April 13, 2008 / 12:13 AM / 11 years ago

WITNESS: Hunting empire treasures in Sudan market

Andrew Heavens is a reporter and photographer who has worked with Reuters since 2005, first from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and now Khartoum, Sudan. His African career followed 10 years of reporting for newspapers in Britain and the United States. In the following story, he describes a visit to Sudan’s huge and historic Omdurman Market.

Correspondent Andrew Heavens is pictured in front of one of a huddle of "folklore" junk stores in Omdurman April 9, 2008. Omdurman - once the military base of the 'Mahdi', the visionary Islamic leader who defeated Britain's Major-General Charles Gordon in 1885 - is the only place to go if you are digging for muskets and broad-swords and other relics. Its folklore stores are some of Sudan's last repositories of empire memorabilia, a hidden treasure trove largely untapped by collectors. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdalla

By Andrew Heavens

KHARTOUM (Reuters) - The shelves of Mahjoub Mahmoud’s market shop glint with piles of broken watches, coins and dented silver plates.

“See this here. It is very old. It is your king,” he says, holding up a tarnished metal disc. It is actually not my king — it is my grandfather’s king — Great Britain’s King George VI, stamped on the front of a World War Two service medal and mine for an asking price of 100 Sudanese pounds ($50).

It is tempting, but the price is not brilliant and it is not quite what I am looking for.

What I am looking for is treasure: real historical, high-value treasure, hidden in the twisted alleyways and darkened corners of Sudan’s sprawling Omdurman market.

People say you can find anything in Omdurman, if you have the time to look and the constitution to put up with hours of open-air shopping in temperatures topping 47 degrees centigrade (117 Fahrenheit).

“It is like a spider’s web,” said one friend who grew up in the capital Khartoum just half an hour’s drive along the Nile. “There’s a part that I know. But if I wander too far, even I get lost.”

“You can find anything, even from the British time,” says Moumar, an ‘Amjad’ minibus driver, referring to Britain’s on-and-off 66-year control over the country. “You could find a pistol here, a sword there. But you have to look.”

So I have started at Mahmoud’s tiny shop — one of a huddle of “folklore” junk stores that have built a business out of selling Sudanese souvenirs, mixed in with the flotsam and jetsam of British rule.

Omdurman — once the military base of the ‘Mahdi’, the visionary Islamic leader who defeated Britain’s Major-General Charles Gordon in 1885 — is the only place to go if you are digging for muskets and broadswords and other relics.

Its folklore stores are some of Sudan’s last repositories of empire memorabilia, a hidden treasure trove largely untapped by collectors.

“We sell most of our things to foreigners working here with the U.N., or business people looking for souvenirs to take home,” says Mahmoud. “There are very few tourists.”

An exception is Ed Dalziel, a stamp collector from Scotland visiting the market at the end of a camel-trek across the Sudanese desert.

In 20 minutes in another store across the passageway, he uncovered four empire-era stamps, overprinted with Arabic characters soon after independence, and a rare first-day cover.

“There aren’t that many really interesting Sudanese stamps but these are some of them,” he said. “The price I paid was roughly what they were worth. He knew what he was doing.”

Time to venture further afield.


Further down the darkened alleyway, Muhammad Hussein displays silver-plated cutlery, coffee jugs and serving platters. Most are marked with the intertwined letters SGR, the collectible logo of Sudan Government Railways, the British-era lines that still cross Africa’s largest country.

Exciting stuff for a railway enthusiast, but again not quite my thing.

Two streets away, alone in a row of sandal sellers, an unnamed store is piled from floor to ceiling, with no attempt at selection or display.

Postcards sit on top of faded photographs, vintage valve-powered radios, Bakelite phones and two round leather cases carrying reels of projector film.

“Have you got anything older?” I ask. “From General Gordon’s time? From the time of the Mahdi?” Five minutes later, the word has gone round and the doorway is filled with traders holding tarnished swords.

One weapon has an authentically smashed hilt and a blade stamped with the name of a Birmingham steelmaker. “It is more than 1,000 years old ... actually 200 years old,” says the seller. How much? There is a fateful pause as he looks me up and down. “One thousand, six hundred US dollars.”

I finally hit pay dirt in an antique store called Serendipity, close to a line of souvenir stalls that open out into an open-air souk filled with Chinese microwaves and plastic shoes. A few minutes’ search uncovers a working, wind-up gramophone, a shiny brass British railway clock and a black helmet covered with gilt flames, plus other promising bundles.

Slideshow (2 Images)

If only I had just an ounce of historical knowledge to help me separate the gems from the valueless junk! I scrawl down a few notes and head home to do some research.

But not before making a few consolation purchases. A huge blue-and-white French bowl will look good on the bookshelf, a silver SGR visiting-card holder that someone is bound to want on eBay, and a collection of detective stories taken from Khartoum’s British Council library some time in the 1950s.

It includes ‘The Horror at Staveley Grange’ by crime writer Sapper, the pseudonym of H.C. McNeile, and Gilbert Frankau’s ‘Misogyny at Mougins’. They might not be worth anything near the 40 Sudanese pounds I paid (half the asking price). But at least I am guaranteed a good read.

Editing by Sara Ledwith

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