With its Nile-side pyramids, hieroglyphics and ancient trading routes, Lyn Hughes finds northern Sudan a mesmerising history lesson but without Egypt's crowds
I’d noticed the camelteer approach, and had braced myself for the hard sell. But, like me, he sat quietly in the shade of the pyramid, gazing at the scene below us. Another 40 or so pyramids dotted the sands, in various states of disrepair: the ancient city of Meroe. It was an extraordinary and wonderful view; Sudan’s greatest tourist attraction – yet there wasn’t a visitor, a hawker or a tour bus in sight.
My silent companion’s phone beeped as he received a text message. My reverie was broken, and I rejoined my group and our guide, Hatim. Together, we had already travelled 200km from the capital, Khartoum, on the first leg of a tour through northern Sudan. Our convoy of Land Cruisers (the modern-day ships of the desert) had spent a long day driving east to Meroe, giving us our first view of the famous pyramids at sunset, rising from the desert like a bad set of molars.
Now Hatim led us into a small chapel attached to a pyramid. Sudan’s pyramids are smaller than Egypt’s and of a different construction. Inside there is nothing but rubble; beneath this are the burial chambers, accessed by stairs. A funerary chapel on the east side of each pyramid allowed worshippers to pray and to make offerings.
This particular pyramid belonged to a queen. On one side of the chapel there is an image of her alive, and on the other wall, an image of her in the afterlife. In both, she is depicted with distinctly African features and build; very different from the gods drawn with more familiar Egyptian features.
It’s not widely known that Sudan has more pyramids than Egypt. This area of northern Sudan was home to the ancient civilization of Kush, a powerful trading culture with strong links and rivalries with the better-known pharaohs to the north. For thousands of years, power ebbed and flowed along the Nile between Kush and Egypt, through the region known as Nubia. Countless pyramids remain as legacies of successive kingdoms. There are nearly one hundred here at Meroe alone, the oldest dating back to the 8th century BC, although the area’s heyday was from the 3rd century BC to 3rd century AD.
French mineralogist Frédéric Cailliaud brought the pyramids to the attention of the world in 1821, and sparked a graffiti trend by carving his name in the stone. 19th-century politician Arthur Holroyd followed suit (“We’ll see him at every site!” promised Hatim), but the sorry state of the Meroe pyramids is primarily due to an Italian adventurer called Guiseppe Ferlini who visited in 1834. He had a licence to excavate, but was really a treasure-seeker. He decapitated the pyramids in search of bounty and, finding nothing, then dug down into the burial chambers. In Queen Amanishakheto’s pyramid he found a rich hoard of jewellery (now in a Berlin museum), but little else.
Exploring the second group of pyramids, our guide was a mine of knowledge, expounding on everything from the meaning of the chapel decorations to the role of the Fibonacci number sequence in pyramid construction. It transpired Hatim was an archaeologist himself, with two degrees from Khartoum University. But as he constantly reiterated in regard to Nubia’s long and complex past: “We don’t understand the details.” It was to become a familiar admission over the next few days.
From Khartoum, our first stop had been at the mysterious site known as Musawwarat es Sufra. Surrounded by sandstone tabletop hills, this now crumbling complex of temples and columns dates back to around 224BC. Theories about its function abound, the most popular being that it was an elephant breeding and training site. Elephants were once used in warfare, the site appears to be dedicated to the elephant god, and their images abound. But once again Hatim confessed a blank. “We never know the facts; we can only guess.”
Leaving Meroe, we crossed the Nile and entered the Bayuda d esert, an area bounded by a loop in the Nile. The fertile strip of land bordering the Nile gave way to bright sand, but that was quickly left behind as weexited the sealed road and entered a harsh landscape of gravel plains. Dust devils and mirages added to the other-worldliness of the landscape.
We stopped by some circular Neolithic burial chambers dating back to 4,500 BC, and tried to imagine the bodies buried foetal-style. This would have been a fertile wadi once, with wildlife and people coexisting.
Indeed, Sudan was a much greener place until fairly recently; early 19th century reports comment on the wild animals.
It was hard to imagine that anyone could live in this desolate area now, but the proof was soon before us. We walked up a volcanic cone and found ourselves looking down onto a salt-water lake in its crater. A pastoral nomadic tribe – the Hassania – mine the mineral-salt-rich soil here, filling plastic bags for market, where the soil is sold as a cure for stomach and skin diseases.
We were wilting in the heat: it was 52 ° C. But the welcome from the children and women who came over to shake our hands was even warmer. We stopped at a family home – they would have been nomads once, but now stay here year-round, with a few camels and goats, so the children can go to school. Hatim had brought a school uniform for one of the daughters of the family, and her face lit up at the sight of it.
Setting off again, we eventually hit the sealed road, and passed through a bleak landscape, close to the controversial Merowe dam, built on the Fourth Cataract of the Nile.
Our spirits lifted, though, when we spotted the impressive shape of Jebel Barkal, the table-top mountain that both Egyptians and Kushites believed was the home of the ram-headed king of gods, Amun. A pinnacle sits at one end of it, and this was believed to represent a rearing cobra, a symbol of royalty in Egypt, and an object of reverence.
The Egyptian king, Thutmose III, built a temple to Amun here in the 15th century BC and other kings, including Rameses II, visited and expanded the site. The temple was destroyed and rebuilt over the centuries, and today there is little left, but walking around it, my feet crunched on shards of pottery – former offering-pots that possibly dated back to 2,000 BC. “There are millions of these fragments around,” remarked Hatim. “This was the rubbish dump of the site.”
Later, Egypt’s influence waned and the power balance changed. “For more than a thousand years the second Kushite Kingdom flourished in northern Sudan, and for a brief period its kings – the so-called Black Pharaohs – ruled Egypt,” Hatim told us. “This was Napata, their capital.”
Egyptian vultures soared overhead as we walked around the base of Jebel Barkal. At one point, we were surprised to discover a weathered door in the rockface, which opened to reveal the remains of a temple dedicated to the goddess Mut. Reliefs depict Mut and her husband Amun, with one showing Mut giving the gift of life to the greatest of the Black Pharoahs, Taharqa. Back outside, we used binoculars to spot the hieroglyphics at the top of the pinnacle, proclaiming his campaigns against Kush’s enemies.
Taharqa was buried a few kilometres away in Nuri, on the western side of the Nile, and within sight of Jebel Barkal. There were 73 pyramids here, but many of them were destroyed or buried by humidity and sand. Today, it’s a haunting spot, with drifting sands piled high against the sides of the remaining pyramids.
Returning to Jebel Barkal at sunset, having had the place to ourselves earlier in the day, it was a surprise to see it covered in dozens of figures. As we got closer, we could see they were people, either standing on the plateau to watch the sun go down, or skidding and sliding down the steep sand slope on one side of it. This was a Friday, when the mountain becomes a popular form of entertainment for the Sudanese.
We spent three nights in the shadow of Jebel Barkal, based in the lovely, Italian-owned Nubian Rest House in the town of Karima. We explored one ancient site after another, but it wasn’t all history and archaeology. One day, we took a trip on the Nile in a simple motor launch. There was no other traffic on the river as we passed banks of luxuriant foliage, with just the occasional monitor lizard or heron impassively watching us chug by. African skimmers flew low over the river, their long lower mandibles skimming the water for fish.
A flock of 50 storks wheeled overhead, some descending onto a shallow lagoon. The only people we spotted in the two-hour journey were a family watering their donkeys. It was a scene unchanged for millennia.
Leaving Karima in our Land Cruiser convoy, we crossed the desert again, while the Nile did another loop. We met it again at the Third Cataract, reputed to be one of the most beautiful spots on the Nile, and thankfully now saved from a proposed dam.
We crossed by ferry to the west bank, and headed north. It was that golden period before sunset as we saw a cloud of dust ahead. As we got closer it revealed itself to be a herd of camels, or rather two herds, 100-strong each, being driven by Messeriya herders from Darfur. We’d hit the Forty Days Road, a former trade route for slaves, ivory and rhino horns heading north.
Today, tens of thousands of camels are still taken along the historic, if slightly modified, route, bound for Cairo. They are always kept in a group of 100, known as a debouka. Some die en route, in which case the herder will cut off its brand to prove to the owner that it died. As we continued along the broad track we saw occasional carcasses in various stages of decomposition, and came across group after group of camels; nine deboukas in total.
Here, it felt like we really were in the heart of Nubia, the ethnic homeland that traverses southern Egypt and northern Sudan. The Nubians have their own language, and a very strong cultural identity. Cars are rare, with donkeys still the main form of transport.
We would be waved at as we drove past, and children would rush up whenever we made eye contact with them. The women were often in colourful clothing, and some had traditional scarring on their faces.
Although the Nubians are now Muslim, many of their traditions hark back to the ancient days, even pre-dating the kingdom of Kush. For instance, people are laid out on beds for three days when they die, in a tradition that harks back to the Kingdom of Kerma, one of Africa’s earliest civilisations.
It is believed that Kerma was occupied by Stone Age man as much as one million years ago. A settlement grew up here in around 3,500 BC, which later developed into a powerful city. The area has been excavated over the last 30 or so years by Swiss archaeologist Charles Bonnet, and a museum has been built. It contains seven statues of Kushite Kings, discovered in fragments by Bonnet in 2003. These were the famous Black Pharoah statues that I had seen in news stories. Now restored, they stand in a group together, the mighty Taharqa amongst them.
Another surprise awaited outside, where a large mud brick building stood. Known as a deffufa, its original use is not understood. It has columns with marble bases – not a local material – while the roof has a platform, which may have held a shrine. What is known is that, in terms of antiquity, it is the largest – and possibly oldest – building in sub-Saharan Africa.
It was a final revelation in a mind-blowing trip. We had seen stunning landscapes. We had come across extraordinary ancient sites and been exposed to layer upon layer of history. And in the whole ten days we had seen three other tourists.
Every trip has its perfect moment. For me it was in that hour before sunset, when the light is soft. Out in the Nubian Desert, we had looked for a spot to camp and had pulled up below a rocky outcrop. I headed up over the crag and into a natural bowl with a view that stretched to a hazy horizon.
The sand here was fine, like powder, and there were no other tracks but mine. There were no sounds, no movements, no signs of life. Yet it was inevitable that this had once been a lookout for other people too. Wild animals would have prowled what was once savannah. Armies, maybe led by Taharqa himself, might have passed this way. Later, caravans of ivory-burdened camels could have trodden this route. What tales still lay buried below those shimmering sands?
The author travelled with Explore on its Ancient Nubia Explorer trip