One of Africa’s best kept secrets – its history- BBC NEWS

One of Africa’s best kept secrets – its history- BBC NEWS

The pyramids from the Kingdom of Kush form one of the most spectacular sights in Sudan

Africa has a rich and complex history but there is widespread ignorance of this heritage. A celebrated British historian once said there was only the history of Europeans in Africa. Zeinab Badawi has been asking what is behind this lack of knowledge and looking at the historical record for an African history series on BBC World News.

The Great Pyramid of Giza in Cairo is rightly considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. But travel further south along the River Nile and you will find a thousand pyramids that belonged to the Kingdom of Kush, in what is now Sudan.
Kush was an African superpower and its influence extended to what is now called the Middle East.
The kingdom lasted for many hundreds of years and in the eighth Century BC, it conquered Egypt and governed for the best part of a century.
What remains of the kingdom is equally impressive. More than 300 of these pyramids are still intact, almost untouched since they were built nearly 3,000 years ago.

Zeinab Badawi

“There has been a way of seeing Africa in terms of poverty and conflict which has become a kind of shorthand for the continent that still persists today.”

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Some of the best examples can be found in Jebel Barkal in northern Sudan, declared a world heritage site by the UN’s cultural agency, Unesco.

Here you can find pyramids, tombs, temples and burial chambers complete with painted scenes and writings that Unesco describes as masterpieces “of creative genius demonstrating the artistic, social, political and religious values of a human group for more than 2,000 years”.

Some years ago I visited these pyramids. On my return to the UK, I asked my parents what they knew of their country’s historic sites. Not much, it turned out.

This was odd since both of them could tell you a lot about Henry VIII and key points in British history.

I wondered given that my parents did not know enough about their own country’s history whether this was likely to be true of many other Africans.

And as I talked to people I discovered that this was indeed the case.

A few years later, at Unesco’s Paris headquarters, I saw on the bookshelves of Ethiopian-born Deputy Director-General Getachew Engida a collection of volumes – the General History of Africa.

This, it turned out, is one of Unesco’s and the continent’s best kept secrets: Africa’s history written by African scholars.

A bas-relief in one of the pyramids at the Meroe archaeological site, about five km (three miles) east of the Nile.Image copyrightGETTY IMAGES Image caption The carvings at the pyramids in Sudan give an insight into the life in the Kingdom of Kush

The project was conceived in the early 1960s during the period of rapid decolonisation in Africa. Some of the newly independent African leaders decided that after decolonising their countries they also wanted to decolonise their history.

Western historians had lamented the lack of written records in some African countries and had used this as a reason to legitimise such neglect.

Unesco helped African scholars put together the project, recruiting 350 experts, mostly from across Africa and from a range of disciplines, to compile eight volumes, starting from prehistory and continuing to the modern era.

The eighth volume was completed in 1990 and a ninth is now being worked on.

Unesco took the controversial step of starting the volumes with the origins of humankind, setting out the theory of evolution. By doing so, they risked incurring the wrath of Christian and Muslim communities in some African countries where there was, and still is, a widespread belief in creationism.

There are also paintings inside the pyramids in Sudan

Kenyan palaeontologist Richard Leakey, who contributed to volume one, says he still believes that the fact humans originated in Africa is anathema to some Westerners, who would prefer to deny their African origins.

The story of the Kingdom of Kush, a superpower in western Asia as well as Africa, where queens could rule in their own right, is also often overlooked.

This is also true of the Kingdom of Aksum, described as one of the four greatest civilisations of the ancient world.

The Aksumite kings controlled trade in the Red Sea from their base in what is modern day Eritrea and Ethiopia. They were also the first rulers in Africa to embrace Christianity and make it the kingdom’s official religion.

This history is little known, both in Africa and elsewhere, because a lot of academics and teachers in African countries have been a product of colonial education themselves, and so they could not receive a comprehensive and chronological account of their own history.

Ancient stellae from the old kingdom can be seen in the present day Ethiopian town of Axum

My own Sudanese parents were fluent in English, and highly educated, but by and large were taught according to a Western curriculum.