People and Society
Demographically too there exists a broad distinction between the northern and southern parts of the Sudan. Ethnicity is difficult to trace outright in the modern Sudan due to generations of intermarriage between various indigenous and immigrant groups. Although broad groupings are sometimes used – for example, Hamitic, Nilotic, Negroid, and Arab – the definition of these terms with reference to the actual Sudanese is very hard to establish.
None the less, the northern parts of the country appear at first glance to be ‘Arabicized’ in terms of cultural outlook, and the inhabitants are usually Arabic speakers, with a number of important exceptions, such as the Nubians in the north and the Beja people in the east. Northern Sudanese are almost wholly Muslim (though again there are exceptions, such as the enclave in the Nuba Mountains where Christianity and traditional African religions are practiced).
In contrast, the south contains the great majority of the 570-plus recorded Sudanese tribes; very few, if any, of these people are Muslim or claim Arab descent, and although the south has seen some degree of Arabicization and Islamicization, the process was restrained during the condominium period, when western missionaries effected a limited Christianization of the region as part of the ‘Southern Policy’.
Thus ethnically and culturally, as well as socially, economically and geographically, the Sudan is a diverse mixture – so much so, that some authors have been inclined to see it as a microcosm of Africa, typifying many of the central characteristics of Africa as a whole. Consequently, the simplistic conclusion of categorizing Sudanese into northern Arabs and southern Negroes or Nilotes, to which many authors render lip-service, is a misrepresentation that should be treated with caution.
Despite this diversity, or possibly even as a result of it, the Sudan has always possessed a distinct cultural history and unity, even though the boundaries of the Sudan as a country in former times might not match those of the present-day nation. Social, political, and economic intercourse with its various neighbours has traditionally bred in Sudan a specifically Sudanese identity, evident, if nowhere else, in the cohabitation of various strands of influence derived from the Mediterranean and African spheres in an historical and political context.
Its most important neighbor has always been Egypt, due largely to the domination of the area by the Nile. As a means of communication and trade, its role is unparalled in the region, and because of this, the northern riverian areas of the Sudan have usually been entwined quite closely with the lands to the north. Ever since the dawn of civilization, starting with the Egyptian conquest of the northern parts of the Sudan during the Middle Kingdom in 2000 BC, the paths of the two countries have been closely linked.
But indigenous Sudanese traditions have always been identifiable, even from the earliest times. From the beginnings of the ‘classical’ African Kushite civilization, and the kingdom of Meroe around 590 BC, the Sudan has always manifested a diverse range of indigenous cultures and a distinct heritage of its own. Both the richness and diversity of these cultures owe a great deal to the geography and demography of the area.