Race Is On to Protect Sudan’s Pyramids and Tombs as War Rages

Sudan’s cultural heritage stretches back thousands of years. The North African nation boasts ancient Nubian temples, more pyramids than Egypt and is credited with being the birthplace of modern pottery and metalwork techniques. Now, Sudanese archaeologists, curators, academics and volunteers are braving fierce fighting to protect it.

(Bloomberg) — Sudan’s cultural heritage stretches back thousands of years. The North African nation boasts ancient Nubian temples, more pyramids than Egypt and is credited with being the birthplace of modern pottery and metalwork techniques. Now, Sudanese archaeologists, curators, academics and volunteers are braving fierce fighting to protect it.

Hundreds of people have been killed and thousands more injured since April 15, when the leadership of the Sudanese army and a paramilitary group with origins in the Darfur region failed to reach an agreement on how to merge their forces under a power-sharing deal that was supposed to lead to democratic elections. As the conflict has spread, fighters have looted and set fire to museums and invaluable university archives.

Read more: What’s Behind the Fighting in Sudan and What It Means: QuickTake

Under the oversight of Heritage for Peace, an organization dedicated to preserving cultural heritage during wartime, dozens of volunteers and professionals have been preparing museum evacuation plans and documenting damage to precious sites across Sudan. Despite challenges arranging safety measures and cash payments, the group has managed to station guards near archaeological areas and museums outside the capital city of Khartoum. 

“We are trying to find a way to report regularly and support work on the ground,” said Tomomi Fuahiya, an assistant professor at the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archeology at the University of Warsaw. With Ismail Hamid Elnour, a member of the Sudan Heritage Protection Initiative at the University of Birmingham, Fuahiya is assisting Heritage for Peace, which previously worked to save artifacts from the Islamic State in Syria. 

As fighting continues, the group is particularly concerned about the safety of the Egyptian temple of Buhen in the very north of the country, as well as the tomb of Muhammad Ahmad, commonly known as the Mahdi, who fought British colonial rule in the second half of the 19th century and went on to establish an Islamic state within Sudan.

Pressure to intervene on behalf of the country’s cultural heritage has mounted since a video emerged showing fighters from the Rapid Support Forces paramilitary entering the bioarchaeology lab of Khartoum’s National Museum and opening containers storing ancient human remains.

Satellite imagery obtained by the Cultural Heritage Monitoring Lab, made up of a coalition of experts from several US universities, also revealed that buildings belonging to the National Museum have been damaged by fire.

In Omdurman, the country’s most populous city, Elnour said that archives containing thousands of documents were looted and destroyed in a fire at Omdurman Ahlia University, which houses the Muhammad Omar Bashir Centre for Sudanese Studies and has long been celebrated as a hub of independent intellectual activity. The old Omdurman Market, known for its garments and handcrafts, has also been destroyed.

The fighting has forced millions of people to flee their homes and sparked a food crisis in parts of the country. Sudan’s army has asked the UN to remove its top diplomat in the region, Volker Perthes, who is currently abroad and has no immediate plans to return due to the risk involved.

While volunteers have struggled to enter most of the Sudanese capital’s 13 museums since the conflict erupted, Elnour said, “the archaeological sites and museums outside Khartoum are still protected by local archaeologists, guards, and local communities.”

In a stroke of good fortune, the main National Museum building was under renovation when the war began, so most items had been packed away and placed in storage, Fuahiya said. Of particular concern are a collection of 3,000-year-old Nubian monuments and temples now in the garden of the museum. An international effort to assemble and preserve these structures in the 1960s led to the creation of the modern UNESCO World Heritage system. 

Archaeological sites and pyramids at Meroe, the ancient walled city northeast of Khartoum where the conflict began, are also still intact. The status of the Sheikan Museum in El-Obeid and the Darfur Museum in Nyala, however, is unknown. Both museums are located near the sites of some of the most intense fighting.

US and Saudi-mediated talks between the Sudanese Army and the RSF broke down in Jeddah just over a week ago, and the two sides have not yet re-convened. Heritage for Peace, which provided mediators with recommendations during the talks, has appealed to both parties to protect Sudan’s heritage, prevent illicit exports of cultural property and to stop illegal digging at archaeological sites.

When reached for comment, an RSF spokesperson said their forces were “well aware of the significance” of the country’s artifacts and the importance of safeguarding them.

Addressing the incident at the National Museum, the spokesperson said video was filmed by a member of the RSF who believed he was doing the right thing by documenting the boxes to provide proof that everything was intact. 

“We have spoken with the individual concerned and strict instructions have been issued to all RSF personnel on site to ensure that their duties are fulfilled in a responsible manner,” the representative said.

A spokesperson for the army did not reply to questions.

Fighting this week centered around the Yarmouk Military Complex in Southern Khartoum, which contains a huge stockpile of weapons, videos posted by RSF fighters on social media and internal UN documents seen by Bloomberg show. Airstrikes also continued around Khartoum, Omdurman and Bahri — areas home to many temples and monuments, and the cradle of the Kerma civilization, which flourished around 2500 BC.

“Sudan is a very rich country not just for its heritage with ancient Egypt, but also for Christianity in Africa. It’s the heart of Africa,” said Sada Mire, a Swedish-Somali archaeologist currently teaching at University College London. “I can’t overestimate how important Sudan and the Kerma civilization are to understanding the whole of Africa and civilizations as we know them.”

She pointed to Kerma pottery as proof of how culturally sophisticated Sudanese civilization was millennia ago. “You would think it’s modern art. If you put it in a museum or a gallery, nobody would believe it was 5,000 years old,” she said.

“It’s really a whole living culture that has thousands of years of continuity. This is what is under threat and it’s so sad to see.”

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