But the canal will have an impact on the ecology of the Sudd by reducing the flood area. It will interfere with the migrations of wildlife and the migratory cattle herding of the Dinkas and Nuers. Some southerners fear that the canal will spell the end of their way of life.
Atem Yaak, a Dinka who is editor of Southern Sudan magazine, said, “At first I was bitterly opposed to it. I believed it was just so the Arabs would benefit, and it would do nothing for the south. Later I became convinced it will help us. It will generate revenue, increase communications, and enable us to grow more food. It may even help to unify the nation.”
It was some comfort to recall that other nations had thrived and become unified long ago in this land of Sudan. The ruins of the ancient city of Meroe, once capital of the Kingdom of Kush (flourished circa 800 B.C. to A.D. 350), lie a short trip along the Nile from Khartoum. Ruins of temples, baths, homes, and workplaces cover a large area. Some excavation has been done, but Sudan just does not have money to explore its past while its present needs are so pressing.
To the east of the city are the royal burial pyramids (pages 348-9). It was strange to think about the time, 2,000 years ago, when this land was alive with bustling activity—kings holding court, people gathering at the temples, hundreds of workers shaping the stones for the pyramids, and scholars carving their history into stone in the ancient and still untranslated Meroitic language. Today the land is desert. I stood in the lee of one of the pyramids and watched as the sand swirled around the ruins and covered the work of long ago.
It was well into April now, and I had to leave Khartoum if I wanted to get back to the south before the rains made the only track impassable. But I wanted to try a real road before I again struggled with the hinterland tracks. So I sortied in the opposite direction, northeast to Port Sudan on the Red Sea along one of the two paved roads in the country. Opened in October 1980, this 1,200-kilometer road should ease the terrible bottleneck at the port, which the old railway cannot handle.
Humble Homes Concealed Wealth
Because of the Yom Kippur War, digging at Deir el-Balah was interrupted until 1977. Then I returned to the site with our team from the Institute of Archaeology, supported from that time on mainly by the Dorot Foundation of New York. While part of our team continued searching for more burials, another group sought traces of the elusive settlement. Considering the opulence of the grave gifts we had found thus far, we hoped to find an extensive and wealthy site.
We spotted our first clue in an orange grove at the foot of one of the high dunes. Scattered on the surface were broken fragments of 13th-century pottery similar to that in the coffins. Excavation uncovered an earthenware oven with cooking pots beside a mud-brick wall. Additional remains of brick structures contained pottery vessels, grinding stones, pestles and mortars, and flint knives.
Could such humble dwellings be the homes of the wealthy men and women buried in the cemetery? Hamad, who keenly followed our progress, assured us that they could. “My own house is made of mud bricks like these,” he reminded us. Yet there was no doubt that he was a wealthy man.
Rich or poor, the ancient settlement could not be excavated right away. The continuation of the buildings ran under a sand dune that towered 13 meters—about 43 feet—above us. From the trickle of sand already beginning to drift down, we realized that further digging could be dangerous. We called in construction and sand-removal experts for advice; heavy earth-moving equipment was the only practical answer. But the cost of such a massive undertaking was far beyond our budget.
Fortunately, in the course of discussions with the landowner and the local authorities, an ingenious idea was born. Clean sand for construction purposes was a valuable commodity, and there were apparently few sites as accessible as ours. The landowner enthusiastically agreed to the clearance, no doubt pleased with the prospect of enlarged arable fields. So when we finished our small excavation, the site was declared an official sand quarry for local construction firms.