The El Kurru Heritage Project

By Suzanne Davis, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, University of Michigan

For the past four years, I’ve spent part of the winter in the small Sudanese village of El Kurru, and every year I fall a little bit more in love with it.  I’ve written previously about conservation and documentation work at the site, which was a royal cemetery for the Napatan kings. But for the past two years, I’ve also been involved with a project designed to forge stronger links between the local community and the ancient site, and that project – The El Kurru Heritage Project – is what I’ll report on here.

Our broader heritage work has evolved slowly and organically, beginning from plans to present the site to tourists (of which there are a surprisingly large number). Archaeological sites in Sudan have a wilderness feeling; there are no demarcated pathways or informational panels, and site museums are few to none. Here is how your visit would work: You’d show up and walk around the desert, vaguely aiming to visit the visible standing architecture. If you’re lucky, you’d have brought your own guide, who might or might not give you accurate information about what you see. To remedy this situation at El Kurru, we wanted to create pathways with didactic panels to direct and inform visitors about the most important parts of the site, not all of which are visible above ground.

El Kurru is an interesting site, with a big pyramid, two beautifully-painted subterranean tombs, and a large rock-cut temple. But to be honest, it’s not even close to being the best looking or most interesting archaeological site in Sudan.  Those of us who work at El Kurru like it so much not because of the ancient site, but because of our relationships and experiences in the adjacent modern town, where we live with a Sudanese family and work alongside a variety of Sudanese colleagues. Tourists to the site, however, enter from a desert road and never have a reason to visit the town. As we planned the site itinerary for tourists, my colleague Geoff Emberling (the El Kurru project director) and I kept saying to ourselves – wouldn’t it be great if visitors could keep walking and go into town, down through the date palm groves, and see the Nile? What if they could drink some Sudanese coffee, or cold hibiscus tea? That would be great, wouldn’t it?

As our ideas for the walking tour expanded to include modern Sudanese culture, we began to wonder if village residents would actually appreciate an influx of tourists. In 2016, we worked with several other University of Michigan colleagues to assemble a variety of local focus-groups in El Kurru to talk about this. Not only did village residents think it was good idea – an exciting idea, even – but our neighbors had definite opinions about what visitors should learn about their village, and what experiences make El Kurru special. Local music and arts were at the top of the list, as was food. The Nile and agriculture were also deemed very important. El Kurru is a date-farming village, and the palm groves along the river are beautiful. We are still working with our local colleagues to identify, document, and brainstorm about the presentation of El Kurru’s special cultural features. But in the meantime, here are photos of a few you might enjoy.

WeaverWeaver: Mohammed Ahmed Al-Makee, who is in his nineties, is one of El Kurru’s last traditional weavers. His wife dyes and spins cotton into yarn, and from this he weaves scarves, shawls, and bed coverings on a pit-loom in the courtyard of his house. I own two of his beautiful, warm scarves. He allowed my colleague Jack Cheng and I to talk with him about his work and to record the sights and sounds of his loom, which he inherited from his grandfather. And yes, in case you are wondering, he has trained the next generation to carry on this work.


MusiciansMusic: Once or twice a during the field season, we are treated to a riverside concert of traditional music. There is singing and dancing, and the primary instrument is the tambour, a stringed guitar-like instrument. These instruments are made in the village and are often decorated by the town’s henna artist. In this group, the musician I know best is Abdel Bakee, the drummer.


BakerBaker: Bread is the backbone of every meal in El Kurru. There are several popular kinds of bread in Sudan, but the one shown here is a very gently yeasted, pita-type bread made from wheat flour. This bread is used as the primary utensil for eating, which is usually done with your hands in Sudan. It is baked fresh every day in multiple village bakeries and is delicious right out of the oven.  The baker pictured here is Ahmed Ibrahim. Photo courtesy of Jack Cheng.


Palm grovesPalm groves: El Kurru is an agricultural village focused on date farming. The date palms grow in beautiful gardens along the Nile. Families own a plot of land and work together to irrigate it, care for the trees, and harvest the dates, of which there are many kinds. The town itself is just on the edge of this irrigated strip of land. From the house where we live, we can walk across the street and through this section of trees to get to the Nile. It is about a five minute walk to the river.

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