Karl’s Chronicles Article 42 (12/08/2020) The Pyramids of Meroë
The heat felt as oppressive as the barren landscape beyond -dense, dry, and infuriating. Conspiring as nature, to concoct a union made for suffering. A reverse state of play from the generic blessings of man towards his God understood as a righteous, loving union by the faithful Muslims in their slender mosques.
The two lines of thick black curtains turned their backs on the glaring sun as it bleached the desert and withered the grasses. Jaundice -yellow grasses that hemmed the highway, rather a sensationalised description really for a standard road. One that cut through the desert like a zip across a brown coat. Across its long grey back, the white bus progressed, glowing like a rocket from the suns reflection. All fired-up as it bulleted across the Sahara. Such immense heat wasn’t lost inside, breathable but asphyxiating, where the movement for two dozen passengers was so exhausting, they mimicked the laborious wading of astronauts battling zero-gravity.
The vehicle, bound for the market-town of Shendi 150km south, would soon pass the sand-drift boundary of Meroë. Faith rested on the driver’s shoulders, perched on the edge of darkness whilst tearing into harsh daylight. For those black shielding curtains, had plundered the bus into miserable gloom, giving the impression of a driver at the mouth of a cave. An escape so challenging to reach when thrust on a plastic stool half-way down a cramped aisle. Bereft of an opportunity to sleuth out my position, I kept my eyes glued to the drivers head.
Many of my fellow passengers had quickly succumbed to the heat, nodding back and forth like a cat’s paw. Ramadan brought further restrictions, imposed in the dawn to dusk fast. To exempt oneself from social errors, it paid dividends to embrace religious procedures, securing lasting respect with my shoulder to shoulder commuters. The Koran exempted those who travelled from the abstention of consuming water, but the majority, even the elderly, preferred to maintain self-discipline in their honoured devotion to Islam.
Over the driver’s right shoulder, punching above a long rippled dune ran a line of broken towers. Akin at this position to crumbling chimneys. I knew by the driver’s expression from the rear-view mirror that Meroë had arrived. The decreasing hypnotic rhythm of rubber across asphalt pulled the Nubians and Jaalayin Arabs out of their reverie.
Leaving the vehicle required the skills of a circus troop in bending around and over people who hardly cleared the way. Governed by an acute awareness that trampling over the sea of white jallabiya’s (long robes worn by Muslim men), might untie our gentleman’s alliance.
Leaving the roadside for a dusty track, the shifting angle redefined the line of chimneys into broken pyramids, some of which had entirely lost their apex. Similar to a breakfast egg with its crown lopped off. Few people knew, less believed that Sudan stood home to more pyramids than Egypt. Two hundred and twenty in total.
Here, humble and appropriately quiet architecture paid evidence to a royal cemetery, moved to Meroë during King Arkamani’s reign in the 3rd century BC.
The history of Sudan is interwoven with its neighbours. Certainly the north’s expansion, influence, and might from the Egyptian Pharaonic periods. The likes of the Kushite Kingdom, often pushed to the side by the more cerebral actions of Egyptian rulers, while the glories of Nubia have again been shunted over as vassals in foreign take-overs. The British relegating the region as a colonial outpost, governed rather insouciantly by moustached military men in the head-offices of Cairo.
The ink of a historians pen has afforded more excitable words to the death of General Gordon, immediately decorated as a national hero when he fell, martyred on the front steps of his residence—defiantly holding out against the hostile tactics of the Mahdi. Even following campaigns under Kitchener to capture Gordon’s slayers arrived glowing in media attention, feeding British hunger to avenge a hero’s death and reclaim Empirical dignity.
It was at Atbara, on Good Friday in 1889 that Highland troops besieged the 14,000 strong Mahdist camp. Backed up by Egyptian allies and the Satanic fuelled power of a couple of Maxim guns, that left 2000 of the Mahdists army dead, with his most coveted general, put on show for extra humiliation.
Sudan, despite its size (before South Sudan’s 2011 independence) clearly absorbed the greatest tract of African land as a single entity. But her history is sadly subdued under the louder, noisier adventures of voracious Egypt and the religious and regal exploits of Ethiopia’s orthodox empires.
Closing in on the later years of the third century BC, problems inside Egypt brought expansion campaigns to a halt. With the retreat of foreign rulers, the ground lay ripe for the re-sprouting of Nubian culture. As its arts and architecture flourished, Nubian influence followed in the wake of Egypt’s withdrawal as far as the Niles first cataract. But this wasn’t to last, as an army under Pharaoh Thutmose I besieged the Nile town of Kerma, while his son Thutmose III hammered down to the fifth cataract. Nubian territory named ‘Kush’ by ancient Egyptian’s fell to the New Kingdom dynasty.
Rather like the tidal movement, the New Kingdom retreated again. Setting the stage for another Nubian expansion as the Kush experienced freedom from Egyptian interference. King Kashata, a self-professed pharaoh established the 25th dynasty which became known as the Nubian dynasty. Taharqa, the most exulted Kushite king extended Nubian hegemony west to Libya and as far north as Palestine. But like a raven to a pigeon, the expansion of Assyrians from Babylon swooped down on Egypt, forcing Taharqa back to Npata.
As the capital and royal cemeteries shifted from Npata to Meroë, it heralded in cultural changes to gratify Nubian identity. Gone were the millennium-old use of hieroglyphics, replaced by Meroitic script. Whereas the traditional pyramid, constructed on a phenomenal scale, now embraced smaller, more humble dimensions. Reliant only on a small labour force and simple pulleys. Where the dead now lay buried in the earth below and not within the pyramid itself.
An inspiration to current battles with gender equality, queens ruled just as much as kings in Meroë. The kingdom thrived from a fertile climate, deftly noted by today’s aridness where abundant crops of millet and barley were harvested by tools crafted from locally produced iron-ore.
Though Rome eventually took control of Egypt, its interest in the Kushites only awakened in retaliatory measures for the sacking of Aswan. Defeating Npata and galvanising a garrison presence, but this did little to repel Kushite attacks. Soon an agreement between the two set forth recognised boundaries and mutual understandings that lasted for more than three centuries.
Destruction came at the hands of one man, treasure seeker and ultimate tomb raider Giuseppe Ferlini, who vandalised many of the pyramids in 1834, while on an avarice journey for gold. Urged on by early findings of Queen Amanishakheto’s jewellery, Ferlini, backed up by a body of Egyptians proceeded with greater enthusiasm to raid many more. However, nothing else ever came up after that first hoard which gradually ended up split amongst several German museums.
Calm silence seems to be the most befitting friend here, accompanying the sporadic visitor as much as an afternoon shadow. Unlike the pyramids of Giza where you dodge self-absorbed tour groups, camel drivers and hawkers (some who pester like flies on a carcass), there is no one here. Split into two parts; the Northern and Southern cemeteries comprise a total just shy of a hundred pyramids, which includes those fallen to rubble and those no more than a trace pattern in the sand. The first kings who left Nuri for Meroë were buried in the older Southern cemetery from around the 8th century. The Royal cemetery continued to bury its kings and queens for 1200 years until the 4th century AD.
Originally the pyramid’s exterior was coated in lime mortar, creating a smooth, gleaming surface. None survive today, but modern restoration goes some-way in portraying their initial appearance. Attached to the pyramids eastern side is an additional foyer, an open room that served as a funerary chapel for rituals and offerings made in honour of the dead.
All those Kings and Queens, rulers of a kingdom that now lays buried with them. Their jagged shrines replicating a dressed-down version of mightier grandiose complexes in Egypt’s north still yields immense charm. Befitting a landscape lost to noise, interruptions and time. An ideal site, protruding through sand drifts and the occasional patter of a passing caleche. Where the dead seem to truly rest in peace.
The complex of Meroë stands slightly east from the Atbara- Khartoum highway. It is entirely feasible to visit on a day trip from Khartoum, but Atbara and Shendi are much closer. You can charter a taxi from all three towns, though it’s essential to negotiate before accepting. I would recommend visiting early morning or late afternoon, either side of the fierce midday heat. Dress for Islamic sensibilities by wearing trousers and an elbow-length shirt or t-shirt if you are a man and a long ankle-length dress and blouse if you are a woman. Shorts are viewed as an extension of underwear and will cause mocking laughter at best. The right clothes will endear the locals to you for showing respect to their faith. I think it is one of the most critical conditions to abide by when visiting any Islamic country.
Both Atbara and Shendi offer varying standards of accommodation with a few restaurants as well. Transport running between Atbara and Shendi or Atbara and Khartoum will drop you off at the roadside. The bigger coaches will charge you for the entire distance. For the return, I stood on the roadside and flagged down the next passing bus for the 70km journey back to Atbara.
Take sunscreen, a hat and plenty of water as there is very little shade at Meroë. Tickets can be brought from the office close to the northern cemetery. A recent internet search came across an in-depth blog by John Torres (www.againstthecompass.com/en/nubian-pyramids-sudan/#9) who mentions a price of 300SDG or $20.
Bradt’s second edition guidebook by Paul Clammer provides a well-researched accompaniment to Sudan. I used this book while travelling for six weeks in the country, arriving on the crammed weekly ferry across Lake Aswan to Wadi Halfa before finally heading into Ethiopia. If you have time, then I advocate a multi-country trip starting in Egypt. The Sudanese visa is quite straight forward, but bear in mind you will want to acquire it the day before the weekly ferry departs; otherwise, you will waste a week on your visa. The ferry company will not issue tickets without seeing the visa first.
Due to the complexities of Covid19 and the travel industry at large, you will need to check FCO advice regarding possible restrictions. Also, any change in travel insurance policies concerning non-coverage of claims considered to be effected by coronavirus, and airlines where refunds might not be possible against cancelled flights.