The Lost Memorial of Gebeit

Forgotten in the remote village of Gebeit in Northern Sudan, at the very fringes of the Sahara Desert, rests an extraordinary secret, lost from the history books for over 60 years. Little did I know, what would initially begin as an unlikely journey to locate a missing Army monument, would result in one of the most remarkable rediscoveries of Britain’s colonial past…………. The lost memorial of Gebeit!

The journey began in Khartoum, Sudan’s Capital city, where I happened to be working at the time.  It was at the very height of summer and temperatures were routinely exceeding 45 degrees in the shade.  The only respite from the baking heat was the occasional sandstorm that would engulf the city in an ominous, almost Martian-like dust cloud.  Even then, the sand would get everywhere!

One morning, as I sat at my desk in the British Embassy, trying to make the most of the lukewarm breeze coming from the rickety air-conditioning unit in the corner, I was handed an inquiry from a researcher at Loughborough War Museum.  It read; “I’m trying to confirm the existence of a British Army Memorial, built by the last serving unit in Sudan before the country gained independence in 1956.”  Attached was an old black and white photograph with a faded description; Plinth erected at Gebeit to commemorate the last troops to serve in the Sudan”.

Original photograph taken on the outskirts of Gebeit, 1956

From what I knew, Gebeit was once a thriving Army staging post during the time of British-Egyptian rule over the country between 1899 and 1956.  Following the withdrawal of the British Army, the area became a secluded village community and is now also home to a small contingent of the Sudanese Army.  However, being nestled in the rocky escarpments of the Red Sea Hills in northeast Sudan, it also happens to be some 1000 kilometres from where I was working in Khartoum.

Unfortunately, the country has grown increasingly reticent in recent years, in part due to its ongoing troubles in Darfur and the extensive international criticism of its current President for alleged war crimes.  As a result, the Sudanese Armed Forces and its internal security agencies are highly suspicious of outsiders.  Travelling around the country will often attract unnecessary attention and may result in extensive questioning at roadside checkpoints if found to be travelling without the correct paperwork.  This makes exploring Sudan particularly challenging, with the Government further limiting access to the country to just a few intrepid visitors each year.  It’s therefore no surprise why so few people know about the hidden secrets of Sudan and its spectacular treasures.

Given Gebeit’s relative remoteness, coupled with the amount of red tape involved in trying to get close to the area, to then try and search for a small memorial in an area spanning some 30 square kilometres seemed like an impossible task.  What’s more, such a journey would require several days of driving across vast areas of the Sahara Desert during the very height of summer.  Not particularly ideal conditions!

However, as fate would have it, I was required to travel to the north of the country the following week; a journey that would take me close to the area of Gebeit.  It seemed like luck was on my side.  But with such little information to go on, the chances of finding the lost memorial still seemed extremely slim.  The pyramidal-shaped structure, built to mark the departure of the British Army from Sudan in 1956, had not been seen for over 60 years, with its exact location having never been recorded.

Satellite Imagery of the hillside effigies at Gebeit, Sudan

Turning to satellite imagery, a quick study of the surrounding area around Gebeit revealed some very odd looking images on a nearby rocky hillside.  On closer inspection, a number of the blurry effigies seemed to resemble old military insignia.  Further research failed to reveal any more information about the area, its hillside images nor any possible locations of the lost memorial.  There was no other option – If I wanted to find the memorial, I would need to start the search from scratch in Gebeit itself.  The challenge was on……..

Leaving Khartoum, the road heads north along the River Nile and into the Sahara Desert proper.  The route takes in a number of spectacular and rarely visited archaeological sites along the way. Most notable are the Pyramids of Meroë; one of several extraordinary UNESCO world heritage sites Sudan has to offer.  You might also be surprised to learn that Sudan has over 250 ancient pyramids – more than double that of its neighbouring country; Egypt.  Although significantly smaller in size than the pyramids of Giza, Sudan’s pyramids are no less impressive.  You can read about the spectacular wonders of Sudan in my article here.

The Kushite Pyramids of Meroe Sudan

After several long days on the road, having travelled through some truly inhospitable and desolate areas of the Sahara Desert, the last few kilometres were navigated off-road. So not to raise any suspicion from Sudanese Army detachment stationed nearby, our aim was to reach a discreet point in the rocky foothills at the very edge of Gebeit, well out of view! While a search for the lost memorial would have been a completely innocent act, to be caught in a militarised area with a camera would have likely resulted in detention and interrogation.

After a short drive, I found myself at the base of the rocky hillside where I had previously identified the blurry effigies on satellite imagery.  At first glance, it was hard to make out anything against the scorched rock face.  But after a minute or so, my eyes began to adjust to the terrain.  What I saw in front of me was one of the most awesome and unexpected sights I have ever seen.  Towering some 200ft above me was what I can only describe as 130-year-old Squaddie graffiti but on a totally epic scale.  As I edged backwards to take in more of the landscape, I began to make out even more of what was instantly recognisable as military insignia.  In total there were 18 massive images covering an area roughly 2 kilometres in length across the face of the hillsides. 

Gebeit hillside effigies of the South Lancashire Regiment (1851-1853) and Coldstream Guards (1885-1932) along with two unidentified Sudanese insignia

On closer inspection, the incredibly detailed images were made from piles of different coloured rocks from the surrounding foothills.  From my own limited knowledge of historic regimental cap badges, some insignia were more recognisable than others.  I spent the next couple hours photographing and documenting each image; recording its approximate size, location and making a note of any visible dates or writing.

The Gebeit hillside effigies of the Green Howards, West Yorkshire Regiment, Kings Own Royal Regiment

Gebeit hillside effigy of the Royal Fusiliers - City of London Regiment (1934-1955)
Gebeit hillside effigy of the York and Lancaster Regiment

While photographing the final image, I stumbled across what seemed to be a long concrete base in the sand, containing several circular holes about the size of my fist.  Taking a look around me in the direction of the military base, I quickly realised I was standing right in the middle of the target area of a live-firing range – with the surrounding hillsides forming the bullet catchment area!  Although the range was not in use that day [thankfully], I thought it wise to make a swift exit!

Gebeit Hillside effigies of the Kings Own Royal Regiment and Royal Irish Fusiliers forming the backdrop to the Sudanese live firing range

Heading down to the village of Gebeit, and giving the Sudanese Army base a wide berth, I began to ask around to see if anyone knew the location of the missing memorial, only to be met by total blankness.  Having been directed to one of the local elders, who I guessed was at least as old as the memorial itself, I showed him the picture I had been sent from the War Museum.  Much to my [and his] confusion, he could not recall ever having seen a monument near Gebeit.  He could only suggest that it may have been dismantled or destroyed following the withdrawal of the British in 1956.

Undeterred, I continued to search around the outskirts of the village for several hours before finally admitting defeat.  I could only guess the old man was right and the memorial had been destroyed.  That evening, feeling slightly deflated, I went back to studying the satellite imagery.  If I had been the last troops to leave Gebeit, where would I have built a memorial?  What access routes might have existed 60 years ago that don’t exist today?  I narrowed the search area down to just a small handful of possible sites; they were certainly long-shots at best.

Returning to Gebeit the following day, I began to methodically work through the refined list of potential locations.  After two hours of hopelessly running up nearby hilltops in the midday heat, my hopes of ever finding the memorial had faded.  There was just one final rocky mound left to check on the drive out of Gebeit before the long journey back to Khartoum.  Located in the middle of wadi-ridden scrubland, it was probably the most unlikely of all the potential sites I had come up with.

Remains of the Lost Memorial of GebeitAs I plodded up the 80 or so feet to the top of the mound, I began to see an odd looking pile of rocks on its summit.  As I reached the top, to my total amazement, there, on top of the most unlikely of rocky outcrops, were the crumbled remains of the missing memorial!  As my excitement grew, so did the grin on my face.  I had finally found the Lost Memorial of Gebeit, missing for over 60 years!

Unfortunately, the joy was short-lived and was quickly replaced by a degree of sadness.  As the village elder had suggested, the memorial had indeed been destroyed.  Only the bottom few courses of rock remained of the three-sided pyramid-shaped monument.  From the amount of discarded brass ammunition cases I could see, and several obvious mortar impact craters around the mound, I guessed the memorial had at some stage been used as target practice by the Sudanese Army.  I spent my final half an hour taking photographs and recording the memorial’s exact location, before heading back down to the car.

Trying to recreate the original 1956 photograph taken at Gebeit on the departure of the last British troops to leave Sudan

The journey home certainly felt bittersweet; I would have loved to have discovered the memorial still intact.  However, it wasn’t long before the same grin began to reappear on my face.  What an incredible adventure it had been.  Not only had I been lucky enough to find the Lost Memorial of Gebeit, and be the first person to document the remarkable hillside images, but I also had the opportunity to experience the very best that Sudan had to offer in the process.  Whether it’s the country’s diverse population, the fertile banks of the River Nile or any one of its truly spectacular UNESCO world heritage sites, Sudan has got to be one of the most amazing countries I’ve ever had the privilege to visit.

Driving through the inhospitable Sahara Desert


Satellite imagery of the hillside effigies at Gebeit

Gebeit Hillside Effigies Sudan

From left to right:

Box 1: Royal Indian Army Service Corps (RIASC), Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment). 

Main Hillside: Unidentified Sudanese Effigy, South Lancashire Regiment, Coldstream Guards, Unidentified Sudanese Effigy, The Green Howards, West Yorkshire Regiment, Kings Own Royal Regiment, The Royal Irish Fusiliers, Unidentified Sudanese Effigy, The Rifles Brigade, Unidentified Sudanese Effigy, Unidentified Sudanese Effigy, Unidentified Sudanese Effigy, Unidentified Sudanese Effigy, Unidentified Sudanese Effigy,

Box 2: York and Lancaster Regiment.

3 Responses to “The Lost Memorial of Gebeit

  • Stafaine
    5 months ago

    Woow, this looks really amazing,
    This is really on my have to do list before i get into my 40’s

    Keep posting,
    Kind regards
    Stefanie

  • E. Davies
    4 months ago

    I remember seeing these cap badges on the hillside. My father served with the Royal Leicestershire Regt., the last British regiment to serve in Sudan. I was only fourteen at the time and we saw the badges from the train on the way to Khartoum from Port Sudan. I was so pleased to know that the badges are still there. I knew that the plinth had been used for target practice and only the base remained.
    We lived in the grounds of Pink Palace and although it was a long time ago, I still have clear memories of there.

    • I’m so glad I could bring back some fond memories for you. It certainly was a spectacular sight to see. Very different back then I imagine. Thanks for sharing your experience.
      David

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