Our highlight of Khartoum was the Sufi dervishes who meet on Friday afternoon at the Hamed al Nil tomb. The tomb is dedicated to Sheikh Hamed al Nil, a 19th-century Sufi leader of the Qadiriyah order, and every week his tomb is the site of the dervish’s prayer ceremony. The ceremony is an active religious ritual, not a tourist attraction, where westerners are tolerated but not exactly welcomed. When we were there we saw maybe 10 westerners, in amongst a crowd of around 500 Sudanese Sufi Muslims. The dervishes wear green and red jallabiyas instead of the traditional white, and as the ceremony is held just before sunset it also makes for a great photographic opportunity.
The ceremony starts an hour before sunset when the gathering crowd form a large circle directly in front of the tomb. Music is played with rhythmic beat, and the dervishes begin to chant, clap and dance; increasing in intensity until they have worked themselves up into a frenzy. The purpose of the frenzy is a ritual called the Dhikr, which relies on the recitation of god’s name to help create a state of ecstatic abandon in which the dervish’s heart can communicate directly with god. The chanting goes on for over an hour with the crowd becoming increasingly involved with the chanting and dancing. A man carries a basket of burning incense which the audience take turns to inhale from. Women around us started to ululate loudly whilst rocking back and forward. As the sun sets the dervishes lead the group into the tomb to pray.
What we weren’t told beforehand is that most of the dervishes are on some sort of drug during the ceremony and many of them are mentally ill. This poses some questions as to the morality of photography, which I am able to ignore. That aside, it was an amazing experience, one that you hope to experience during travels to exotic lands, and one that will remain with us forever.