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.

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