Khartoum is built on a unique locality in terms of global geography. It is the meeting point of two long rivers with different origins: the Blue Nile coming from the Ethiopian highlands and the White Nile bringing the waters of the African Lakes’ region.
The land between these two rivers as they approach the modern day Sudanese capital is called Gezira, which in Arabic means “island” and where, according to some opinions, the Arabic expansion upstream the Nile found its stop at one point or another in the course of history, as it met with the African world further up the Nile, peopled by either Ethiopians or Nilotics.
On the tip of this “island”, a land formation that for some resembles an elephant trunk got the name “Khartoum” (meaning precisely an elephant trunk in Arabic) by the first to settle there. The first? Rather not! There were for sure others there, small villages of African stock that were expelled or assimilated when the Egyptian-Turkish forces of Mohamed Ali met with them at the locality where they subsequently founded Khartoum.
Mohamed Ali was born in Kavala, on the northernmost shores of the Aegean Sea – part of the Ottoman Empire then and a Greek city today. Already from there he knew the Greeks and he met them again when he conquered Egypt where they were – almost always – active.
It seems that as part of Mohamed Ali’s army, or as merchants following it, the Greeks first arrived in Khartoum. There they met later with the British who took over control of Sudan from the Turco-Egyptian rulers. Establishing themselves in Khartoum, most of these first “Khartoumiotes” were to meet their fate when the Mahdist revolution conquered the city and beheaded Gordon.
But some survived and their story has partly been narrated. And they were soon joined by other compatriots recruited or following the armies of the British this time; working for the construction of the railway; and meeting with the other nations that were supporting the Condominium in Sudan.
It was after the Independence of Sudan, though, that the Greeks reached the colophon of their influence in the land: for they were the ones who were the stakeholders of a number of financial activities left by the British, both private and public. They had met their greatest chance to do something deeply important for the new country.
It would not necessarily have been a matter of political maneuvers, but rather an influence in … urban development. With the new nation eager to exploit its history and cultural heritage, the Greeks of Khartoum could have met this eagerness exploiting with foresight their properties in the center city: le quartier grec…
They could have developed in collaboration with the rising urban elite and middle-class a plan for the creation of a historic center where the numerous monuments of the recent past, the tramway, the corniche on the Nile, the University, the impressive churches and mosques, did not need to remain simply a leisurely life style for them, but a unique melting pot of all these cultures that met at Khartoum and built its urban atmosphere.
Could this have been an alternative to the type of development that ensued and that flooded in the 21st century the historic center with cars and blocks of cement that threaten not the skies but the grounds where the Nile touches the African soil? Could that have been an alternative to the political tumults that the city and the country met in the last 66 years?
Rather not, a realist would say. But perhaps yes, would react someone with optimism. Because the city center can still be by-passed with the construction of a ring road; many buildings are there to remind and to call for protection and promotion; and the University is still active academically, intellectually, consciously, politically and can form brighter new generations to meet the needs of the place.
And the Greeks are also there. Around the church, the school, the community, the embassy, the greek club, the private properties, the memories, the narrations, the documents. All words with small letters not to misunderstand my intentions: in the meeting today with Director General of the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums the Greeks were not mentioned; the Norwegians, yes; the Sudanese, undoubtedly; the huge potential of the project introduced, for sure; but the first positive reaction for work on a research center in the town of Atbara cannot exclude the possibility that this center could be housed at a building where a Greek family or institution was active in the old city on the last junction of the Nile with a confluent river…
Significantly enough, the day started with a meeting with Kostas Triantafillou. A Greek who decided to move to Sudan when others were fleeing the country. The man who has worked with more bottling machines in Sudan than anyone else. The man who ends on the 31st of December his career in the third largest producer of soft drinks in Sudan: G.D. Pasgianos – the oldest company to bottle a soft drink in the Sudan…