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Dongola's Desert Desolation

The old city of Dongola lies desolate beside Wadi Al-Malik and the River Nile; its magnificent ruins hark back to its 5th century origins as a single fortress. First a village, then a town settled around it, and when Christianity came, church building proliferated. Dongola then grew to be the capital of the Nubian Kingdom of Makuria — this Nile-centric region of today’s northern Sudan and southern Egypt.

‘Nubia’ derives from the Noba people, nomads who settled the area in the 4th century when the Napata/Meroitic Kingdom (800 BC – 350 AD) was extinguished. Of the Middle Ages’ Nubian Kingdoms, the last, Alodia, collapsed in 1504, when Nubia absorbed into Egypt and the Sennar sultanate. Many Nubians absorbed into Arabia and united within Ottoman Egypt in the 19th century, and within Anglo-Egyptian Sudan from 1899 to 1956.

In the middle of the 7th century, two significant churches were destroyed during the 1st and, 10 years later, the 2nd Battle of Dongola in 652 AD. The Nubian Kingdom of Makuria’s Christian armies fought Arab-Egyptian troops of the Rashidun Caliphate. The battle ended Muslim expansion into Nubia, established trade, and spread historic peace between the Muslim world and this Christian Kingdom. The Kingdom of Makuria was free to grow into a power that was dominant in Nubia for 500 years until the 8th century.

Dongola’s halcyon days reached their zenith in the 10th century, when its church ‘of the Stone Pavements’ was upgraded into the Cruciform church. More churches flourished, as did at least two palaces and a monastery, and medieval Makuria’s proud capitol became a vibrant departure-point for caravans travelling west to Darfur and Kordofan. The 13th and 14th centuries saw de-Christianisation of the area by the Arabians, seeing the palace throne-room being turned into a mosque.

French physician M. Poncet visited Dongola in December 1698, and gave the first recorded eyewitness account of this once supreme city. Poncet’s caravan rode into Dongola’s outer village suburb, and transferred onto a great boat that the city’s Prince kept for the convenience of the ‘publick’. Poncet described the houses as “ill-built” and streets “half deserted” as the aftermath of northeast Africa’s horrific “depopulator”, the great Egyptian plague of 1696, was beginning to recede. The faded city of Dongola sat on the eastern bank of the Nile, on the gradient of parched-dry sand foothills. In the 19th century, the last of this city’s people moved 80 km downriver to establish an infinitely poorer sister; today’s modern Dongola on the Nile’s western shore.

The ancient Egyptians named this Merotic region of today’s Sudan ‘the Kushitic Kingdom’. Here they extracted gold, horded elephant ivory and amassed incense and exotic spices. The city of Meroë was the southern capital of Kushitic lands from around 800 BC to 350 AD, and influenced Nile delta people as far south as Khartoum.

Near the town of Shendi, you stand where in 800 BC ancient Egyptian artisans set about building Meroë’s pyramids. They tackled many more than were ever constructed in Egypt. But these versions were bereft of Pharaonic voids and corridors; they purely commemorated royal burials — although here they didn’t bother to mummify their dead. The pyramids here are smaller and more acutely angled than their Egyptian counterparts, but impressively numerous — 200 in all — and completed 800 years after Egypt’s last flourish of pyramid-work.

Frédéric Cailliaud’s western eyes ‘discovered’ Meroë in 1821. The French mineralogist illustrated and published a folio of his treasure-trove of jewels and artefacts. This book was all the Italian explorer Giuseppe Ferlini needed to rush here too. In 1834 he smashed open 40 sandstone pyramid-tops in a vandalising frenzy. Triumphant, he hauled jewellery, Meroitic stone-writing and sandstone relief-blocks back to museums in Berlin and Munich.

Prussian Egyptologist Karl Lepsius excavated the pyramids’ walls in 1844, and recorded their illustrated Kings and Candace-Kentake Queens. Lepsius also found some chapters of the Book of the Dead, and some stelae inscriptions in the Meroitic language. Metal and earthenware antiquities and fine relief-blocks were jemmied out in 1905. These found their way to the museums of Britain, Berlin and, thankfully, Khartoum. Ernest Budge, from his British excavations of 1902 to 1905, famously published The Egyptian Sudan: its History and Monuments. Today over a century later, the pyramids have been plundered empty; though at least some have been reconstructed to rectify Ferlini’s pyramid bashing.

Souqs and the Siege of Khartoum

 The great land of newly independent South Sudan slopes northward towards the Sahara, and the longest river in the world runs through it. The River Nile — the ‘White’ version — ploughs through humid jungles and Sudd swampland before joining the Blue Nile at Khartoum, the capital of today’s tighter-dimensioned Sudan. The city of Omdurman has evolved beside it, and together their population numbers 5 million.

Khartoum. What does this name bring to mind in popular history? A 19th century siege, or a 1960s epic movie about a siege? By 1879, the Mahdists — Arab and African Sudanese — couldn’t abide ruling Egypt’s heavy taxes; they were levied no matter how much drought or famine. Led by Mahdi chief, Muhammad Ahmad, 1883 saw the start of Mahdi warrior uprisings. Famously, Britain sent General Charles Gordon to secure Khartoum and ‘smash up the Mahdi’.
In January 1885 after a siege of 313 days, 50,000 Mahdist warriors broke through the city walls, spearing and ‘cutting to pieces’ General Gordon and his 8,000 Egyptian and British soldiers and Sudanese tribal sympathisers — “perhaps the worst army that has ever marched to war”, wrote Winston Churchill. 4,000 citizens were also slain, and many others were forced into slavery. The Siege of Khartoum ended with Gordon’s head being presented to Mahdi chiefs to celebrate their decisive victory. 
Nowadays, Khartoum resonates with genuine colours that vibrate at the city centre’s chaotic Souq Arabi; they are in spice stalls, carpet booths and jewellery shops, and they’re bartered for by Khartoumites. The market spreads across city squares, with its Great Mosque, the Mesjid al-Kabir, an essential rendezvous nearby. And in this part of Africa, what could be more necessary than a camel market? Souq Moowaileh is a defining experience — quintessentially Sudan.