Noah Salomon, Carleton College
“The Origin of Civilization,” mural image of the Meroe pyramids, al-Zubair Pasha St., Khartoum, post-revolutionary mural series by the artist Esra, May 28, 2019. (photo by author, December 2019)
The Sudanese revolution of 2019 that overthrew the nearly 30-year rule of ‘Umar al-Bashir and the Islamist government that backed him has sparked debate not only on what system of governance is most appropriate to represent the will of people, but also on what resources Sudan might draw to unify a nation fractured by decades of conflict. While the answer of the previous regime to this perennial question was a “Civilization Project” (al-mashru‘ al-hadari) that derived its resources from Islam, and that of colonial forces before it a “civilizing mission” imposing Victorian values on Sudan’s diverse landscape, revolutionary actors have made a very different sort of salvo into the tense debate over the appropriate civilizational storehouse from which to build to a better future, turning to Ancient Nubia (c. 2450 BC-364 AD, popularly framed as Kush) as a proud time in Sudan’s history that once was and could be again. While such gestures towards this ancient past are not unprecedented in modern Sudan, at no time in its recent history has this particular past been so distinctly drawn upon in order to ground its present, and to imagine its future, as it is today. Might Ancient Nubia/Kush overcome its particularisms to become a unifying narrative for Sudan, and how might it address competing narratives for Sudanese identity building from Islamism, to Arabism, to Pan-Africanism?
This essay will explore the place of Kush in contemporary imaginings of Sudan that have occurred both in and following its 2018-19 revolution. Here, Kush serves not as an erasure of the recent past, or as a means of embracing some imagined pre-modern utopia, but rather as a creative and critical way of assessing recent Sudanese history. With an eye towards surfacing buried narratives and material cultural forms, as well as ensuring forms of solidarity that might loosen the grip of the alliances that have led the country into so many dead ends, Kush has become a powerful paradigm. Yet, to do so, it has had to shed a series of earlier associations; its purchase on the revolutionary present has not come easily.
Unearthing I: Nubia in Emergent Egyptology
Statue of Senuwy, wife of provincial governor of Asyut, Djeifaihapi (20 c. BC), uncovered at Kerma
(photo from Arts of Ancient Nubia, cited below)
In 1913, George Andrew Reisner, father of modern Egyptology and leader of the joint excavation team of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) and Harvard University, received a commission from the government of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan to begin excavating a series of sites in what came to be known to archeologists as Ancient Nubia. Reisner was most famous for his work at the Giza pyramids outside Cairo and his interest in Nubia stretched little beyond what it could tell him about the extent of Egyptian power up the Nile. The cultures of Kerma, Napata, and Meroe—often popularly lumped together as Kush, echoing a Biblical narrative of which Reisner, trained initially as a Semiticist, would certainly have been familiar—were virtually unknown at the time, either in or outside Sudan, or at least we have little record of any such knowledge. Interested mainly, or so it is said, in increasing the MFA’s collection of Middle and New Kingdom Egyptian art, Reisner approached what we might today call his Sudanese project as an element of larger Egyptian history, seeing his major find at Kerma, for example, as evidence of an important Egyptian trading post. 
In the early 20th century, Sudan’s British rulers were still unsure of whether Sudan was to be a distinct possession or rather some part of a larger Egypt. Thus, Reisner must have had little notion of the contributions he would make decades later to another sort of archeological project, one in which it was not the sands of the Nubian desert that were to be moved (or at least not only that), but rather the sands of time. Today’s unearthing of Ancient Nubia, while built on the architecture of some of Reisner’s key findings, challenges his conclusions in important ways and employs them to new ends, and not always those we might expect. Though such revivalist movements of the ancient past (neo-Phonecianism, neo-Persianism, neo-Assyrianism, neo-Pharoanism in Egypt) are often read and articulated as secularist or anti-religious, and although there is undoubtedly an anti-Islamist reaction to the prior regime in this present Kushite revival, we too quickly ignore the ontological commitments that are also at stake in this turn to the ancient past. Indeed, in rubbing against these ancient histories, a new sort of inspired present is being excavated from the sands, as a way both to make sense of today’s challenges and to imagine a more just future.
Unearthing II: The December Revolution
Lion god Apedemak in protest pose, Al-Jazeera television still, unknown location, unknown artist.
Pyramids join the sit-in at the gate of the Armed Forces Headquarters, wall mural, Khartoum2, unknown artist (photo by author, Dec. 2019).
How does one make the past present, giving it voice and personhood in a series of matters that it never could have imagined? How does the past itself come to limit current possibilities through its material presence, resisting instrumental retrievals? What sorts of necromancy are required to resuscitate this ancient past and what sorts of deaths in the present make such subsequent resurrections seem so necessary?
Like the actual monuments themselves emerging from the sands, mentions of Kush poke out in various places throughout the history of independent Sudan: in wedding music and popular songs, in theater, in school books, on television programs, in the works of intellectuals. Still, for most Sudanese, the history of Ancient Nubia has been buried. This state of affairs occurred for several reasons, due to the inaccessibility of many of the key sites to visitors because of lack of infrastructure, the Islamist government’s insistence that Kush was a past to be transcended, leading to a lack of education on this period in Sudan’s history, and because many archeologists of Nubia were interested in Kush only to the extent that it tells us about Egyptian history, and not Sudanese. For these reasons, the fact that images from ancient Nubia were to emerge, and so vividly so, during the revolution that began in December 2018 is remarkable and raises a number of important questions about what role such histories might play in Sudan’s post-revolutionary period.
In the two images above, we can see some of the ways Ancient Nubia has been employed in imaginings of this revolutionary moment. In the first image, we see the lion god, Apedemak, assuming the pose of the December Revolution protester, marching, arm raised and fingers v-ed in a victory salute. Apedemak is an apt choice as he is a truly Nubian deity in that, unlike many of the other Gods worshipped, he is unique to Kushite culture, arising only after Egyptian influence had eroded in the 3rd century BC, and thus represents indigeneity in addition to strength. This image is likely inspired by the stunning temple dedicated to him at al-Musawwarat al-Safra (2nd half of 3rd century BC, resurrected 1970) where he is described in the Meroitic script as the “Lion of the South” and the “head of Kush.”  In the second image above, we see the sands, and the pyramids that populate them, literally encroaching on the military headquarters ready to bury it at any instant. The image is meant as a reminder, perhaps, of the civilizational permanence of this monumental past and its values in comparison to the transience of the plexiglass present of the buildings the previous regime erected.
Archeologies of Presence
Gate to the Visitors Center at the Meroe Pyramid Complex (photo by author, December 2019).
Arriving at the Visitors’ Center for the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums, Island of Meroe World Heritage Site, one is greeted by a hand-written banner that reads as follows: “Tirhaqa is my direct grandfather (tirhaqa jiddi ‘adil), my grandmother is a kandaka. Welcome, welcome to the revolutionaries! The free revolutionaries who are the descendants of Tirhaqa: The land of the kandakas welcomes you!” Reflecting the new-found interest in the site from supporters of the revolution, who have been flocking to it in large numbers in recent months, the sign cites both a famous revolutionary poem and the two most recalled figures of Kushite history: the 7th century BC pharaoh Tirhaqa, who not only pushed back Egyptian rule, but established an independent empire that stretched all the way to the Mediterranean; and the figure of the Nubian queen, the kandaka. If it is true that the finds of Sudanese archeology impacted the revolution, it may be even more so that the revolution is transforming Sudanese archeological science, both instilling its work with new-found relevance and pushing it to think about how to apply the goals of the revolution to its program.
I met Dr. Mahmoud Suliman Bashir, Director of Regional Antiquities for River Nile State, in early January 2020 in his office only a few days after he had organized a major conference at the Visitors Center entitled, “The Role of Antiquities and Tradition in the Promotion of Peace,” in which a whole series of papers were delivered on the topic of how the archeological services could be employed to further the revolutionary agenda. He told me:
This [new interest in the ancient history of Sudan that we are seeing] is the offspring of the Revolution (walidat al-thawra)…The thing that happened at the Qiyada [the nickname for the military headquarters where the sit-in took place] is that people from all directions of Sudan unified themselves under one slogan, that this [ancient civilization] is the civilization of all of us…This is one of the things that unified the people, I mean [at the sit-in you find] this person is reading [Qur’an], this person is drinking alcohol, this person has his hymns, ….there is diversity, there is incredible diversity, but all are unified in the story of Tirhaqa…
Up until the Meroitic Period [332 BC-364 AD] there was a unity [across what we today call Sudan]…I mean the same pottery that you find [here], is found in eastern Sudan, in Blue Nile State, and in Kordofan. This is one of the things [people have not realized]. So we want there to be mobile exhibitions (ma‘arid mutanaqqila) [travelling around Sudan] so that people in all parts of Sudan can see the artifacts, especially those people that have not seen them before…This is one of the ways that we apply the slogan of the revolution: freedom, peace, and justice. This is justice. This is a part of justice, [ensuring] that all the people of Sudan come to know [their history]…Justice means that all the people of Sudan know about Sudanese civilization, that they were a participants in it and part of it. And justice means that we research the antiquities in a way that expresses equality [in selecting diverse locations across Sudan].
Much has been written about the place of archeology in projects of nation building, exclusion, and in the rewriting of history. Yet, the sort of decolonization of knowledge that Dr. Mahmoud is suggesting for his revolutionary archeological project, while certainly nationalist in nature, takes us in a rather different direction. Here, the digging will take place not to cement a particular group’s claim to the land, but rather to dislodge one: a northern-centrism that has plagued Sudan since colonial times, if not before. This is a reading of history, enforced by scholars like Reisner, that has claimed the north, Nubia included, as the engine of Sudan’s historical achievements and that has seen those groups from other regions as people without history and thus with little standing to define Sudan in the present. By searching for an ancient past in the neglected regions of Sudan, Dr. Mahmoud’s decolonizing archeology sought to tell a different story. Yet, to what extent is Nubian history universalizable and what challenges might arise as history asserts is own agenda on the matter of Sudanese unity?
Kush in Macrocosm, Kush in Microcosm (Nubia for the Nubians, Nubia for the Sudan/s)
Still from a YouTube advertisement for Nubian radio station “Kadantikar.” “Together for a Creative Nubian Nation (umma).”
“No to DAL [services company]; No to Kajbar [dam]; No to the obliteration of the Nubian Identity,” graffiti near Kerma Sudan, (photo by author, Dec. 2017).
The images of Ancient Nubia that became popular during the December 2018 revolution had their origin in another set of uprisings. In 2007, protests erupted around the proposed construction of the Kajbar dam in Northern Sudan that was to flood a major part of historical Nubia, washing away countless antiquities, not to mention the homes and livelihoods of so many Nubians themselves.
The first image above advertises a pirate radio station that made use of such images in its publicity, while the second image is of the ubiquitous graffiti I observed on a trip to Nubia in 2017, one of the few places in Sudan in those days where one saw any oppositional graffiti at all. Can a very particular history like that of Nubia be universalized, especially when discursive knowledge about it can only be traced back to the early 20th century, even if links in the chains of its material history have remained unbroken? The idea of Kush as all-of-Sudan has a precedent, and not just among northern Sudanese. Echoing the Biblical classification, evangelically-oriented Southern Sudanese floated serious proposals to name the soon-to-be-independent South Sudan “Kush” in 2011. Reading Southern Sudanese as the true heirs of this ancient civilization mentioned in the Bible, and today’s Nubians as usurpers, these Southerners saw it fitting as their first act of independence to reclaim “Kush” for the South. But, of course, this christening did not come to pass.
With all of these claims on Sudanese history still active, can Kush be the future of a more equitable Sudan in this post-revolutionary period? Multiple histories of Kush today jostle against one another, twitching back to life after many years of dormancy: universalizing macro-histories of Kush as Sudan; micro-histories of Kush as Nubia; and niche histories, such as the recent movement to revive the Kushite kingdom in the terra nulius (land claimed by no state) of the 2000 square kilometer Bi’r Tawil region, between Egypt and Sudan. What other claims to this past might emerge from beneath the sands?
Youtube stills from the declaration of the movement to revive the Kingdom of Kush in Bi’r Tawil: “We announce the re-establishment of the kingdom as it was before and as it was meant to be, and as it has been mentioned in the first historic books and even in the religious books…”
Martyrdom and the Traces of the Islamic
“al-sha‘b yurid qisas al-shahid,” “The people want retribution for the martyr,” First Anniversary Commemorations of the December Revolution (photo by author, Dec. 25, 2019).
“sawt al-mara’a thawra,”“The voice of the woman is a revolution,” Meroe World Heritage Site Visitors Center, Bajrawiyaa, Sudan (photo by author, December 2019).
The revival of Kushite themes in post-revolutionary Sudan as a resource for imagining national identity comes at the heels of a state-initiated project that used Islamic resources to do very much the same, whose vanguards were overthrown as a result of the December Revolution. With this in mind, it would be tempting to read the emergence of Ancient Nubia onto the contemporary scene simply as a return of a buried presence of the true Sudan, an African autochthony engulfed by years of Arab and Islamic artifice.
Complicating such a reading, however, is that this recent rise of Kush has been made possible in great part due to the sponsorship of the archeological sites by the Emir of Qatar, who was also one of the foreign leaders most supportive of the Islamist trend in Sudan. Indeed, even with Kush on the rise, the frame of the Islamic remains present in post-revolutionary action, sometimes braided into the Kushite heritage itself. At times this frame is in direct challenge to conservative readings of the Islamic tradition, such as in the second image above where the well-known, but disputed, Islamic scholarly judgment “sawt al-mara’a ‘awra” (“the voice of the woman is nudity,” i.e. that it must be covered), is played in rhyme as sawt al-mara’a thawra (“The voice of the woman is revolution”) using the image of protester Ala’ Salah, known popularly as “the kandaka,” to drive home its point. Yet, in the first image above, and in the haunting image following this paragraph, we can see the way that the mourners of the martyrs of the revolution have taken on an Islamic legal framework as their own, echoed in the now ubiquitous chant “al-sha‘b yurid qisas al-shahid,” [“the people want the retribution provided for in shari‘a for the death of the martyr”]. The tableau below with the images of the martyrs from the Organization of the Families of the Martyrs building in Khartoum equally takes on this frame: “blood for blood, we don’t accept blood money;” “Freedom, peace, and justice; blood in qisas for blood.”
Mural and tableau of the faces of the martyrs in front of the offices of the Organization of the Families of the Martyrs of the Glorious December 2018 Revolution (photo by author, December 2019).
Embodying Tirhaqa, Living Kandaka
Mural of Kandaka with the words “The Green Crawl” scrawled over it (referring to the Pro-Bashir counter-revolutionary movement), St. 52 underpass, Khartoum, artist unknown (photo by author, January 2020).
What still lies beneath the sands? In what ways will Sudan’s ancient history be embodied in its present? Can the inert statues of pharaohs and kings be animated to solve the problems of Sudan at its current juncture? In what ways can the kandakas—the now ubiquitous term to describe women revolutionaries—rise again and what might still stand in their way? The photo above depicts just one of the many images of kandakas that one sees in the revolutionary art that adorns the walls of Sudanese cities across the country, and not just in Khartoum. In this striking mural, a queen stares pensively over the pyramids at Meroe as a braceleted fist, adorned with hieroglyphic script, erupts behind her. This is a far cry indeed from the unearthing of Egyptologists, such as Reisner, whose Lady Sennuwy became the image of Nubian womanhood. The narrative in which the European archeologist rescued artifacts of Nubia’s kings and queens has been turned on its head with this archeology of presence. It is now the descendants of the Nubian queens who are doing the rescuing, reanimating those ancient images of female power carved into the walls of the pyramids one visits at Meroe. Yet, on this mural one also notices graffiti commemorating the Pro-Bashir counter-revolutionary action of the “green crawl” in December 2019, reminding us that all is far from settled.
Monumental statues of the Pharaohs (from top left, clockwise) Tirhaqa (d. 664 BC), Tanwetamani (d. 653 BC,) Senkamanisken(d. 623), and Aspelta (d. 568), Kerma Museum, Kerma, Sudan (photo by author, December 2019)
These same monumental statues with the heads of martyrs. Advertisement for memorial service for the 12th anniversary of those who died in the 2007 massacre at the protest against the Kajbar Dam at Kadantikar. Located at a petrol station, Kerma Sudan (photo by author, December 2019).
And what about the dead, those who sacrificed their lives for this revolution, how might they be remembered? How do ancient memorials like the Kushite monuments help strengthen contemporary ones? In the first image above, four monumental statues discovered at Kerma in 2003, and currently standing at its museum, fix their steely gaze on the Sudanese visitors and European adventure tourists who pass them by each day on their journey to the Western Defuffa, the so-called oldest building in Africa, that stands outside the museum. In the second image above, in a poster I came across at a petrol station not far from the museum, the statues have been repurposed, their heads replaced with those of four martyrs from the Kajbar protest of 2007 at Kadantikar, advertising an event to commemorate both their martyrdom and that of the fallen of the December 2018 Revolution. Symbols of permanence, monuments that have survived millennia, seem a fitting location in which to inter the memories of martyrs of the December Revolution and those that came before, so that they too survive the blowing sands of history. The pyramids, the tombs of the pharaohs, have come to stand-in as solid monuments to the immortality of spirit of a people in a time in which so many have gone missing, with no graves to mark their passing.
 For the “Civilization Project” see e.g. Salomon, Noah. 2016. For Love of the Prophet: An Ethnography of Sudan’s Islamic State (Princeton: Princeton University Press) and for the British “Civilizing Mission,” see e.g. Boddy, Janice. 2007. Civilizing Women: British Crusades in Colonial Sudan (Princeton: Princeton University Press).
 Berman, Lawrence. 2018. “The Nubian Expeditions,” in The Arts of Ancient Nubia, edited by Denise M. Doxey, Rita E. Freed, and Lawrence M. Berman. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts Publications.
 Jeremy Walton’s Empires of Memory project at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen has been an inspiration for me in thinking through this question. Indeed, germinal seeds of some of the ideas in this essay were first planted in conversation with project members at a lecture I delivered there in December 2019. In particular, I have found Walton’s critique of the “memory studies” literature most persuasive and helpful to think with, in that it takes seriously the material, epistemological, and ontological relations between past and present that give history an ambivalent status in political projects of retrieval, rather than merely seeing such relations as purely a means to an end. See Walton, Jeremy. 2019. “Textured Histories and the Ambivalence of Imperial Legacies,” History and Anthropology, 30:4.
 From wedding songs (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m6payrv0IlU) , to the pop songs of Muhammad Wardi (https://www.alrakoba.net/459491/الإمبراطور-الموسيقار-محمد-وردي-وطن-ل/), Kush was a persistent theme in mid 20th century music.
 Alden Young’s recent, and as yet unpublished, work on the peripatetic Sudanese Islamist intellectual Muhammad Abu al-Qasim Hajj Hamad and his employment of Kush in his writings in political economy will be a key contribution to this literature.
 It is often noted that, in its later years, the al-Bashir regime appointed a politician from the Salafi group Ansar al-Sunna as Minister of Tourism, a cynical move made perhaps under the assumption that he would see the ancient Nubian sites as evidence of mere idol worship promoting a tourism industry that would attract foreigners of questionable morals. Further study of his tenure would be necessary, however, to determine how this ministry actually functioned under his guidance.
 The most widely discussed instance of this neo-Kushite interpretation of revolutionary action occurred around the much circulated image of activist Ala’ Salah assuming her theatrical pose on top of a car in the midst of the sit-in, wearing the gold earrings that mirror the ancient sun symbols used in Ancient Nubian arts and reading a poem that is generally shorthanded with the title “My Grandfather is Tirhaqa and my Grandmother is a Nubian Queen (kandaka).” I have written on this image, its reproduction, and the associated poem in ““New Histories for an Uncharted Future in Sudan,” Africa is a Country, May 17, 2019.
 Information gathered from the exhibits at the Visitors Center of the Island of Meroe World Heritage Site as well as two visits to the temple in 2006 and 2015.
 See endnote 8 above.
 Among the titles of the papers: “Inspiration to Political Opposition Provided by Popular Tradition, The December Revolution as an Example” (“istilham al-turath al-sha‘abi fi al-ma‘arida al-siyasiya-thawrat disimbir numudhijan”) by Ahmed Muhammad Hamadatu; “The Kandaka between the Past and Present” (“al-kandaka bayn al-madi wa-l-hadir”) Dr. Su‘ad Uthman; and “Shared Cultural Features among the Sudanese” (“al-mushtarikat al-thaqafiyya bayn al-sudanin”), as well as several papers that discussed the findings of recent archeology in regions of Sudan that have not traditionally been a focus of archeologists, such as the east, west, and south, providing evidence of a broader reach for Kushite culture than European archeology has assumed, and thus the seeds of a post-revolutionary Kush-Sudan equivalence thesis.
 Nadia Abu El-Haj’s landmark Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002) is an essential resource for those who want to think about the links between colonialism, nationalism, and archeological practice, while previous works have explored the politics of archeology in other nationalist contexts. See, for example, the essays included in Kohl, Philip L. and Clare Fawcett, eds. 1995. Nationalism, Politics, and the Practice of Archeology(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
 This generation of Nubian rights’ movements was founded a few years earlier, however. One of them, harakat tahrir kush al-sudaniyya (the Sudanese Movement for the Liberation of Kush), has taken on particular prominence in recent years. Adopting “Kush” in its name has also led to struggles within the movement over the particularity versus the universality of this ancient history (whether it applies only to Nubia or to all of Sudan, that is). Its leader discusses this topic in the following interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tk0p3tqYqEE.
 Nesrine Malik’s insightful Guardian essay also asks this question: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/apr/24/icon-sudan-revolution-woman-in-white.
The deconstruction of their institiions (tafkik al-nitham) has been a major point of debate in Post-Revolutionary Sudan https://www.bbc.com/arabic/amp/middleeast-50604375; For a critical outline of these debates, see Magdi El Gizouli’s recent wa li-l-huriya abwab…al-sahafa al-hurra maydanaha (https://stillsudan.blogspot.com/2020/01/blog-post.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+Stillsudan+%28StillSUDAN%29); For a discussion of the early days of this process see Salomon “New Histories for an Uncharted Future in Sudan,” cited above.
 See the informative website of the Nubian Archeological Development Organization (Qatar-Sudan) (munazamat tanmiyat athar al-nubiyya—qatar-sudan), qsap.org.qa. Dr. Mahmoud told me that beyond funding the work of the archeological missions and tourist infrastructure, the Qataris have little practical involvement in the day-to-day operations of archeological practice in Nubia.
 Al-Nayl Abu Qurun’s Nabi min Bilad al-Sudan (The Arab Center for Studies and Publication: 2011) is an example of an Islamic reading of Ancient Nubia, where the story of Moses and Khidr from the Qur’an is emplaced in Sudan during the kingdom of Kush, sacralizing Kush with an Islamic narrative. I thank Azza Mustafa Babikir Ahmed for sending me this book, which she also cites in her wonderful essay, “Making Sacred Places—The Case of the Holy Meeting at the Junction of the Two Niles,” in Religion and Space: Perspectives from African Experiences (Bayreuth African Studies Working Papers 15), edited by Serawit Bekele Debele and Justice Anquandah Arthur.
 See endnote 8 above.
 Though Lady Sennuwy is from Asyut, and thus not Nubia proper, it is this image (see the photo at the beginning of this essay) that has taken special place in depictions of Reisner’s Nubian work, for example adorning the cover of the MFAs Unearthing Ancient Nubia: Photographs from the Harvard University-Boston Museum of Fine Arts Expedition (Boston: MFA Publications, 2018).