Before even trying to get into Sudan, make sure you have your visas in order and give yourself plenty of time to get them. The Sudanese visas proved to be the most difficult and time-consuming visas that my Italian interpreter and I have yet obtained – and we have been to a lot of weird places. However, it is doable. Unless you know someone though, you will find the task made significantly easier by recruiting the assistance of an outfit such as Raidan Travel (more on them below).
After getting out of the airport, one of the first buildings you will see upon entering Khartoum is this brand new luxury hotel (pictured below), the Burj al-Fateh, financed by Lafico, the Libyan Foreign Investment Company, and designed by Italian architects.
Local Sudanese refer to the hotel as “Qadaffi’s ball” which, yes, has the same double meaning as in English.
The 18 floors of steel and glass cost 130 million euros and contains 230 rooms, conference facilities, a mall, restaurants, sports center and spa. The presidential suite costs 4,000 US dollars a night, and a standard room — or in Burj parlance a “luxurious room and suite” — costs 250 US dollars. Despite logistical nightmares, the furniture and interiors were imported from Europe, mostly from that bastion of international style – Italy. The Burj al-Fateh Hotel also has a French chef and if you order a burger at “Le Grill” the steak comes from Australia and that burger will set you back 70 dollars.
This luxury is made possible by oil wealth. Even though the West has been unwilling or unable to pursue oil riches in Sudan, various Arab countries as well as China, India and Malaysia have not hesitated to invest in Sudan.
As if to illustrate this point, the Burj al-Fateh stands adjacent to the Chinese-built Friendship Hall, yet another Nile-front gift from another government, controversial in the West but intrinsic to the Khartoum boom.
Even away from the more choice addresses along the Nile, there is still plenty of construction in the downtown areas.
By the way, on the left is the hotel we stayed in while in Khartoum. The rooms are clean, have air conditioning that works and best of all (at least from my perspective), they offer complimentary copies of the English language newspaper Sudan Tribune.
Despite the pockets of luxury along the Nile, you are definitely not in Dubai. The streets are alive with motion and activity everywhere. The pictures and videos below can give one a better sense of the many sides of Khartoum:
This man is creating shavings of a fragrant wood that is intended to be burned in the lamps you can see in the background. Perhaps not surprisingly, it smells quite good when you walk through this area.
The downtown area is crammed with little shops, each specializing in a particular product. For example, the store below specializes in pots, kettles and water containers.
Of course, not everyone likes having their picture taken, particularly the soldiers and police… I took the photo below as we were driving by and the soldier started screaming at me and aimed his handgun at me. Fortunately, our driver didn’t hear him as he was focused on the traffic and we just drove away.
This military policeman squatting in front of the Khalifa House in Khartoum (below) didn’t like having his picture taken either. He started screaming at me and I was on foot this time, so we couldn’t just drive away. Our driver/fixer, Ramadan, eventually just told him, “If you don’t want your picture taken, don’t stand in front of tourist sites.” That pretty effectively shut him up. I’ll talk more about Ramadan later.
The Khalifa Abdullah House, also known as Beit al-Khalifa, is just across the street from the Mahdi’s Tomb (pictured below). Once the home of the Mahdi’s successor, the house was built of mud and brick in 1887, and is now a museum. It contains relics from Mahdiyya battles, including guns, war banners and suits of armor. An interesting collection of photographs shows the city of Khartoum at the time of the Mahdi’s revolt and its subsequent occupation by the British.
“The Mahdi” was Muhammad Ahmad who made his military headquarters here in 1884 during a fifteen-year-long conflict that became known as the Mahdist War. This is relevant because following the defeat of the besieged defenders of Khartoum in 1885, the Mahdi’s successor, Khalifa Abdullahi ibn Muḥammad, made this area his capital. And that is relevant because in the Battle of Omdurman in 1898 Lord Kitchener decisively defeated the Mahdist forces, ensuring British control over the Sudan, and killed Khalifa.
Kitchener restored Khartoum as the capital and, from 1899 until 1956 Sudan was jointly governed by Great Britain and Egypt.
The Tomb of the Mahdi… On the death of the Mahdi in 1885, his body was entombed in a silver-domed mosque in Omdurman. This was completely destroyed by Kitchener in 1898, when the Mahdi’s body was burned and his ashes thrown into the river. In 1947 the Mahdi’s son had the mosque and tomb rebuilt. Unlike mosques and tombs in every other Muslim country I have visited, it is closed to foreigners, but can be viewed from the outside.
Khartoum has a relatively short history. It was first established as a military outpost in 1821, and is said to derive its name from the thin spit of land at the convergence of the rivers, which resembles an elephant’s trunk (khurtum). Khartoum grew rapidly in prosperity during the boom years of the slave trade, between 1825 and 1880 and in 1834 it became the capital of the Sudan. Many explorers from Europe used it as a base for their African expeditions.
Khartoum was sacked twice during the latter half of the 19th century — once by the Mahdi and once by Kitchener when the Mahdi was ousted. In 1898, when Kitchener went to work rebuilding the city, he designed the streets in the shape of the British flag, the Union Jack, which he hoped would make it easier to defend.
This area of Kitchener’s design along the Nile, is the nicest part of Khartoum today. The relatively peaceful, tree-lined streets in some way still bear the unmistakable mark of an outpost of the British Empire and it is here that one finds most government buildings, museums and even the Burj al-Fateh Hotel discussed in the beginning of this post.
That is the Nile River behind these wide sidewalks.
The entrance to the National Museum… The museum contains antiquities and artifacts from several periods of Sudanese history and pre-history, including glassware, pottery, statuary and figurines from the ancient kingdom of Kush. Ancient Nubia’s Christian period is well-represented, with frescoes and murals from ruined churches, dating from the 8th to the 15th century. The Museum’s garden contains two reconstructed temples, which have been salvaged from the Nubian land flooded by Lake Nasser. These Egyptian temples of Buhen and Semna were originally built by Queen Hatshepsut and Pharaoh Tuthmosis III respectively.
Regular readers of The Velvet Rocket may be surprised by the picture of the woman below. However, unlike in Pakistan or Afghanistan, it is considered perfectly acceptable to take pictures of women in Sudan.
One of the reconstructed temples mentioned above.
Another museum certainly worth visiting in Khartoum is the Ethnographical Museum. This small museum contains an interesting collection of items relating to Sudanese village life. If you can find it (at the Blue Nile Sailing Club), the British gunboat Malik is still resting next to the Nile and is fun to play on.
Readers may be curious about Osama bin Laden’s former home in Khartoum, but unfortunately there is no way to visit it. The entire street the home is located on is blocked off by military policeman, probably because the Sudanese government doesn’t want the publicity from people like me taking pictures of the home and posting these pictures on the internet.
How about the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant, owned by Salah Idris, that the United States blew up with several cruise missiles in 1998 in retaliation for the al Qaeda bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania? Yes, actually, one can still visit this site. It is on the outskirts of Khartoum and has never been reconstructed. So, one can see how it looked back in 1998.
Two things absolutely not to miss are:
No matter where you go though, you will almost certainly find Khartoum and Sudan quite hot. So, these plentiful cafes in the shade along the Nile are wonderful because one can sip a cool drink (or a hot drink if that is your thing) and lounge in the shade for a while.
And the local kids will come by to make sure your gum, candy, snack and drink needs are well met.
Now, this picture below is of Ahmed with Raidan Travel. Ahmed came recommended to us as he is able to obtain the necessary visas, arrange accommodations, provide a driver and a vehicle (with air conditioning) as well as all of your meals at what I think is a fair price. Ahmed offers several itineraries, but if you are interested in something different, you can talk to him and work out exactly what you want.
We were happy with what we got from Ahmed and particularly happy with our driver, Ramadan. In fact, if you go through Ahmed, I would specifically request Ramadan. Ramadan was outstanding as aside from being a great driver, he knows Sudan incredibly well and, as such, knows people everywhere we went. Thus, we had such experiences as staying with families in their homes, attending a wedding in a small village and spending two nights with a former prince on his beautiful estate. And for those times when you are away from any villages and camp in the desert, Ramadan is an excellent cook. Seriously, he is a great driver/cook/guide/fixer.
Ahmed will likely take you by his home in Khartoum where you will get a chance to admire views of the city from his rooftop, pictured below, as well as to meet his family.
This is one of Ahmed’s sons.
But, to really see Sudan, one needs to get out of Khartoum and out into the countryside. So, with a fully stocked 4WD and Ramadan driving, we picked up a few last minute essentials, such as ice which we purchased from the vendor below (they use gears from a bicycle to fracture the ice with incredible precision)…
…And, of course, petrol or benzine or gasoline depending on which country you are from. You can see the vast emptiness of the Sahara behind this petrol station on the outskirts of Khartoum.
While the truck was being filled with gasoline, we had some tea at the adjacent truck stop. When no one was looking, this goat darted in to see what he could scavenge before being driven out again. I loved it.