The Qatari princess, Angelina Jolie and the battle of the pyramids

Qatari princess Shiekha Moza'sImage copyright AR Al Baker
Image caption Princess Sheikha Moza bint Nasser’s visit to Sudan did not go down well in Egypt

Reports that Hollywood star Angeline Jolie is planning to make a movie about Sudan’s history have sparked a row with Egypt, and BBC Africa’s Mohanad Hashim says it is about much more than who has the biggest pyramids.

The latest twist in a long-running feud between Egyptians and Sudanese is over controversial claims that a film is to be made in Sudan to showcase the country’s contribution to human civilization.

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Various media have reported that a Qatari production company would fund the film, which would apparently feature Hollywood stars Angelina Jolie and Leonardo Di Caprio.

It is meant to promote historical tourism in Sudan by narrating the country’s ancient Nubian history.

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Image copyright Al-Quds Al-Arabi
Image caption “Angelina Jolie to visit Sudan at the end of the month and Khartoum is the last to know”

The claims were so widespread that even the British ambassador to Sudan was caught up in the fray, tweeting on the story:

Image copyright Twitter/ Michael Aron

Sudanese tweeters published memes showing Jolie depicted as a Nubian queen and shared reports of press conferences confirming the Hollywood star and UN ambassador would visit the country in May to scout the film’s locations.

Image copyright Nady Shababalsudan

An Egyptian TV channel even interviewed Sudanese designer Samar Darwish who was reported to be the costume designer for Jolie.

However, none of this has been confirmed.

A princess desert tour sparks controversy

The row kicked off in March, when the wife of the former Qatari Emir, Princess Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, visited Sudan as a United Nations ambassador.

Image copyright AR Al Baker
Image caption Egyptians were unhappy with the princess’ description of Sudan as the “mother of the world”
Image copyright AR Al Baker
Image caption An Egyptian talk-show host said Sudan’s pyramids were like cheese triangles

Photos of Shiekha Moza’s visit to the al-Bajrawyah pyramids, a site that houses several Meroitic pyramids that date from 320 BC – 50 AD, were widely publicised by Qatari-owned Pan-Arab networks. The pictures were widely circulated on social media too.

But across Egypt’s TV networks, the visit was ridiculed and criticised.

Qatar’s move to invest $135m (£100m) in projects to develop Sudan’s archaeological sites is seen by many in Cairo as an attempt to undermine the struggling tourism sector in Egypt and part of ongoing efforts by the Gulf emirate to discredit Egypt and its leadership.

Pyramid size matters?

Reacting to the pictures of the princess by the Sudanese pyramids, Azmi Mujahid, a talk-show host on Egyptian Al-Assema TV mocked the Sudanese pyramids.

“All the world’s stars have had their pictures taken by the [Giza] Pyramid but Sheikha Moza had a picture next to two [cheese triangles] in Sudan,” he said.

The barrage of ridicule aimed at the size of the Sudanese pyramids made the Sudanese minister of information weigh in.

Ahmed Osman said: “Sudan’s pyramids were older than Egypt’s by 2,000 years”, a claim disputed by archaeologists.

Other Sudanese were quick to point out that their country has a much larger collection of pyramids – 230 in total.

Egyptians vexed: Sudan the ‘mother of the world’

Egyptians have always prided themselves in claiming that “Egypt is the mother of the world”.

Any visitor to Egypt would recognize the claim made and perpetuated by the official and popular narrative that Egypt is a “7,000-year-old civilization”.

This is why a hand-written note written by the Qatari princess that Sudan was the “mother of the world” fell foul of Egyptian commentators and social media users.

Ketchup ban

This war of words between the two neighbours shows increasing tension over conflicting positions on issues such as:

  • the Nile waters
  • the chaos in Libya, which borders both countries
  • ties with Arab Gulf states
  • Sudan’s links with Islamists

Recently, President Omar al-Bashir accused Egypt of “stabbing his country in the back when it occupied” Sudanese territory in the mid-1990s.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Sudan’s President Bashir has accused Egypt of “stabbing it in the back”

He was referring to the disputed Halayib triangle, a coastal area on the Red Sea between Sudan and Egypt, which both countries claim.

After the row sparked by Shiekha Moza’s visit, many Facebook pages sprang up in Sudan, calling for a boycott of Egyptian products, especially fruit and vegetables, claiming they were contaminated by raw sewage.

Since March, the Sudanese ministry of trade has suspended imports of several items, including ketchup, tomato and fish.

Khartoum’s measures follow similar measures taken in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Some in Sudan have called for travel restrictions to be imposed on Egyptians.

Although officials from both countries have downplayed the row in public and emphasised the historic ties between the two peoples, Sudan has imposed visa fees on Egyptian men.

Why is Egypt angry?

Cairo is nervous about Khartoum’s position on various issues.

First is Sudan’s close ties with Ethiopia, where the newly constructed Millennium Dam could reduce Egypt’s share of the Nile waters, which Egypt’s rulers have long considered its biggest existential threat.

Image caption The River Nile is central to Egypt’s identity

The second matter is Sudan’s ties with Egyptian Islamists and their Qatari backers.

Qatar backs Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which was banned by President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi after he deposed the Brotherhood’s Muhammad Mursi as president in 2013.

Why are the Sudanese so touchy?

Egyptians often depict Sudan as Egypt’s southern province, with Egyptians often recounting that both countries were one during the British colonial presence in the Nile Valley.

Sudanese have long complained about racist sentiments displayed by Egyptian commentators ridiculing their country and government.

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One reaction to the ongoing row has been the launching of the hashtag #KnowSudan and its Arabic translation in an effort by the Sudanese to raise awareness of their country and its heritage.

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