Sudan National Museum packs a Nubian punch

Sudan National Museum, symbolically located on Khartoum‘s prime Nile Road just before the confluence of the Blue and While Nile, packs a solid punch. Covering all periods of Sudanese civilisation from the stone age to the Islamic conquest, the museum features tombs and monuments to the Egyptian pharaohs and the kings of Kerma, Kush and Meroë alongside medieval Christian frescoes and early Muslim inscriptions. Many of the artefacts on display here are rescues from the dam-flooded areas of Northern Nubia.

Built just before Sudan’s independence in 1955 and opened in 1971, the museum is a retro riot. A tribute to the 1970s, its orange façade is also the right colour to evoke the peach-coloured Nubian desert. Smothered in the neglect of Sudan’s many dictatorships, the museum’s 2700-odd objects have had no air-conditioning to protect them from the scorching heat. The dated display cabinets also reveal that anything uncovered in Sudan since 1971 has never been shown to the museum-going public.

The ancient Sudan that entered Western imagination is that of Egypt’s neighbour, subdued by the former’s better known culture. This museum explodes the myth of Nubia as a passive recipient of Egyptian culture quite conclusively. It paints the relationship between ancient Egypt and Sudan as one of exchange and influence where, for a time, a weakened Egypt was dominated by the rulers from the south. The two civilisations often merge into one, in which only minor regional differences prevail.

The statues and mummies in the museum’s galleries speak to ancient Egypt’s belief in an afterlife. Their eyes, always rendered with dramatic outlines, speak of Egyptian beauty ideals. The monuments and stelae are, however, made of local orange sandstone as opposed to Egyptian gods, pharaohs and hieroglyphs which are mostly carved in granite. The garden is an open museum where entire tombs and temples have been re-installed around a water basin representing the Nile in their original location.

One of the museum’s highlights are Afro-Byzantine frescoes rescued from the flooded churches of Nobatia, Makuria and Alodia, Sudan’s three medieval Christian kingdoms. Saved from the Lake Nasser between the First and Second Cataract on the Nile, the frescoes are the result of the Nubian Campaign of the 1960s and the Polish excavations in Faras. In exchange for their work, Sudan offered half of all finds to the Poles which would explain all the Nubian art at the National Museum in Warsaw.