Thursday, 18 December 2008

Glimmer of Sudan’s rich cultural history

by Kathryn Hadley

Three ancient statues engraved with a little understood sub-Saharan language have recently been unearthed at the archaeological site of el-Hassa, approximately 120 miles north of the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. For the past six years, since the beginning of the conflict in Darfur in February 2003, Sudan has tended to feature in the news primarily as an area of war and atrocities. The recent discoveries provide, however, an insight into the richness of the country’s past and cultural history.

The statues represent three rams symbolising the god Amun and are engraved with a royal dedication in Meroitic script. The Meroitic script is possibly the oldest written sub-Saharan language, dating from the Meroe period, between 300BC and AD450. The language is relatively unknown and experts are now attempting to decipher the inscriptions. The excavations, which are being financed by the French foreign ministry, began in 2000 and have since revealed substantial information on the reign of the king Amanakhareqerem, who is also mentioned in the inscriptions on the rams.

In the words of the French archaeologist Vincent Rondot, the leader of the project:
It is one of the last antique languages that we still don't understand. We can read it. We have no problem pronouncing the letters. But we can't understand it, apart from a few long words and the names of people... It is absolutely essential to understand it... We only need to read the last words remaining on the inscription
The Meroitic kingdom of Sudan was situated around the Sixth Cataract of the Nile. It developed independently of Egypt, which had previously exerted considerable influence on the region. At the height of its power, during the second and third centuries BC, the Meroitic kingdom extended from the Third Cataract of the Nile to Soba in the South. The rulers of Meroe appear to have remained, however, influenced by the Pharaonic tradition. They erected stelae to commemorate their achievements and constructed pyramids to contain their tombs.

In the first century BC, however, they gradually changed their writing style from hieroglyphs to the Meroitic script, which was adapted to the indigenous Nubian language. The Meroitic kingdom gradually declined in the fourth century as the Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum in the East expanded; by AD350, King Ezana of Axum had captured and destroyed Meroe city.

The project is described on this website, from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The History Today archive has featured Sudanese history in its latter stages, most notably in articles on the 1888 Fashoda Incident, and covering the British General and Victorian hero Gordon's raid on Khartoum.

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