Facing an uncertain future, Sudan is drawing strength from its ancient past

Amid a revolution and subsequent coup, the country’s youth find inspiration in one of Africa’s great civilizations: the little-known kingdom of Kush.

Ahmed Ibrahim Alkhair (at far left), wrapped in the first flag of independent Sudan, and Awab Osman Aliabdo, with the current flag, take in the view from Jabal Barkal. Sudan’s 2019 revolution ousted its Islamist dictator and stirred hopes for democratic rule. But after a military coup last fall, the nation now teeters between the possibility of peace and the threat of more violence.

On a Monday morning in late October of last year, Sudan’s latest revolution was crumbling. It had been just two and a half years since the 30-year Islamist dictatorship of Omar al Bashir fell in April 2019. The nation’s military-civilian Sovereign Council was steering away from the legacy of the accused war criminal and three dark decades of repression, genocide, international sanctions, and the secession of South Sudan. 

But around noon on October 25, 2021, just weeks ahead of a planned transition to civilian control, the future of the African nation took another turn. The chair of the Sovereign Council, Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al Burhan, dissolved the government and put the civilian prime minister under house arrest. (The prime minister has since resigned, leaving the country without civilian leadership.) The general called it a state of emergency, but the Sudanese people recognized it as a coup and turned out by the hundreds of thousands to protest in the country’s capital, Khartoum, and beyond.

As befits a 21st-century regime change, it all played out in real time on social media, and I watched raptly from my laptop half a world away. I had been following Sudan since before the coup and the revolution, covering the work of National Geographic Society grantees who were excavating archaeological sites in the country’s north. My first reporting trip was during the final paranoid months of Bashir’s rule, a time marked by food and gas shortages, restricted internet access, and multiplying military checkpoints. Our expedition team had quietly mapped out an escape route to the Egyptian border in case Sudan plunged into chaos.

When the Bashir government toppled in the spring of 2019, the images unspooling across Twitter and Facebook were remarkable: A sea of young men and women gathered in peaceful defiance of the regime, demanding a different world for their generation. One scene stood out, repeated endlessly in a series of cell phone photos and video clips: A young woman dressed in traditional white Sudanese dress stood atop a car, her finger pointing to the dimming sky, chanting with the crowd: “My grandfather is Taharqa, my grandmother is a kandaka!”

I was stunned. This wasn’t a chant supporting a political group or social movement. The protesters were declaring that they were the descendants of the ancient Kushite king Taharqa and the Kushite queens and queen mothers known collectively as kandakas. These royal ancestors led a great empire that reigned from northern Sudan and once stretched from what is now Khartoum to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.

The empire of Kush—known also as Nubia—was indeed once spectacular, but it was now mostly relegated to footnotes in books on ancient Egyptian history. Even within Sudan, few students growing up under the Bashir regime learned much of distant Kush. So why was the legacy of an ancient kingdom, little known even among archaeologists, much less the average Sudanese, suddenly a rallying cry in the streets of Khartoum?

When I returned to Sudan in January 2020 to explore these questions, the postrevolutionary capital felt energized. In Khartoum, where just a year earlier women could be publicly flogged for wearing pants, young Sudanese were dancing at music festivals and packing cafés. The city’s thoroughfares and underpasses were emblazoned with portraits of modern martyrs—some of the estimated 250 protesters killed during and since the revolution—as well as murals of ancient Kushite kings and gods. 

Sudan’s unique location at the intersection of Africa and the Middle East, and at the confluence of three major tributaries of the Nile, made it an ideal locus for powerful ancient kingdoms—as well as a territory coveted by more recent empires. In the modern era it fell under Ottoman-Egyptian rule followed by British-Egyptian domination until 1956, when the Republic of the Sudan gained its independence. Today its diverse citizenry includes more than 500 ethnic groups speaking over 400 languages and skews incredibly young: Roughly 40 percent of the population is under 15.

Sudan is Africa’s third largest country; it’s also the world’s third largest Arab nation. (Its name comes from the Arabic bilād al-sūdān, or “land of the Black peoples.”) Since Sudan achieved independence, it has been ruled by an Arabic-speaking political elite.

Before the 2019 revolution, an Islamist government and membership in the Arab League made it advantageous for Bashir’s regime to present Kush not as a uniquely African phenomenon but as a legacy of its powerful modern ally, Egypt, and, by extension, a chapter in the history book of the Near East. Kushite sites such as Jabal Barkal and El Kurru were marketed as quick, exotic trips for Western tourists visiting the ruins of Abu Simbel, just over the border in Egypt. 

Once the spiritual center of the Kushite kingdom, Jabal Barkal is an enormous 30-story sandstone mesa that erupts from the Sahara and looms over the west bank of the Nile near Karima, about 200 miles north of Khartoum. Some 2,700 years ago, King Taharqa inscribed his name atop this sacred mountain, covering it in gold as a glittering, triumphant rejoinder against his enemies. Today only traces of Taharqa’s inscription are visible to climbers. At the base of the mountain are the ruins of the Great Temple of Amun, originally built by Egyptians who colonized Kush in the 16th century B.C. Over the five centuries that Egypt controlled Kush, the Amun temple was rebuilt and refurbished by a who’s who of New Kingdom pharaohs: Akhenaten, Tutankhamun, Ramses the Great. Assimilation was the order of the day, and during that time Kushite elites trained in Egyptian schools and temples.

The remains of the Amun temple that visitors see today, however, come from a time after the collapse of the New Kingdom and the retreat of Egyptian power in Kush. By the eighth century B.C., Jabal Barkal had become the center of Napata, the Kushite capital from which a series of local rulers consolidated power and turned the tables on their former colonizers. 

Piye, father of Taharqa, ascended the Kushite throne in 750 B.C. He gathered his troops and marched north into a weakened Egypt, seizing temples and conquering towns until he commanded all of Upper and Lower Egypt. With a territory that stretched from what is now Khartoum to the Mediterranean, Kush was for a short time the largest empire to control the region. For a little more than a century, its kings Piye, Shabaka, Shabataka, Taharqa, and Tantamani became Egypt’s 25th dynasty, often referred to as the Black pharaohs.

Following his victory over Egypt, Piye returned to Jabal Barkal to expand the Amun temple to a scale never seen before, decorating it with scenes of the Kushite conquest of its former colonizers. Today the story of that conquest—replete with depictions of Kushite charioteers running down Egyptian troops—lies buried some 15 feet under the sand. What few scenes survived the millennia were excavated and documented by archaeologists in the 1980s. Deemed too fragile for regular exposure to the elements, they were mostly reburied—a fitting metaphor for an important ancient kingdom that has long been cloaked in obscurity. 

The pyramids of Kush command much attention, but archaeologists rely on smaller discoveries—from figurines to ostrich-shell beads—to reveal the history and legacy of this long-overlooked African kingdom. Shabtis (above)—statuettes crafted to perform menial tasks in the afterlife—were discovered in the burial of Kushite king Nastasen and date to about 315 B.C.
The pyramids of Kush command much attention, but archaeologists rely on smaller discoveries—from figurines to ostrich-shell beads—to reveal the history and legacy of this long-overlooked African kingdom. Shabtis (above)—statuettes crafted to perform menial tasks in the afterlife—were discovered in the burial of Kushite king Nastasen and date to about 315 B.C.
Photograph by Nichole Sobecki, National Geographic

Why have so few people heard of Kush? For starters, the earliest historical accounts of the Kushites come from the Egyptians, who tried to erase the humiliating conquest from their annals and presented Kush as just one of many troublesome groups that disrupted their borders. 

That narrative was left unquestioned by the first European archaeologists to arrive in Sudan in the 19th century. Poking around crumbling Kushite temples and pyramids, they declared the grand ruins to be mere imitations of Egyptian monuments. 

That view of the African kingdom was reinforced by the racism of most Western scholars. “The native negroid race had never developed either its trade or any industry worthy of mention, and owed their cultural position to the Egyptian immigrants and to the imported Egyptian civilization,” remarked George Reisner, a Harvard University archaeologist who undertook the earliest scientific excavations of the royal tombs and temples of Kush in the early 20th century. 

To Sudanese archaeologist Sami Elamin, Reisner was as sloppy in method as he was misguided in interpretation. In 2014, Elamin and a team of archaeologists sifted a large mound of excavated dirt from Reisner’s dig site at the base of Jabal Barkal. “We found a lot of objects,” Elamin says. “We even found small statues of gods.”

Elamin grew up in a village a few miles from the nearby site of El Kurru, where Piye and other Kushite kings and kandakas were buried. When Elamin was a young boy, his grandfather would take him to El Kurru and explain that the ruins were “the tombs of our grandfathers.” The sight inspired Elamin to study archaeology in Khartoum and earn a graduate degree in Europe. He returned to Sudan and has been excavating at Jabal Barkal and elsewhere for several years.

Now Elamin and a team of Sudanese and American archaeologists are searching for the homes and workshops of ancient Kushites who supported this spiritual capital for millennia. Jabal Barkal has long been a popular destination for Sudanese who come during holidays to climb the mesa and picnic in the broad swaths of shade it casts across the desert. In the past, Elamin says, visitors paid little attention to the sprawl of ruins surrounding the magnificent rock outcropping. But that’s changing.

Elamin notes that he’s seen more locals visiting Jabal Barkal and wandering its ruins. “Now they ask a lot of questions about the antiquities and the history and the civilization,” he says.

Elamin and his colleagues are eager to engage with their fellow citizens and present this distant chapter of history to a generation hungry to learn. It’s an opportunity and responsibility as Sudanese archaeologists, he says, to bring citizens together by showing them the efforts of even distant generations. 

Built shortly before the country gained independence in 1956 and inaugurated 15 years later, the Sudan National Museum is a cavernous, poorly lit space with no climate control to protect artifacts from the relentless heat and dust of Khartoum. Most of the objects are housed in old-fashioned wood-and-glass display cases alongside yellowing, typewritten labels. 

But the museum is chock-full of treasures. A larger-than-life granite statue of Taharqa from Jabal Barkal, broad-shouldered and expressionless, commands the museum’s entrance, and massive statues of the Kushite rulers flank its ground-floor gallery. 

Tucked around the corner from Taharqa is one of the country’s most heralded artifacts: a glowering bronze head of Caesar Augustus. It’s believed to have been the war trophy of a one-eyed Kushite queen named Amanirenas, who battled the Romans in Egypt around 25 B.C. The museum label neglects to note, however, that the storied artifact is a copy. The original was whisked off by colonial forces shortly after its discovery in 1910 and now resides in the British Museum.

Outside the museum I meet Nazar Jahin, a tour guide and member of Artina (“Our Art”), a student group organized during the 2019 protests to support Sudan’s struggling cultural institutions. “The last government, really, they don’t care about history,” Jahin tells me. Much of that disinterest was the result of the former government’s hard-line interpretation of Islam. “We had a minister of tourism who said that statues were forbidden,” Jahin recalls, shaking his head. 

But there are bright spots on the horizon, he says. The Italian Embassy and UNESCO pledged funds in 2018 to refurbish the museum (a project now delayed by the pandemic), and since the revolution more Sudanese are visiting the museum and sites like Jabal Barkal and the ancient capital of Meroë. 

“This is most important,” Jahin says. “Sudanese have to know their history first. If they know their history, they can protect it.” 

Then I pose a delicate question: How do ethnic groups living in areas of Sudan that never were part of the Kushite Empire—tribes from the Nuba mountains or Darfur, for example—react when asked to rally around an ancient history they don’t feel is theirs? Bashir’s regime was notorious for exploiting ethnic and religious differences to prevent the richly diverse country from uniting against the Arabized political elite in Khartoum. Jahin furrows his brow and pauses. “This is a good point. We need a lot of work, really.” 

Like many young Sudanese, Jahin rejects the idea that “Arab” is a Sudanese identity. “If someone says, ‘My roots come from Saudi Arabia,’ or something like that, I don’t believe it,” he says firmly. “I believe that our roots are the same or close together … In general, we are Sudanese. That’s enough.”

The image of the revolutionary kandaka, white-robed among the protesters, raising her finger in the sky as she invokes Kushite kings and queens, has been memorialized in street art across Khartoum and around the globe. But when I meet Alaa Salah during my second trip to Sudan in early 2020, she’s unrecognizable in a burgundy headscarf and dark clothes, sitting across from me at a crowded open-air café on the bank of the Blue Nile in the fading evening light.

At 23, Salah became a face of the Sudanese revolution, a role that would propel her from engineering student to international figure invited to speak before the UN Security Council on the role of women in the new Sudan. Through an interpreter, Salah tells me that growing up she was taught little in school about the history of ancient Kush and that she had to discover it on her own. It was only a few years earlier that she traveled to see the fabled pyramids at Meroë. She was astonished by what she saw: “We have a lot of pyramids, even more than Egypt!”

When the protesters on the streets of Khartoum began the chant “My grandfather is Taharqa, my grandmother is a kandaka,” Salah explains, they were expressing their pride in the defiance and bravery of the ancient kings and queens. It made them feel as if they too belonged to this ancient civilization of strong and courageous leaders, particularly for the women who played a pivotal role in the protests. “Whenever people see a young woman in the street fighting for Sudan, going into the streets for Sudan, that means she’s brave, she’s very defiant,” she explains. “She’s strong and a warrior, just like the kandakas.” 

In the nearly three years since the fall of Bashir, however, the role of women has been increasingly shunted aside. That was Salah’s main concern as we spoke, to ensure that Sudan’s modern kandakas are safe and would have proper representation in any transitional government. Since our interview, the coup—which, with the threat of a return to a repressive regime, feels more like a counterrevolution—has made the situation for Sudanese women even more perilous.

On my last Friday in Khartoum, I cross the White Nile to the city of Omdurman, where the tomb of 19th-century Sufi sheikh Hamed al Nil lies in a cemetery bounded by busy streets. Some 70 percent of Sudanese consider themselves followers of Sufism, a mystical expression of Islam. The country’s Sufi orders often play an influential role in internal politics, and the Sufis who marched from Omdurman to army headquarters to join the 2019 protests helped oust the regime.

Each Friday at sundown, hundreds of followers of the Qadiriyya order gather at the cemetery to perform the dhikr, a ritual that often involves chanting and dance. As men in green and red robes slowly slap their tambours in rhythm, the crowd looks on and sways. The drumming picks up pace, and the dancing and chanting begin. La ilaha illa Allah. “There is no God but God,” the crowd repeats, as clouds of frankincense and dust rise in the air. The dhikr ends with a kinetic, exultant release, and people disperse, some following the call to prayer to the mosque, others wending their way through the cemetery. 

Several graves are fresh and decorated in the colors of the Sudanese flag. These belong to some of the protesters killed during the revolution, students who announced in the streets that they too were kings and kandakas, inheritors of the complex legacy of a land where some of the earliest empires intersected. 

Watching students pay their respects at one of the graves, I was struck by how fragile the new Sudan felt, like a precious ancient vessel being carefully excavated from the earth. Now the coup has injected even more uncertainty into a nation and generation hungry for democracy and stability.

Most of the grand palaces and temples of Kush disappeared long ago, looted for parts and swallowed by sand. But many monuments to the dead remain: the pyramids of kings and kandakas standing sentinel in the desert, the tombs of sheikhs, and the tombstones of student protesters crowding urban cemeteries. These monuments persist as regimes collapse and rebuild, telling anyone willing to listen: We fought for this. We were once here too.

Kristin Romey is the senior archaeology editor/writer for National Geographic. Photographer Nichole Sobecki covered cheetah trafficking for the September 2021 issue.

The National Geographic Society is committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world. Learn more about the Society’s support of its Explorers.

This story appears in the February 2022 issue of National Geographic magazine.

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