Sudan: A Day Trip from Khartoum to Begrawiya
The Meroe Pyramids of Sudan
By Tom Coote
The bus slowed to a halt and a long line of passengers gestured for me to leave. As we had drawn closer, I had pushed apart the heavy, dusty curtains to glare out across the Nubian Desert towards a distant mound of sand dunes topped by triangular peaks. I squeezed down through the shaded seats, past the lines of men with tatty tweed jackets and the half-heartedly veiled women, and stepped out into the searing sun.
As the bus pulled away, towards civilisation, I was left standing at the road side, on my own. There were no other cars and no other people. On the horizon, I could just make out the tops of what I assumed be the Meroe pyramids. After pausing for a moment, I pulled myself together and walked off into the desert.
Earlier in the day, I had set out on what I had thought would be an easy day trip. The manager of the International YHA in Khartoum – at which I was the only guest – had been kind enough to write down the names of where I had to go, in Arabic, on a green post-it note. Having walked over to the first local bus to stop at the main road, I had held up my post-it note, only to be hurriedly ushered on board.
This bus hadn’t actually gone to where I had wanted to go but another passenger had taken pity on me and led me slightly further on my way before passing me on to yet somebody else. Whenever I reached a crossroads, or was unsure of which way to go, I would present my green post-it note to someone I liked the look of, and, in turn, receive a new barrage of hand signals.
Through this method of travel I eventually made my way to the bus station of Bahri, from where I caught a minibus to the larger bus station of Shendi. From there, I bought a ticket for a full-sized bus whose shadowy interior resembled a mobile tart’s boudoir: every surface available was draped with heavy, dusty, tasselled curtains and not a single inch of the ceiling was left empty of embellishment; the ancient television at the front of the bus was encased in a unique and highly decorative surround, and a few feet in front of this lavish display, a large box of tissues was suspended by a large red ribbon.
After a couple of hours of rhythmically rumbling on, my eventual expulsion from the womb like shelter of this elaborately decorated sanctuary, into the relentless glare of the desert sun and the wide open vastness of the world outside, had come as something of a shock.
I had only been shuffling through the sand for a few minutes when I noticed two warrior-like figures thundering towards me astride galloping camels. From the backs of their beasts they towered far above, raising urgent young fists up towards the pounding desert sun as they descended upon my weary figure.
They were Ali and Mohammad (aged around 14 and 11, respectively) and they wanted to know if I would like a camel ride. They seemed so keen on offering the services that I didn’t want to disappoint them. After a couple of minutes of bouncing up and down on top of the larger of the two camels, I was starting to wish that I hadn’t bothered – I couldn’t help feeling that it would have been faster, easier and more comfortable, simply to have walked.
The Napata/Meroetic Kingdom
As I slowly bumped ever on, the back of the Meroe pyramids came further into view along the top of the largest of the slowly approaching sand dunes. Meroe was the southern capital of the Napata/Meroetic kingdom (c. 800 BC – c. 350 AD). Meroe had grown rich and powerful through the smelting of iron and gold, and international trade that spread as far as India and China. About 400 years after the decline of the Egyptian Empire in the 12th century BC, and about 800 hundred years after the Egyptian’s built their last pyramid, they decided to resurrect the Egyptian burial customs (the Meroetic era was roughly contemporary with the Ptolemies of Egypt – around the time of Antony and Cleopatra).
I tried to get out my camera and capture an image of the emerging monuments but the lumbering beast that I had mounted had other ideas – every time that I attempted to open my bag, it would lurch forward, forcing me to grab on to the front of the less than comfortable saddle, so that I wouldn’t be thrown head first into a mound of gravelly sand or a sparse sprouting of prickly bush. As a barbed-wire fence, surrounding the dune, had now come into view, I decided to wait until my feet were back on solid ground. We would just have to keep following it around until we found the entrance gate. They were bound to let me down sooner or later.
Over 40 Nubian/Kush Kings and Queens were buried in the Begrawiya pyramids along with all that they would need in the afterlife: as well as weapons, treasure and kitchen utensils, the ruler’s comrades and servants would also get thrown in for good measure (for this reason, conspiracies within the court were rare). It was the gold, silver and jewellery, however, which would really bring in the crowds, many centuries later.
By the time that the Italian archaeologist Giuseppe Ferlini (1800 – 1870) had dynamited of the tops of the biggest of the Meroe pyramids, most of the treasure had long been looted – for all the destruction that he wrought upon the then not so ruined ruins, he found very little remaining of any monetary value (a couple of the smaller pyramids have since been restored but they look a little too new and shiny in comparison to their more battered neighbors).
As we circled around the sagging fence, the squat brick built ticket kiosk came into view. To the side of it was a small market of tourist tat sellers. It didn’t look like they’d had any visitors for a while but they’d been expecting me. I eventually got them to leave me alone by saying that I’d have a look on the way out but warned them that I wasn’t likely to buy much. They must go through days on end without selling a single carved pyramid or pharaoh themed book end, just hoping that an overland truck will turn up to bless them with hordes of willing consumers.
Getting off my Camel
Ali and Mohammad were very encouraging and rather overly impressed at the way in which I managed to get off the camel without falling flat on my face. I sensed that they would later be angling for a tip. For the moment I was just pleased to be able to get about on my own two feet. I rubbed my arse, in a vain attempt to bring it back to life, and hobbled over to buy a ticket. There were loads of them in there, all just sitting around with nothing better to do.
Surely they only needed one of them to sell tickets – I had yet to see another tourist anywhere in Sudan and there appeared to be no towns or villages around for miles. Having purchased my (surprisingly) modestly priced entrance ticket, I set off through the pristine waves of sand towards the first of the ancient pyramids. My bum was just moving on from numb when I heard my name echoing out from between the dunes. It was Ali and Mohammad.
They had brought my camel around and were now insisting that I get back on it. I tried to tell them that I was fine with walking but they weren’t having any of it – I had agreed to pay for the camel ride so I was now going to ride the camel whether I wanted to or not.
I trudged back down the dune and once again clambered over the camel’s hump before being lurched upwards. Luckily it wasn’t long before they deemed to let me down again, not much further around from where the dunes started to rise more steeply. They apologised and said that it would be better for me to carry on, on foot.
I thought that camels were supposed to be good at that kind of thing but decided that it would be wiser not to push the matter.
Away from the souvenir sellers and camelteers, the pyramids seemed strangely quiet and untainted. The only marks or footprints in the rippling dunes of soft, yellow sand were from my own, battered white trainers. Everything was still. Nobody could have entered the compound for days or even, possibly, weeks.
I wandered in through the archway of one crumbling monument but there was nothing inside to see – just more ancient stone, left standing in the sand. They were nothing but shells. Most of the carvings and illustrations had been removed (often by Europeans). Meroetic writing had been found scrawled throughout Begrawiya but nobody could read it – without an inscription to act as a key, it could never be deciphered and would remain as mysterious scribbles.
While much remains unknown, we do know that the Royal Cemetery was transferred from Napata to Meroe, around the beginning of the 3rd century BC, and that this shift marked a dramatic move away from Egypt’s influence and a move towards a more Greek inspired culture of independent thought. Up until this time, the high priests of Kush had been able to issue ‘divine orders’ to the Kings to bring an end to their reign through suicide.
This tradition rather abruptly came to an end when King Ergamenes basically told the priests to sod off. He then had them all slaughtered. From then on it was never the same again, and the Kings just seemed to get away with doing whatever they wanted. As Nubian culture moved further away from the Egyptian influence, they slowly began to embrace a more typically African identity: the jewellery and other artefacts left behind more closely resembled those found from further south; the Lion God, Apademek, was adopted as a regional deity; African tribal markings such as facial scarring were increasingly adopted; and the Nubians were known to take a pride in their ebony skin.
Wars with Roman Egypt
This new era lasted until the 1st or 2nd century AD, when Meroe started to go downhill, following wars with Roman Egypt, a decline in their traditional industries, and environmental deterioration caused through deforestation (possibly as a consequence of their previously well established smelting industry).
By the time that King Ezana of Axum – in what is now Ethiopia – had invaded in 350 AD, the Meroe Kingdom had largely disintegrated.
Having seen and photographed all that was left to see, I slid back down the dunes towards Mohammad and Ali. They wanted me to give them more money than I had already agreed. Ali hadn’t really done anything apart from get in the way but still seemed keen to negotiate what seemed like rather a high rate for just tagging along with his rather less impressive ship of the desert. ‘My camel is only small’ pleaded Ali ‘but he is very hungry’.
There was also no way that I could make my way back out through the entrance gate, without being trapped by the trinket traders. I braced myself for the assault and in the end managed to get away with the purchase of two (reasonably) cheap Ebony bracelets. I patiently explained to the other sellers that I really couldn’t – or, at least, really didn’t want to – buy something from everybody, and, rather surprisingly, they eventually seemed to come to terms with this unfortunate reality.
Mohammad and Ali turned out to be rather more strong willed. Having lowered me down from the camel, back at the side of the road, they did their best to extract a higher fee. When I eventually relented and produced a few extra small notes for Ali’s ‘help’, he snatched them out of my hand and swiftly clambered back on to his ‘small but hungry’ camel.
As quickly as they had galloped towards me, with their hands outstretched towards the blinding desert sun, they now thundered off towards the opposite horizon, hands raised in farewell, against the rapidly darkening sky. I was one more abandoned at the side of the road, with my own hand raised, waiting for someone to stop and take me home.
Many visitors to Sudan arrive as part of a larger African overland expedition (there are few genuinely independent travellers but several overland trucks pass through Sudan, on the way from Egypt to Ethiopia, as part as part of a larger Cairo to Cape Town trip). I flew into Khartoum with Ethiopia Airlines, having realised that it wouldn’t cost me any more to fly there via Addis Ababa, than it would to just go straight to Ethiopia.
It was fairly straight forward to get a visa from the Sudan Embassy in London – www.sudan-embassy.co.uk – for £55.00, but I did have to take a day off work and go there in person. After arriving in Sudan I also had to hire a driver to take me to the registration office in Khartoum and waste most of a morning and another £30.00 or so on being ‘officially’ registered. After that I then had to waste another couple of hours tracking down the official tourism office to apply for a (free) permit to take photographs (the lady there strongly recommended that I made a number of photocopies of this permit to hand out, when required, but nobody ever asked to see it).
Tom Coote’s first book Tearing up the Silk Road was published worldwide by Garnet Publishing in August 2012. Since then, he has completed another full length travel book called Voodoo, Slave’s and White Man’s Graves: West Africa and the End of Days. He has travelled independently in well over a hundred countries and regularly updates his web site at www.tomcoote.net. Read an excerpt of Tearing up the Silk Road on GoNomad
If you like the articles we publish, maybe you can be one of our writers too! Make travel plans, then write a story for us! Click here to read our writer’s guidelines.