The challenge of preserving Sudan’s rich heritage for future generations
France is helping to safeguard Sudan’s royal pyramids, built by the Black Pharaohs of the Meroe kingdom 2,500 years ago. Protecting Sudan’s rich heritage is key, not only to jump starting tourism after 30 years of repressive rule, but also to preserving the finds for future generations.
Archaeological work is being carried out in what was the Meroe kingdom, north of Khartoum, the capital, and in other parts of the country and forms part of a special cooperation between Sudan and France.
“Our work is dedicated to protection and raising awareness of Sudan’s heritage for the population,” Marc Maillot, director of French archaeological unit of the Sudan Antiquities Service (SFDAS) in Khartoum, told RFI.
“The government really wants to use heritage as a cultural link into all of the states of Sudan -- we are trying to help to build a common memory across the country.”
The partnership goes back more than 50 years. France is the only foreign entity in Sudan’s National Museum. Under the auspices of SFDAS, France works with the Sudanese government on a number of projects, including excavations and as inspectors of antiquities.
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Latest finds at Damboya
The archaeology field was hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic, as many were unable to go on digs due to lockdowns. Maillot however was able to conduct a dig with his team a month ago at Damboya, 270km north of Khartoum.
The 20-hectare Merotic urban site dates back to 1st century AD and is considered quite important for the period — the buildings are similar to standard Merotic architecture already found, but it is arranged in a way that archaeologists will need to examine further, Maillot explains.
“We found some statuary with lions, faience boxes, gilded beds and fragments of hovering tables, so it’s pretty coherent with what you can find in a cultic area of the period,” he says.
“But the plan of the whole construction is quite surprising. One of the objectives of the upcoming season would be to understand better the function of this plan and to integrate those two structures into an urban plan of the town,” he adds.
This is where the study of the finds, drawing the objects, and writing them up for publication comes in.
“The whole idea of all of this is to understand how common people were living at a certain period, and how states, which are the most ancient political structure in all of sub-Saharan Africa, were functioning during six centuries, from 3rd century BC to 3rd century AD,” he says.
Sudan differs from Egypt, where a lot of text was found to enable historians to understand how governments and cities functioned.
“Archaeology is the main priority here, because it is one of the best sources of data that we can hope for,” he says.
While the Damboya site was a programmed dig, unfortunately a number of digs are conducted on an emergency basis, in order to save artefacts that are in danger of being destroyed.
Protecting archaeological sites
Aiding the Sudanese government in protecting the large numbers of archaeological sites from natural and man-made challenges is part of the SFDAS mandate, Maillot says.
“The second part of our work is dedicated to protection and raising awareness of Sudan’s heritage for the population.”
Natural disasters include climate change, and flooding — the Meroe pyramids are situated on three sites, all near the Nile River. One of the sites was badly damaged in the floods late last year, and is now closed to the public.
The Sudan antiquities service actually helped to mitigate the problem for this specific year, Maillot says, but the problem will only increase, as most of the 160 identified archaeological sites along the Nile Valley are endangered by floods.
"The Nile is potentially creating an artificial branch by eating up the shores of the actual Nile river right now, which means that the site itself is potentially endangered within 10 years.”
Some emergency help came in the form of a grant from the Swiss-based Aliph foundation, which helps countries in conflict or in post-conflict to preserve their cultural heritage.
Farming and mining pose a threat
However, another problem they are trying to combat is the encroachment of farmers onto valuable anthropological sites.
“Some land owners are not respecting the limits of the Sudanese cadaster (property map),” he said. “The mapping of the governorates is not respected, but we have been literally struggling with this issue for years, and we’ll continue to do so,” he added.
One of the biggest problems is the illegal gold mining at archaeological sites. The Pharaohs had significant wealth, especially gold, that they were buried with. In the northern Nubia areas, as well as in Shindi, where the Meroe kingdom is located, gold is mined without any authorization from the Sudanese government.
“Usually these gold miners they are just coping with the economic problems of the country, and they need to do that to survive, so we understand that perfectly. But the thing is, they are not acting under Sudanese law, and actually they are looting archaeological sites in several states of the country… so Sudanese law here is not respected,” said Maillot.
Looting sites permanently destroys their value archaeologically, so there’s less for archaeologists to preserve, less for Sudanese to treasure, and fewer sites for tourists to see.
Awareness and knowledge transfer
“The second part of our work is dedicated to protection and raising awareness of Sudan’s heritage for the population,” Maillot continues.
“Sudanese have always been interested in their heritage,” he says, citing the turnout and enthusiasm when conferences or talks are held on archaeology in the country, as well as domestic news coverage of new finds.
Part of their ongoing project with the Sudanese government is to involve the younger generation who live close to the various archaeological sites, by distributing small books in Arabic and English on the beauty and importance of what is in their backyard. It’s a small step, but an important one, to ensure that Sudanese of all ages can appreciate their rich heritage.
For older students, and specifically those who are studying archaeology, SFDAS works with departments at numerous Sudanese universities, including Khartoum University, Shendi University, and Jazira University to transfer knowledge as to mapping and protection of the sites, as well as use of topography.
“We train scholars and the students in archaeology in the best methods to our current knowledge, and we help them to publish the results,” he said.
A transitional government is currently at the helm in Sudan, after 30 years of dictatorship, and it’s grappling with high unemployment and inflation, making decent living standards difficult for the average person.
With recent economic reforms and aid from international partners, Maillot says that the transitional Sudanese government is trying to foster economic growth through tourism, both domestic and international.
“There’s now political will to actually create a tourism network in the country, with infrastructures for internal and external tourism,” he said, “but to have an economic tourism project nationwide, people need to have a decent job, because you cannot make tourism if you’re not allowed to eat.”
“Tourism as a potential growth factor, plus jobs that can help local populations outside of Khartoum to have a stable income, is the objective of the new Sudan.
I think it will grow in importance, but we have to mitigate the threats right now if we want to be able to give heritage the importance that it deserves in the near future,” he said.
Listen to a version of this story in the Spotlight on France podcast.
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