The Sudan gets a lot of bad press. But this country also boasts wonderful pyramids – even more than those found in Egypt. Stephanie Nieuwoudt visited one of the sites.
As the wind whipped my skirt around my thighs, the sand stuck to my face because of the heat induced perspiration. But I did not care. I was standing on a red sand dune at Meroë, ancient burial grounds of around forty kings and queens of the Meroitic kingdom.
Holy ground indeed.
In his book, Dark Star Safari, Paul Theroux describes camping under the stars at the foot of the burial place of the ancient Meroitic royals that ruled the area between 300 BC and 300 AD. Theroux conjures a romantic setting of a night spent in the open with only the canvas of a little tent between him and the surrounding desert.
Maybe it is because of the remoteness and stillness of the surrounding desert that one comes so strongly under the impression of sacred rituals enacted here hundreds of years ago.
In literature about these pyramids, much is made about the fact that they are smaller than the ones found in Egypt. But what makes this site special is the number of pyramids rising from the desert floor. More than fifty of these structures dot the landscape in two different ancient burial places. The North Cemetery contains 44 pyramids while there are more than ten in the South Cemetery.
Being one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt is on most travellers’ list of things to see and tourists abound. In contrast Sudan is not yet on any well-trodden tourist route. A protracted civil war in the south of the country has kept tourists away. And although international captains of commerce are increasingly investing in the Sudan, it seems unlikely that the country will soon be bustling with tourist activity given that it is for all practical purposes still a police state governed by strict Muslim laws which prevent the erection of nightclubs, movie theatres and other forms of entertainment which attract tourists.
The upside is that on a blisteringly hot Saturday there were only six visitors at Meroë as well as Ali the caretaker, a few camel riders and a handful of locals selling artefacts.
The Meroë site, about a three hour car journey from the capital Khartoum, is one of several burial sites found in the Sudan. There are royal pyramids at El-Kurru, Nuri Jebel and Barkal. But these sites are far from Khartoum and can not be reached as part of a day excursion.
The Meroë pyramids are younger than the royal pyramids at El-Kurru a city in the ancient kingdom of Napata, which was built by Piye – also known as Piankhy – (747 BC to 716 BC), son of Kashta, ruler of Napata. Piye famously conquered Egypt and became one of a long list of Pharaohs.
This cross-cultural influence can be seen in the basic shape of the pyramids as well as the scenes depicted in the relief work on the inside walls of the structures.
In 591 BC the Napata dynasty was conquered by Egypt and the capital of Kush (the ancient name given to a region which included a part of Northern Sudan and Southern Egypt) eventually moved to Meroë which by 330 BC was a flourishing economic centre.
The ancients grew crops and traded food and livestock with other people nomadic and otherwise. Historians believe that the ancient city of Meroë was much more fertile than it is today. The once thriving city is situated on the east bank of the Nile but throughout the centuries conditions have turned the landscape into a desert area. The Meroë pyramids are therefore today situated on red sand.
Ali, who is not only caretaker but also self-appointed guide of the site at Meroë, is effusive. “Beeble, beeble,” he keeps on repeating while pointing to the relief figures. It takes a few seconds to realize that beeble means people. And there are indeed many “beeble”. Kings and queens, slaves and half human half animal beings reminding one of the reliefs seen in Egypt.
Ali, a thin man covered in the traditional white robes of the Muslim men of this area, energetically moves from one pyramid to the other. Unfortunately his command of English does not match his infectious eagerness to show off the pyramids. In spite of not understanding his mostly Arabic chatter, one gets the distinct impression that he feels a strong sense of ownership and is proud of these centuries’ old structures.
Although he doesn’t know the English words for many of the pictures, he points to the distinctly Egyptian influenced scales of justice, the falcon headed Horus, god of the sky, Isis, goddess of magic and protector of the dead and Osiris, brother and husband to Isis.
Also depicted are slaves chained to each other, proof that the ancient kings and queens of this ancient land were not averse to enslaving others – most probably other peoples they had defeated.
The pyramids of Meroë are known by the number allocated to them by archaeologists in modern times. Pyramid number six, the one where Queen Amanishakhete was buried in the First Century BC has a depiction of the queen pushing a spear into the necks of a group of prisoners
What is one to make of this scene? Is it a show of strength by an omnipotent queen or a sign of weakening power?
Unfortunately time has wrought much damage to the pyramids and in most cases only parts of a relief has been preserved.
However, most of the damage seems to have been done by an Italian fortune hunter Giuseppe Ferlini who in 1834 received permission from the then ruler of Sudan, Ali Kurshid Pasha to look for treasure at Meroë.
According to literature on the subject Ferlini was impatient to find the treasures he believed to be buried inside the pyramids and to speed up his work, he used dynamite to blow the tops off some of the structures.
He left few records of what he found. He merely gathered all the treasures he could, took them to Europe and sold it. He lived a rich man’s life. Yet some of the treasures have found its way to museums in Germany.
Before Ferlini there were other excavators dating back from ancient times who robbed the pyramids carrying away priceless goblets, jewellery and other artefacts.
To date, no mummies have been found at Meroë, but according to dr. Julie Anderson, a curator at the Egyptian and Sudan division of the British Museum, fragments of wooden coffins suggest that some of the mummification rituals – more specifically wrapping of bodies – was followed. It is unknown whether the bodies were treated with natron and resins or left to mummify naturally.
Ancient tomb raiders left no mummies or coffins, Ferlini did his share of damage and some modern visitors still think it is acceptable to chop away pieces of relief to take home.
Reconstruction work on the Meroë pyramids was started in the 1970’s by the Sudan Antiquities Service and some Western partners. Some of the restoration includes the installation of prefabricated roof slabs, glass bricks in the slabs to let in light to view the relief work and modern brickwork. In some cases the result seems slightly incongruous with the modern building materials forming a sharp contrast to the much older stone used by the original builders.
Although there are over 500 pyramids at the different sites in Sudan, Anderson says it is difficult to specify exactly how many there are as new discoveries are still occurring and not all cemeteries have been fully investigated by archaeologists. As recently as 2003 a team from the Sudan Archaeological Research Society discovered the remains of a small granite pyramid in a previously unknown site in the region of the 4th Cataract of the Nile.
The centres of the pyramids at Meroë were in ancient times filled with rubble and earth which can still be seen today lending an air of abandon to the site.
It also makes the pyramids seem much more fragile that the mammoth structures in Egypt. And it might be this sense of fragility that causes the surge of anger at the four other visitors who take turns climbing to the top of the largest pyramid where they pose for the all important tourist memento: the photograph. Proving to friends and family back home that a specific site was indeed visited.
With his robes flapping in the wind, Ali rushes to the pyramid and with a barrage of Arabic words he manages to convey his fury. It is difficult to say whether it is Ali or simply a feeling that they had seen enough, but the tourists leave immediately.
Some of the treasures carried away from the site at Meroë have over the years found their way to museums in Germany as well as the British Museum in London.
Back in Khartoum a Sudanese journalist says he thinks his government is not doing enough to preserve the country’s heritage.
“Our national treasures are in a terrible state. Look at Meroë. Our pyramids can be as famous as those in Egypt. But the Sudanese are careless. We do not realize the potential of the pyramids to attract tourists.”
Of course he is right. But it is not only a lack of a tourism plan that keeps tourists away. Many potential tourists fear the frequent outbreaks of violence in the Sudan. On the other hand, one shudders at the thought of throngs of visitors at the site. But it is also a pity that these treasures are largely unknown of by the general public.
Journalist, translator, editor /
Joernalis, vertaler, redigeerder
SAFREA Member / lid
+27 (0)83 297 8785