Although many parts of Sudan are currently unsafe for travel, some areas are secure and worth a visit. The clear waters and coral reefs of the Red Sea provide one of the world's greatest sites for snorkeling and scuba diving. Khartoum, Sudan's capital, is a modern city along the Nile and with enough amenities to keep travelers comfortable. North of Khartoum, several archaeological sites, including the royal burying ground of the ancient city of Meroe, boast towering pyramids and spectacular views across the Nile.
In ancient times, when Sudan was known as Nubia, several Kushite kingdoms developed and competed with pharonic Egypt. As Islam swept across northern Africa in the 600s, Arabs conquered Nubia and established a slave-trading civilization. Egypt conquered Sudan in the 1820s, but was nearly thrown out of the country 50 years later by the army of the Mahdi, a Muslim revivalist and revolutionary. To retain control, Egypt yielded most of its authority to the British. By independence in 1956, Britain had consolidated the previously separate regions of north and south Sudan, leaving northerners with the lion's share of the power. A war between the Muslim north and the Christian and animist south tore the country apart nearly immediately after independence. The war subsided in 1972, but started up again in 1983 and raged continuously until an agreement in 2003. A national power sharing government took office in 2005, but the death of newly-installed Vice President John Garang, leader of the southern opposition, has put increased pressure on the already tenuous peace between north and south. In 2003, the government-supported Arab Janjaweed militias began an ongoing campaign against black Africans in the Darfur region of western Sudan. An African Union peacekeeping force and numerous ceasefires have not managed to stem the violence. Some two million people have been displaced as a result of the conflict in Darfur. Eastern Sudan has not been spared from conflict and instability, as clashes broke out in 2005 between the government and rebel groups.
Arabic is the most widely spoken of Sudan's more than 400 languages, although English is also used as a lingua franca in some places. Among Sudan's 39 million people, about 39 percent are Arab, 52 percent black African and six percent Beja - a nomadic African group. About 70 percent of Sudanese are Muslims, who live mainly in the northern two-thirds of the country, while the 25 percent who practice indigenous religions and the 5 percent who are Christians are concentrated in the south. Islamic law is in force in the northern states. Many of Sudan's peoples practice nomadic lifestyles, and the majority live in rural areas. Khartoum is the largest city, followed by its suburb Omdurman and Port Sudan, a bustling transit point for the Red Sea trade.
Visitors to Sudan should check the most recent travel advisories before venturing anywhere outside Khartoum. Several international airlines land in Khartoum, Port Sudan, and Dongola. Many of Sudan's land borders are closed or unsafe, but travelers can arrive overland from Egypt, or via ferry from Egypt or Saudi Arabia. Within the country, Sudan Airways flies to most large towns, and luxury buses drive regularly to the major northern cities. Trucks and makeshift buses provide access to other areas where roads may not be maintained, as infrastructure is highly undeveloped outside Khartoum.
While travel to Sudan is discouraged until political conditions change, visitors who find themselves in the north will not lack things to do. The historic city of Omdurman is the site of the country's largest souk (market), an interesting destination to spend an afternoon, particularly when paired with the nearby camel market. Port Sudan is a popular base for some of the most breathtaking scuba diving in the Red Sea. The archaeological sites that dot northern Sudan are off the beaten path and often difficult to reach, but that may be a draw for more adventurous travelers.