights of Pharaonic dynasties and indigenous civilisations in Kerma and Meroë but also the tragic lows of desertification, famine, colonial oppression and militant Islam.

Ancient Sudan

The Sahara has not always been a desert: for some 4,000 years, starting around 7500BC, much of north Africa went through a sub-pluvial era, one in which the climate was characterised by plentiful rainfall. Lush grasslands, forest and numerous rivers supported a bewildering array of wildlife; men grew wealthy from hunting and herding cattle. A rocky outcrop deep in the Nubian Desert provides our earliest insight to date into the lives of Sudan’s ancient inhabitants. Archaeologists call it Site 29. Amongst the otherwise indistinct boulders is a flat shard of rock almost 2m across. Its surface is worn smooth and when struck with any one of the thousands of fist-sized rocks surrounding it, a note rings out clear as a bell. This is a 7,000-year-old rock gong, just one of hundreds scattered across northern Sudan.

Site 29 also contains a number of petroglyphs, the oldest known form of pictorial representation. Carved into flat rock faces are images not only of cattle, the animal at the heart of the community that produced them, but also other wildlife from the area: elephants, lions and giraffes. The images are at almost 6,000 years old and confirm an overwhelmingly different landscape from the one before us today.

The community behind the petroglyphs was not unsophisticated. Excavations further north in the Nabta Playa basin, northwest of modern-day Wadi Halfa, have uncovered numerous contemporary stone structures in planned villages, deep wells, and sites where cattle have been sacrificed. A stone circle dating from around 4800BC is one of the world’s earliest archaeo-astronomical devices, perhaps a prehistoric calendar to mark the summer solstice.


meroë pyramids sudan africa by sophie and max lovell hoare© Sophie Ibbotson and Max Lovell-Hoare

The sands advanced on Jebel Barkal and, though it remained a religious centre, the land was no longer viable for agricultural use. King Arikamaninote moved the tomb-building from Napata to Meroë, 350 miles to the south, simultaneously cutting ties with the traditional priesthood after they suggested he take his own life to ensure a smooth succession. Not surprisingly, it was the priests who ended up dead.

Meroë was surrounded by fertile lands, enabling the farming of grains such as sorghum, millet and barley. The area was rich in iron ore and, as agriculture was made easier with iron tools, it became a regional centre for iron production, leading to the more recent moniker ‘the Birmingham of Africa’. In a significant cultural development, Egyptian hieroglyphs were replaced with a new cursive script known as Meroitic, which scholars have yet to decipher: our knowledge of the civilisation at Meroë comes primarily from Greek and Roman sources.

Little is known of the day-to-day running of Meroë beyond the fact that the ruler was all-powerful and that queens were as common as kings. The Egyptian tradition of pyramid building continued, enabling Sudanese to legitimately claim that there are more pyramids in Sudan than in Egypt. More than 200 pyramids have been uncovered in and around Meroë, and in 2011 they were finally listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The cow – central to Nubian culture since the people of Site 29 – is omnipresent in both pyramid and temple carvings, revealing an unexpected continuity in Nubian culture in spite of centuries of Egyptian influence.

When the Romans grabbed control of Egypt in the 1st century BC, wresting it from Antony and Cleopatra, they regarded Kush as a subordinate state, something utterly unacceptable to the kings at Meroë. Kush sacked Aswan, and Rome retaliated by sacking Napata. Neither occupation was particularly successful, and the Romans sued for peace. Permanent borders were established and the period of entente between the two powers would last for 300 years. Nubian kings made use of the entente to develop the wealthy city of Naqa, of which two impressive sandstone temples and a Roman kiosk complete with Corinthian columns remain.

By the 3rd century AD, Kush was in an irreversible decline. Agricultural production was falling; Rome’s economy was shrinking, with a knock-on effect on its trading partners; and the Kingdom of Axia in neighbouring Ethiopia was gaining in power. Constant raids from the east destabilised the kingdom, and Roman soldiers and missionaries, dispensing Christianity both by the sword and by the word, were marching determinedly on Nubia.

Natural history


A century ago Sudan had wildlife to rival anywhere in Africa. In the west, wetter than it is now, were plentiful giraffe, addax, oryx and lions, and in the hills to the east were Nubian ibex and Barbary sheep. Changing weather patterns resulting from naturally occurring climate change have led to an almost total loss of game in the west, with the remainder tragically wiped out by hunting. The fauna in Sudan’s national parks has been decimated by war.

In a bid to conserve what wildlife is left, Sudan has established a number of national parks and protected biospheres, of which the Dinder National Park is the largest. Also of significant size is the Radom National Park (also known as the Al-Radom Reserve) to the southwest of Lake Kundi in South Darfur. Designated as a biosphere in 1979, this area of over 12,500km2 is bounded by the Adda and Umblasha Rivers. It is predominantly hilly, mostly with an altitude of 450m above sea level. 90% of the park is shrub land and the balance is forested. Although commercial poaching has reduced big game numbers, and Tora hartebeest and Defassa waterbuck disappeared in the wake of famine in the mid 1980s, we were fortunate enough to see African elephants, and there are also small numbers of lions, cheetahs and giraffe. Easier to spot is an array of birdlife characteristic of the Sudan–Guinea savanna biome, including Heuglin’s gull, Franklin’s gull, the red-throated bee-eater, black-breasted barbets and the black-throated firefinch. The far smaller Jabal Hassania National Park, established in 2003, is a breeding ground for Dorcas gazelles.

On Sudan’s Red Sea coast is the Suakin Archipelago National Park, where a number of Sudan’s diving trips take place. Covering an area of 1,500km2, the park comprises coral reefs surrounding small islands. Further to the north is Sanganeb, Sudan’s first marine park, with 124 groups of coral reef. The coastline is home to turtles (both Chelonia mydas and the critically endangered Eretmochelys imbricata), 450 types of fish, dugong, and occasional dolphins and whales.

Sudan is a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) which includes prohibitions against the sale of ivory, bush meat and illegal trade in wild animals. In spite of legislation, such practices do still go on. Visitors are asked to practise responsible tourism and not worsen the problem further by hunting or purchasing illegal products.


Vegetation is today exceptionally sparse in the desert areas of northern Sudan. Savanna grasses and acacia trees cling to life despite the shortage of water. Like almost everything in Sudan, it is along the banks of the Nile that flora can thrive. Cotton, papyrus, rubber and castor-oil plants are all native to the Nile basin, and ebony and baobab trees and date palms provide exceptionally welcome shade.

The Medicinal and Aromatic Plants Research Institute (MAPRI) has been attempting to catalogue Sudan’s plant life since the early 1970s. They have focused much of their work on traditional remedies and cosmetics but, latterly, turned their attention to plants in demand on the international market. Plants that happily grow wild in Sudan, such as capsicum, cumin, fennel, fenugreek and hibiscus, are now being commercially cultivated for export.

People and culture

Sudan is home to more than 30 million people from almost 500 different tribes speaking more than 100 recognised languages. Though it has been common in the past to see Sudan as a country neatly divided between Arab and Black, Muslim and non-Muslim halves, this is an over-simplification that belies the nuances (and political and social importance) of ethnicity, self-identity and culture.

Decades of civil war, the presence of nomadic peoples, and the constant movement of refugees (both internally and internationally) has made the collection of reliable population statistics an extremely difficult task. The most recent census data, from 2008, was collected as part of the implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) as accurate statistics were a prerequisite for the South Sudanese referendum on independence ultimately held in 2011. Much of this census data is online at The secession of South Sudan has significantly changed the demographic profile of Sudan, particularly with regard to ethnic origin and religion but also in terms of life expectancy, infant mortality, literacy and other development indicators.



Some 70% of Sudanese identify themselves as Arab and speak Arabic as their mother tongue. They are not, however, a homogenous group, nor are they necessarily descendants of migrants from the Arabian Peninsula: intermarriage between Muslim groups (both Arab and non-Arab) has historically been common, as has the adoption of the Arabic language and culture by other communities. The mixing of nationalities and tribes in Sudan has left the physical definition of Arab very loose: pale-skinned Arabs, such as those from the Gulf or Levant, are extremely rare, and most Sudanese Arabs are dark with African features. The term ‘Arab’ is therefore as much cultural as it is lineal.

Arab tribes arrived in Sudan in three main waves, beginning in the 12th century with the Ja’alin. They trace their lineage to Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib, the uncle of the Prophet Muhammad, whose other descendants went on to found the Abbassid Caliphate in Baghdad. The 19th-century orientalist Johann Ludwig Burkhardt believed their culture to be closely linked to that of the Bedouin in Arabia. Today many Ja’alin continue to farm and raise livestock alongside the Nile between Dongola and Khartoum, whilst others have become urbanised. President Omar al-Bashir comes from the Al-Bedairya Al-Dahmashya, a sub-clan of the Ja’alin tribe.

The Juhayna are the major nomadic Arab tribe in Sudan. Thought to have arrived in the region some time before the 17th century, the Juhayna has two main sub-groups: the cattle-herding Baggara Arabs of Darfur and Kordofan (who also have significant populations in Chad and the Central African Republic), and the Kabbabish, goat and camel herders spread between Dongola and Darfur. Though their origin myths claim ancestry from tribes migrating from North Africa (specifically Algeria and Tunisia) and Arabia, anthropologists see strong similarities with the Beja. The Baggara speak a dialect known as Chadian Arabic; its exact origins are again unknown but it appears to be a blend of more conventional Arabic and Fulfulde, a Niger-Congo language related to Wolof and Serer.

Perhaps the most recent inward migration of Arab tribes to Sudan came in the mid 19th century when conflict in what is now Saudi Arabia drove many Rashaida tribals from Hejaz to northern Sudan and Eritrea. The Rashaida still speak the Hejazi dialect of Arabic, practise Sunni Islam, and wear their distinctive traditional dress. Today they are best known for breeding superior camel racing stock.


The Beja believe themselves to be the descendants of the Egyptian goddess Sekhmet and her human consort, and they are the second-largest ethnic group after the Arabs. They are an ancient community, having been known to the Romans. Originally they worshipped Isis (hence their origin myth), but they converted first to Christianity in the 6th century after Justinian closed their temple at Philae, and then finally to Islam, albeit with the occasional influence of their previous belief systems.

The Beja are a semi-nomadic population found predominantly in the Nile, Red Sea, Kassla and Al Qadarif states, but also with notable presence in southern Egypt and Eritrea. They were traditionally camel and sheep herders, but severe drought in the 1980s killed an estimated 80% of their livestock, forcing many to take up settled agriculture or relocate to the cities.


The Fellata, or Fula, are descended from west African migrants, mostly Hausa and Fulani, who passed through Sudan en route to Mecca. They were encouraged to settle here and farm, particularly during the Condominium, and the population in Sudan today numbers around one million. The largest concentration of Fellata is around Gezira. The Fellata speak Fulfulde and the women wear distinctive headdresses and henna tattoos: look for the black lips and intricate dot designs around the mouth.


The Fur is the largest tribe in Darfur, though there are small numbers found elsewhere in Sudan. They were ruled by an independent Islamic sultanate until 1916, since which time they have been subject to Arabisation and ongoing violence. Though typically sedentary, those with larger cattle herds sometimes migrate in search of pasture, bringing them into conflict with the Baggara Arabs for territory. Most Fur practise Islam piously and it is central to their society: Koranic schools provide the only education and a man must have knowledge of the Koran before he is allowed to marry.


The Nuba is a collective term for the various peoples of the Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan. Though the area is not particularly large, the richness of its farmland and, in times past, the safety granted by its relative remoteness, attracted and then supported tribes including, amongst others, the Dilling, Heiban, Kadaru, Katla and Nyimang. Many of these tribes have fewer than 10,000 members, and numbers have been significantly depleted in recent years due to ongoing conflict and outward migration. The photographer Leni Riefenstahl brought the Nuban tribes to world attention in 1976 with her book The Last of the Nuba.


More than any other group, the Nubians conjure up the image of ‘real Sudanese’ in the mind of the casual bystander. Referred to most evocatively as ‘the Black Pharaohs’, their heritage is not only rich but, unusually for Sudan, also well documented. The Nubians (Nuubi in Arabic) have inhabited northern Sudan and southern Egypt since ancient times. Living along the Nile and profiting both from its trade and fertile soils, the ancient Nubians were so wealthy that they were even able to conquer Egypt (760–656BC). They developed the Kingdom of Kerma, the Kingdom of Kush and the civilisation at Meroë and then, in the early centuries AD, established Christian Nubia and a succession of Islamic kingdoms that lasted until 1900.

At Sudanese independence from Egypt in 1956, the Nubians’ traditional territories were divided between Egypt and Sudan. A further blow fell just two decades later as the rising waters of Lake Nasser flooded not only historical sites but also Nubian villages. The population was forcibly resettled and divorced from their ancestral lands. Today there are as many Nubians living in Khartoum as there are in Nubia itself.


Of mixed Arab and Nubian origin are the Shaigiya, one of the most influential tribes in Sudanese politics. Like the Ja’alin, they claim descent from Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib, but there is little evidence for this: the first written account of their existence comes from the Scottish traveller James Bruce in 1772. Shaigiya villages are found predominantly between Dongola and Kurti, and in the Bayuda Desert to the north of Khartoum.



Music is at the heart of Sudanese culture, permeating everything from religious ritual to family festivities, and it adds a glorious additional sensory dimension to the sights, smells and tastes of the country. Traditional music can be loosely divided into two groups: the devotional music used to accompany dance and trance during Sufi zikr; and indigenous African traditions involving chanting to the accompaniment of drums and tanbūra (bowl lutes). The most evocative sounds come from live performances at weddings and other family celebrations but there are also a number of recordings in circulation. Although Sudan’s towns are filled with music stalls, tracking down recordings of traditional music is surprisingly hard: try the Traditional Music Archive (TRAMA) at the Institute of African and Asian Studies in the University of Khartoum (Al Jam’a St). The International Library of African Music (ILAM) also has articles and recordings online at

Sudan’s contemporary music has its roots in haqiba, the secular music form of the 1930s and 40s that itself grew out of madeeh, Sufi gospel chants in praise of the Prophet Muhammad. Haqiba was predominantly a vocal art, similar to a cappella singing, and it was based on the pentatonic scale: the same five-note scale used in blues. The accessibility of this sound, its continuity with traditional chanting, and the ease with which new instruments, notably keyboards, saxophones and electric guitars, could be incorporated came together in the ‘jazz boom’ of the 1960s and 70s. The unique sound spread like wildfire across Sudan, spurred on by local radio and a succession of talented stars. If you ride a long-distance bus or taxi, you’ll more likely than not hear a well-worn cassette booming out from a decidedly ropy cassette player.

The imposition of sharia in the 1980s hit Sudan’s music industry like a rock. Mohammed Wardi, an acclaimed Nubian singer and songwriter was jailed and then left Sudan for Cairo in voluntary exile. Similar fates met a number of the industry’s biggest stars, Mahjoub Sharif, Hanan Bulu-bulu and Abu Araki al-Bakheit among them. Musicians were beaten, radio recordings wiped and songs banned from the airwaves. The industry’s future looked somewhat bleak.

The last decade has seen a surprising upturn for Sudanese music. Wardi returned from exile in 2003, taking an honorary doctorate from the University of Khartoum in 2005. Abdel Gadir Salim, a headmaster turned performer from Kordofan, collaborated with former child soldier and rapper Emmanuel Jal on the album Ceasefire (2005) to international acclaim, and hip hop groups, both imported and homegrown, have an ever-expanding following. Egyptian pop music, heavy on string and synthesizers and overblown vocal performances in Arabic, continues to blare from television music channels and car radios as it does everywhere across the Islamic world.


Sudan’s traditional literature is oral and comes in numerous forms: epic poems, folk tales and myths have all been transcribed, both from Arabic and tribal languages. Although there is evidence of Sudanese literature having been written, predominantly in Arabic, as early as the 17th century, it was the establishment of the first newspapers in Khartoum in the early years of the 20th century that brought written literature, in particular short stories and poems, to a wider audience.

Sudan’s best-known writer is Tayeb Salih (1929–2009), a novelist and journalist educated at the University of Khartoum and University of London. Salih had a high-profile career at the BBC Arabic Service, Qatar’s Ministry of Information and UNESCO, but it was the publication of his novel Season of Migration of the North in 1966 that really put him on the map. The plot describes the complex relationship between the narrator and his doppelganger, both Western-educated students returned to Sudan, and the manner in which the feeling of cultural disconnection can drive a person to the verge of insanity. The novel has been translated into more than 30 languages and in 2001 it was declared ‘the most important Arabic novel of the 20th century’ by the Arab Literary Academy. Salih’s other literary works include three novels, a collection of short stories, and the novella The Wedding of Zein (1969), which was adapted into a film and won prizes at Cannes.

More recently, writer and playwright Leila Aboulela (b. 1964), another graduate of the University of Khartoum now living abroad, has also received international recognition. Her short story The Museum was awarded the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2000 and she has twice been nominated for the Orange Prize for Fiction, first for The Translator (1999) and then for Minaret (2005). Her most recent book, Lyrics Alley (2011), won the Scottish Book Awards prize for fiction and was short-listed for the Commonwealth Writers Prize.

Fine Art in Sudan began in earnest with the creation of the Faculty of Fine and Applied Art in Khartoum in 1947. It emphasised vocational training over art history and in the 1950s a number of its students went on to study at the Slade and Central Saint Martin’s before returning to teach at the faculty and form the Khartoum School. Central figures in this art movement were the calligraphers Ahmad Muhammad Shibrain and Ibrahim El Salahi, abstract sculptor Amir I M Nour, ceramicist Mohammed Ahmed Abdalla, printmakers Musa Khalifa and Mohamed Omer Bushara, and the performance artist and illustrator Hassan Musa, whose work has been exhibited everywhere from Whitechapel Art Gallery and The Hayward Gallery to the Venice Biennial and San Diego Museum of Art. The work of a significant number of contemporary Sudanese artists, both those working in Sudan and abroad, is shown online at the Sudan Artists Gallery (

Body art is one of the earliest ways in which Sudanese artists expressed their creativity. Combinations of temporary and permanent tattoos, as well as deliberate scars on the cheeks, forehead or arms, are used not only to beautify the face and body but also to denote personal status and group identity. Amongst the Nuba, whose body art palette includes ochre yellow, brick red, black and white, images are chosen both for their aesthetic value and also how well they complement the shape of the face or body on to which they are being painted. The Fellata are also fond of tattooing, particularly with henna.

Cotton is Sudan’s most important cash crop, so it makes sense that textiles have always featured heavily in the country’s artisanal output. Amongst the Arab population, traditional clothes include a thawb or jalabiya (both ankle-length tunics) and a large scarf for men, and similarly loose garments for women. Sudan’s tribal communities have strikingly different attire, and the shape and colour of clothing is often as much to denote identity and status as for pragmatism. Fulani women, for example, are distinguished by their brightly coloured robes and turbans, whilst their menfolk wear distinctive conical hats made of straw. Nubian textile artist and fashion designer Heba Al-Bashir has brought reinterpretations of traditional tribal designs to an international audience with exhibitions in Cairo and the Middle East, as have artists such as Rufaida Mekki and Thuweiba.

Complementing costume, there is also noteworthy production of elaborate headdresses and jewellery, predominantly in Sudan’s villages. Beadwork in Sudan has historic roots, and glass beads brought by overland traders were particularly highly prized. The British Museum and the National Museum of Sudan both hold excellent historic examples, whilst a rummage in Omdurman Souk will unearth their more common modern counterparts.

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