When I tell my friends I’m traveling to Sudan, the most common response I get is “You are crazy!” or “Why Sudan? What’s there to see?”. Unlike its more famous neighbors, Egypt and Ethiopia, Sudan is off the radar of most people, news agencies included. The general consensus is that it is relatively unsafe and there is something going on there. It is also frequently confused with South Sudan, formerly part of Sudan that split to form the newest country in the world in 2011, which has an ongoing civil war. After visiting Egypt in December of last year and learning a little about the Nubians after visiting their village in Aswan, I was intrigued by these people and their civilization. The Nubians were one of the most ancient civilizations in Africa that can be traced back to 2500 BC with the Kerma culture. The most prominent empire of Nubia, the Kingdom of Kush, dated back to the the days of the Egyptian pharaohs where they conquered and ruled Egypt during the 8th century BC for about a hundred years. They, like the ancient Egyptians, also constructed numerous pyramids and believed in the Egyptian gods. They were also known to be excellent warriors and archers. Nubians are not a lost civilization, they still exist and live around the area called Nubia extending from Aswan in southern Egypt to Khartoum in central Sudan along the Nile river. Although most of them are Muslim now, they still speak their own language, and maintain their own culture and traditions as well as literature and music. When my friend mentioned visiting this land of the black pharaohs, I jumped at the chance and signed myself up.
Just the name Sudan seems to alarm some and draw fantasies in others. Most people associate it with the civil war that resulted in the splitting of the country and the forming of South Sudan in 2011. Relations are still tense and there is still fighting in some areas. We flew into Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, which is a blend of tradition and modernity and is a little known place and off most tourists’ maps. I imagined the city to be dirt roads and backward, but to my surprise, it is quite well developed with modern buildings. The local agent, Italian Tourism Company, arranged a landing permit for me so that I can pick up my visa upon arrival since there isn’t a Sudanese consulate in Hong Kong. The whole process was relatively easy. Then the tour company takes your passport to get it registered locally. I heard that we also needed to register for a photography permit but then I am not sure whether the rules have changed or the tour company handled it for us. But we were briefed that we are not allowed to take photos of government buildings, military bases, bridges, airports, markets, and other “sensitive” buildings. I stayed at the modern looking Corinthia Hotel in central Khartoum overlooking the Nile. They claim it is the only 5-star hotel in the city but definitely not 5-star by international standards. In any case, the service is good, they really try hard, the food is decent, and the rooms are new but nothing to write home about.
Our first outing was to the confluence of the Blue and While Nile. Khartoum sits at the meeting point of the main tributaries of the longest river in the world, the Nile. The White Nile and Blue Nile are so called because of their distinct colors due to the sediments they carry. The While Nile originating in Lake Victoria in Uganda is wide and has light grey sediments while the Blue Nile starts in the highlands of Ethiopia and is shorter and narrower with black sediment. The Nile is very important to the people of Khartoum as the city rarely rains and these 2 million people heavily depend on the Nile for irrigation.
From our quick Nile cruise, we headed to Hamed al Nil Tomb to see the Whirling Dervishes which is something not to be missed. Sheikh Hamed al Nil was a 19th century Sufi leader and his mausoleum inside a large cemetery is where the ritual called dhikr is performed every Friday at sunset. I have seen the whirling dervishes in Turkey but more as a performance at one of the many ancient caravanserais. It is very different here, you see it first hand as an age-old religious practice where the Sufi order believes that in this whirling state, their heart can directly communicate with their god. Sufism is a mystical form of Islam important to Sudanese Islam emphasizing tolerance and peace, shunning of materialism, and introspection in the search for god. The Sufi community come to the open area in the cemetery around the tomb in colorful green and red patchwork jallabiya robes which is a stark contrast to the normal white ones most Sudanese wear. They also wear beaded necklaces and carry green flags and some look like Rastafarians with their dreadlocks. They form a large circle and chant as the drums and cymbals are played carrying out the ritual called dhikr which is the recitation of the God’s names to create the whirling state. The whirling dervish spins on one foot and looks completely lost in his communication with his god. Not all the Sufis whirl, some just march around the circle clapping, some jump in place, and they all chant “La illaha illallah” meaning “There is no god but Allah”. The energy here is buzzing even my feet started marching to the beat of the drums. Women usually gather in the back near the tomb itself and are not allowed to enter the circle or even stand in the front. One of the elders saw me with my cameras and gestured for me to stand in the first row of the circle and the locals made way for me. The locals are curious but very respectful and I did not for a moment feel uncomfortable as I would have if I was in a crowd of men in India or elsewhere in the Middle East.
What a wonderful first taste of the culture and traditions of Sudan! The locals are very friendly and even though it was only my first day in Sudan, I already like the place a lot. Most people come to Sudan to visit the Nubian pyramids and the ruins of the Kushite ctiy of Meroe. We will visit the rest of the sights in the capital of Khartoum when we return in a week. Bright and early the following day, we embark on our exploration to Karima and the Unesco site of Jebel Barkal. Stayed tuned!
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