He Tells Tales of Meroe by Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi

Featuring: Sarah Maguire, Atef Alshaer, Rashid El Sheikh

A museum, and perhaps even a poetic tradition itself, as an institution of a kind, can grow looking inward among those who think, speak, act alike. So a poet in the museum creates a great breach in our walls of habit and complacency, in all directions. The power of that presence expands beyond measure when both the poet and the collection find themselves in another country, hostage to external forces, however generous their hosts. I first heard Saddiq perform from heart his ‘Poem of the Nile’ in the Petrie Museum, to one side the objects from Meroe, on the other a painting of his verses as a map by the calligrapher Paul Antonio. From that meeting with the space of object exile, an exceptional and intensified material encounter became possible, when Sarah Maguire of the Poetry Translation Centre and Debbie Challis of the Petrie Museum could invite Saddiq to return as Poet in Residence.

While the monuments of ancient Egypt – Kemet ‘the Black Land’ – dominate popular and media imagination, archaeologists have long sought to publicise the equally long and full history of Nile peoples and kingdoms upstream in Sudan. The first kings of a unified Egypt (around 3000 BC) belong to the same cultural horizon as their contemporaries in Nubia, the land either side of the modern border between Sudan and Egypt. Fifteen centuries later, based at Kerma, the rulers of Kush (northern to central Sudan) overpowered Egyptian fortresses in Nubia, threatening Thebes itself. The miraculously fine-walled, high-burnished pottery of this time, with its distinctive silvery band, continues to inspire artists such as ceramic sculptor Magdalene Odundo. Kerma was eventually conquered by New Kingdom Pharaohs, in the seesaw of war and peace between neighbours. Later kings would find inspiration in the past of both Sudan and Egypt. After 750 BC, a powerful successor to Kerma grew around the city of Napata, farther upstream, and king Piy launched a campaign to restore a divided Egypt. His successors ruled both lands as the twenty-fifth Dynasty of Egyptian king-lists, until Assyrian invasion in 664 BC. The Kush kings moved their centre south to Meroe, after wars with a resurgent Egypt in the sixth century BC. The Roman Empire absorbed Egypt in 30 BC, but rulers of Meroe defeated attempts at invasion, and the kingdom continued to thrive into the third century AD. On its territory, smaller kingdoms were flourishing by the sixth century AD, when the region converted to Christianity: Alwa, centred on Soba, near Khartoum; Makuria, centred on Dongola in Upper Nubia; and Nobatia, centred on Faras in Lower Nubia. All three had weakened or dissolved by the fifteenth century AD, and a new power came to dominate all central Sudan, the Funj Sultanate of Sennar. Under Amara Dunqas, the kingdom embraced Islam in AD 1523/AH 930, and, echoing the history of Meroe against Rome, kept the Ottoman Empire at bay after Egypt fell in AD 1517/AH 922. Against the grand sweep of military history and changes in rulers, the impact on individuals and groups can only be charted in more detailed history and archaeology. At any time, Nile lands would be home to people of different customs, languages and origins, people connected overland and by river with one another and with worlds far beyond. Anchored in its archives, the museum collection offers an opportunity to encounter past people, while the poet can offer the voice of the encounter.

By Stephen Quirke, Edwards Professor of Egyptian Archaeology and Philology & Research Curator, Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology from his introduction to Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi's Petrie Museum collection 'He Tells Tales of Meroe'