That area of Northern Sudan where the mighty River Nile twists and contorts in great serpentine coils (as if threatening to turn its waters back to their source), was for centuries the territory of the mysterious Christian kingdom of Makuria.
Little is known for certain about it. Landlocked and isolated from the rest of the world by desert sands and hostile neighbours, its history is shrouded in silence and mystery. Now, however, thanks to the work of Polish archaeologists, we can gain a glimpse into the life of this lost kingdom.
Converted to Christianity by Byzantine missionaries in the 6th century AD, Makuria was a rich and powerful state, its people the inheritors of the fabulous cultures of Kush, Kerma, Nubia and Meroe. Its elites were learned, literate and sophisticated. The country’s institutions were modelled upon the political system of Constantinople and it was ruled over by a basilikos or king.
After Egypt fell to the invading armies of Islam in the 640s AD, the Muslim conquerors turned their sights upon Makuria, and an army was dispatched down the Nile to besiege the kingdom’s capital, Dongola.
The Arabs soon discovered they had underestimated the military might of their opponents and were repulsed with great ferocity. At the core of Makurian army were the Nubian archers, famous for their deadly accuracy even as far back as Ancient Egyptian times. The Arabs came to refer to these archers as “eye-piercers”, because they aimed for the eyes of their opponents with unerring accuracy. They could also let loose arrows equally effectively from horseback using stone thumb rings to increase the force and impact of their shots.
The Arab loss of life was greater than expected, so the invaders signed a peace treaty with their Christian neighbours and returned north to Egypt. This treaty, (the baqt) which was unparalleled in Islamic history, was to last for over 600 years. (1)
Today, the desert sands have all but reclaimed Dongola, ancient capital of Makuria. The powerful fortress (now a mosque) on its elevated bluff is the only building to survive in its entirety. Almost everything else, churches, palaces, homes and monasteries have been reduced to the kind of rubble you can tread upon without knowing. The public buildings have long since been stripped of their dressed stones. The mud brick structures have decayed to grit and sand. In their place has arisen a vast graveyard of large, spaced out, beehive-like domes: tombs (qubbas) of Sufi holy men from a later age who settled here from the North. It was the influence of Islamic saints such as these that converted Makuria slowly from Christianity to the religion of Islam.
I make my way through the various silences of the city with my Sufi companion, Omran. The earth beneath our feet is littered with millions of tiny pieces of pottery, of every shape and colour imaginable. Omran stops now and again to pick one up, announcing its date and probable use. But he might as well be talking to himself, for I am entangled in webs of thoughts about the impermanence of things.
What words can give justice to the glory and the tragedy of this place, I wonder?
The remains of the most important structures, the palaces, basilica and administrative building are to be found on a sandy embankment at the extreme edge of the city, overlooking the Nile. We make our way up and are immediately confronted by the unmistakable shell of a large church, or perhaps a cathedral. It is in the shape of a crucifix. The agony of its white granite pillars upholding nothing now but the sky, casts a melancholy shadow on our mood. Everything here is chaotic and messy, untidy and illogical, as Life often is.
In the National museum in Khartoum, I had seen images of Christian saints and giant winged angels rescued from the walls of churches like this one in Makuria. Artistically beautiful (and sometimes enigmatic), these wall paintings and frescoes hint at the existence of a long religious artistic culture. They are hypnotic dream catchers woven in paint. Where could the angels from these frescoes find refuge, in our age, I wondered? And was I still alive enough to nurture them in me?
Over seven centuries, men and women shaped this space with their spiritual revelations and their dreams. Angels with dragonfly wings wrestled together in the morning light. Palm trees came together and held hands as they sang to the aurora of an ancient silence stretching back in time to the Ancient Egyptians and the Cushites. Here in this very place, they found rapture, ecstasy and the feeling that life was grander than bones and flesh. Their minds possessed a freedom that flowed in wide rivers of creativity. But ultimately, they dried up in the aridity of the desert.
From our Age of Desecration, we can smile at these things. How quaint, we think, that they had such ideas and visions. How irrelevant we say. And how ridiculous that they were willing to die for them.
For a long time, my friend and I stand gazing at the waters of the Nile below us. The strips of vegetation on either side are virulent with life, intensely lush and green. It is a good place to be, I think to myself. In Sudan, the imagination often drifts on the current of this great river until it reaches a cataract of the mind.
Omran tells me the story of a tunnel from Dongola to the sacred Nubian mountain of Jebel Barkal, over a hundred miles away. Its entrance is in the great fortress which dominates the city. A few years ago someone sent a cow down the tunnel. It came out days later at the other end, with its skin scratched and torn, he said. The tunnel is very narrow in places.
He expands his thoughts in his characteristic way. “You know”, he says. “Sudan is really an underground country. We have cities under the earth, under the sand. They were built to hide from invaders. And from the hot sun.”
I had heard stories like this before from others, in Ethiopia as well as in Sudan. As always, I suspend disbelief, neither believing nor disbelieving them. You have to reason surrealistically if you want to make yourself at home in the desert (in the city, too). You cannot dismiss angels, jinn, prophets and underground cities just because they lie outside the straightjacket of your reasoning. These ideas shine, dazzle and seduce the imagination with their Life. The horizon beyond Logic is a freedom to walk naked into the moonlight, or to sink your feet into the mud of the Nile without asking for a reason. Life is a mystery, not a question.
The end of Makuria, when it finally came in the 14th century, was slow and almost imperceptible. There was no invasion, no forced conversion. Rather, being an open and practical people, they allowed influences from the Islamic North to flow down to them like rivers into a sea. There was intermarriage between the two populations. Out of that mingling of cultures emerged the Sudan we have today. But the religion became overwhelmingly Islamic. Why?
Had the people become weary of their Christian theologians, just as earlier they had become wearied of hieroglyphs and endless images of Pharaohs kneeling before multi-faceted gods? Maybe the theological arguments had become too technical, too clever, too rational and calculating, ending with the dissection of the original spiritual message? Did they long for some other relationship with God, one that was more personal and immediate, one which they saw exemplified in the lives of the Sufi brotherhoods who were settling in the country?
Omran takes me to visit one of the many Sufi tombs (qubbas), whose large pointed shapes dominate the landscape. Constructed of mud bricks and standing over thirty feet tall, they are solid, impressive constructions. Omran knows the names of many of the people interred in. them
We take off our sandals and squeeze through the doorless entrance ito the interior.
Every visitor has no choice but to bow his head before entering inside, because the arched doorway is narrow and low. As Omran explains later: “If you want to drink from a carafe, you take it by the neck and press it to your lips. But if you want to drink from a spring, you get down on your knees and drink. It is like that here”, he says.
Standing in the penumbra of the interior, I can just make out two large rectangular tombs in the centre, covered in faded (torn) green linen. Their framework is probably made of wooden slats. The ground around is intensely black and I am nauseated by an acrid smell that is almost overwhelming. I look up above me to the conical roof and catch sight of something stirring. The walls are alive with movement: creatures tightly pressed together head to head, quivering like a milky way of black stars, restless, always changing: thousands upon thousands of silent bats.
Outside again in the hot sun, we put on our sandals and breathe freer again.
What was it they believed in, these Sufis? It is difficult to say. It was a teaching contained less in what was said than in the silences, in patterns on desert sand, leaves flickering on poplar trees. It was a movement away from ritual and scholarship towards a personal relationship with God, a direct experience of Him that was always new, spontaneous, alive. Their theology was more akin to Poetry and Dance than to prose theorizing. They did not convert by argument or discourse. They seduced. Just as all great Art seduces.
I liked the idea of Religion as seduction, as music. If you want to argue, I thought to myself, do it with song. Do it in paint, do it to the sound of a drum. And don’t exorcise the answer you receive.
We walk back slowly to car. It is late. The shadows are long. The crane flies on the water’s edge are drunk on the light, and begin to dance in the last rays of the setting sun.
I turn to my Sufi companion:” Maybe we ought to take lessons from the crane flies” I say to him. “Instead of walking to the car, we should dance and whirl like those flies reeling in the light. And does it matter if the music we dance to is Christian or Moslem, so long as it carries us away, seduces us? Does it matter, as long as the music is the kind you can dance to?
Omran looks at me strangely and smiles. “We will do it”, he says. “Come. Let us do it”