Sudan's conflict has put its cultural heritage in harm's way

The international community must help the relevant institutions as they scramble to preserve the country's national treasures

Sudan’s Pyramids of Meroe. Google
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It has now been a little more than a month since fighting erupted between the Sudanese military and the Rapid Support Forces. In that time, civilians and combatants across the country have died. Homes and businesses have been destroyed and the cost of basic goods has surged to near-insurmountable levels. Most services, including internet access, have been interrupted.

Amid this chaos – which shows little sign of abating – the preservation of Sudan’s cultural heritage might seem like a low priority. However, as we have seen with conflict before, it is anything but. Cultural heritage is a powerful symbol of identity and, as such, is often the target of violence during conflicts such as this.

Although fighting has taken place in several locations across the nation, it has been concentrated in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, which hosts a number of historic monuments and has the largest number of museums in the country. On May 12, Unesco said there had been “reports of damage to the Presidential Palace, a historic building which also includes the Republican Palace Museum”, but these have not been verified. So far, then, it seems difficult to confirm whether or not any major damage has been done to sites, monuments or museums in the capital.

The threat of looting – although widespread in post-2003 Iraq and in Egypt during the Arab uprising – seems low. Geoff Emberling, a researcher at the University of Michigan and director of a major project at Sudan’s Unesco World Heritage Site at Jebel Barkal, told me that “Sudan fortunately does not have a history of large-scale looting of archaeological sites”.

Sadly, the Sudanese have also been rocked by the deaths of beloved cultural figures

“It's true that some pieces have appeared on the international antiquities market … and that there is a network of small-scale antiquities trading [based partly on legal discoveries of antiquities by private people on their own property],” he added. “But I am not concerned in the short term about massive looting of sites as that would require an established network of dealers to make it worthwhile.”

This does not necessarily mean destruction or looting won’t happen in Khartoum in the future. Sara Abdalla Khidir Saeed, director of the Natural History Museum, has said on Twitter that “museums are now without guards or censorship to protect them”. As noted by Tohamy Abulgasim, co-director of community archaeology for Mr Emberling’s project at Jebel Barkal, “the area between the Natural History Museum and the Sudan National Museum is a central fighting ground” between the military and the RSF.

“This means that the museums may become collateral damage,” he added.

Indeed, remembering that cultural heritage is about both the tangible and intangible, the man-made and the natural, the greatest loss of cultural heritage in Khartoum so far is of the live animals at the Natural History Museum. The animals, which included crocodiles, rare snakes and birds, were subject to a slow death because no one was able to give them food or water since the conflict broke out.

Sadly, the Sudanese have also been rocked by the deaths of beloved cultural figures, such as the famous actress Asia Abdelmajid, former footballer Fozi El-Mardi, and most recently, popular singer Shaden Hussein, who was killed in the crossfire between the warring factions in the city of Omdurman last week.

Outside Khartoum, information is thin on the ground, even though River Nile state and Northern State are home to the country’s two Unesco World Heritage Sites – at Meroe and Jebel Barkal.

Sami Elamin, regional director of antiquities in Northern State, has been working at Jebel Barkal for years, where he is also resident manager, and is there now. He told me that the greatest damage being done to the site is the result of the significant influx of people who fled Khartoum for Karima, the town in which Jebel Barkal is located.

“The people who have come to Karima are very interested in the ancient site, which is fantastic, but they don’t realise the damage that they do by climbing the pyramids and other parts of the site,” he said. “There are also so many people that they are very difficult to manage with such a small number of guards.”

When I spoke to Mr Elamin, he was at the regional police station asking for more personnel to protect the site. Sustaining sufficient country-wide manpower will no doubt be a challenge for all cultural heritage sites, ancient or modern, as the government of Sudan has imposed "extended leave" without pay on most state employees.

In response, Mr Emberling said that several groups of archaeologists “are urgently raising money to support colleagues in the short term until larger international funding might become available”.

“It is urgent that we find ways to support site managers, inspectors and guards so they can continue to monitor sites and inform the Sudan Antiquities Service and the international community of any issues that may develop,” he added.

Looking to the future, the preservation of cultural heritage depends – like everything else in Sudan – on supporting those who work in the sector, first and foremost, and on a sustainable peace agreement between the armed forces and the RSF.

Published: May 19, 2023, 5:00 AM
Updated: May 22, 2023, 5:26 AM