The pleasure of Sudan
Some years ago, I invited three of my retired colleagues who had studied in Rome in the 1930s to talk to a group of undergraduates about the experience. We had all expected reminiscences about Mussolini, Romanita and the fascist exploitation of archaeology. Not a bit of it. Of very different political views, from communist to Tory wet, they were all full of excitement about the archaeology and claimed not to have noticed Mussolini pretending to be the emperor Augustus or the Roman-style parades.
At the time, it felt rather like listening to people's holiday reminiscences from some seaside resort governed by a nasty dictator. "Well we know that there are some civil rights problems, but the people were all so friendly."
Well, I'm now going to get pretty close to that old cliche myself. I'm not about to come out in support of President Bashir (except to say that, when the West chooses to excoriate some unpleasant political regime, there is usually another side of the story if we take the trouble to find out -- take Serbia, for example...).
It goes without saying that Sudan has terrible problems. The plucky, "South-focussed", daily Khartoum Monitor -- which fills up spare space with Wiki articles: we're now on Part 4 of "Edmund Burke" -- published a nice editorial on New Year's day lamenting the fact that Sudan was the first African state to gain independence from British rule, but the last to enjoy it.
You find war, hunger, internal refugees living in dreadful conditions, threats (and more than threats) of terrorism and -- in Khartoum -- the beginning of the worst kinds of modernization (with Gulf and Chinese money -- thanks to the US economic boycott of the country).
This was found buried under the steps of a small temple in the Meroitic Royal city (at Meroe) -- snatched in Meroitic raids into Roman Egypt and buried there as a spoil of war. This is a couple of hundred kilometres north of Khartoum -- and although there is an asphalt road until the last stage, it takes over three hours to get there from central Khartoum.
The truth is that Royal city is now fairly comprehensively ruined, in the manner of most archaeological sites the world over. The "Augustus" temple is a building with most appeal to big fans of Roman art. Not so the tens of mini pyramids (pictured at the top of this post and to the right), which were the burial places of the royals -- and are now surrounded by sand dunes in the middles of the desert. When we arrived (it was our first stop) at about half-past ten, we were the only people there apart from a posse of hopeful camel drivers hoping to persuade us to rent an animal (we didnt).
This was about the most romantic monument I have ever visited: pristine sand, deep blue sky and tombs (mostly dating to 200 BC-ish and later) to explore. One of the family said, a bit prosaically, that the view looked rather like a computer screen saver -- but I know what they meant.
There were more great sites (including the temples at Naqa) on the way home. But as the sun was getting low, we stopped off at the Sixth Cataract of the Nile (the husband and I remembered learning in primary school where all the cataracts of the Nile were -- this was the first time it had come in useful). The owner of our hotel had told us that he knew a boatman there, and when we drove up, we were obviously expected. So the day finished with a boat, down and up, over the Sixth cataract itself, then crocodile watching (we spotted two) on the sunny rocks at the Nile edge.
It was hardly short of heaven...as I'm sure I will say if I am asked by eager undergraduates in years to come.
(Please no complaints about accents. everyone... I KNOW they belong on Romanita and cliche, but I'm doing this on an Arabic/English keyboeard and I havent found the accents etc.)