20 April 2014

Two hundred pyramids in Sudan - Meroe's splendor

Did you know that Sudan has more pyramids than Egypt?

It does! 

And you have probably never heard of them because they are impossibly hard to get to and located in a country which has for years been embargoed and closed to the outside world.

How did I manage to spend almost 18 months in Sudan? Thanks to work. 

I got the chance to spend time there on two different ocassions on different years and, although I did not spend most weekends in Khartoum I did get the chance to see the temples and pyramids that can be found in the dessert, hidden and remote.

The pyramids in Meroe are not easy to get to independently. At that time, and I don't expect things to have improved much since, you needed first to get a driver with a 4x4, a GPS, lots of road permits to get through the road controls outside of Khartoum and also pre-purchase tickets to visit each of the temples/pyramids. All of the permits and tickets need to be obtained from the central government in Khartoum. Tickets from the Antiquities Service.

Shadows on the dunes
The GPS system is because the pyramids arein the middle of the dessert and can only be reached by driving across the dunes. So not only do you need the GPS system you also need to know how to use it so that you don't get lost in the vastness of the dessert. 

Bottom line: you need to be a bit of an Indiana Jones to get there.

The only alternative is to go with an organized tour or to book a stay with the Italian Tourism Company which operates the Meroe Permanent Tented camp and can organize the transportation and an itinerary to include Meroe and Karima, the other jewel of Sudanese Nubian history. The camp is only open during the dry months of October to April, outside of these times it is not advisable to go becuse the haboob (sand storms) and the torrential rains hat amde living by the Nile so important to Egyptian civilization make it very dangerous. It is the only accommodation of comfortable standards in the area. If you can't afford that one then the only option is to stay in Shendi at a local house.
Meroe is an ancient city on the east bank of the Nile about 6 km north-east of the Kabushiya station near Shendi approximately 200 km north-east of the capital Khartoum. It was of relevant importance in the Nubian kingdom between the 280 BC and the 300 AC when the Nubians controlled much of Egypt and almost all of today's Sudan down to Khartoum.

There are close to two hundred pyramids in a relatively small area, the ancient burial site of the Merotic Kingdom (sometimes known as the Kingdom of Kush). The Pyramids are smaller than their Egyptian cousins but equally impressive due to their number. The first of the Meroe Pyramids were built about 800 years after the last Egyptian pyramids were completed. The Meroe pyramids were constructed from large blocks of sandstone. They're angled more steeply than the Egyptian pyramids and the Egyptian influce is very clear and their artisans were used to build Meroe's pyramids. The pyramid's steep angles reflect the angle of the sun's rays on Earth.

The tops of the pyramids were blown off by an Italian explorer looking for hiddden treasures in the 1800s.

Meroe complex

Little is being done today to conserve or preserve the pyramids and they are mostly left to the elements. If you visit, have a look at the visitor's book the keeper has and you will see the date of the last visitor to be probably quite long ago. There are no fences preventing entrance and no facilities of any kind, no toilet no shop and no souvenir trap. Just the pyramids and the orange dunes all to yourself, you are not going to see any other tourist even if you spend the whole day there.

Meroe is a sudden illusion, a mirage in the middle of the dessert. When the pyramids appear from nowhere you will be forgibben for thinking the desert is playing a trick on you.

The keeper's son in traditional Sudanese clothes
We jumped off the car into the dunes and the keeper and his son come out to meet us and collect the visitor's permit. They will open the visitor's book, in Arabic, and write your details down. If you speak Arabic you may be allowed to pay a smalll fee to the keeper although officially you are not supposed to. Converse with them to find out more, they are super friendly and photogenic and a living example of Nubian features.

If you are lucky enough to be staying around the area do not miss the sunrise or sunset, the sun and shades of orange of the dessert in that part of the worls are simply unimaginable in all hues from dark brown to light orange, the shadows of the pyramids creating beautiful postcards of what it might have been. Meroe is truly enchanting.

Between two pyramids
As you can see from the photos here is virtually no shade and the sun can be very strong so bring a hat and be prepared to walk on extremely hot sand with closed shoes. Do not wear flip flops or you'll burn your feet.

Have you been to Meroe?

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