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A Door To The Sudan: Nubia’s Colourful Welcome
The ride from Wadi Halfa to Khartoum is quite stunning. The vast landscape opens up in all directions – endless desert interrupted every now and then by the Nile River, its waters bordered by swaying palm trees and dotted with friendly villages. This area is Nubia, once known as the legendary Kingdom of Kush, and is home to the Nubian people. They have a distinctive culture, language and architecture. Cyclists pedalling into a small town after riding through the monochrome desert will be delighted by the colourful homes made of mud brick that line the streets, especially by their elaborately decorated doorways.
“Even more distinctive than the floor plan of a Nubian house is the decoration of its exterior doorway, or bawaba, which mixes vivid colour, adobe brick filigree, figurative and geometric images in mud and white lime-plaster relief, and wall-mounted objects like ceramic plates, automobile headlights, mirrors, cow horns and dried crocodiles. While the full range of these decorative materials has shrunk in recent years, the impulse to draw attention to one’s home, and to its doorway as a symbol of the family, remains strong.” – The Decorated Houses of Nubia
Prior to the 1920’s the entranceways were decorated with geometric patterns and objects like clay plates. Some believe that these designs were created to ward off the evil eye or to reflect the nature of the journey to Mecca for the Haj or reflected ancient Nubian traditions. For example, in The Decorated Houses of Nubia, the authors write, “Abdallah Salih Suleiman, age 75, lives in such a house near Kerma. He was born on Badeen Island in mid-channel and remembers his old home’s outer wall adorned with a white lime-plaster image of a lion holding a sword, surrounded by sunbursts. “Whenever a child in the family lost a tooth, he would throw it at the wall, and where it struck, in that place we would then paint a sunburst as a wish for a new tooth. Our doorway also had a plaster cattle egret, which we call here sadeeq al-mazreeq, or friend of the fields, because it is always a welcome guest.” Egrets eat insect pests and make the farmer’s job that much easier.”
The doors face south to avoid the winter’s cold north wind or face the Nile to benefit from the cool summer breezes. Up until the early 20th century, only yellow and red pigments were available and the doors were made of wood. Outside influences were starting to be felt however. One article points out that, “Huntley & Palmers brand tea-biscuit tins, imported into Sudan from the famous Reading firm from the 1880’s onward, were decorated with images of flowers and Art Deco geometrics; those later ended up as standard design motifs on the walls of houses. The tins were ubiquitous throughout the country by the turn of the 20th century.” By the 1920’s artificial colours allowed for a much wider palette of colours and the wooden doors were slowly replaced by more durable metal ones.
The Tour d’Afrique provides its riders with any number of memorable moments but pulling into a small Nubian village with its simple, welcoming and colourful architecture after a long, hot day in the saddle is certainly one that will be remembered for a very long time. Now, if you could just get a cold beer…
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