From Nubia to Sudan: an Internet guiding

It would be hard to compare the last two weeks in Athens with any other visit to the Greek capital, since the Greek-Norwegian archaeological and nubiological reality started being presented through the Medieval Sai Project. The reason is not difficult to apprehend: the experiences first of the opening of the exhibition of our photographs at the Benaki Museum of Islamic Art under the title “From Nubia to Sudan through the eyes of the Greek-Norwegian Archaeological Mission” and subsequently of the guiding of visitors through the displays.

The project was being prepared over a period of one year and a half, more precisely since Easter 2010, and it developed not only through a thorough selection from our photographic archive, but also through a kind of dialogue with the display concept of the hosting institution. How much this latter point became an inherent part of the GNM photo exhibition was understood when friends, colleagues, and people whom we first met during their visit to the Kerameikos Benaki compound, were so enthusiastic about the way Nubia and Sudan fitted in the general presentation of the history of the Islamic world in the Museum.

The guests are being welcomed in the entrance hall of the Benaki Museum by two introductory panels and a pair of banners depicting the mosque at Tamtam and the Greek Orthodox Bishopric church of Khartoum. The idea we wished to convey was that of the balance between the Christian Nubian past of the Middle Ages and the present Islamic Republic of Sudan, while at the same time represent the dialogue that historically exists between the architectural forms chosen by the two religions under scrutiny in the framework of Nubia and Sudan, namely Christianity and Islam.

Nevertheless, both Nubian- and Arabic-speaking inhabitants of northern Sudan are today Muslims and consider the banks of the Nile as their homeland. The photographs in the first floor represent both dynamically and esthetically this reality as we understand it: the qubbas and the pyramids, the axial orientation of the holy of holies to the general surroundings, the monumentality of the foremost religious structures from the Bronze Age through to the Islamic era, the encasing of the features of the past in the forms of the present. Monuments from Abu Haraz, Meroe, Kweka, Naqa, Kerma, Old Dongola, Koro, and Masida are linked together by a few words that describe the reality of Nubia in Sudan.

When we arrive to the second floor, the respect shown by the display of our photographs to the mihrab that welcomes the visitor of the permanent Benaki exhibition should come as no surprise. The existence of Nubia in Sudan does not mean that Christianity should take the place of Islam! Rather we would like that the visitors appreciate the way that Islam is practiced in Sudan. The Sudanese Islam has not been one focusing on the teachings of the imams from the minaret of the mosques. It is rather the Islam of the derwish experience around the qubbas, the tombs of the holy men who propagated the new faith in the post-Medieval period, and continued to do so through the Mahdiya period, and still keep an important spiritual and social role in Sudan today.

But in modern Sudan, the role of Islam has changed: the Muslim brotherhood and fanatical teachings in the mosques are of daily order. Sometimes they cry out in support of the government, but some other times they fight against the social and financial injustice that is happening in their country. One of these injustices was the building of the Merowe Dam on the Fourth Cataract, which caused the irreversible drowning of the landscape and the forceful replacement of the local people… Perhaps in the Dar el Manasir, there was also preaching by the local religious figures calling for justice from God for what was planned as the fate of the locals in face of the building of the Merowe Dam…

In any case, the third floor wishes to portray the harsh reality for the traditional communities of the Fourth Cataract region, victims to the greediness and megalomania of the authorities of Khartoum. And of course to ring a warning bell for the future of the Nubian communities threatened by the plans for more dams at Dal and Kajbar, but also upstream from the Merowe Dam, in the Fifth Cataract region, on the Atbara and the Blue Nile…

More than just a threat against Nubia and the Nubians, such policy threatens the logic of sustainable development, respect for the heritage through protection of the natural and cultural landscape, destruction of the natural order of things in the vulnerable environment of the Nile Valley…

Some of the ways modern Sudan has integrated the traditional lifestyles are showcased in the fourth floor of the museum: the topics of architecture, energy, and food complete the way GNM accompanied the Benaki Islamic Art display. Many guests said that they could expect to see other topics also finding their place here: Nubian house-decoration, archaeological activities and so on. Our answer is simple: the exhibition of our photos is a creation that will dynamically develop along the spaces of the institutions that will house it in the future, using parts of the core that was made for Benaki and adding aspects and details that will be fitting to the new hosts.

Let us continue discussing a bit more the GNM exhibition at Benaki. Then, we need to add that beyond the end of the permanent display, our photographs accompany the more relaxed moments of the guests in the museum: enjoy a coffee or a tea with the marvelous view of the terrace and with the faces of the Sudanese people that accompanied our travels and works in their homeland, making the Sudanese of Athens remember days of childhood with nostalgia, and smiling to the everyday reality of Athens 2011…

Last but not least, returning back to leave the museum, stop before entering the elevator and consecrate a moment to getting a brief introduction to the significance of the Greek presence in the Middle Nile Valley. A presence that may refer to either the language or the people or both…

…the topics of the Greek language in Medieval Nubia, of the implications of the buildings of further dams for the societies of the Middle Nile Valley, and of Islam and its history and archaeology, we will attempt to discuss later during the five months of the exhibition at Benaki (7/10-19/2). But for these lectures we will talk in the future. And for the lecture that we gave at the Norwegian Institute at Athens in the next entry…


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