Former Swiss wine grower uncovers Sudan's ancient roots
KHARTOUM — Charles Bonnet, the 76-year-old doyen of Sudan archaeologists who helped rewrite an ancient chapter of Africa's largest country, has come a long way from the Swiss vineyards he harvested as a youth.
"As a young person, I was a wine grower. I jumped off my tractor and quickly went to university," he recalled, eyes lighting up, as he sat with an AFP correspondent on the terrace of the Acropole hotel in the Sudanese capital Khartoum.
He still gives some credit to his roots as a vine grower. "One learns how to see the ground, the vegetation, the colours of the ground," he said, things he could not pick up at university.
Bonnet helped show that Sudan was not merely a satellite to Egypt's wealth of ancient relics. He unearthed statues of Sudan's "black pharaohs", the overlords of the Kingdom of Kush, and showing Sudan was a trove itself.
After university, he drifted to South America, but ended up setting his sights on Egypt. "I was interested in Egypt, but more in Africa. I realised it was wrong to seek Sudan in Egypt. It was necessary to seek Sudan in Sudan," he said.
He has explored its past since 1965, excavating for about three months a year. "At the time I was told: you are wasting your time, there is nothing in Sudan. Today, no one says that any more."
Kush was one of the earliest civilisations in the Nile valley and, at first, was dominated by Egypt. The Nubians eventually gained their independence and, at the height of their power, they turned the table on Egypt and conquered it in the 8th century BC.
They occupied the entire Nile valley for a century before being forced back into what is now Sudan.
Bonnet peeled away at the old kingdom of Kerma (2500 to 1500 BC) and discovered seven granite statues of the Nubian rulers near the bank of the Nile.
But with archaeologists now interested in the Nile valley in northern Sudan, where the Kushite kingdom flourished between present day Khartoum and the Egyptian border, he still dreams of forgotten kingdoms elsewhere in the country.
"In Kordofan (in central Sudan), I am sure there are enormous sites, kingdoms, to be discovered. In Darfur (west), what happened before the first sultans in the 16th century? And then the Red Sea. There was the mythical country of Punt," he said.
In a country deeply marked by its Islamist government, he says he has not had problems digging deeper into its pre-Islamic past.
"I had discussions with President Omar al-Beshir. He said: you are interested in periods older than Mohammed and Islam. I said yes, 2000 years before. But they are your ancestors," he said.
"He said: all right, if they were our ancestors keep on, continue!"
He has persisted. "I have just discovered a Nubian complex that is contemporary with the 18th Egyptian pharaoh dynasty. It was the time of Akhenaton, Tutenkhamun."
The ancient Egyptians colonised Nubia, but had to accept their limitations. Scarcely a few metres (yards) from a city built by the Egyptians, the Nubians set up flower-shaped temples.
"It's as though one installed a mosque near Notre Dame, it would pose a problem. But the Egyptians had to accept the principle of a religion that developed beside theirs. And that is brilliant, from an historical point of view."