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As civil war drags on, historians worry that looting and conflict will destroy what remains of an African nation’s ancient heritage

Every day, Mahmoud Suleiman strides along the dunes between the pyramids of the royal necropolis of Meroe, about 250 kilometres north of Khartoum. The site, known locally as Bajrawiya, is a treasure of Sudan’s ancient Nubian heritage and the largest concentration of pyramids in the world.

”I came here as soon as I could,” the archaeologist says. “I couldn’t just go and leave our heritage without protection.”

Since mid-April, the largest East African country has been engulfed in a civil war that has claimed the lives of thousands of civilians and forced more than four million Sudanese to flee their homes.

The conflict has pitted the troops of General Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan, leader of the Sudanese army, against the upstart Rapid Support Forces (RSF) led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, generally referred to as Hemedti. There is no sign of a peaceful resolution.

The Sudanese army controls the north of the country, where many archeological sites are located.

“The pyramids are not directly threatened by the fighting, but if the conflict lasts they can be affected by looting or environmental damages,” said Mr. Suleiman, who manages the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Meroe suffers from sand accumulation and floods, but there is no more money to protect the sites.”

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Mahmoud Suleiman is the sole guardian of the UNESCO World Heritage archaeological site on the island of Meroe, Sudan. During a visit shortly before the war, Suleiman presented the story of Queen Amanitore, who reigned from AD 1 to 20.

Other antiquities could be damaged by the fighting itself. The National Corporation of Antiquities and Museums has identified 77 archeological sites and museums across the country threatened by the hostilities. Many are no longer accessible, or in need of resources that have been redirected.

Abdelhai Abdelsawi, director of archeological exploration at NCAM, which oversees Sudan’s historic treasures and sites, worries about a repeat of the destruction of UNESCO World Heritage Sites experienced by countries pillaged by the Islamic State between 2014 and 2017. “We don’t want what happened in Iraq or Syria to be repeated here,” he said.

The Sudan Heritage Protection Initiative has already reported damage to the Sultan Bahruddin Museum in Geneina and the Sultan Ali Dinar Museum in El Fasher owing to fierce fighting. Both cities are in the Darfur region.

“The extent of the damages is currently impossible to measure,” said Mr. Abdelsawi, who fears a similar fate may befall museums in the cities of Nyala and El Obeid.

In Khartoum's National Museum before the war, a Christian fresco recovered in northern Sudan. These paintings are the best surviving examples of Christian Nubian art.
In museum offices occupied by the archaeologists, numerous boxes pile up containing samples from various archaeological sites across Sudan. Since the outbreak of war, the museum has been in the middle of the fighting.
Samples of stones and tools found at an archaeological site in northern Sudan. Archaeologists fear that these precious samples of Sudanese history could be looted or destroyed in the conflict.

The National Museum in Khartoum, the capital, has also been hit with looting and destruction. In early June, video footage showed militiamen from RSF breaking into the bio-archeology lab and areas displaying mummies and human remains. Satellite images from the Smithsonian’s Cultural Heritage Monitoring Lab reveal damage to the Buhen Temple and the Aksha Temple, situated in the garden.

“All employees and guards were forced to leave the museum compound at the beginning of the conflict for security reasons,” said Wafa Sharif, an archaeology student at Al-Neelain University who used to work in the National Antiquities department. “Now, no one can go back, so it is impossible to know the state of the collection.”

In a recent statement, the International Council of Museums advised its members to watch for any cultural objects from Sudan, and the region in general, being trafficked.

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The visitor entrance to the Meroe site (top) and the gardens and main buildings of the Khartoum museum, just a few meters from the Nile. Before the war broke out, the Khartoum museum was in the midst of a major renovation project, and was scheduled to reopen in December 2023.

For now, the National Corporation of Antiquities and Museums, with assistance from the Switzerland-based Aliph Foundation (the International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas), continues to pay the guards at several archeological sites in the hopes they will offer some protection.

More help may soon be on the way. “We are finalizing the heritage emergency fund for Sudan and whenever we are able to reach these places safely we can start our work,” said George Papagiannis, UNESCO Chief of Mission in Sudan.

Before the conflict, Sudan’s heritage was enjoying a renewed national interest. “In the past, historic sites were visited mainly by foreigners, but last year, for the first time, Sudanese outnumbered foreign tourists at Meroe,” Mr. Suleiman said. “Of course the priority is to protect Sudanese lives, but heritage is important. It’s a link between us, something that can unite us.”

The royal necropolis of Meroe has the largest concentration of pyramids in the world. This unique site could be threatened by looting and environmental degradation if the war continues.

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