After Ethiopia, I felt I should see the Sudan, not only in search of other aspects of the Nile, but also because I realized that it was the repository of many splendours from the Egyptian Empires. The pyramidic culture had extended far to the South, and then so had Hellenistic civilization, following the conquest of Egypt by Alexander and the establishment of the Ptolemaic dynasty, the longest lasting of the successor kingdoms set up by his generals after his death.
Ethiopia I had visited in January 2014, and the next month I went to the Sudan. We landed late at night but, after the first hotel I sought turned out to be a dump, we ended up in the Acropole, by far the most attractive of Khartoum hotels except for those who want five star comfort on the lines of what they have experienced in other countries.
The Acropole was owned and run by three Greek brothers, who were born in Khartoum after their father emigrated there before the war. They knew the country well, and were enormously helpful about how to get to places, while also efficiently covering the required formalities, such as registration with the authorities on arrival. The breakfasts they served up were fabulous, and on Fridays they provided a free city tour, which I came back for.
On the first morning we explored the city, and saw the confluence of the Blue Nile and the White. I find this fascinating, and still have fond memories of seeing the place where the two branches of the Amazon, the Solimoes and the Negro rivers, come together, in Manaos in Brazil. Way back in 1987, I was taken to the confluence by a delightful boatman who did not make too much of a fuss when it transpired that I had thought the price he quoted a tenth of what he wanted (there was much confusion in Brazil in those days because of currency reform, cruzeiros having become cruzados at the rate of 1000 t0 1, a process repeated three years later when cruzados gave way to new cruzados).
Chanaka Amaratunga used to later claim that I was the only person to have been made President of a political party while in the Amazon. The Liberal Party was set up in January that year, against my advice, but the other office bearers of the Council for Liberal Democracy were determined. I had consented to be Vice-President, as I was of the CLD, if they did go ahead, but its President Hugh Fernando decided to rejoin the SLFP instead. Chanaka I suppose then thought me the most reliable of his associates in the movement, a trust I believe I justified, while all his school friends fell away over the years that followed.
In Brazil however I was blissfully unaware of all this, and rather remember now swimming, as the two rivers ran side by side, blue and brown, for some distance, in the branch that I was assured by the youngster did not have piranhas. The other, he said, was ‘poco periculoso’. 27 years later I did not have such energy, and was content to see the confluence of the two Niles at Khartoum from a distance. But that strengthened my fascination with the river, and led in time to my ceasing to be State Minister of Higher Education – though that is another story.
The brothers arranged for a driver they knew to take me later in the morning to the bus station, where we were put on a bus to Dongola. It was an exhausting journey, with hordes of hawkers and noisy songs, but – on that first occasion – great fun. Unfortunately the hotel recommended by some youngsters we ate with on the journey turned out to be ghastly, but there were no others.
The next day however was bliss, for we found a car that took us far north on the bank of the Nile, with fascinating stops on the way. One was to get to Sai Island, for which we had to hire a small boat, which rocked its way riskily across the river. But what we found was fantastic, a temple from the days of the pharaohs, a mediaeval church, and the remains of an Ottoman fort. On the way to Sai we had explored a temple built over 3000 years ago, at the same time as the monuments of Luxor. And at sunset, on the return journey, we found the ruins of two mud-brick temples that were a 1000 years older.
All this meant we got back too late to move on, and had to have another night in the ghastly hotel, though there was some relief in the little eatery opposite where a host of helpers provided us with fast food that was not too oily. And then the next day, after hours of waiting for a shared taxi to fill up, we went to Karima with its plethora of pyramids. There we stayed in a lovely hotel run by an Italian company that seemed to have cornered the Sudan pyramid market, for they had a similar place at Begrawiya, the highlight of any tour of the Sudan (as I had been advised by my former boss at the British Council, Rex Baker, who had served in the Sudan before coming to Colombo).
The Nubian Rest-House in Karima, as it was called, had rooms round a lovely grassy courtyard, and was able to arrange a car to take us to the more distant sites. These included a couple of extraordinary underground tombs with beautiful frescoes at El Kurru, 20 kilometres away. Unlike in Egypt, where the hawkeyed guards stop any photography, here one could take pictures to one’s heart’s content.
After that wonderful excursion, we walked just before sunset to the pyramids that were just beyond the hotel, on the other side of a rock we could climb for splendid views. That alone made the trip to the Sudan worthwhile, though I knew that this was the lesser set of pyramids.
The next day was less interesting, for we had a long way to go between the sites I wanted to visit. It seemed boring to go back to Khartoum, so we went east to a place called Atbara, which had nothing to recommend it, except perhaps for the restaurant where we had lunch. It was looked after by three boys of three distinctively different complexions, which illustrated splendidly the mixed cultural heritage of the country.
The next day was another long journey to Wadi Medani, and a hotel that I had been fascinated by when reading about it in the guidebook. The Continental as it was called was decrepit, but I was allowed in the morning to explore what must have been splendid rooms half a century ago. Our Greek hosts in Khartoum mentioned having been there in its heyday, but sadly the Sudan has not learnt how to sell itself, a tragedy given its extraordinarily exciting history and archaeology.
The next morning I was able to see a Greek Orthodox service in a little church near our hotel, with marvelous chanting and continuous genuflection. And the photographs I was able to take of the Blue Nile, on its way from Ethiopia, were fabulous.
We got to Khartoum in time to join the Acropole Hotel tour, which was a joy though we had seen some of the sights earlier, including General Gordon’s wrecked piano. The museum was well laid out, and it was wonderful to see the home of the Mahdi, whom I had known previously only as a figure in the biography of General Gordon, as racily constructed by Lytton Strachey. But the most impressive sight was the spectacle of the whirling dervishes, who engaged in this exciting ritual every Friday. This was at a shrine far out of the city, but the area was packed, and the devotees deeply engaged. The procession walked round and round the open area in the middle, whirling and chanting, while the surrounding crowd joined in what seemed a marvelous frenzy.
The next day the friendly Greeks had us taken to the bus for Begrawiya, for which we were dropped on the highway. Then we had to trek across the desert for what seemed miles, and I regretted not having succumbed to the blandishments of small boys atop tall camels offering us rides, at what seemed excessive prices. But the hotel was marvelous when we finally got there, tented accommodation with superb views across the desert. And the pyramids were bliss. We had to walk some way to reach them, and wandered around to our hearts’ content, relishing the fantastic architecture and the frescoes within, and then, as the sun set, admiring the silhouettes of the perfect geometrical symmetry.
And we had a bonus, for the delightful Italian girl who looked after this isolated hotel, as another equally charming one did the Nubian Rest-House, managed to produce a driver who agreed to take us the next morning to some of the other sights deep in the desert nearby. Kithsiri was deeply critical of the driver, who managed to get stuck in the sand at one point, on an isolated road. But a camel driver who was passing proved very helpful and, with some advice from Kithsiri about stones to support the wheels, we got out of the mess.
The rewards for these endeavours included an exquisite Hellenistic temple deep in the desert, erotica in what was described as the bridegroom’s chamber at another site, and a wonderful well where water was drawn by animals walking round in circles to draw up the buckets. The collection of herdsmen with their flocks brought home clearly the rigours of life in this environment.
Despite the breakdown the driver managed to get us to a town en route where we were able to get a bus to reach Khartoum that evening. The Greeks had kindly kept some of our luggage and allowed us to stay with them until it was time for a taxi for our late night flight.
Though the Sudan was possibly the most difficult of the countries we visited, and Kithsiri still talks of the flies on the Nile and the squalor of our hotel in Dongola, it was a fascinating experience. It is a country that deserves to be much better known.
Ceylon Today 20 Sept 2016 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20160701CT20161030.php?id=5786