On entering the Durham Oriental Museum’s current exhibition, I was unfamiliar with Sudan’s rich history and the way in which it has been shaped by the British Empire.
I was immediately surprised by the architectural diversity of the country’s capital, Khartoum. The exhibition captures the wide roads and ambiance of a modern industrial city, yet simultaneously the sense of a distinctively backward nation, struggling to progress economically since independence from the British in 1956.
‘Khartoum’ in Arabic literally translates as the ‘end of the elephant trunk’, which supposedly resembles the capital’s outline on the map. However, I was more taken aback by the aerial view of the city. Its parallel, planned roads create a rigid layout bordering the breath-taking ‘Al-Mogran’, meaning the joining of the two River Niles.
This architectural layout reminded me more of New York than a third-world city. Some even suggest that Khartoum’s layout was purposefully designed in a union jack pattern to symbolise British dominance. Such architecture really made me realise the severity of Britain’s impact on Sudan and its culture. The collision of two contrasting cultures makes the photographs increasingly alluring and communicates an element of almost unearthly wonder.
Other juxtapositions within the architecture of Sudan continued to fascinate me; on one hand the concrete slab apartment blocks, and on the other, the elaborate arches and mosques. The arches and light patterns are primarily inspired by Egyptian architecture and these are visible in all kinds of different buildings, from the Al Farouq mosque to the “Grand Hotel Palace”, from shopping arcades to University Colleges.
This made further sense when I read that Ibrahim Pasha, the founder of Khartoum in 1821, was the son of an Egyptian ruler. I found it fascinating that this nation was influenced by yet another external culture and how it was so rich in architectural diversity.
However, the exhibition also revealed that western influences were not always well received. Following Sudan’s independence, vandalism of British memorials and sculptures was rife.
Despite this desire to have their own national identity, it surprised me how many amusing British traditions have remained popular up to the present day, such as drinking tea and playing polo and tennis. The exhibition’s photographs depicted local people still using the open-air cinemas built by the British during colonial rule.
This caused me to wonder: is Sudan still stuck in its past? It seems to have struggled to progress in the last fifty years, and the British and Egyptian cultures have clearly left their mark.
Another part of the exhibition that caught my attention were the photos of the Suakin port on the Red Sea coast; particularly the isolated Island Gezira that lies in a lagoon off the mainland. The jaw-dropping aerial view immediately demonstrated the juxtaposition of the built up city and the vast areas of desert. It was a sight I found difficult to compare to anything I’d ever seen before.
Overall, I would thoroughly recommend this exhibition: stunning monochrome and colour photographs, a fascinating history, an explicit insight into the Sudanese way of life, and all this only a short walk away.
Photograph: Reproduction by permission of Durham University Library, Crown Copyright