November 2009 Sudan: Whirling Dervishes and Pyramids at Merowe

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Last week we went to the mausoleum in Omdurman (the city just next to the capital, Khartoum) that houses the resting place of Hamad Al Nil, a 19th century Sufi Muslim leader.  Every Friday night at his resting place, crowds of Sudanese pilgrims gather and make their sunset prayers.  Women often pray to the ascetic leader’s bones and pray for a blessing, especially to cure illness.

In addition to the women that visit the mausoleum to pray, a sect of Sufist Muslims (males only) gather to chant and beat their drums in a type of ritualistic worship.  Sufism is a form of Islam that believes in purifying the soul to find inner peace.  One way they purify their souls is to chant until they reach a physical ecstasy and they begin to dance and whirl around the circle, often on one foot.  While most Sudanese men wear white robes on Sundays, the Sufists are easy to find because they tend to wear green and red robes.  Some of the members of the sect are called simply “the poor”, and they spend their whole lives on the compound of the tomb of Al Nil, owning no possessions but the clothes on their backs, which are a colorful combination of patchwork cloths.

At the end of the ceremony, an elder walks around the circle with burning incense, a mixture of frankincense and gum arabic, and blesses the chanters and the crowds that gather.  On the week that we went, there were about 300 Sudanese gathered, and perhasp 30 westerners who had heard of the ritual and went to watch.

The following weekend, Chris and I drove out to the pyramids at Meroe, also sometimes written as Merowe.  Merowe was the capital of the Nubian kingdom (also called the Kushites) from about 300 bc to 300 ad.  The city of Merowe is only about three hours north of the Sudan’s capital Khartoum.  We went to three different sites of pyramids.  Surprisingly, there are actually more pyramids in Sudan than there are in Egypt, although the ones here are smaller height and a smaller base, but rising at a much steeper angle.  When we arrived at the first site, some guides with camels offered to show us around, so we gladly took them up on their offer!  Later in the day we drove to another site called Naqa, and saw the Temple of Ammun and the Temple of the Lion.  Finally, we ended up at Musawwarat es-Sufra and saw the ruins of a large building called the Great Enclosure, which is believed to be a building where the Nubians captured and trained elephants.