I arrived yesterday evening in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. It’s a name that evokes the British empire or exotic Africa. My flight from Ann Arbor took 20 hours (Lufthansa, brief layover in Frankfort), but the trip is really too short to bridge the vast cultural, environmental, and personal differences that it spans.
Khartoum is a sprawling, dusty, bustling city, three cities really, where about 5 million people live, with an incredible diversity of languages, physical appearance, cultures, and clothes, from business suits to men in white robes and turbans and women in colorful dresses and full Islamic hijab. The city isn’t very old—the earliest standing buildings belong to the British colonial administration of the late 19th century—and most of the buildings are relatively low. It’s right at the junction of the Blue Nile and the White Nile. The waters join and then travel through steppe and desert until reaching the Mediterranean over 1000 miles to the north.
In the past 5-10 years, new wealth from oil production has led to a construction boom in Khartoum, so there is dense traffic in the city as a lot more Sudanese can afford cars. At the same time, the city’s population has grown massively as refugees have fled conflicts in Sudan, primarily the long civil war with the south (1983-2005) and fighting in Darfur starting in 2003.
These conflicts are what we hear most about in the news, and there is no denying that some parts of the country can be dangerous, or that some people in the country are suffering. But Khartoum itself is safe and stable, and the northern region where archaeologists have been working more and more intensively over the past 30 years has remained calm. That’s where I’ll be headed on January 1, 2013, after just a few more meetings.