Mass graves old and new
A new dam, the threat to ancient Nubia, and the crisis of the Sudanese stateBy John Ryle • 15 October 2004 • Times Literary Supplement (“Not saving but drowning”) • Sudan: Ancient Treasures at the British Museum; Sudan: Ancient treasures by Derek Welsby & Julie R. Anderson • Revised • 2,228 words
Not long ago I took time off from the round of aid agencies and government departments in Khartoum to follow the road north, past the sixth cataract of the Nile, to the pyramid field at Meroe. First described by Herodotus―on the basis of accounts from spies sent by the Persian King Cambyses―the city of Meroe was the heart of the Kingdom of Kush in the first millennium BCE. The royal cemetery is a few miles from the ruins of the city. It is, by any criterion, a spectacular sight: dozens of thirty or forty-foot high pyramids scattered over the plain like gigantic tetrahedral dice, the funerary monuments of generations of Meroitic kings and queens.
If this were Egypt the place would be a major attraction, overrun by tourists, a symbol of nationhood. But here in Sudan, just a few hours from the capital and half a mile away from the mainline railway that links Khartoum to the Red Sea coast, the monument field was deserted. A single amulet-seller lingered forlornly at the gate. I was able to spend the day wandering round Meroe without meeting any other visitor, Sudanese or otherwise.
In present-day Sudan, with its recurrent pattern of state-sponsored violence, large-scale famine and political crisis, contemplation of the past can be salutary, even therapeutic. This is not because earlier Sudanese history is free of mass killings or slavery. It is, on the contrary, to a significant extent defined by them. It is rather because an understanding of the history of the polities that were created along the Nile valley, from the time of ancient Egypt onwards, offers a context, at least, for the grimness of the present, for the sequence of state formation and decay, and the environmental and political constraints under which the powers in the land still operate.
Until recently scholars saw Kush and other ancient kingdoms of Sudan from the perspective of Egyptian archaeology, as a cultural extension of ancient Egypt. This view of the lands to the south reflected the imperialist, expansionist attitude of Egypt itself. In ancient Egyptian conquest stelae, we learn, the land of Kush is routinely referred to as “wretched”, and its inhabitants—represented as black where Egyptians are pale-skinned―good only to be enslaved. This view, prevalent for millennia, is still not abandoned in the modern era. Discrimination on a perceived racial basis is endemic in Egypt and Sudan. And governments in Egypt tend to regard Egyptian interests in Sudan as paramount over those of inhabitants of the Sudanese lands―particularly when it comes to control of the waters of the Nile, on which both countries, but Egypt above all, depend.
The last few decades in archaeology and anthropology, however, have seen an increasing emphasis on the distinctive features of the ancient kingdoms of Nubia (the region that stretches from the first cataract at Aswan upstream to the sixth and southernmost cataract, north of Khartoum). Contemporary research stresses the complex relations between Nubia and Egypt that evolved from the time of the Egyptian Old Kingdom, in the third millennium BCE, and the challenge that independent Nubian powers posed intermittently to Egyptian hegemony.
Most of ancient Nubia lies within the boundaries of modern Sudan, in the northern third of the country, and it is from here that the majority of the objects in the British Museum’s exhibition, “Sudan: Ancient Treasures”, have been drawn. Many of these objects have been unearthed in the last two decades and have not previously been seen outside Sudan; the catalogue of the exhibition conveys the sense of scholarly excitement that currently animates the field. Though tourism may be non-existent, archaeology in Sudan is thriving. According to the catalogue more than thirty archaeological missions are currently active. That is to say, around the same number as participated in the last major phase of Nubian archaeology, during the construction of the high dam at Aswan in the 1960s and 1970s, when the northern, Egyptian part of Nubia was flooded forever, its inhabitants dispersed and the spectacular translocation of the temple of Abu Simnel to higher ground was completed under the auspices of UNESCO.
The pace of current archaeological research in Sudanese Nubia has been spurred on likewise by a major hydrological project, a new dam at the fourth cataract, the Merowe or Hamadab Dam (the location is not to be confused with the ancient Meroe, site of the royal cemetery, which is several hundred miles upstream, to the southeast). Although it is much smaller than the Aswan High Dam and set to flood a lesser area, the Merowe Dam—the first of several planned in northern Sudan—raises comparable social and political questions. It involves the forcible displacement of many thousands of people as well as the inundation of an unknown number of unexplored archaeological sites. (Many of the ancient remains in Nubia are built of mud brick, preserved by the almost total absence of rain in this desert region. Underwater they will return to mud.) The time that remains for salvage anthropology in the affected area― barely four years if construction work is completed on schedule―is a good deal shorter than in the case of Aswan.
The case against the Merowe dam has been put recently by Ali Askouri, a former senior civil servant in the Sudanese Ministry of Planning. “The Merowe Dam project,” he writes in Forced Migration Review
was proposed, designed and implemented by an influential group within the military government of Sudan to serve its own purposes in monopolizing the electricity sector. Internationally accepted standards on human rights, resettlement and the environment have been ignored. In one peaceful protest police dispersed men, women and children with tear gas and live bullets. Organizers were arrested, detained and tortured.
These aspects of the situation are treated with discretion in the British Museum exhibition. This is hardly surprising, since it has been arranged in collaboration with the Sudan Government Corporation for Antiquities and Museums and most of the exhibits are on loan from the National Museum in Khartoum. It has become a routine feature of archaeology—in Nubia and elsewhere—that funding for excavation work is rooted in emergencies created by the ruthless schemes of autocratic governments. The Nubian monuments themselves, of course, were built under similarly dictatorial auspices in the first millennium BCE, and by unfree labour; so in this sense not much has changed.
Grave goods and cattle skulls
That said, Sudan: Ancient Treasures is a thrilling exhibition: neatly presented, complementing and illuminating the holdings from earlier Nubian excavations to be seen in the permanent galleries of the Museum. The balance of artefacts, explanation and illustrative material is just right. There are some surpassingly beautiful objects: a stylized Neolithic figurine of veined sandstone, for example, its sole anatomical detail a roll of fat at the level of the abdomen; and a delicate tulip-shaped ceramic beaker from the second millennium BCE, encircled by aleatory bands of polished black and red and grey pigment.
There are intriguing fragments, such as the capstone from one of the pyramids at Meroe, a truncated tetrahedron that replicates the shape of the pyramid itself. The stone has metal dowels that are said to have held a copper disk designed to catch the rays of the morning sun. There are mummified corpses and grave goods from cemeteries the length of Nubia, where the mass sacrifice of livestock and, in some cases, humans (they were smothered alive by sand), was a feature of elite burials. And there is a naturally mummified desert rat: a five-thousand-year-old gerbil, robber of granaries, caught, wondrously, in mid-leap.
Among the most striking of the grave objects are five bucrania, cattle skulls from a royal grave in Kerma, the earliest of the major Kushitic sites, around the turn of the second millennium BCE, representing some 4,300 animals sacrificed for a single funeral, and buried together in a vast crescent shape. These great-horned cattle, descendants of aurochs, wild kine from Asia, are comparable to the contemporary Brahma breeds to be seen in the ranchlands of the South-Eastern United States, and bear a striking similarity to the looming cattle skulls from New Mexico in paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe.
One of the sacrificial animals has had its horns trained to curve dramatically inwards by oblique cuts made at an early stage of growth. Here the catalogue of the exhibition is not quite up to speed. It mentions a single contemporary instance of this practice, and suggests that its purpose is unknown, whereas there is, in fact, ample ethnographic documentation of contemporary horn deformation and its place in the elaborate system of bovine aesthetics developed by the Dinka and Nuer, Nilotic cattle herders of the South. This is still an inescapable sight in much of Southern Sudan.
Ancient monuments, national symbols
The exhibition also covers the Monophysite Christian kingdoms of Nubia in the early mediaeval period, from the sixth century AD onwards, and the coming of Islam a few hundred years later. The advent of these Abrahamic religions marks the end of grave goods and the pagan vision of the afterlife; at this point the wondrous objects that populate the earlier sections of the exhibition give way to wall paintings and chain-mail, to representations of Christian churches and Muslim qubba (tombs of sheikhs, Sufi spiritual leaders). The coming of Islam to Sudan, it is worth noting, seems, from the archaeological record, to have been accompanied, in the main, not by warfare, but by an extensive period of more or less peaceful existence between the two religions that persisted until the waning of Christianity in the fourteenth century.
It is odd that none of the spectacular archaeological monuments of Nubia has ever been used as a national symbol by post-Independence governments of Sudan. In Egypt, by contrast, the pyramid and the sphinx have long been employed as the principal emblems of the country, though it is a cliché of archaeology that there are more pyramids in Sudan than in Egypt. And in Cambodia—to take an example from further afield—the corncob towers of Angkor Wat are featured on the national flag as well as on postage stamps and currency. Not in Sudan. Although Meroe has featured on a commemorative stamp, no Nubian monument has appeared on a Sudanese banknote since the Sudanese pound was replaced by the dinar over a decade ago.
The state’s long decay
It is a symptom, no doubt, of the state’s long decay that it cannot seize on a unifying symbol of this kind now, when the country is threatening to come apart.
The current government of Sudan has embraced a form of political Islam that is unlike that practiced by most of its citizens. It has reinforced an Arabist ideology that excludes the majority of Sudanese (a good two thirds of whom, though many are Muslims, are not Arabs, by their own or anyone else’s criterion). It has turned its back on pluralism and inclusiveness and embraced a strategy of divide and rule. And it has sponsored death and displacement on a scale to rival that of any era in the past.
The elite burials of Kush with their human sacrifices are not the last mass graves to be found in Sudan. Two months ago a new grave site was discovered near Furawiyah in the far west of the country. There were no grave goods there, no funerary monument. It was described in the following terms by Samantha Power, the first non-Sudanese to see it:
The stench of decomposing flesh greeted us before we saw that rotting bodies were lying in the gullies on either side of us. There were the bodies of fourteen men, dressed in bloodied djellabahs or in shirts and slacks. Seventeen bullet casings lay scattered around them… They had all been shot from behind, except for one man. His body lay not in a ditch but in the center of the slope, and one of his palms was outstretched, as if he were pleading for mercy.
This new grave site is clearly not a case for archaeological investigation, but for forensic anthropology. It is the location of one of an uncounted number of group killings of non-Arab Sudanese perpetrated during the past year by government-backed Arab militias operating in Darfur—agents of a process of ethnic cleansing that has not ceased.
The archaeological record shows us that there is nothing new about state violence in Sudan. But it also shows—and it is possible that the exhibition at the British Museum is discreetly designed to draw attention to this—that the history of the country is a history of many gods, of many faiths and many languages, of a multitude of peoples and ways of being. And that this plurality is a feature not just of the history of Sudan, but also of its present, where Arabs and non-Arabs, farmers and herders, Christians and Muslims and practitioners of indigenous religions must all live side by side, and where darker-skinned and lighter-skinned people blend with one another continuously. ★