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A Sip from Tattooed Lips” – Lip Tattooing in Northern Sudan

Above, and title photo, detail of an illustration by Griselda El Tayib of a married woman (Wadi Halfa, 1960) wearing the traditional and graceful jarjara robe and carrying her shallow aginde basket on her head. Her lower lip and chin are tattooed a deep indigo.

Regional Folk Costumes of the Sudan, p 39.


“Who would save me from an exile, / that usurped my soul and lent me a false face? / I am craving a sip from tattooed lips; she could unveil her face to me / but would always keep a distance / and remain beyond my reach.” Wedding Parade by Muhammad El-Mahdi El-Magzoub. Modern Sudanese Poetry, p3

Below, Enikö Nagy’s remarkable photographic tribute to Sudanese culture, featuring on the cover, a young Sudanese woman bearing a lower lip tattoo.

This week’s post is the second in a series of brief posts on Sudanese women’s attire and adornments (see The Hagu / Hagoo) The post draws on three accounts of the ancient tradition of lip tattooing in northern Sudan. When I worked in Northern Province in the early 1980s, I knew several women, like the wonderful friend below, who still proudly bore the striking indigo tint of the lip tattoo, though even then the custom was becoming rarer.

Read about an 8th century Sudanese Christian mummy with tattoos:

Tattoos in Ancient Egypt and Sudan – British Museum

The first account is from Marriage Customs in Omdurman, by Sophie Zenkovsky, published in 1945 in Sudan Notes and Records, followed by Anne Cloudsley’s later account of the practice, based on her time in Omdurman in the 1960s -1970s. I conclude with an account recorded in Sudanow Magazine in 2013, where the tone towards both tattooing and scarification is critical and perhaps reveals a shift in attitudes towards the acceptability of this custom.

Writing on lip tattooing in the early 70s, Anne Cloudsley noted that the custom was already dying out:

“This kind of tattooing is never seen in Omdurman on unmarried girls or spinsters. A man would not directly ask his future wife to undertake the dug-al-shaloufa, but would offer a ram, money or perhaps a toub. Then she would know this was what he was asking of her. This was not an invariable practice although it may have been at one time. Tattooing is a custom that is certainly dying out and is seldom used by the young brides of Omdurman today. I knew only one Sudanese woman personally who made arrangements to have it done and she was at least thirty years old. Tattooing was once considered becoming but the young people of Omdurman no longer thought so.” Women of the Shaiqiya told me that tattooing of the lower lip and gum was one of their customs brought to Omdurman when some of them settled there:”

See Photo above and below, used under contract from

See more examples of lip tattooing below:

Elderly Nubian woman pictured below, wearing boja trousers and bearing a tattooed lower lip.

Regional Folk Costumes of the Sudan, p 43.

“Tattooing is a culture brought into the Sudan by the Egyptian gypsies called by the Sudanese as ‘Nagadah and Halab’. This habit has now abated, except among a few tribes that practice it shyly, clinging to the traditions. The women have now opted for the contemporary make-up styles such as the multi-colour rouge.”

Sudan: Aesthetic Heritage, story of scars and beauty

Above, photo of a friend in Northern Province in early 1980s, showing her tattooed lower lip and facial tribal scars.

Below, colonial era photograph of lip tattooing.

See coming posts for more on body scarification

See Photo above used under contract from

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One comment on “” A Sip from Tattooed lips”

  1. simon boyd says:

    Thanks for this interesting, diverting (today), but rather awful description of lip tattooing. Glad that the practice is dying out.



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