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Friday, August 18, 2017

Sudan’s antiquities are under threat as Gulf crisis rages

Sudan's antiquities are under threat as Gulf crisis rages

The drive to uncover and preserve history is undermined by dam projects and rivalries

In mid-March, photographs were published of Qatar's Sheikha Moza bint Nasser Al Missned in an Out of Africa-style shoot among Sudan's ancient pyramids, north of the capital Khartoum.

Clad in white atop a sand dune, with the crumbling relics as her backdrop, Sheikha Moza was not simply a visiting dignitary admiring the former capital of the lesser-known pharaonic kingdom, but a stakeholder in Sudan's antiquity — a rich past not only neglected by academics the world over, but by the nation's own leaders.

Qatar is not the only supporter of Sudan's feeble economy. Saudi Arabia's investments in the country reportedly amounted to $15bn in 2016, with more than 590 projects in infrastructure and agriculture. The United Arab Emirates follows closely as the second-biggest investor, with projects worth $11bn. So, it is no surprise that when a Saudi-led quartet of Gulf nations cut diplomatic ties with Qatar in June, Sudan was left awkwardly wedged in the middle.

Despite the Sudanese nation's long history of conflict and a meagre tourist industry, Qatar has invested an unprecedented $135m in the restoration, exploration and preservation of Sudan's archaeological monuments. The funding has been distributed among 40 projects led by international teams from France, Germany and Poland.

Discoveries from European teams at these sites have begun to fill gaps in ancient history. The kingdom of Kush in northern Sudan ruled over Egypt and Palestine at the height of its power, about 750BC, in a period known as the rule of the 25th dynasty and the "black pharaohs". The one-eyed Kushite Queen Amanirenas even defeated Roman troops in an attack she led on Egypt in 27BC.

Today, the region is scattered with temple ruins and is home to Unesco World Heritage Sites. Dumped for decades under the broad heading of "Egyptology", experts say that the study of Sudanese antiquity is crucial to the understanding of African history as a whole.

Qatar's funding reflects a genuine drive to highlight Sudan's history and keep it intact. The fear is that the escalating crisis in the Gulf will leave historic sites vulnerable to destruction — locals are concerned that it could be a symbolic battleground in the regional dispute.

And sadly, the Sudanese government cannot be trusted to safeguard these monumental windows into our past.

In 1959, the construction of the controversial Aswan dam displaced 52,000 Nubians in Sudan and Egypt and destroyed many ancient relics. Again in 2003, the $1bn Merowe dam displaced 50,000 Sudanese locals and flooded a vast area of archaeological interest.

This pattern of destruction could be repeated; the government plans to develop a string of five reservoir dams in the Nile Valley that Saudi Arabia has agreed to fund.

In 2007, police forces opened fire at locals protesting at the construction of the Kajbar dam in ancient Nubia, which will flood 90 villages, displace 10,000 people and destroy more than 500 archaeological sites. Four people were killed. Despite opposition from pressure groups and protests, negotiations are ongoing between the government and potential contractors.

Qatar's investment in Sudan's relics is a feeble amount compared with the billions poured in by Saudi Arabia to drown them. The current preservation projects could open doors to a flow of international tourists, improving on the trickle of the past decade and motivating government to protect our treasures.

But with the government's record of neglect and mismanagement, we fear that Sudan's history will become nothing more than a geopolitical bargaining tool. Preserved to please one nation and destroyed for another.

The writer is a journalist and producer based in London and Khartoum

--   Sent from my Linux system.

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