A rare opportunity to visit the Pyramids of Meroe turned into an insight into a fascinating country and culture that remains closed to the world in general
I find the name of Sudan’s capital: Khartoum intriguing. The word (in Arabic) means a water hose and is often found written on fire safety equipment across the Middle East. And its a perfectly apt description of a city which sits on the confluence of two rivers that ultimately form the mighty Nile.
Sudan, a country known mostly for conflict and famine, is also the home of fascinating civilisations in history. Borders that separate Sudan from its current neighbours, are a relatively recent phenomenon. Throughout history, this region has been occupied or influenced by the Egyptians, Ethiopians, Ottomans, and is even mentioned in the Hebrew Bible (as the Land of Cush or Kush).
What attracted me to Sudan was the rare opportunity to visit the Pyramids of Meroe, generally thought to be inaccessible especially with the security situation. What I hadn’t anticipated was an insight into a fascinating country and culture that remains closed to the world in general.
My journey started from Khartoum, a somewhat dilapidated version of 1960s Karachi. The dust, the airport, the buildings and even the cars seemed to indicate that time hasn’t moved on in decades. There is not much else to talk about Khartoum save for the lively market of Omdurman. And, of course, the Nile, the jewel of Africa.
As one of the very few rivers that flow south to north, it transverses ten countries before it finally enters Egypt. A satellite image of north east corner of Africa shows a barren landscape except two emerald lines that meander northwards. They are the White Nile, coming from Rwanda, and the Blue Nile, from Lake Tana Ethiopia. For several millennia, they have been the source of sustenance for many civilisations that have come and gone. They merge in Khartoum to feed the fertile Nile Delta in Egypt.
If one wants to understand this region, then understanding the Nile and its path is of the essence. The Nile is where the mighty Egyptian civilisation thrived. So did the Kush, their cousins in the south (now mainly Sudan) who for a while also ruled over Egypt. The most striking remnants of the Kushites are the Pyramids of Meroe.
Sudan is not the easiest of countries to get access to, years of conflict have marked it as one of the riskiest of locations. It was with some trepidation that I stepped out of the airport in Khartoum and into my Landcruiser that had clearly seen better days. I was received by my amiable guide, Mr Imran Ali, who informed me that his great grandfather was originally from Jullundur, India, and had emigrated to the region after World War I. He also attempted to relax me by pumping out Adele on the car’s stereo. It was surreal to have Rumour Has It blasting out as we made our way on deserted streets of Khartoum to our hotel at 2 am.
The Acrople Hotel is somewhat of a local legend. Currently, it is being managed by the third generation of its Greek owners, who look very European but speak Arabic with a perfect accent. It had been the lodging of choice for reporters during the peak years of conflict and also a target of a bomb blast in the past.
Troubled days of Sudan aren’t fully over yet. After a painful split with the Christian-majority South Sudan, the North has become relatively peaceful. While disputes linger over the sharing of oil wealth and Darfur remains a no-go area, Khartoum and the rest of the north are returning to normalcy. On weekends the banks of the Nile in Khartoum are full of locals sitting, with families and friends, enjoying shisha and local favourites: ginger coffee and hibiscus tea. Ginger coffee is a drink I would heartily recommend to any coffee aficionado.
The Sudanese I met were rather sanguine about the conflict and I was struck by the lack of vitriol for their cousins in the south. Many still had family in the south and did not face trouble travelling between the two countries. There was also a prevalent view that reunification of sorts between the two was also on the cards. A fervent wish perhaps? Whatever may be the reality, there was a certain innocence in their world view that I found refreshing. Perhaps it was the influence of sufi Islam that dominates this region or perhaps they were just tired after decades of conflict. Either way, they are friendly, courteous people and very curious about foreigners, mainly because there were so few of them. This friendliness went up a notch when they realised, I came from a fellow Muslim country. And, lest I forget, they are also strikingly tall.
If one wants to understand this region, then understanding the Nile and its path is of the essence. The Nile is where the mighty Egyptian civilisation thrived.
The Pyramids of Meroe lie 250 km drive north of Khartoum. Allowing for time to stop and eat, the journey takes around five hours. The road is a single carriageway. It is reminiscent of the old GT Road linking Lahore and Islamabad with the same level of chaos along the way.
A few things stood out. Sudan is abjectly poor with virtually no facilities on the highway. There were some ramshackle roadside eateries which served fresh local produce. Though the cuisine itself is not as sophisticated as the one I encountered in Ethiopia earlier. The road I travelled hugged the Nile around which agriculture and life in general revolved. The society is very conservative, and one can see sufi shrines with their striking domes dotted along the route. Most of them have ritual dancing on Friday evenings. Superstitions, especially involving witchcraft and black magic, are quite prevalent.
The archaeological heritage is breath-taking. In addition to the pyramids, the Temple of Naqa, the preserved murals from ancient Coptic churches (some now underwater following the construction of a dam) are some of the striking examples. Like Ethiopia, Sudan has a rich Christian history before the advent of Islam.
I arrived at Meroe just before sunset. The sight of perfect geometrical shapes, half-buried in sand dunes, shining in the light of the setting sun is hard to describe. The pyramids are smaller than their counterparts in Egypt and are built at a much steeper angle. It is estimated that there were more than two hundred pyramids to mark the graves of the royal family. Many were destroyed by vandals, with the Italian Ferlini being the chief culprit. Around 200 years ago he blasted several pyramids in search of gold. They had survived more than 2,000 years before that in decent shape, it is said. We camped beside the pyramids and, at night, the canopy of stars provided a perfect backdrop to the silhouettes of these ancient structures. That said, it was open desert, hence very windy and bitterly cold. The only respite was the campfire and Imran who regaled us with the stories of the Kushite/Meroitic civilisation.
Next morning the sunrise offered another perspective on these pyramids and the entrance of each pyramid was perfectly aligned to face the rising sun. Walking amongst the pyramids, I felt privileged to be there. There would be very few places on earth that could compete with the uniqueness that I was experiencing. There were no other tourists save some local kids and German archaeologists hard at work. We were accosted by some local vendors, but it was all very friendly and non-intrusive.
With its shared oil wealth (with South Sudan) and rich history, not to mention the coastline along the Red Sea, Sudan is full of untapped potential. At present, it seems to be consigned as just another African nation plagued by poverty and a conflict with no end in sight. Shortly after my return, President Trump added Sudan to the list of countries slapped with a travel ban by the US government. It is a sad state of affairs indeed.
But for the moment I choose to revel in my memories of walking the sand dunes of the Nubian Desert. And the image of the lonely Pyramids of Meroe, bathed in sun, forever etched in my mind.