Khartoum

Situated at the confluence of the Blue Nile and the White Nile, Sudan’s capital Khartoum is an exotic destination, and a unique capital set smack in the middle of widely divergent cultures.

Khartoum is one of Africa’s least ‘in’ cities. Yet, although it has languished in the background due to an unfortunate and long-standing prejudice, not to mention the fact that it is overshadowed touristically by its northern neighbor Egypt, as of 2006 it has proved itself a boom town that needs to be watched closely. Not taking a backseat to Africa’s more popular cities in terms of either its location or its historic texture, Khartoum promises a fascinating destination to travelers eager for something different.

AT THE CONFLUENCE
Situated at the confluence of the Blue Nile, which turns westward after Ethiopia, and the White Nile, which turns northward after Uganda, on lands known as ‘the Mogran’, the city throughout its history has enjoyed the advantages of having been founded in this singular geography. The Nile actually flows to Egypt through Sudan; and although the Egyptians have managed to turn  Nile cruises into a touristic activity par excellence, such excursions are still a novelty for Sudan and Khartoum. My comparison at the outset of Khartoum with Egypt and the cities of Egypt has to have struck you; nor is the comparison based solely on coincidence or neighborly proximity. Khartoum was founded in 1821 to create an auxiliary base in Egypt, then under Ottoman rule. Conducive to trade, it developed quickly and, following ten years of clashes between the British and the Egyptians, finally emerged as the free city of a free country in 1956.

INVITATION TO A SUDANESE WEDDING
As with war-torn lands in general, certain truths hold for Khartoum. Most of the hundreds of historical sites have not escaped this century of unrest unscathed. With a few exceptions such as the Great Mosque, an ancient one and an example of Ottoman architecture, urbanization can be said to have obliterated almost all traces of the past. With its three-lane roads, Khartoum to the superficial glance appears little different from modern western cities. I am referring of course to the central districts. If you venture a little further out, into the rural areas, or go down to Al Jirif or Arrakhma, you can see the human chaos caused by flight, and the refugees living in their shacks reminiscent of the South  African townships. To put it bluntly, Sudan is a country with a wide gulf between the moneyed classes and the impoverished sector. But what most amazes in this city is the friendliness of the inhabitants. If there happens to be a wedding and you want to get a closeup of what’s going on inside, don’t hesitate to ask. You’ll be invited in immediately! Communication on the other hand may not be so easy. While English may be spoken in the shopping centers and restaurants, you might have to resort to sign language most other places.

WRESTLING OVERSHADOWS SOCCER
I’ve visited many a city and seen many a strange phenomenon, but few of them can compare with Nubian wrestling. On the one hand it resembles wrestling as we know it; on the other it has a different air about it, both in terms of the venue where it is practiced and the people who come to watch. In Khartoum and throughout Sudan in general, it is as important as soccer is in most other countries.  You should definitely follow the signs in the streets and stop in at one of the venues where the matches are held. Even if the wrestling itself doesn’t grab you, you’ll find it extremely interesting to observe the people.

NUBIA’S GEMS
Nubia is a key part of Sudan’s history and geography, and the Nile valley and environs and the Nubian Desert are extremely rich in historic monuments –ancient Egyptian, Coptic, even more archaic –whatever you want. What’s more, to see them you don’t even have to brave the desert heat. Most of the artifacts unearthed from the excavations can be seen at the National Museum in Khartoum. Perhaps the  most outstanding among them are the wall paintings from Faras Cathedral, one of Nubia’s gems. Unfortunately the human faces have been excised from some of them. And since these archaeological remains were found by a Polish team, a portion of the wall paintings were taken to Warsaw where we know at least that they have survived intact. Said to have been built originally by pharaohs Tuthmose III and Hatshepsut, ancient Egypt’s first woman ruler, the reconstructed ancient temples in the museum garden are astounding. A recent large-scale robbery at the museum has resulted in greater attention to security now. And the exterior of the museum is an order of magnitude more impressive than the interior.

‘BAMIA BAMIA’ AND ‘TABRIHANA’
Whenever I write about a city in Africa, people expect me to discuss their strange food. In Khartoum, in the city at least, the food is not much different from the usual international fare. The restaurants along the  Nile serve mostly chicken and fish dishes and the prices are neither expensive nor cheap. Among the Sudanese dishes you should try Machi, a dish with beef and tomatoes, and Bamia Bamia, which is made with lamb. The lamb dishes are very tasty but more expensive than the others. Of the non-alcoholic beverages, the one I can recommend is the frequently served ‘Tabrihana’. If you find there are also restaurants serving Turkish, Indian and Lebanese cuisine in the city.

THE PEARL OF EAST AFRICA
This city needs to be viewed without preconceptions. As you tour the city and talk with the people, you should also remember that Khartoum does not mean Sudan, and you must keep this in mind if you travel to other parts of the country. Khartoum is a city with an air unique unto itself, a city on the brink of modernization, an inter-cultural hotchpotch, an economically growing city caught between east and west, smack dab in the middle of the multifarious cultures of Africa. A city you should stop by if you happen to be passing through east Africa, if nothing else to see the museum and to shed your prejudices.