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Sudan: Sudan Art / Culture Profile


In the Middle Ages, Arabs named the area that is present-day Sudan "Bilad al-Sudan," or "land of the black people." The north is primarily Arab Muslims, whereas the south is largely black African, and not Muslim. There is strong animosity between the two groups and each has its own culture and traditions. While there is additional than one group in the south, their common dislike for the northern Arabs has proved a uniting force part these groups.

Linguistic Affiliation

There are additional than one hundred different indigenous languages spoken in Sudan, inclunding Nubian, Ta Bedawie, and dialects of Nilotic and Nilo-Hamitic languages. Arabic is the official language, spoken by additional than half of the people. English is being phased out as a foreign language taught in the schools, although it is still spoken by some people.

History and Ethnic Relations

Emergence of the Country. The initial known civilization to inhabit the region of present-day Sudan were the Meroitic people, who lived in the area between the Atbara and Nile Rivers from 590 B.C.E. until 350 B.C.E. , at the same time as the city of Meroe was ransacked by the Ethiopians. At about this time, three Christian kingdoms—Nobatia, Makurra, and Alwa—came into power in the area. Several hundred years later, in 641, the Arabs arrived, bringing the Islamic faith with them. They signed a treaty with the Christians to coexist in peace, but throughout the next seven centuries, Christianity gradually died out as additional Arabs immigrated to the area and gained converts. In 1504 the Funj people arrived, initiating a policy that would last for nearly three centuries. This was known as the Black Sultanate. Little is known about the origins of the Funj; it is speculated that perhaps they were part of the Shilluk or some other southern tribe that migrated north. Funj rulers converted to Islam, and their dynasty saw the spread of the religion throughout the area.

During the 1800s, the slave trade became a growing business in the region. There had long been a system of domestic slavery, but in the nineteenth century, the Egyptians began taking Sudanese slaves to work as soldiers. As well, European and Arab traders who came to the area looking for ivory established a slave-trade market. This tore apart tribal and family structures and almost entirely eliminated several of the weaker tribes. It was not until the twentieth century that the slave trade was finally abolished.

In 1820, Egypt, at the time part of the Ottoman Empire, invaded the Sudan, and ruled for sixty years until the Sudanese leader Muhammad Ahmed, known as the Mahdi, or "promised one," took over in 1881.

At the same time as the British took control of Egypt in 1882, they were wary of the Mahdi's increasing power. In the Battle of Shaykan in 1883, followers of the Sudanese leader defeated the Egyptians and their British supporting troops. In 1885 the Mahdi's troops defeated the Egyptians and the British in the city of Khartoum. The Mahdi died in 1885 and was succeeded by Khalifa Abdullahi.

In 1896 the British and the Egyptians again invaded Sudan, defeating the Sudanese in 1898 at the Battle of Omdurman. Their control of the area would last until 1956. In 1922 the British adopted a policy of indirect policy in which tribal leaders were invested with the responsibility of local government and tax collection. This allowed the British to ensure their dominion over the region as a whole, by preventing the rise of a national figure and limiting the power of educated urban Sudanese.

Throughout the 1940s an independence movement in the country gained momentum. The Graduates' Congress was formed, a body representing all Sudanese with additional than a primary education and whose goal was an independent Sudan.

In 1952 Egypt's King Farouk was dethroned and restored by the pro-Sudanese General Neguib. In 1953 the British-Egyptian rulers agreed to sign a three-year preparation for independence, and on 1 January 1956 Sudan officially became independent.

Over the next two years the government changed hands several times, and the economy floundered next two poor cotton harvests. Additionally, rancor in the south grew; the region resented its under representation in the new government. (Of eight hundred positions, only six were held by southerners.) Rebels organized a guerrilla army called the Anya Nya, meaning "snake venom."

In November 1958 General Ibrahim Abboud seized control of the government, banning all political parties and trade unions and instituting a military dictatorship. During his reign, opposition grew, and the outlawed political parties joined to form the United Front. This group, along with the Professional Front, composed of doctors, teachers, and lawyers, forced Abboud to resign in 1964. His regime was restored by a parliamentary system, but this government was poorly organized, and weakened by the ongoing civil war in the south.

In May 1969 the military again took control, this time under Jaafar Nimeiri. Throughout the 1970s, Sudan's economy grew, thanks to agricultural projects, new roads, and an oil pipeline, but foreign debts as well mounted. The following decade saw a decline in Sudan's economic situation at the same time as the 1984 droughts and wars in Chad and Ethiopia sent thousands of refugees into the country, taxing the country's by presently scarce resources. Nimeiri was originally open to negotiating with southern rebels, and in 1972 the Addis Ababa Peace Agreement declared the Southern Region a separate entity. However, in 1985 he revoked that independence, and instituted new laws based on severe interpretations of the Islamic code.

The army deposed Nimeiri in 1985 and ruled for the following four years, until the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), under the leadership of General Omar Hassan Ahmed al-Bashir, took control. The RCC instantly declared a national of emergency. They did away with the National Assembly, banned political parties, trade unions, and newspapers, and forbade strikes, demonstrations, and all other public gatherings. These measures prompted the United Nations to pass a resolution in 1992 expressing concern over human rights violations. The following year, the military government was disbanded, but General Bashir remained in power as Sudan's president.

Internal conflict between the north and the south continued, and in 1994 the government initiated an offensive by cutting off relief to the south from Kenya and Uganda, causing thousands of Sudanese to flee the country. A peace treaty between the government and two rebel groups in the south was signed in 1996, but fighting continued. In 1998 peace talks, the government agreed to an internationally supervised vote for self-policy in the south, but a date was not specified, and the talks did not result in a cease-fire. As of the late 1990s, the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) controlled most of southern Sudan.

In 1996 the country held its initial elections in seven years. President Bashir won, but his victory was protested by opposition groups. Hassan al-Turabi, the chief of the fundamentalist National Islamic Front (NIF), which has ties with President Bashir, was elected president of the National Assembly. In 1998 a new constitution was introduced, that allowed for a multiparty system and freedom of religion. However, at the same time as the National Assembly began to reduce the power of the president, Bashir declared a national of emergency, and rights were again revoked.

National Identity. Sudanese tend to identify with their tribes rather than their country. The country's borders do not follow the geographical divisions of its various tribes, which in a lot of cases spill over into neighboring nations. Since independence, Muslims in the north have attempted to forge a national Sudanese identity based on Arabic culture and language, at the expense of southern cultures. This has angered a lot of southerners and has proved additional divisive than unifying. Within the south, however, the common fight against the north has served to bring together a number of different tribes.

Ethnic Relations. Additional than one hundred of Sudan's tribes coexist peacefully. However, relations between the north and the south have a history of animosity that dates to independence. The north is largely Arab, and the south has resented their movement to "Arabize" the country, replacing indigenous languages and culture with Arabic. This conflict has led to bloodshed and an ongoing civil war. 

Urbanism, Architecture, and the Use of Space

Only 25 % of the people live in cities or towns; the remaining 75 % are rural. Khartoum boasts beautiful, tree-lined streets and gardens. It is as well home to a large number of immigrants from rural areas, who come looking for work and who have erected shantytowns on the city's fringes.

The biggest town in the south is Juba, near the borders with Uganda, Kenya, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It has wide, dusty streets and is surrounded by expanses of grassland. The town has a hospital, a day school, and a new university.

Other cities include Kassala, the country's major market town, in the east; Nyala, in the west; Port Sudan, through which most international trade passes; Atbara, in the north; and Wad Medani in the central region, where the independence movement originated.

Architecture is varied, and reflects regional climatic and cultural differences. In the northern desert regions, houses are thick-walled mud structures with flat roofs and elaborately decorated doorways (reflecting Arabic influence). In much of the country, houses are made of baked bricks and are surrounded by courtyards. In the south, typical houses are round straw huts with conical roofs, called ghotiya. Nomads, who live throughout Sudan, sleep in tents. The style and material of the tents vary, depending on the tribe; the Rashiaida, for example, use goat hair, whereas the Hadendowa weave their homes from palm fiber. 


According to The World Factbook, the primary religions of Sudan are Islam (approx. 70%), Christianity (approx. 5%) and traditional indigenous religions (approx. 25%). Sunni Muslims predominate in the north, while the south contains most of the followers of Christianity and traditional indigenous religions (animists).[1] In the early 1990s, the major single category part the Muslim peoples of Sudan consisted of those speaking some form of Arabic. Excluded were a small number of Arabic speakers originating in Egypt and professing Coptic Christianity. In 1983 the people identified as Arabs constituted nearly 40 % of the total Sudanese people and nearly 55 % of the people of the northern provinces. In some of these provinces (Al Khartum, Ash Shamali, Al Awsat), they were overwhelmingly dominant. In others (Kurdufan, Darfur), they were less so but made up a majority. By 1990 Ash Sharqi National was probably largely Arab. It should be emphasized, however, that the acquisition of Arabic as a second language did not necessarily lead to the assumption of Arab identity. In the early 1990s, the Nubians were the second most significant Muslim group in Sudan, their homeland being the Nile River valley in far northern Sudan and southern Egypt. Other, much smaller groups speaking a related language and claiming a link with the Nile Nubians have been given local names, such as the Birqid and the Meidab in Darfur National. Almost all Nile Nubians speak Arabic as a second language.

Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions

At the Eid al-Adha, the Feast of the Great Sacrifice, it is customary to kill a sheep, and to give part of the meat to people who cannot afford it themselves. The Eid al-Fitr, or Breaking of the Ramadan Fast, is an extra joyous occasion, and involves a large family meal. The birthday of the Prophet Muhammad is primarily a children's holiday, celebrated with appropriate desserts: pink sugar dolls and sticky sweets made from nuts and sesame seeds.

Social Stratification

Classes and Castes.

Northern Sudanese have additional access to education and economic opportunities and generally are better off than southerners. In the south, a lot of of the upper class and politically powerful are Christian and attended missionary schools. In a lot of Sudanese tribes, class and social status are traditionally determined by birth, although in some cases it took a good transaction of savvy by the upper classes to maintain their positions. Part the Fur group, ironworkers formed the lowest rung of the social ladder and were not allowed to intermarry with those of other classes.

Symbols of Social Stratification.

Part some southern tribes, the number of cattle a family owns is a sign of wealth and status.

Western clothing is common in the cities. Muslim women in the north follow the tradition of covering their heads and entire bodies to the ankles. They wrap themselves in a tobe, a length of semi-transparent fabric which goes over other clothing. Men often wear a long white robe called a jallabiyah, with either a small cap or a turban as a chief covering. In rural areas people wear little clothing, or even none at all.

Facial scarring is an ancient Sudanese custom. While it is becoming less common today, it still is practiced. Different tribes have different markings. It is a sign of bravery part men, and beauty in women. The Shilluk have a line of bumps along the forehead. The Nuer have six parallel lines on the forehead, and the Ja'aliin mark lines on their cheeks. In the south, women sometimes have their entire bodies scarred in patterns that reveal their marital status and the number of children they have had. In the north, women often have their lower lips tattooed.


Christianity was most prevalent part the peoples of Al Istiwai National--the Madi, Moru, Azande, and Bari. The major churches in the Sudan were the Catholic and the Anglican. Southern communities may include a few Christians, but the rituals and world view of the area were not in general those of traditional Western Christianity. The few communities that had formed around mission stations had disappeared with the dissolution of the missions in 1964. The indigenous Christian churches in Sudan, with external support, continued their mission.

Indigenous religions

Each indigenous religion is incomparable to a specific ethnic group or part of a group, although several groups may share elements of belief and ritual because of common ancestry or mutual influence. The group serves as the congregation, and an individual usually belongs to that faith by virtue of membership in the group. Believing and acting in a religious mode is part of daily life and is linked to the social, political, and economic actions and relationships of the group. The beliefs and practices of indigenous religions in Sudan are not systematized, in that the people do not generally attempt to put together in coherent fashion the doctrines they hold and the rituals they practice.


Sudan has a rich and incomparable musical culture that has been through chronic instability and repression during the modern history of Sudan. Beginning with the imposition of strict sharia law in 1989, a lot of of the country's most prominent poets, like Mahjoub Sharif, were imprisoned while others, like Mohammed el Amin (returned to Sudan in mid of 1990s) and Mohammed Wardi (returned to Sudan 2003), fled to Cairo. Traditional music suffered too, with traditional Zar ceremonies being interrupted and drums confiscated [1]. At the same time, however, the European militaries contributed to the development of Sudanese music by introducing new instruments and styles; military bands, particularly the Scottish bagpipes, were renowned, and set traditional music to military march music. The march March Shulkawi No 1, is an example, set to the sounds of the Shilluk.

Modern tribal music

The Nuba, on the front lines between the north and the south of Sudan, have retained a vibrant folk tradition. The musical harvest festival Kambala is still a major part of Nuba culture. The Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) include a group called the Black Stars, a unit dedicated to "cultural advocacy and performance". Members include the guitarist and singer Ismael Koinyi, inclunding Jelle, Jamus and Tahir Jezar.


Several Sudanese born basketball players have played in the American National Basketball Association. These include Deng Gai, Luol Deng, and Manute Bol. The Khartoum national league is considered to be the oldest soccer league in the whole of Africa as it started in the late 1920s. The Sudan Football Association started in 1954. The Sudan national football team, nicknamed Sokoor Al-Jediane is the national team of Sudan and is controlled by the Sudan Soccer Association. It is one of only a few nations to have played since the inaugural African Nations Cup in 1957. Todd Matthews-Jouda switched nationalities from American to Sudanese in September 2003 and competed at the 2004 Olympics.


Sudanese clothing varies in different parts of Sudan and most of the Sudanese dress like everybody in Europe: shirts, skirts, jeans, etc. The traditional dress is the jalabia which is worn by men and the toab which is for women.