Sudan — Land of Pyramids

Sudan’s capital is Khartoum. It’s a river city, located where the Blue Nile meets the White Nile. I went to school in St. Louis, which is another famous river city, at the junction of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. Flying into Khartoum, I got my first view of Sudan’s dusty capital. Looking out the airplane window, I reminded myself that this is not St. Louis.

I saw miles and miles of 1- and 2-story buildings on both sides of both Niles. In the brown haze beyond Khartoum, I saw an endless desert.

Sudan is huge. It’s bigger than Alaska. I gave myself five days to visit this country. I realized quickly that five days is enough to see Khartoum and little else. A return trip will be required.

Once on the ground, I was glad to see that most of Khartoum’s roads are paved, the bridges are wide, and there’s vegetation in green zones near the river. That’s the Blue Nile in the foreground.

January is a good time to visit Khartoum. Daytime highs get up to 30°C (86°F). Nights are refreshingly cool, sometimes as low as 10°C (50°F). If that’s what it’s like in January, I wouldn’t recommend coming here in August. With this comfortable “winter” weather, the streets are filled with people day and night. Friends gather on sidewalks to drink tea, smoke shisha and conduct business.

Sudanese culture is known for its hospitality and generosity. Everywhere I went, I was treated with respect and kindness. In 2018, Sudan attracted about 700,000 tourists compared to Egypt’s 10 million visitors. As one of the few tourists walking around the city, people were interested to meet a me, especially an American. They all asked which state I’m from — a difficult question for me to answer — and what I’m doing in Khartoum.

Sudan is 97% Muslim. Consequently, Sudan has many big mosques, like the one above. Other than the mosques, Khartoum’s skyline is low … as if beaten down by the intense sun. The exceptions are the huge football-shaped Corinthia Hotel and the streamlined GNPOC (Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Co) tower.

Sudan has thousands of years of history, much of which is still buried under ground. The few foreigners who come to Sudan come here for the history, and in particular the archaeology. I stayed at the historic Acropole Hotel in the city center. Almost everyone I met here is a professor, a researcher or a volunteer on a dig. I met scholars at the Acropole who could read the hieroglyphics shown above as easily as you’re reading this sentence. Breakfasts and dinners were stimulating opportunities to learn first hand about the latest research and discoveries about ancient Sudan.

In a more recent century, Sudan had a few military conflicts with England. The boat above is one of Lord Kitchener’s gunboats used in the Battle of Omdurman (1898). Today, Kitchener’s boat slowly rusts away next to the parking lot of the Blue Nile Sailing Club.

250 kilometers north of Khartoum, on the east bank of the Nile, is the ancient city of Meroë. There are more than 200 Nubian pyramids here. This single archaeological site gives Sudan the distinction of having more pyramids than any other country in the world.

The photo above is not mine because I didn’t get to these pyramids. Why not? Because it’s not a simple day trip, and an expensive outing to boot, given the current lack of tourist infrastructure. By my next visit to Sudan, I’m told that there will be a daily, air-conditioned bus to ferry tourists directly to and from these pyramids. For this visit, I was content to visit the museums in Khartoum, to have tea with people I met on the streets, and to chat with the scholars at the Acropole Hotel.

My last evening in Khartoum was spent with the Sufis. They’re like the Whirling Dervishes of Turkey. They dance in a religious reverence as a form of praying. Click here to see a 2 minute video of their ritual dancing. They dance in front of the tomb of their former leader, Sheikh Hamed al-Nil, at the cemetery bearing his name. The dancing ends at sunset, which is when I took this photo of the sheikh’s tomb.

Sudan is clearly a country that deserves more than the five days I gave it. I’ll be back. For now, I must continue to more places I’ve never been before.