Sudan's ancient kingdoms and historic sites are being plundered for a profit

Sudan archaeology
9 min read
01 February, 2023
In Sudan, the plunder of ancient sites and millennia-long cultural history are being looted and smuggled abroad due to weak legal deterrents, lax regulations, ongoing civil unrest and widespread instability.

Illegal digs are on the rise in Sudan's ancient archaeological sites, as relic hunters are looting the priceless artefacts they find and smuggling them via land and air, where they are ending up in foreign museums or up for sale at international auction houses.

Alongside weak deterrent laws, the state lacks both the financial resources and the legal framework to effectively organise recovery operations once the artefacts have left the country.

Two kilometres from Jabal Maragha, an archaeological site in northeast Sudan, broken fragments of exquisitely crafted pottery and earthenware are scattered in the sand.

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Meanwhile, the relentless roar of bulldozers destroys the silence of the beautiful site, emanating from behind a tent where a group of men are busy digging a trench 12 metres long and 18 deep in the spot, which dates back to the era of the Kushite Meroe kingdom which existed between 800 BC to 350 AD.

Ahmad al-Amin, an inspector at the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums (NCAM) was part of the team doing a site inspection on 26 July 2020 with the Tourism and Antiquities Police, who witnessed and reported the incident. He said that the site the diggers had picked was unguarded and unprotected by walls or fences. NCAM filed a report, and the five illegal excavators were arrested and their tools confiscated.

"Illegal digs are on the rise in Sudan's ancient archaeological sites, as relic hunters are looting the priceless artefacts they find and smuggling them via land and air, where they are ending up in foreign museums or up for sale at international auction houses"

Violations of this kind on archaeological sites have been on the rise since 2019, according to Mohamed El Badri, field director of the Archaeological and Heritage Survey Excavations Project in the Mahas area in the Northern State: "We usually see two or three reports of violations per month filed against unknown offenders."

Looting Sudan's museums and archaeological sites

Sudan is abundant in archaeological sites going back to the pre-Christian eras, which dot the River Nile and Northern states, such as Al Begrawiya, Naqa, Musawwarat es-Sufra, Doukki Gel and many others, explains Hamad Mohamed Hamideen, assistant professor in the Department of Archaeology at Al Neelain University.

As the gold and antiquities digging frenzy grows, archaeological sites in both states have been severely damaged according to Abdul Hai Abdul-Sawi, director of the archaeological discovery department at the NCAM. For instance, Jebel Barkal, an archaeological site near Karima city, in Northern state, was plundered several times between 2000 and 2008, during which 50 funerary statues were stolen, three of which reappeared at a public auction in Madrid in October 2020.

Piece of paper with Arabic written and some metal objects
The report filed by Boraey Abdalla about the illegal dig he witnessed [Al-Araby Al-Jadeed]

Two of the statuettes depict Kushite king Taharqa and his grandson Senkamanisken (Kush is the name given to part of the Upper Nubia region, where the ancient Nubian Kushite civilisation was established along the Nile Valley). King Taharqa's rule is associated with a rapid rise in construction, says Dr Ikhlas Abdellatif, Deputy Director of the Sudan National Museum, who confirms that efforts are underway to retrieve the statuettes.

Former Director General of NCAM, Dr Abdelrahman Ali Mohamed, who works as an archaeological expert at UNESCO, confirms that they are being auctioned online, and there are efforts to retrieve it through a number of mechanisms, however, it requires paying lawyers an amount which could reach as much as US$ 100,000.

Last March, Boraey Abdalla, a guard of the late Kushite archaeological site of Kedurma in the Mahas area of northern Sudan, on the eastern bank of the Nile, was startled one night when he realised an illegal dig was underway on the site. Six people were digging in the ancient tombs, and when he approached them, they started throwing stones at him. But he kept walking towards them until they suddenly they opened fire, and he was forced to flee.

"In 1991, criminals used the building's air vents to break into the building and succeeded in stealing a golden statue, and were not caught and the stolen artefacts never recovered"

Abdalla told Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, The New Arab's Arabic-language sister publication: "I was scared of the bullets and didn't know who the gunmen were." He confirmed that illegal digging had happened before, but the use of firearms was new, adding: "I climbed a hill on the site to watch [them] until five in the morning. The hole they dug was small, no bigger than half a metre. Then, I went to the public prosecutor in Delgo, Mahas district and logged a report."

Archaeological sites are also negatively impacted by the Ministry of Minerals granting exploration and prospecting licenses to mining companies without conducting archaeological surveys first, says Sawi. The same happens with the approval of housing construction projects, he adds.

According to NCAM, the expansion of farmland is also posing a threat to ancient sites. For example, at the archaeological site of Kawa in the Dongola area, the authorities approved turning over a large part of the site to agricultural development. An area of about 80 acres is now being cultivated within the site, which is situated on a total area of 700 acres, even though it is considered among Sudan's richest historic sites and contains important archaeological settlements and tombs, dating back more than 5,000 years to the Kerma civilisation.

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As well as archaeological sites, thieves have targeted the Sudan National Museum in Khartoum multiple times. Dr Ghalia Jar Al-Nabi, acting director of NCAM says that in 1991, criminals used the building's air vents to break into the building and succeeded in stealing a golden statue, and were not caught and the stolen artefacts never recovered. She says the Museum administration had burglar-proofed the air vents, but still lacked an alarm system and CCTV.

Smuggling via land and sky

The Anti-Smuggling Unit of the Sudanese Customs Authority managed to stop 92 artefacts being smuggled between January 2017 and December 2021, as confirmed by Police Chief Huquqi Abdulrahman Badawi Abid, who works in the unit, who says that 31 people were arrested for smuggling activity in that period.

One smuggling operation thwarted by the unit's staff was in March 2021, when anti-smuggling unit personnel seized two gold statues and two priceless items made of precious stones dating from the Meroe kingdom, which were hidden inside a water tank on board a vehicle heading for the Sudanese border.

Smugglers resort to hiding stolen artefacts inside objects that have been approved for import or export, according to Police Chief Abid, who says the bodies of vehicles are often used because of the many hidden places items can be stowed: pipes, tanks, lamps and in the seats.  He says smugglers will drive to points near the borders and exchange information on specific routes to take across the northern desert to reach Egypt.

From there transport will be arranged to Europe – a major market – and other destinations. Dr Abdelrahman Ali Mohamed (former director of NCAM) explains: "Smuggling operations are assisted by Sudan's porous borders – effective checkpoints are absent on most of them, and smugglers can often evade the ones that do exist."

There is also a lack of specialised detection devices at Khartoum Airport and other crossings, which makes it easier for the smugglers, he says.

Foreign museums and displays abroad

Hamideen states that since the year 2000, 1,000 artefacts have been taken out of the country by foreign missions with permission from NCAM and the customs authorities for the purpose of study, restoration or display for a specific period. However, few have been returned.

A decorative plate, pot and carved stone
Some of the artefacts on display at the Sudan National Museum [Al-Araby Al-Jadeed]

Sawi (archaeological discovery department director, NCAM) admits that items have not been returned due to a lack of official follow-up: "Items suitable for museum displays have been returned, but items and samples sent for analysis have remained in laboratories, as there is no real value in returning them. There are also borrowing arrangements agreed between foreign museums and NCAM where a certain period is agreed for items to be borrowed - eight pieces are currently in Poland, and 31 in England -in both cases the borrowing period was extended at the end of the agreed period."

Retrieval efforts

A study prepared by Jar Al-Nabi in 1990 revealed that 6,915 Sudanese antiquities were estimated to be outside the country, and distributed across 62 museums in Europe and North America. Some of the items were left legally during the colonial era, as colonial laws allowed the governor-general to purchase, gift, or relinquish antiquities, which was a major contributor to the exodus of priceless, historical antiquities to Britain, Egypt and other countries. Others were smuggled illegally.

The Lost Antiquities Unit compiles data and reviews the pieces being auctioned in Europe, in order to prepare retrieval arrangements, which are coordinated between the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol), and the Sudanese foreign ministry. Currently, there are three requests on Interpol's website for the retrieval of funerary statuettes plundered from Sudan.

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However, Sudan has not ratified the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, which facilitates members' recovery of plundered antiquities. Therefore Khartoum has to directly negotiate with the states where the stolen items are, and give evidence of its ownership of them. or the process happens via assistance from Interpol, according to Dr Abdellatif.

Sudanese law: A weak deterrent

Article 6 of the Sudanese Antiquities Protection Law of 1999 stipulates that landowners who excavate or dispose of relics they find in their land without permission from the NCAM are punishable with up to five years in prison or a fine or both. Article 33 criminalises any archaeological activity undertaken without a licence and stipulates that "anyone who conducts surveys, research, or excavations for antiquities […] or trespasses on archaeological land or a registered archaeological site, or transports antiquities from one place to another inside Sudan without a license" may receive a prison sentence of up to three years.

Ahmed Mofrah, a legal advisor at the Ministry of Justice, describes the law as weak and says it is not proving to be a deterrent, pointing out that "theft" is not even mentioned, which only contributes to the culture of impunity around the looting of Sudan's ancient sites.

This is an edited and abridged translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original article click here.

Translated by Rose Chacko   

This article is taken from our Arabic sister publication, Al-Araby Al Jadeed and mirrors the source's original editorial guidelines and reporting policies. Any requests for correction or comment will be forwarded to the original authors and editors.

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