THE COMMON CONTEMPORARY image of Sudan is not of a country of ancient culture but as Dr Julie Anderson, special exhibitions curator at the British Museum, noted: "Hopefully after this, people will know more about the country, which might help them to understand what is happening there now. They will see that Sudan has been significant and powerful, and certainly will be again. It is a country of great potential."
Unfortunately, this is a picture of the country few of us enjoy. Currently Sudan is on the edge of a humanitarian disaster, ravaged by civil unrest. It is the largest country in Africa covering 2.5m sq km, which for millennia has been the contact zone between Central Africa, the Mediterranean and the Middle East.
The ancient sites of Sudan are home to some of the great monuments of Africa, and, long ago, it was the most powerful state in the Nile Valley, which briefly overwhelmed the Egypt of the Pharaohs. Using the fruits of recent archeological research, this major exhibition leads the visitor through the fascinating history of the country from the early Stone Age to the 19th century AD, including the medieval Christian and the Islamic periods. Many remarkable objects have been lent by the Sudan National Museum in Khartoum, some never before seen outside their homeland.
Sudan was at the cutting edge of technological and cultural development, creating what some scholars believe was the world's oldest piece of known art, which is on view in London.
The account begins 200,000 years ago, in a sandstone depression beside the Nile, when the first anatomically "modern" humans in this part of Africa smeared yellow and red pigments onto a pebble. It was found in a small "paint factory" of coloured ores, seemingly some of the earliest evidence of pigments known, according to Dr Philip Van Peer, the excavator.
Sudan was then, and would he for millennia to come, well-watered and fertile, but gradually the desert advanced and its people were forced to become nomads or to settle along the banks of the Nile. It was in this environment that the first Kushite kingdom developed into an awesome power.
Nubian Gold was exploited for 2,000 years by the Egyptian pharaohs in the Wadi El Allaqi. On display in London are some exquisitely crafted jewellery found in King Talakhamni's tomb (431BC) as well as statues of Kushite kings inlaid with gold.
By 1,700BC, the first metropolis in sub-Saharan Africa had developed at Kerma. But Egypt regained its power, swept south to colonise the Kushites and ruled for several centuries. The Kushite sites at Jebel Barkal, Meroe and Naqa, dating from the 8th century BC into the 4th century AD, feature majestic monuments, palaces, temples and even pyramids, particularly step pyramids, indeed more pyramids exist in Sudan than in the whole of Egypt.
Where Rome failed to conquer, Christianity triumphed, with missionaries from Byzantium converting Sudan in the 6th century AD. …