Just three hours north-east of Khartoum lies Africa’s ancient city, Meroe. A UNESCO world heritage site, Meroe is characterised by 200 golden pyramids dating back to the 4th Century B.C. My fascination with Sudan’s little-known ancient history, and the diversity of its historic artefacts, is what motivated me to explore one of Africa’s largest, and most underrated, nations. Below I share my experience exploring a hidden gem in the heart of Africa.
My journey to Meroe, Sudan
Sudan felt more rewarding than anywhere else I’ve been. The country is rich with history and culture, and Meroe was no exception. Unfortunately, Sudan’s negative media representation does not portray it as a destination for learning or discovery, making sites like Meroe relatively unknown to the travel community. This not only made the journey to Meroe novel but taught me an important part of African history that rarely makes it to our computer screens.
After arriving at Sudan’s capital Khartoum, with the help of a friend, I headed to the Ministry of Tourism to get a permit to visit the site. In Sudan, foreigners are required to obtain internal travel permits for security reasons — the exact details of why remain unknown to me. The permit allowed me to pass the six security check-points between Khartoum and Meroe. After receiving my permit, we took a 4×4 vehicle and an expert driver (as the roads right outside Khartoum can be difficult to navigate) to begin our early-morning journey to Meroe.
We packed the car full of water, snacks and essentials, as there were few rest stops on the way. We listened to Sudanese classics the whole ride and enjoyed views of Sudan’s distinct African desert. At around 9:00 am, just an hour from our destination, we stopped for a tea break — a common activity in Sudan — and sat with the local sit-el-shay (tea lady) at a little shack near the highway. In Sudan, tea ladies have become a kind of national symbol, serving tea and coffee to passers-by in exchange for a fee. These ladies are usually found at rest stops, bus stations and intersections throughout the country, and having tea with them is an authentic Sudanese experience not to be missed!
We arrived at the pyramids at 10:00 am. Lucky for us, the sky was a clear blue, and the sun, although hot, felt divine. We had to trek to the top of a high sand dune to see the pyramids in their full glory, and honestly, it was absolutely worth it. Also noteworthy was the fact that we were the only visitors in sight and had the pyramids all to ourselves. It felt like we were in on a secret that no one else knew.
A brief history of Sudan
Like many African nations, it’s often assumed that prior to colonisation, Sudan was simply a desert with a few tribes living at the confluence of the Nile. Few know of Sudan’s vibrant history, which is worth acknowledging, especially when we attempt to understand monumental sites like Meroe.
One of the first recorded civilisations in Africa was in northern Sudan. Named the Kingdom of Kush and beginning in the Bronze Age, Sudan’s ancient civilisation flourished where the Blue and the White Nile meet. The Kushite Kingdom built an entire ecosystem around the Nile and was responsible for the miniature pyramids I was so excited to see. At the height of its power, the kingdom ruled over present-day Sudan, Egypt and Palestine. The Kingdom of Kush last around 1,400 years and later became known as the Nubian civilisation, which continued to build pyramids and use hieroglyphics as a mode of communication.
To sum up, some of Africa’s most influential societies have existed in Sudan for centuries and have left behind invaluable history for us to discover. This includes sights in Kerma, Gabal Berkal, El Kurru, Nuri and Meroe, with Meroe being the largest archaeological site among them.
About Meroe’s pyramids
Sudan has a total of 223 pyramids, most of which are in Meroe. Although Egypt’s pyramids are more famous, Sudan has more than twice the number. Another stark difference is the size of Sudan’s pyramids — Meroe’s are short and steeper than their Egyptian counterparts and were built using mud brick.
The small size and number of the pyramids in Sudan are related to what archaeologists have called ‘the democratisation’ of the building process in Ancient Nubia. Whereas the pyramids of the Egyptian pharaohs were exclusively for royals, the ancient kingdoms of Kush and Nuba did not reserve the process to just nobles. Nubians who could afford to build pyramids did so, and archaeologists have even uncovered pyramids dedicated to children.
In addition to that, the insides of Nubian pyramids have subtle symbols and engravings indicating deep cultural exchange between the civilisations of Nubia and those of ancient Rome and Greece. Historians have also found mentions of the Kingdom of Kush in Roman and Greek inscriptions as well as mentions in the Bible. Sudan’s ancient civilisations were a hybrid of the Mediterranean and Africa, a characteristic I felt even when walking the streets of present-day Khartoum.
Unfortunately, many Nubian pyramids carry marks of vandalism or destruction, and the tops of most of Meroe’s pyramids are eroded. In 1834, Sudan’s pyramids were raided and bombed by an Italian explorer hoping to find gold and valuables. The destruction left few artefacts intact. In addition, recent visitors have carved their names or initials in some of the stones and on the sides of the pyramids. The good news is some pyramids have been rehabilitated, and a rehabilitation project for the rest of the sites is underway in a joint redevelopment project funded by the Qatari and German governments, in partnership with Sudan’s Ministry for Antiquities and Archaeology.
Meroe’s present-day community
At the site, we were welcomed by some of Meroe’s local community. It seemed that the community depended on visitors to the site. Some of them sold souvenirs, while others herded camels and let you take them for a ride in exchange for fifty Sudanese pounds. All of them were very protective of the site and warned visitors of vandalism.
We spoke to one man who told us the story behind each pyramid. I was particularly interested in the story about Nubian Queen Amanishakheto, whose pyramid was once the largest on the site, almost six meters wide at its base. He mentioned that Queen Amani ordered the construction of the pyramids of Meroe and allowed for the ‘democratisation’ of pyramid building. She hoped to create the largest congregation of pyramids ever built by an African kingdom to differentiate the Nubians from their brothers in Ancient Egypt. Although the two civilisations shared the same language, Queen Amani’s rule was aimed at distinguishing her kingdom culturally. Our storyteller also noted that Queen Amani was one of the most powerful women in African history and that Sudanese families often name their daughters Amani in admiration of her legacy.
After hearing the story, I thought how bizarre it was that this history was so unknown. Queen Amani’s story stuck with me, and our storyteller’s intimate knowledge of the site’s every detail inspired me.
Every year, Meroe sees a modest number of visitors. Recent reports state that Meroe only sees 15,000 visitors a year, unlike Giza, which sees millions of visitors every year. Although it was a surreal experience to be surrounded by such important history without crowds of tourists taking photos, I believe that it is important for the story of Meroe to be told. Meroe is one of many sights in Sudan that embody a different perspective about the country and the African continent as a whole.
Darah Ghanem is a journalist based in Dubai.