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Saturday, May 6, 2023

Sudan’s museums, and millenia of heritage, caught in the crossfire

Sudan's museums, and millenia of heritage, caught in the crossfire

By Ati Metwaly

Posted on Friday, 5 May 2023 12:30
Sudanese women visiting the pyramids of the kushite rulers at Meroe, Northern State, Meroe, Sudan.

Home to 200 pyramids (almost twice the number of Egypt) and to the legendary kingdom of Kush, a land of several ethnicities speaking more than 100 native languages and dialects, Sudan is one of the biggest reservoirs of human history and cultures. But as fighting intensifies, many on the ground are doing what they can to preserve this rich history.

Last week (26 April), Sara Abdalla Khidir Saeed, director of the Sudan Natural History Museum wrote an alarming call published by the ICOM ARAB, a Regional Alliance of the International Council of Museums, on Twitter.

In it, she highlights the distressing situation of Khartoum's museums. Titled The Sudanese Museums Under the Danger of April's War, the call points to the deterioration of the security situation and the "museums being caught in the crossfire of battles between the conflicting parties. Museums are now without guard or censorship to protect them from looting and vandalism."

Saeed points to the endangered situation of the National Museum, the Ethnographic Museum, the Republican Palace Museum, and the Natural History Museum located in the centre of the capital, in an area that stretches approximately 5km on an East-West axis, running alongside the Nile Street in southern banks of Blue Nile River. She also mentions the Military Museum located further to the North on the river's northern banks. As Saeed tells The Africa Report, "There are no guards to protect them".

Sara Saeed, director of Sudan Natural History Museum, guiding a tour

Nubian, colonial heritage in the crossfire

Established in 1971, the National Museum of Sudan houses the world's largest and most comprehensive Nubian archaeological collection, with objects representing a huge span of Sudan's history. Here one finds objects from the Paleolithic era, which ended in 10,000 BC, the Neolithic era (10,000–4,500 BC), Kerma Culture (3,000-1,500 BC) in ancient Nubia and its overlapping with the Middle and New Kingdom of Egypt (2040-1782 BC and 1550-1069 BC), Napatan (900-300 BC) and Meroitic cultures (750 BC-350 AD), medieval Makuria, among others.

Undeniably the National Museum, Sudan's pride, is a huge testimony to human history.

In the face of the current conflict between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the paramilitary group the Rapid Support Force (RSF), news about the looting of the National Museum emerged at the end of April.

The Art newspaper quotes Khalid Albaih, a Khartoum-based artist and journalist, saying the Museum "has also become a battleground" and that "no one knows how much damage the [National Museum] took."

Heading East from the National Museum, one arrives at the Presidential Palace Museum, home to Sudan's modern history and only a few steps away stands the Ethnographic Museum. Established in 1956 by the British colonists, the latter is a fascinating spot, allowing visitors to encounter the variety of Sudan's ethnic groups, with their cultures and traditions.

Farthest to the east is the Sudan Natural History Museum, managed by Saeed, who remains in Khartoum amidst the fighting. She describes the situation to The Africa Report as very dangerous. "No civilian can get to any of the Sudanese museums right now. Everyone is scared to be shot by snipers or random gunshots from the militia of Janjaweed (RSF)."

Of course, the museums seem to be a luxury in a city where "the stores are out of groceries, no bank accounts are working, and some banks have been robbed" and where "people will face starvation soon," says Saeed. The media and social media reports about bodies on the capital's streets only emphasise the horrific image.

Yet, even if cultural locations are of the least concern to the civilians caught in the fighting, the conflict strongly echoes the many layers of the country's history. Khartoum's museums aim to protect Sudan's heritage and its centuries of history and artefacts. Those havens of collective memories have now become potential targets for looters and smugglers.

Natural History museum

For the Natural History Museum, these concerns are further elevated by the possibility of losing specimens unable to survive the conflict.

One of the oldest museums in Sudan, the Natural History Museum was established in 1929, annexed to the University of Khartoum, and opened at its current location in 1958, within the university's central campus. In 2018, the Sudan Memory, a project aiming to conserve, digitalise, and promote Sudanese cultural and documentary heritage, has digitised all species of the Museum through photographs.

While representing all-natural environments in Sudan, the museum contains specimens that date back to the 19th century and the colonial era, when they were collected from various regions of Sudan and [now] South Sudan. Some of the older specimens of birds, reptiles and marine creatures are displayed mummified, serving as a unique reference to the unique cultural heritage of the country.

Having majored in zoology, Saeed is also an assistant professor at the Faculty of Science, University of Khartoum. As the museum's director, she expresses her deep concern about how the conflict can affect the artefacts, fauna and flora. Saeed says the museum is also home to some live animals from various groups such as the Nile crocodile that was brought to the museum as an egg and hatched there in 1971.

Nile crocodile.

"We have many rare live animals, species of reptiles, birds, mammals, such as the Nile monitor, desert tortoises, venomous and non-venomous snakes. We also have highly venomous scorpions for research.

Containers house highly venomous scorpion species for the museum's scientific research.

"Since the beginning of the war, we have had no access to the museum. No one can reach the animals to give them food or water. The area is located close to the Sudanese army's headquarters, which means anyone walking around will be shot immediately as was the case with one of the university students," she says in reference to a university student who was killed by a stray bullet on 18 April and buried at the campus.

Saeed adds that this is the first time for the museum to face such a difficult situation. "The live specimens survived during all crises faced by our country even during the Coronavirus lockdown. Now we might lose the rare live animals."

The loss of live specimens can in fact mean an unrecoverable end to many species, an important segment of the country's history which, should they perish, will be only accessible through the museum's archival documentation, Saeed says.

Survival over heritage

As the once-bright hopes for a democratic transition in Sudan now become increasingly bleak, the country finds in an impossible situation to prioritse its rich heritage. The war has interrupted Sudan's recent efforts to shed light on its history and archeological sites. Moreover, it has also interrupted its road to the restitution of Africa's colonial-era objects from Western museums to their countries.

Unfortunately, as Saeed says: "In light of the daily deteriorating situation, due to the lack of food and life resources, weak souls will be exploited to steal important elements (artefacts) and smuggle them out of the country."

"The war in Sudan must be stopped immediately," she calls.

--   Sent from my Linux system.

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