The Whirling Dervishes, Khartoum, Sudan

Any tour of Sudan should have going to Omdurman on a Friday night on its to-do list, where every week hundreds gather at Hamed al-Nil Tomb to witness the dervishes.

Doughnut balls sprinkled with sugar -- delicious!

We arrived at 5pm, when the crowds were scarce. In front of the mosque was a huge cleared area, littered on the sides with tea stalls and trinket shops. With the festivities not starting for a few hours, we sat down amongst locals and imbibed on Sudanese tea (which is incredibly sweet) and these amazing home-made donut balls that were made on the spot.

Around 6pm, a group of men, cloaked in green and white, strode in carrying the green banner of the tariqa (the Qadiriyah order in Sufism) to the mosque steps. Turning to the quickly growing crowd, they begin to march in a wide arc, chanting alongside drums and music. And with the banner raised and the large open space cleared, the ritual began!

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Religious leaders guide the crowd in chanting

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As the night goes on, more join the march in the middle

The idea of a “whirling dervish” is a bit misplaced. A handful do spin, but the majority clap and chant and dance. And as the evening goes on, the sounds pick up in volume and speed. Incense and smoke fill the air completely, and the continuous chanting heightens–“La illaha illallah,” which translates to “There is no God but Allah.” And as the fervor peaks, more adherents step into the circle to spin and dance. It’s a hypnotic experience, a rare glimpse into an active religious community so different from anything else we’ve seen. And despite sometimes feeling like I’ve stumbled upon a very private and reverent ritual, the locals could not have been more welcoming to tourists, as long as the respect was mutual.

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-Christine

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Northern State, Sudan

An unflinchingly barren landscape of sand, wind, and heat welcomed us into the north. Unable to enter Egypt, we wanted a taste of what our end destination could have been. And so in search of Sudan’s ancient treasures, we journeyed northward into the vastness of the Sahara desert.

Musawwarat es Sufra

Our first historical site was Musawwarat, an enormous pile of ruins of which no one knows the purpose of, and of which is only accessible via private vehicle. Pulling up to the Lion Temple, we didn’t have to search far for the ghaffir. A man in a billowing white tunic and sporting Einstein hair greeted us in Arabic, and after a meager Arabinglish conversation, we were allowed access to one of the finest Kushite temples.

Ghaffir in front of the Lion Temple

The Lion Temple

Unfortunately, we completely missed the informational board (which, in our defense, was facing the wrong way). Thus most of the time, we were unsure exactly what we were looking at. But nonetheless, it was awe-inspiring.

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In the same vicinity is the Great Enclosure, a complex dating from Kushite history. From the ruins it’s easy to see how expansive this plaza must have been. As the sun set, we wandered the ancient hallways in silence,  trying to conjure up who would have walked upon these floors.

The Great Enclosure

The Great Enclosure

Ruins in the setting sun

Ruins in the setting sun

The Royal Cemeteries of Meroe

For an archaeologically significant site with over 200 pyramids, the Meroe pyramids are surprisingly accessible. The north cluster pyramids, clearly visible from the main highway, are dwarfed by Egypt’s. But there’s a tranquility to these Sudanese treasures. Almost no touts heckle you, and on most days, you’ll have the 8th century B.C. pyramids completely to yourself.

[Click photo to enlarge]

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A little history we picked up: Unlike their Egyptian counterparts, these Nubian pyramids are built on top of the buried. As a result, there is no labyrinth inside, but only a simple funerary chapel where offerings were made. But that didn’t stop an Italian explorer, who lopped off the top of each pyramid in the hopes of treasure. Besides some jewelry in the Tomb of Queen Amanishakheto, he walked away with nothing. And Sudan was left with a field of decapitated pyramids.

Camping under the desert sky, watching the sun set over the pyramids

Camping under the desert sky, watching the sun set over the pyramids

Naqa

Possibly the best preserved Kushite site in Sudan, the Naqa ruins showcase Sudan’s classic architecture and artwork.

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An imitation of art!

 

Roman temple

A strange apparition — the Roman Kiosk

And so concludes our tour through Sudanese history. With one last pit-stop in Khartoum, we were off back to Ethiopia!

The sun sets on the Sahara, and on our tour of Sudan

The sun sets on the Sahara, and on our tour of Sudan

-Christine