Wherever two rivers meet,
one often renames the other. In Paris, the Seine takes in the Marne. In Allahabad, the Ganges subsumes the Yamuna. In St. Louis, the Mississippi swallows the Missouri. But in Sudan's capital, Khartoum, the Blue Nile and the White Nile arrive as equals in stature and equivalents in name, so at their confluence they both change their names as they become, for the next 3,000 kilometers to the Mediterranean Sea, the Nile or, in Arabic, bahr al-nil
, the Nile Sea.
Khartoum is different in another way, too, because the meeting of two rivers spawned three cities, each on its own bank. To the southeast lies Khartoum proper; to the west Omdurman; and to the northeast Khartoum Bahri (“Khartoum Seaward”). Each has a distinct outward face, origin story and role in the history of the peoples of Sudan, as well as symbolic landmarks to tell its own tale.
To corrupt the famous metaphor Herodotus coined about Egypt, one could say Khartoum is the gift of the two Niles. While South Sudan broke away from Sudan in 2011, taking with it about a quarter of the territory of what had been since 1956 Africa’s largest nation, the tri-city conurbation at the heart of this increasingly parched country might soon be home to more than 10 million people, almost double from just a decade ago, if growth continues apace. Refugees from neighboring nations, including South Sudan, migration from the countryside and natural growth all add up.
Originally a fishing village, Khartoum was largely unrecorded until the Ottoman Turks arrived in the early 1820s under the banner of their independent governors, the khedives of Egypt. Many later Western accounts are largely fictional or self-aggrandizing. These include the 1966 film Khartoum about the death of British General Charles Gordon in 1885 at the hands of Sudanese led by Muhammad Ahmad ibn al-Sayyid, with several of England’s most famous actors in blackface playing Sudanese historical characters. There was also The River War, Winston Churchill’s grim eyewitness record of the 1898 Battle of Omdurman, in which the British recaptured Khartoum at a cost of an estimated 10,000 Sudanese casualties against 47 British.
Khartoum’s settlement by outsiders began as army quarters, consulates and trading posts. In 1862 Samuel Baker arrived with his Hungarian wife, Florence, after a year exploring Ethiopia up the Atbara River and down the Blue Nile, expecting a bit of restful luxury while preparing to ascend the upper White Nile.
But it was not what they had hoped for. “The difference between the view of Khartoum at the distance of a mile, with the sun shining upon the bright river Nile in the foreground, to the appearance of the town upon close inspection, was about equal to the scenery of a theatre as regarded from the boxes or from the stage,” Baker wrote in The Nile Tributaries of Abyssinia, published in 1867. He was disappointed that up close, “the sense of smell was outraged.” Baker sought out the British consulate, with its rampant lion and unicorn crest over the door, in “the Belgravia of Khartoum,” as he called it.
Residents of that posh London neighborhood would have been surprised to find, as Baker did, chained leopards and loose ostriches inside the compound. And they would be amused that 100 years later the Belgravia brand produced Khartoum’s best dairy products and its logo featured a Guernsey cow.
The logical place to start a visit to Khartoum is at the point of confluence, a small peninsula on the side of Khartoum proper called moqran al-nilayn, the meeting of the two Niles. Here the Blue Nile, its headwaters 1,500 kilometers away in Ethiopia to the southeast, flows sluggishly, and the White Nile, born on the border of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo some 2,300 kilometers south, runs briskly.
A dilapidated family fun park lies near the point, but the view across the waters to Omdurman, Bahri and the flood-prone, paisley-shaped island called Tuti tells Khartoum’s founding story best. It was an ideal site for urban growth: plenty of water to drink and alluvial mud banks for both cultivating and brickmaking along wide rivers for transport south, east and north.
Omdurman in the mid-19th century was just a village with a ferry crossing. But after Muhammad Ahmad ibn al-Sayyid’s successful uprising against Anglo-Egyptian forces, in 1885 it became the capital.
As quoted by historian Robert Kramer in his book Holy City on the Nile, al-Sayyid’s successor, “The Khalifa” Abdullahi ibn Muhammad, announced in 1885 to his countrymen: “O beloved ones ... for the interests of the faith and your guidance and [for] the betterment of your religion, we have thought fit that you should move from Khartoum … dwelling among us with your children and all that belongs to you.”
Omdurman’s symbolic heart today lies in the vicinity of the Khalifa House Museum, once ibn Muhammad’s headquarters. Not far away on the riverbank are the crumbling mud ramparts of an Ottoman-built fort and the SS Bordein, an iron paddle wheeler assembled in 1869 in Cairo from English-made parts.
The British first sent the Bordein to Sudan to assist Samuel Baker’s mission on the Upper Nile, and then it became Gordon’s lifeline during the siege of Khartoum, during which it carried to safety the six volumes of his journals—the last ever heard from him—which became an eponymous classic of Victorian heroic literature after his death. The Bordein was later captured by Sudanese forces, recaptured by Lord Kitchener on the first day of the Battle of Omdurman, and then fell to rust and ruin until the tourism ministry put it on display.
Ahfad University for Women (ahfad means grandchildren in Arabic) is probably Omdurman’s most famous living institution with roots in the rebellion. Established at the turn of the 20th century as a girls’ school by Babikir Badri, a former soldier, it today offers undergraduate and advanced degrees in the social and health sciences.
The founder’s philosophy of schooling is a pragmatic one aimed at everyday problem-solving and support for education as a path to autonomy and independence. This is evident in the university’s continuing efforts to recruit students from marginal areas, including Bejas from the Red Sea hills, Darfuris from the west and Nuba girls from the south.
The campus green buzzes with the voices of students between classes. Psychology major Hind Ismail from Omdurman, rural-education major Reem Tariq Habib from the United Arab Emirates—daughter of a Turkish father and Egyptian mother—and business major Roshan Hasan, daughter of an Indian diplomat who plans to continue her studies at her father’s new post in Japan, are all 19-year-old sophomores. They say that a women’s college gives them the same advantages in terms of intellectual space and confidence that female students seek elsewhere. That Ahfad is part of Women’s Education Worldwide, an international consortium of single-sex universities, is no surprise.
Abdel Moneim Badri, a 77-year-old professor of education at Ahfad, has vivid memories of Omdurman before Sudanese independence in 1956. He remembers swimming in the Nile at the cement steps known as al-nimar (the numbers), so named for the flood-gauge levels painted on each one, and then rubbing his wet body with dust and sand so his mother would not know he had broken his promise to stay out of the water.
“My mother only had two worries, drowning in the Nile and being run over by a tramcar,” he says with a smile. “But we still would swim, and we always played in the tram’s tracks, dodging their wheels. Back then, Omdurman was like a village. Everyone knew everybody, so to walk in the street meant having always to stop and say hello. It was best to stick to the back alleys if you were in a hurry, or did not want to be seen by others.”
If Omdurman is the Arab heart of the capital, representing the history and culture of the Sudanese themselves rather than of their former Ottoman and British colonial rulers, then another important voice in that story is that of a migrant from the countryside. KhairAllah Khair al-Sayyid, a former camel herder and trail boss of export herds to Egypt, hails from Dar al-Kababish in Sudan's central state of North Kordofan. He came to Omdurman during the devastating 1984 drought that killed his own livestock. He eventually bought a lot in Omdurman’s sprawling settlement Dar al-Salam, built his house and started his family.
KhairAllah’s oldest son, 27-year-old Suliman, could not be more unlike his father, who can neither read nor write and only knows that he older than 70. Suliman is studying English at Al-Neelain University in Khartoum and keeps up with the world on social media. The story of Suliman’s younger brother Mohammed is yet another facet of modern Sudan: Mohammed dropped out of high school after catching gold fever, and he has recently graduated from hand-digging deep manholes to drilling, blasting and mechanical earthmoving in surface pits.
“Both may be right or both may be wrong about their future,” says their father. “Who knows where success lies in these times? My camel days are over, and my sons do not even ride them.”
The University of Khartoum, founded in 1902 as Gordon Memorial College, is the pride of Sudan’s educational system. Its main buildings were designed in a cross of neo-Ottoman and Collegiate Gothic styles by the khedive’s personal architect, a Greek named Dimitrius Fabricius Pasha. They contrast with the modernist, sleekly domed examination hall built in mid-century across the lawn.
Ibrahim el-Zein Soghayroun, a history professor, was born in 1936 in Khartoum proper, or as his generation often called it, Khartoum Qibli. (Qibli literally means “toward the qibla,” or toward Makkah, an adjectival form often used in Egypt, where one faces south when praying, and thus its colloquial meaning is “southern.”) He graduated from Hantoub Secondary School, considered the most elite of its day. He remembers fondly when his headmaster L.W. Brown was invited to Buckingham Palace to honor his schoolmate Jaafar Nimeiry, the fourth president of Sudan, who served from 1969 to 1985.
“All the students were proud that our school had been recognized by the queen herself,” he says. “I never felt that Khartoum was just a small town far away from the world. From the post office, you could send a telegram to any place on the globe for just a few piasters.”
“I never felt that Khartoum was just a small town far away from the world.”
Another Khartoum landmark is the Acropole Hotel, founded in 1952 by Greek immigrant Panaghis Pagoulatos and now operated by his sons Athanasios and George. Seventy-two-year-old Athanasios smiles as he remembers the days before independence when the Greek community numbered some 20,000 throughout the country.
“Our Hellenic Club was busy every day with dancing and sports,” he says. “We would take picnics by motorboat from the sailing club to a yellow sand beach at a place called Om Doum (Mother of the Doum Palm) on the Blue Nile. Our tennis and basketball teams were the best in the city.”
The Acropole, a place seemingly out of an Agatha Christie novel, is still fully booked in high season as archeologists head out to the pyramids and temples near Meroë, about 200 kilometers north of the capital. Only the memories of Khartoum’s two other luxury hotels remain from that earlier time, when the British were almost as common on the streets as the Sudanese, before the independent government switched vehicle traffic overnight from left- to right-side driving in a clean break with the colonial past. The Victoria Hotel has been demolished, and the slickly refurbished Grand Hotel is now part of an international chain.
There are four bridges across the Blue Nile between Khartoum and Bahri. At the foot of one is the book-lined office of Jaafar Mirghani, director of the Sudan Civilization Institute and a native son of Bahri. “Do not be deceived by today’s jumbled city,” he says. “What may look like ‘ashwaa’i (haphazard) planning to an outsider is in fact underwritten by history.”
Kitchener laid out his colonial city of Khartoum in a tight grid “from the river to the railroad” and designated Bahri, then largely open ground, for warehouses, dockyards and repair shops, says Mirghani, who remembers its three original villages, or hillas: Hamid, Khojali and al-Sebabi. Dockyard jobs brought migrants from downriver, and their residential quarters sprang up there, too: Danaqla, for people from Dongola; Shelaliyya, for people from the cataracts (shelal in Arabic) on the border with Egypt; and Amlak (after the Arabic word for real estate), for Egyptian office clerks.
From the Bahri train station, a train leaves daily for Shendi near Meroë, the pyramid-rich city that from 800 bce to 350 ce was capital of the Kingdom of Kush, and onward along the Nile to the city of Atbara, now the line’s final destination.
The morning hour of departure is a study in contradictions. A Chinese bullet locomotive pulls five sleek cars on tracks laid down and barely touched since the time of Lord Kitchener. Passengers rush to board for a six-hour trip that by bus takes half that time. Its mere 330-kilometer route is a fragment of what was once Africa’s most extensive railroad network of more than 4,500 kilometers that is now mostly derelict. But to open the Sudan Railways Corporation website—with its “future projects” page—is to glimpse a dream that desperately wants to come true again.
Bahri’s historical mixing of ethnicities from near and far continues today, too. On weekend afternoons in al-Haj Yousef district, young men, the majority of them migrant workers—Fur, Hamar, Arab, but mostly Nuba—from the western provinces gather in an open arena with banked seating for wrestling matches.
The wrestling skills on show are of the highest order. Many of the athletes belong to Greco-Roman and freestyle teams, and they train accordingly, but the technique here is traditional Nuba: in a sand pit with sand freely applied to key grip spots on one’s own body—chest, upper arm, wrist and nape of the neck—that defiantly dares the opponent to grab and attempt take-downs. (This makes it almost an opposite of Turkish oil wrestling, in which a slippery escape is encouraged, but here, such an attitude is seen as retreat.)
The wrestlers are ranked not by weight category but by skill class, from shibli (lion cub, or bottom) to wasit (middle) and faris (knight, or top), and each one belongs to a club. Muhammad Hanu Anima is 18 years old and 80 kilograms, and he belongs to Ittihad al-Burkan, the Volcano Union. His teammate Badri al-Din Marwaha is just five kilograms heavier, but at age 42 and with 30 years of experience, he has attained the rank of faris. The league's two oldest teams are named Usd al-Ghaba, (Lions of the Forest), and Suqur al-Jidyan (Falcons of the Valley, i.e., Secretary birds), and they evoke the same fierce loyalties and rivalries as Omdurman’s soccer clubs al-Mireekh and al-Hilal.
Many wrestlers take a nom de combat with comedic overtones. Magirus, aka Adam Hamid, from Masalamiyya village near El Obeid, the capital of North Kordofan, is named for a German truck. He claims 400 victories in an average match time of two minutes.
“I don’t have time to stick around,” he says with a shrug. He belongs to the national Greco-Roman team, and he has competed in the World Championships in Ankara, Turkey. “When in training I eat only fish and camel meat and drink only milk and fruit juice,” he explains. “But now, out of season for international matches, I eat as I please.”
An unrestricted diet does not seem to hurt his skills, for he battles to a draw with a fighter named Damar (Destruction), from South Kordofan. Damar seems pleased to have avoided Magirus’s pin, so he climbs the ring’s top rail and drinks the crowd’s adoration.
The day’s most anticipated match is between the nearly 2.1-meter-tall wrestler named Influenza, from Kadugli in the Nuba Mountains, and al-Tahir (the Virtuous One). Their match also ends in a draw, but then Influenza does what would be unthinkable in almost any other sport: He hefts his opponent high onto his shoulders and parades him around the ring as if al-Tahir had won. Perhaps that is how he felt after eking out a mere draw against an opponent a full third of a meter shorter.
Abu Jaib’s roots are in the camel trade in central Sudan, and his oldest child is a pharmacist and his wife is an engineer.
The matches conclude by sundown, and minibuses take spectators back to their homes in Bahri, whose side-by-side mix of glistening villas, humble shacks, international-brand outlets and hole-in-the-wall stalls seem to free it of the sometimes-heavy historical legacies that underpin Omdurman and Khartoum, as different as those two are from each other.
If one takes a bird’s-eye view over this tripartite metropolis, seeking to generalize about where it has been and where it is going from the story of a single individual, one might wish to meet Sayyid Bashir Abu Jaib.
Abu Jaib’s roots are in the camel trade in central Sudan, but his life now is mostly in the city—a foot still there and a foot now here. He lives in one of Bahri’s new neighborhoods, keeps his trading office in old Omdurman and, to avoid traffic, he sometimes commutes there via Khartoum on bridges over first the Blue Nile and then the White.
His oldest child is a pharmacist newly graduated from university, his wife is an engineer, and the business associates who drop by in a constant stream are from his home territory. A cacophony of car horns bleeds through his office window as he discusses the prices of livestock, gum Arabic and karkady (a dried part of the hibiscus plant that makes a refreshing tea). Perhaps there is a margin he can act upon. Perhaps he is ready to broker a deal between the countryside and foreign markets. If so, the mosaic of Khartoum is the best place to make it happen.