On our first trip to Sudan we arrived with the misguided view that it would be like Egypt but poorer. It isn’t. The two countries may have significant overlap in their histories, even being ruled together at times, but whereas Egypt owes almost all of its modern identity to the Arab Middle East, Sudan is irrefutably an African nation, albeit with a strong Arab flavour.
‘This is Africa’ is a phrase that comes to mind often in Sudan, not only in the slightly flippant way when you see the poverty, experience corruption or are told that something simply can’t be done, but also in a far more positive sense. The epic scale of the Sahara, seen from the air as you fly into Khartoum or felt rather closer to hand with the grit in your face as you drive through northern Sudan, takes your breath away just as the endless savanna does in the Dinder National Park. Catching a glimpse of a baboon, waterbuck or marabou stork reiterates that this is a place far from home, and an encounter with any combination of Sudan’s hundreds of ethnic groups – the Arab Kabbabish camel herders, semi-nomadic Beja, Nubians of the Third Cataract, and the black African Fur and Masalit of Darfur amongst them – reminds you that Sudan is a crucible in which all of Africa’s genetic legacies are found.
Sudan has been slow to make its considerable attractions known to travellers – few foreigners have heard of the Kingdom of Kush or contemplated walking amongst the isolated pyramids of Meroë. It is not uncommon to meet travellers in Sudan as part of a larger trip across Africa, and the overwhelming impression they had of the country before arriving was that it was a big sandy place to be transited as quickly as possible, en route to the better-known attractions of Egypt or Ethiopia. The magic of Sudan is that, once they have arrived, visitors are almost always immediately taken in by its easy-going nature, the rich and accessible history, and the enthusiastic welcome they receive from the Sudanese people. Indeed, you often hear trans-Africa travellers commend Sudan as their favourite country in the whole continent, much to their own surprise.
However, anyone observing Sudan with even a casual interest knows that politics regularly intervenes to hold the country back in the queue to be the next big thing in travel: positive publicity can be wiped away in a second with a report of fighting or famine. The first edition of this guide was produced at a time of optimism following the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between Khartoum and the SPLM/A, but it was tempered by gathering dark clouds as the Darfur tragedy was starting to unfold. As the latest edition goes to press in 2012, Darfur still remains a painfully open sore in African politics, with President Bashir indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity for his government’s part in the conflict. The first tentative reports of improved relations between Sudan and South Sudan following the latter’s secession in July 2011 quickly foundered as old battles for oil returned to the fore; the problems of a divided Sudan are in many ways the same as when it was a single state.
For the most part, the politics of Sudan are far removed from the experience that the vast majority of visitors will have. Improved infrastructure in the north has made the archaeological riches of the Sudanese Nile accessible as never before. The marine wonders of the Red Sea remain one of the world’s greatest diving sites, and it is hoped that the growing wildlife numbers in Dinder National Park will one day bring visitors to that part of the country too. The travelling can still sometimes be a bit rugged but the rewards are immense. ‘This is Africa’ and it’s a wonderful thing to see.
Announcing that this year you’re holidaying in the Sudan has an effect on bystanders akin to expressing a liking for punting on the Styx or arm wrestling with alligators. First there is the double-take and the request to repeat what you’ve just said, swiftly followed by a shaking of the head in disbelief and a general gibbering about the Janjaweed, Omar Bashir and, if they’re particularly up on their 1990s history of terrorism, Osama bin Laden and Carlos the Jackal.
What most people fail to understand, however, is that behind the sensationalist headlines is a country with in excess of 7,000 years of human history, more pyramids than Egypt and a population that is diverse, proud and unbelievably resilient. Our aim with Bradt’s Sudan is to show the rich Sudan of antiquity, the parts of Sudan that even today somehow rise above conflict and humanitarian disasters, and the Sudan we hope for tomorrow, a more peaceful and accessible country whose reputation stands on the strength of its people rather than the rhetoric and acts of its politicians.
The pride of the Sudanese people in their heritage, and their desire to share it with the outside world, came through most clearly on our first visit to Khartoum. After a day spent trooping from office to office, we arrived at the National Museum of Sudan, red faced and sweating profusely, only to find it was closed. The usual pair of security guards, elderly weapons in hand, were lolling in the heat, but from nowhere a small man scurried out of an office, spluttering in a smorgasbord of Arabic and English that we couldn’t possibly leave without having seen inside. Like slightly furtive VIPs we were frogmarched past the empty ticket desk and into the museum’s garden, a verdant paradise in an otherwise barren space. For two hours we wandered through the temples rescued from the waters of Lake Aswan, enjoying a private viewing of Middle Kingdom structures unimaginable in tourist-packed Egypt.