Several hours north of Khartoum by car — a mere 100 miles south of the Egyptian border — lies the sand-swept Sudanese town of Amara. Although its western half, Amara West, now appears as a desolate stretch of desert with little activity, the site was once the Nile-bound island home to the ancient Nubian kingdom of Kush and served as the administrative capital of Upper Nubia. And beneath the seemingly endless sands that now dominate the area lies the extraordinary remnants of this ancient people, their communities, their cultural and daily practices.
Over the years, through sporadic excavations, archaeologists in northern Sudan have unearthed thousands of artifacts, including pyramids, decorated tombs, circular buildings with large rooms and paved floors, and villas with garden plots, some well over 3,000 years old. Given recent attention to the area by the British Museum and their use of advanced magnet technology to measure telltale energy patterns in underground features, additional burial mounds, stone temples, communal structures and the bases of pyramids have all been detected beneath the sand.
“The magnetometry survey of 2008 revealed the hitherto unknown western suburb, with a series of large villas,” reported the British Museum as part of their Amara West research project. “One of these was excavated in 2009, and featured rooms for large-scale grain-processing and bread cooking, as well as private areas with brick-paved floors and whitewashed walls.”
However, the remainder of these submerged historic treasures might never reclaim the light of day. The Sudanese government has planned the construction of three hydroelectric dams in the region at Kajbar, Shereik and Dal to generate electricity from the Nile Valley, the sole stretch of fertile land in northern Sudan. Although two-thirds of the population lacks electricity, the massive reservoirs created by the projects will carry both dire and lasting consequences for the region. The Kajbar project alone would create a reservoir of 110 square kilometers while submerging some 90 villages, displacing more than 10,000 residents, and washing away more than 500 archeological sites, including thousands of rock etchings dating from the Neolithic to the medieval era.
Nubian residents have long protested these plans as the Sudanese government began wooing Chinese firms to their construction proposal well over a decade ago. In 2007, government security forces killed four and injured dozens of residents peacefully protesting the proposed Kajbar Dam, a brazen act the United Nations criticized as “excessive force” with “arbitrary arrests and prosecutions to stifle community protest against the Kajbar dam.” In 2010, the government awarded a $705 million, five-year contract to build the Kajbar Dam to Sinohydro, a Chinese company and the world’s largest hydropower contractor. However, the project lost steam due to a combination of popular resistance, politics and money until late 2015, when Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir convinced Saudi Arabia to finance the construction of all three dams.
Many residents believe, that along with gaining access to additional mineral resources like gold and iron ore, the dam projects are al-Bashir’s way of destroying Nubian heritage, culture and opposition through displacement and “Arabization,” the intentional spreading of Arab culture, language, identity and Islam to non-Arab populations. The controversial leader was charged by the International Criminal Court in 2010 with three counts of genocide in Darfur, where he was accused of trying to eradicate non-Arab ethnic groups in the region, and where hundreds of thousands died and millions were displaced. That same year, just weeks before the referendum where southerners chose secession from the country, al-Bashir delivered a speech in the southeastern village of Al Qadarif where he clarified, “If south Sudan secedes, we will change the constitution. Sharia and Islam will be the main source for the constitution, Islam the official religion and Arabic the official language.”
For their part, the Nubians, a people with ancient roots in both current-day Egypt and Sudan, are not planning to relinquish their land or culture without a serious fight, especially given how much they’ve already suffered from such construction projects. The Merowe Dam project in Sudan was completed in 2009, increasing the nation’s electricity but displacing and impoverishing more than 50,000 indigenous people from the Nile Valley. Many of those displaced never received the electricity or the compensation they were promised by their government. And it wasn’t the first time, as large Nubian territories in Egypt have already been lost to similar projects.
“We will never allow any force on the earth to blur our identity and destroy our heritage and nation,” proclaimed the Association of Nubians, a group opposed to the project, in a November 2015 statement. “Nubians will never play the role of victims, and will never sacrifice for the second time to repeat the tragedy of the Aswan Dam.”
The construction of the Aswan High Dam in Egypt over a half-century ago flooded hundreds of archeological sites while displacing over 100,000 residents from their homes, many of them Nubian.
“If the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s served as a warning, if you will, then the repercussions are going to be terrible, not just because of the loss of an untold number of archaeological artifacts, temples and tombs, but also because of the effect on the environment and human life,” stressed Anthony Browder, a cultural historian, author and educational consultant who researched ancient sites in northern Sudan in 2015. The popular international lecturer has traveled to Egypt 55 times and has conducted 23 archeological missions to the region since 2009. Browder is currently excavating two 25th Dynasty tombs of Kushite nobles in Egypt as the first African-American to fund and coordinate an archeological dig in the country.
Browder pointed out the dire and ongoing consequences in Egypt, including a mass “displacement of tens of thousands of Nubians from their ancestral homeland,” a rise in the water table that is now leaching water into and dissolving many of the country’s priceless stone monuments, and additional environmental impacts that have polluted the Nile, hampered local agriculture and been associated with increasing rates of pancreatic cancer. “I’ve lost two very close Egyptian friends to pancreatic cancer within the last eight years,” revealed Browder, noting the “same type of things will happen in Sudan when these other dams come online.”
As further confirmation of the history at stake, the eleventh-hour international effort prompted by Aswan to salvage as many artifacts as possible led to one of the great discoveries in archaeological history. In 1962, a research team led by Keith Seele of the University of Chicago Oriental Institute Nubian Expedition uncovered a pharaonic dynasty in Sudan which predated the first pharaonic period in Egypt. However, Seele buried his extraordinary findings from Qutsul (Ta-Seti) which included the beginnings of the Medu Neter sacred writing system later called “hieroglyphs” by the Greeks, an incense burner with pharaonic markings, and the royal crown of the south depicted on the heads of a dozen pharaohs prior to the unification and first pharaoh of ancient Egypt (Kmt). Almost two decades later, the find would further confirm the well-documented Black African foundations and lineage of the pharaonic Egyptian dynasties despite ongoing and often pathetic campaigns by the white and Arab Egyptology establishment to claim otherwise.
Outside of this historic find, explained Browder, what made the situation even more significant was that the Oriental Institute “made discoveries that Seele refused to release. It was only after he died in an automobile accident that his protégé Bruce Williams brought this information to light.” If it wasn’t for Williams, added Browder, “we wouldn’t know about Ta-Seti, the oldest monarchy known to man, the Qutsul incense burner, and other evidence that has proven the Kushite influence on Kemetic (ancient Egyptian) civilization.”
Such rich history is, once again, in need of rescue. “When I was in Sudan two-and-half years ago we found that a number of sites had in fact been built during the 18th Dynasty when Egyptians had control of that part of Nubia, that part of Kush,” said Browder. However, he stressed that both Kemetic and Kushitic cultures recorded their common belief that Gebel Barkal in northern Sudan was the home and birthplace of the major neterw — loosely translated as “gods” or deities — Amen, Djehuti, Ausar and Auset. The ruins of the Temple of Amen are still visible in Gebel Barkal today. So, suggested Browder, “it stands to reason that the oldest temples to Amen, Ausar and Auset are in Kush and Ethiopia and probably have yet to be excavated.”
Still, even with the serious and ongoing threats to these rich historical sites in present-day Sudan and to the ancient Nubian culture that both reflects and reveres them, Browder’s optimism is reflective of the adage that “truth crushed to earth shall rise again.”
“There’s just so much out there that could never be hidden,” insisted Browder, noting how such ancient and revelatory history “is slowly beginning to come to light, despite the intentional or unintentional efforts of people to cover it up.”