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17.9.04

Sudanese Art at the British Museum

There is an exciting new exhibit, Sudan: Ancient Treasures, at The British Museum until January 9, 2005. As a preview (Sudan treasures at British Museum, August 12, from BBC News) of the show put it, Sudan's cultural significance has been overlooked because of the influence of its neighbor, Egypt. Sudan has a greater number of surviving pyramids than Egypt, and remarkable Kushite sites at Jebel Barkal, Meroë (more images), and Naqa (8th century BC to 4th century AD). As I am a few days from teaching a set of classes on Egyptian art, it might be good to say something about Sudan and Ancient Nubia. Don't you love the Internet?

Souren Melikian's article (Mysteries of the Kingdom of Kush, September 11) in the International Herald Tribune reviews the Sudan exhibit. He doesn't care for the presentation of the exhibit, but he does say that "if only for some of the stunning works on loan from the Sudan National Museum in Khartoum, this is one of the season's revelations." Unfortunately, the museum's Web site for the exhibit is pathetically insufficient, so I can't give you any links to the pieces he mentions:

The most Egyptian-looking mythical creatures were transformed at the hands of Kushite artists. The human face of the sphinx of King Senkamanisken, which was discovered in the Temple of Amun at Djabal Barkal, is a masterpiece of psychological portraiture. Grim despair emanates from the staring eyes. Even the images of gods conceived by Kushite sculptors are profoundly human. The larger-than-life size sandstone head of a man believed to represent the god Sebiumeker was recovered from a pit in a temple at Meroe, the Kushite capital north or Khartoum. With its dilated eyes under raised eyebrows, it expresses irrepressible terror. A smiling ruthlessness emanates from the sandstone head of a man from the second or third century A.D. found at Sedeinga - one of the last masterpieces of Kushite art.

Were the sadness, the fear, the ferocity, related to the darker side of Nubian culture? Archaeology reveals that human sacrifices were part of its rituals as early as Neolithic times. According to Charles Bonnet, sacrifices associated with the great royal tumuli were in the hundreds during the last phase of the Kerma period. The tradition seems to have retained a powerful hold over the Nubian psyche. When the last Kushite empire broke up in the fourth century A.D., human sacrifice became prominent once again, as Derek Welsby notes in the general introduction to the book edited by him and Julie Anderson. We might understand the reasons if we had a clue to the beliefs of the Kushite kingdom. These, alas, will elude us as long as we fail to understand the Meroitic language, transcribed in the hieroglyphic and cursive alphabets devised in the second century B.C. They were still in use by the fourth century A.D., as shown by a bronze bowl.
Get to work, art historians, linguists, archeologists! The Sudanese are building a dam on the Merowe River, which will created a 170-km water reservoir, which will place precious cultural sites irrevocably under water. Does this sound familiar to anyone else: have we not learned our lesson from this tragedy?

Sudan: Ancient Treasures will be at The British Museum until January 9, 2005.

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