Archive for the ‘UNESCO World Heritage Site’ Category

The Cultural Landscape of Sintra, Portugal

Portugal > Sintra

May 2014

Just 30km west of Lisbon, lies the amazing cultural landscape of Sintra, with structures dating back to the Moors of the 8th century. This area is located right inside the verdant forest of a large national park which stretches all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. It has a long history of Portuguese architecture and culture, first occupied by the Romans, then the Arab Moors, who built a precipituous castle atop a mountain overlooking the plains all the way to the Atlantic. It used to be the playground for the Portuguese royals of the 12th-20th century, and many aristocrats owned and built properties here. The outcome is, the place is littered with palaces, stately homes, beautiful buildings, gardens, monuments and houses of worship. As such it plays host to thousands of visitors who drop by every year to savour the essence of Portugal. Spectacular Sintra earned the coveted UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, so we decide not to miss it.

Please watch in HD.








The Historical City of Evora, Portugal

Portugal > Evora

May 2014

Just 130km east of Lisbon, along the main expressway to Madrid, lies the historical city of Evora, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Evora is famous for its well-preserved Roman, Gothic and Baroque buildings, thus compressing 2000 years of history in a compact place. It is late evening as we drive into town, on the way back from Elvas to Lisbon. Its quaint narrow cobblestone lanes and whitewashed buildings are relics of its Moorish past, and always a pleasure to saunter along, as we bump into one spectacular building after another.

Please watch in HD.


The Old Garrison Town of Elvas, Portugal


May 2014

Elvas is an ancient town located 220km east of Lisbon, just 10km away from the Spanish border. Its importance as a heavily fortified garrison town, guarding the vital Lisbon-Madrid road in the 17th-19th century, earned it the coveted UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012.

We rented a car in Lisbon and travelled along the main expressway towards the Spanish border, which is also the direct way to Madrid. Elvas dates back to the 10th century but it was not until Portugal’s (regained) independence (from Spain) in 1640, that the town was heavily fortified to guard its frontier with Spain, and the main road between Lisbon and Madrid.

Please click below for HD slideshow.


Lisbon, Capital of Portugal

Portugal > Lisbon

May 2014

We did a trip to Portugal during May 12-19, 2014, with destinations denoted by the red dots below. We landed in Lisbon, and rented a car to drive to the other spots.

As mentioned our first (and last) stop was Lisbon, an interesting city full of character, and immensely rich in history and culture. Portugal was a world power in the 15th-16th century, during the golden Age of Discovery, and Lisbon was the launch-pad.

These are the slideshows of our walkabouts during the time in Lisbon. Please watch in HD 720p, thanks!

LISBON (Part 1)

LISBON (Part 2)


The Nuri Pyramids and the Wondrous Nile

Sudan > Nuri and Dongola

March 2014

We have stayed in Marawi for two nights and today we have to leave our cosy, modern hotel on the bank of the Nile for three destinations — the Pyramids of Nuri, a Nile orchard and our lodging in Dongola, some 180km northwest of here, which means another desert-crossing before the day ends.

Just outside the hotel’s reception, I see a common Nile bird, the Common Bulbul, only found in Africa.

Leaving the hotel, we drive past downtown Marawi, with its transport hub right next to the mosque. These tough passenger vans can rough it out in the harsh desert conditions, especially on the dirt roads. It’s a good ride as long as the air-conditioner works, but the Sudanese are so used to the heat, it doesn’t really matter to them.

A very colourful mosque we have here in Marawi town centre. By the way, in Sudan they seem to prefer smaller mosques but scattered all over the place, rather than a few big ones.

A driving school, and I’m curious about that inverted U-turn sign bottom right. Is that the U-turn you make when you are reversing your car … hmmm?

Anyway this must be peak hour in downtown Marawi, but hey, the traffic lights work and people diligently obey them. A true desert town.

We go along the sealed road northeast and at a sharp bend about 15km from Marawi we do offroading, and soon wa-hey! … more very ancient pyramids, complete with a bloated donkey.

This spot is called the Pyramids of Nuri, just across the Nile from Jebel Barkal, barely 10km away as the crow flies. There are some 250 (known) pyramids built in Nubia, principally in the Jebel Barkal area — first in Kurru (9th-7th century BC) and then here in Nuri (664-310 BC) and Jebel Barkal itself (see story HERE) — and later in Meroe (see story HERE).

In the hot sun with hardly anybody else in sight, our presence in the desert must have piqued the curiosity of locals, who criss-cross the area with their favourite mode of transport.

But this is indeed an important historical site, worthy of a UNESCO World Heritage Site citation. It belonged to the Kingdom of Kush (the first version based in Nabata at Jebel Barkal).

Some 20 kings of the Kingdom of Kush, who ruled from 7th to 4th century BC, were buried here, including the greatest of them all, King Taharqa (who ruled 690-664 BC, and was the ‘black pharaoh’ of the 25th Dynasty of ancient Egypt). I am now walking along the pyramids built in a row on the eastern edge of the necropolis.

This eastern row of pyramids belonged to the kings, except Taharqa, who was accorded a special spot. The tallest pyramids are about 30m in height — there’s Moslim in his white shirt and dark pants at the foot of the pyramid as reference. ūüôā

Zailani and I walk along the eastern pyramids of the kings, virtually crumbling in submission to the harsh desert elements since time immemorial. There used to be chapels on this side of the pyramids (facing sunrise) which were exposed to the desert, now all decimated.

These sandstone blocks were first put here about 2,500 years ago. One can imagine the whole pyramid being covered in smooth white plaster and decorated with paintings and reliefs, ornamented with precious stones perhaps. This whole complex must have been a sight to marvel at. How big are the blocks? Model Zailani gives a clue on their sizes. Fascinating stuff.

At the end of the row, two pyramids are virtually falling apart. We decide to turn right to enter the middle part of the pyramid field.

The stones here are probably the most weather-beaten I have ever seen. They remind me of those pieces of tasty flakey chocolates that crumble in your mouth.

The encroaching sand dunes are not making life any easier for these long-suffering structures.

I am now in the middle part of the complex and I look back at the row of the kings’ pyramids on the eastern edge. I was walking on the other side just now. The sun is really beating on my back, and it’s extremely hot, though it’s just late morning now. I’m looking for King Taharqa’s pyramid, supposedly the grandest of them all.

I look west, which is mostly populated by ruins of smaller pyramids — those of queens — and among them I spot the crumbled remain of what used to be the biggest of the lot — Taharqa’s. It’s the ‘hill’ on the left, said originally to be a handsome pyramid of almost 60m tall, with the base 50m long. Taharqa ruled 690-664 BC, and he conquered the whole of ancient Egypt and became a pharoah of the 25th dynasty, some historians say he even ruled part of Europe. He was mentioned in the Bible, and his reign in Egypt ended when the Assyrians invaded.

It’s getting hotter and I leave the pyramid field of Nuri, with a final gaze at these truly ancient sacred beings.

Everybody is back at the cars and we are ready to move on … to a much cooler and pleasant spot.

We are still in Nuri but no more desert — now we are just a kilometre away from the Nile. In only ten minutes, one can go from barren, hot desert to cool, watery, green paradise, teeming with life.

The irrigation brought by the Nile has done wonders to two strips of lucky lands on both banks of the river. The irrigation system is a relatively recent development, mainly in the last century. While canals have been around for centuries, the use of locks and pumps were recent additions.

I find it hard to believe that this greenery exists right in the middle of the desert.

The most common trees are date palms, obviously.

We have been invited to an orchard owned by a retired civil servant from Khartoum, some 500km away — this is his weekend getaway, and it’s located just 1km from the Nile river, hence the abundance of water.

The orchard is full of mango trees, with some grapefruit and guava trees.

In the shade, I can’t help but wonder, this is no different from the orchard in my own village in rural Kelantan state in tropical Malaysia … except that¬†here¬†the humidity is somewhat missing.

And everything is made possible by the precious water of the Nile, delivered right into this property, after a tedious journey via an extensive network of canals and waterways, and finally by this humble ditch.

The gracious land-owner has built a hut in the cool shade of his trees, to entertain guests.

In no time, we make ourselves comfortable and are served by delicious local tea and sweet dates. Then I notice jars at the feet of a couple of mature date palms.

I get closer to the earthen jars — they snugly rest on trimmed ‘suckers’ or ‘basal offshoots’ of these palms. Apparently the suckers have a cooling effect on the jars, thus making the drinking water they hold sort of icy cold. Interesting ancient technology, I’m sure.

Before parting, Ambassador Ashri and our hosts pose. ūüėÄ

After a well-deserved break in the hot desert sun, we are on the move again, with more canals to follow. The water here is clear and fast-flowing — I suspect we are very close the great river itself. At some spots there are kids bathing in the water.

We cross the canal and there’s a lock there, controlling flow into a much smaller waterway.

The donkey whose life seems to be work, work, work, is ubiquitous. Funny critter this, when not working, it just stands motionless like a statue and the head seldom moves. A disciplined loyal animal or just a plain dumb-ass?

Another typical Sudanese mosque … and a ‘floating one’ in the desert too.

We leave the canals and head for the sealed road, past some truly lucky creatures … food and water everywhere. Ah well, that donkey looks smart — the bugger has moved his head. Camels are geniuses compared to donkeys, that I learned.

Some 20km further north along the metal road, we pass through several police and military checkpoints. Our credentials from Khartoum work wonders and we gain access … and soon we are next to a huge wall, a dam really.

First time ever I’m being escorted by armed men, riding the very versatile pick-up truck, a popular vehicle for armies in Africa.

Yes, we are at the Merowe Dam, a key strategic installation of the Republic of the Sudan, and a very high security area, naturally.

This monster blocks the whole width of the Nile, with ten turbines of 125MW each. In full operation, this puppy generates 1.25GW of electricity — that’s gigawatt! We are 370km north of capital Khartoum, as the crow flies, in the middle of the Nubian desert at the eastern portion of the great Sahara.

The precious electricity generated by the turbines emerges here for transmission to the rest of Sudan, especially Khartoum. This is the largest hydro project in Africa, costing US$1.8bil, and funded by China and some Arab countries. It was built 2003-2009 by companies from China, France and Germany.

Looking upstream, and the lake formed by this gigantic dam looks like a sea. Critics contend that this project is one of the world’s most destructive hydro projects ever, creating a lake of more than 170km long. It displaced some 50,000 people from their traditional fertile Nile lands to arid desert sites, and inundated countless valuable archaeological sites, never to be explored again.

What used to be a hill, probably like Jebel Barkal, appears as an island in the middle of this huge Nile lake. Who knows, it could be a sacred site too, with ancient temples gone forever.

As we cruise along another lonely desert highway, I have mixed feelings regarding the Merowe Dam and the hydro installation ¬†— amazement at human tenacity in harnessing nature’s power right in the middle of the hostile desert, against the environmental and archaeological destruction it has wrought. Well, you can’t win them all.

Another desert road, and the important cellphone towers follow it diligently. I am somewhat surprised that the Sudan government takes it so seriously — but then telecom is key to the citizens’ well-being as well as the nation’s security.

The desolate highway runs for 180km as we make our way to Dongola, our nightstop.

We duly arrive at our lodging¬†in Dongola,¬†and it’s looking rather interesting.

They have chalets here, designed like a typical African hut, whatever that is. It’s pretty basic inside, as opposed to the one we had during our safari trip at Kruger National Park, South Africa, last year (see story HERE).

There’s a gaudily-decorated dining hall where they probably hold some grand functions, but we are expecting a late lunch now …

Here we meet the Nile again, which is very cool, but where is the lunch? We are starving after the long journey from Marawi.

I get closer to the famous river, and then realise there’s a covered patio to my left …

… and there’s our lunch! Ah well, Moslim beats me to it. More wholesome local bread, rice, vegies, and tasty grilled lamb and chicken. What more do we want? Let’s tuck in.

I have always wanted to watch the sun set over the Nile and I am not disappointed. To the left, Khartoum is about 1,100 away by boat (but you need to get past the Merowe Dam we visited this morning), and to the right, Cairo is about 1,600km away (and you have to go past the Aswan Dam).

The desert atmosphere makes the sun so sharp and the sky so rich and deep in colour. I’ve seen such beautiful sunset in faraway deserts/savannas — Tibet, South Africa, Australia, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, etc — and I’ll never grow tired of it.

Sunset on the Nile — definitely worth a leap!




The Pyramids of the Royal Cemeteries of Meroe

Sudan > Meroe

March 2014

[I have to dedicate this story to my fellow travellers for being such great companions throughout the Sudan journey (in alphabetical order): Ashri, Moslim, Nik Fauziah, Norhasman, Rohayahti, Sabariah, Suriati, Wan Lokman, Zailani. Thanks a lot, guys!]

From the ruins of Musawarrat es-Sufra (see previous story HERE), it’s a 25km dirt track to get back onto the sealed Khartoum-Atbara road, and another 50km northwards before we get to this icon of Sudan — the Pyramids of Meroe. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is only 1km off the highway. We are also about 200km northeast of capital Khartoum. As our vehicles trundle along the dirt track towards the pyramids, they loom over the sand dunes magnificently.

The cars stop some 400m from the pyramids in the baking-hot desert, and in no time mobile vendors of all sizes swarm us.

There’s a great reason for this sudden stop, just short of the pyramids … a chance for camel rides, with the buggers appearing out of nowhere.

Well, almost everybody gets his or her camel of choice for the short ride to the pyramids. Just don’t fall or do anything silly.

I join a couple of bemused, barefooted kids watching these excited adults noisily attempting their camel rides, most of them for the first time ever.

Soon off they go. In the background, there’s the southern cemetery. This is Meroe, and it was a bustling metropolis in the Kingdom of Kush (11th century BC to 350 AD). The city of Meroe itself fluorished from 800 BC to 350 AD.

Greek historian Herodotus (who lived 484-425 BC) wrote highly about this magnificent city called Meroe, and it was so wealthy that the Persians tried to conquer it in 6th century BC, but was beaten by the desert. It was also here that the thriving Kushites abandoned the hieroglyphs they adopted from the ancient Egyptians and used extensively in the old capital of Nabata (Jebel Barkal), to be replaced by their own Meroitic script.

This used to be a grand sight, imagine the row of steep pyramids with decorated plasters and beautiful landscaping befitting royal tombs, but are now bare with the tops lopped off by treasure hunters cum tomb punderers. It is indeed a huge, crowded royal cemetery, divided into north, south and west zones. The picture below shows the northern group, the largest and most spectacular.

As I walk towards the pyramids, two late transports arrive, but sorry, no more passengers. Better luck next time.

The pyramids get closer and more spectacular as I approach them. It’s already late afternoon, the sun is low, the heat is bearable, and there are very few visitors around. Looks like we are going to have the whole place to ourselves.

The whole area is sort of unsecured, but there’s a grand entrance with a rather impressive plaque, which describes it all — Moslim won’t let it go.

There’s a guardhouse, so at least somebody is looking after these precious ruins. Past it there’s a small boxy loo, and beyond it, sand dunes and the northern pyramids, our destination.

As I start climbing the dune, I look right to the southern pyramids. They are older than the northern ones we are after.

Less spectacular then the northern pyramids, the southern group was in use between 720-300 BC. In the 6th century BC, the capital was shifted from Nabata to Meroe, but the royalties were buried here and also in the sacred Jebel Barkal area.

From 300 BC till 350 AD (when the Kingdom of Kush fell) the kings and queens were buried in the northern area.

The dunes are made redder by the setting sun, and it’s quite an effort to climb them as the feet sink into the fine sand.

It’s very fine sand indeed, and is easy shifted by the moving air — the ripples are akin to the ones we see on the beach at low tide. Not surprising since it’s similar mechanism at work.

Not expecting any more visitors so late into the day, some camels rest while the others went home, I presume. Amazingly this barren place used to be a major city, which was settled as early as 9th century BC. The Nile is only 4.5km away, to the right. This place is now the most extensive archaeological site in Sudan.

Meroe was at its peak between 300 BC and 350 AD, and the Kingdom of Kush itself was mentioned in the Bible — Genesis 10:6 (this verse says the people of Kush were descendants of Ham, one of Prophet Noah’s sons).

The sun is very low in the sky and there’s not much daylight left. I must hurry up!

I approach one of the biggest pyramids in this northern group, and the sunlight makes the red sandstone glow like gold. It is a surreal sight, as if there are floodlights at the base of the pyramids.

This side of the pyramid faces the setting sun, the west. The Kushite built their pyramids with the sides facing north, east, south and west. There’s always a chapel on the eastern side, which is on the other side of this pyramid.

I glance to my right, for another view of the much older southern pyramids. The chapels are hidden, they are all behind the pyramids.

I am now behind the row of the (northern) pyramids which I admired when I first arrived, and the chapels are clearly seen here, attached to the eastern faces of the pyramids. No, the burial chamber is not inside the pyramid with the chapel as access — this is the main functional difference from the Egyptian pyramid.

The burial chamber is way underground, underneath the pyramid. Its entrance is some distance away, with a long staircase leading to the chamber below the pyramid, where the body was laid. I suspect these two low structures are entrances to the burial chambers.

The size of this chapel is quite big, but the pyramid it serves has been vandalised by treasure hunters.

Looking down the slope there are two restored pyramids. I’m pretty sure the original ones would have been spectacularly plastered and decorated. Note the southern pyramids a fair distance away, across the valley.

A fine example example of pyramid and chapel. I think the structure the right is the entrance to the staircase which leads to the burial chamber. Almost all of the chambers have been looted, nothing is left.

Another view of the restored pyramids, which shows their unique Kushite architecture.

This place is said to be one of the largest archaeological sites in the world, due to the numerous pyramids built. Unfortunately in 1834, an Italian explorer called Giuseppe Ferlini smashed the top of some 40 pyramids in search of treasure — he walked away with a substantial cache of gold which he tried to sell to astonished Europeans. Vitually all tombs here have been plundered.

During the Meroitic period of the Kingdom of Kush, over 40 kings and queens were buried here.

I spend a lot of time wandering the ruins, trying to visualise how the place would have looked like during its heydays.

Now the sand is advancing and is threatening the structures. I notice loose piles of dark stones at some places. They are definitely not sandstone, used for building pyramids. Are the dark stones rubbles of smaller structures? For what?

Here is another pile of dark stones, next to a crumbling pyramid. This important site needs restoration fast before everything crumbles and gets buried by the sand. So it’s great to hear that Qatar has just allocated US$135m for archaeology in Sudan (read HERE).

I walk past two pyramids, and trudge on the loose sand. Behind me, the sun is almost gone, and the light is fading fast.

The ripples on the dune fascinate me … it is like on a beach at low tide, as I mentioned before. It looks so pretty, I dare not step on it — nature’s beautiful fine art on display.

I guess the airflow around the base of the pyramids causes eddies that push the sand away. Hence we get this trough surrounding the pyramid’s base. Cool physics.

At certain parts, the sand dunes are getting menacingly close to the fragile pyramids. But this is an interplay of various wind movements throughout time, so the sand dunes would wax and wane.

These two pyramids are badly damaged, and there seem to be no effort to rescue them. It could be a matter of time before everything crumbles and the sand takes over. Huge pity if that happens.

I look back at the row of pyramids, with their tops hacked off by greedy, irresponsible treasure hunters such as Ferlini. We can only imagine how gorgeous these pyramids look a couple of thousand years ago.

The Meroitic culture is quiet interesting in how religion controlled the kings’ reigns. The high priests at the Amun temple in Jebel Barkal determined how long a king ruled. They believed that the health of the king was tied to the land’s fertility. If these priests thought that the king was not well enough to rule, they would relay the order (purportedly from Amun the God), that the king would have to die to give way to a younger, much healthier king. Kings always obeyed this divine order and would commit suicide for the good of the country. I think this is neat. ūüôā

The sun has set, and the lighting is poor, so I just have to take this last shot of the majestic Pyramids of Meroe, an important icon of Sudan’s. ¬†The cirrus clouds return to make a grand appearance above the pyramids before darkness prevails.

Yes, the sun is gone and time for me to descend the dune to the waiting cars, grudgingly. I’d have loved to spend hours more to explore these pyramids.

But, hey, there’s still business to be done, even at the last minute.¬†We must be the last customers at this mobile bazaar.

Meroe was conquered about 330 AD by the Christian Kingdom of Aksum which came from the Red Sea to the east.  The Kingdom of Kush itself fell in 350 AD (well, it lasted for almost 1,500 years!), and with that the Meroitic written and spoken language disappeared. Until now we still cannot decipher the language, otherwise much progress would have been made in understanding these great ancient people. By the 5th century AD, Meroe was already a city of mystery and legend. Such is the rise and fall of kingdoms.


Again, please pardon our ebullience, and I hope the dead kings and queens would not mind. ūüėÄ






Crossing the Bayuda Desert to Musawwarat es-Sufra Ruins in Meroe

Sudan > Meroe

March 2014

[This story is dedicated to Ambassador Ashri Muda, who assisted greatly in planning this memorable journey. Thank you very much, my friend.]

A brand new day, a first morning for us in the desert of northern Sudan, but we are in a green paradise, a gift of the Nile. ¬†We have a long day ahead, doing a 450km journey to the ruins of Musawwarat es-Sufra in Meroe, on the other side of the Bayuda desert. The Kingdom of Kush started on this side of the desert in 11th century BC, with its capital at Nabata, at the foot of Jebel Barkal (see previous story HERE). In 300 BC, the capital was shifted 280km southeast to Meroe, across Bayuda, and it lasted till the kingdom itself ended in 350 AD — this is called the Meroitic period of the Kingdom of Kush.

Our purpose-built hotel is inside a rather modern secure complex in Marawi, barely 200m from the eastern bank of the Nile. It’s a nice compound to walk and explore.

Like anywhere else in the world, a river morning is always serene and peaceful, the sounds of birdlife everywhere, except that we are in the middle of the arid Nubian desert and that water is the Nile. 

V-shape formations of birds fly noisily upstream one after the other looking for feeding grounds, like squadrons of airplanes on important missions. 

Behind us, the water from the Nile has enabled serious agriculture — a lot of vegetable plots.

Arable land extends from us all the way to the river bank.

A man and his camels eyeball us. Sometimes donkeys can be seen foraging in the bushes too.

Breakfast is in order, and it’s pretty wholesome. These Nubians really know how to make great sausages, complemented by the olives very well.¬†

Energised, we embark on a rather long journey, a west-east crossing of the wild Bayuda desert, a distance of  270km from Marawi, our base, to Atbara on the other side of the desert. Both towns are on the Nile river, which goes northerly at Atbara, before making a wide sweeping U-turn in the huge desert to head southwesterly to meet Marawi. 

The contrasting landscape is very spectacular especially with the high-altitude wispy cirrus clouds, which is interesting — this is the first time I see any form of clouds since arriving in Sudan 3 days ago.¬†

In the middle of the drive, a totally barren spot, but still the cirrus is there. 

Ahmad drives the Landcruiser well, sometimes at high speed along straight stretches, especially with so little traffic on the road, except for wild donkeys and wild camels as spotted here. If he sees a stationary car by the roadside, Ahmad would stop to see if there are fellow travellers who need help. We bump into a whole family by the roadside, but no problem, they are just having a meal break. 

This is a wild camel, trying to shade itself with the skinny pole?

And these are domesticated camels — tip: note the rope to restrict front legs movements, while above camel has no rope, so is wild and free.¬†

Suddenly clumps of bushes start to reappear. There must be moisture nearby.

We left the Nile in Marawi and we are approaching the Nile again on the eastern side of the Bayuda desert, 270km apart. We see spanking new power transmission towers, neatly juxtaposed with the biblical donkey cart. The power comes from a huge new dam built on the Nile — we will revisit this story later.

The Nile finally, and note the green fertile strip on both sides of this great river — a life-giver this river.¬†

We stop to refuel, and with such petrol station sparsely located in this huge desert, it makes good sense to plan your fuel well. We carry spare fuel in cans too, just in case.

There’s an eatery nearby, and I am quite impressed with its interior decoration — a Nile croc no less.¬†

We push southwards (towards Khartoum), and about 140km later, there’s an important sign (which we missed at first), to Musawwarat es-Sufra, our query. Here it is now totally off-road, but the zig-zagging, criss-crossing trails can be clearly seen on the hard red earth — chaotic trails.

Not long afterward, we arrive at the Musawwarat ruins, located on a plain surrounded by distant hills. The 4×4 ride along the dirt tracks has been reasonably smooth, but the lack of signage means the driver needs to continuously ask for directions from folks on donkeys who seem to appear from nowhere in the middle of the parched desert. Many of them carry containers, so my guess is they are fetching water from somewhere. Yes, water, something we take for granted.

The ruins date from 3rd BC, and is located about 30km from the Nile. Whoever built this place also built reservoirs for rainwater and water drawn from the Nile, which implies they were technologically advanced and wealthy as well. But nobody knows what this complex was actually built for.

It could have been a palace, a religious pilgrimage centre, or even a college. Digging has been going on since the 1960s, principally by the team from Humboldt University in Berlin. The Meroitic period of the Kingdom of Kush started when members of  the royal family left Nabata (at the foot of Jebel Barkal, 28okm northwest), to settle down here. 

They call this the Great Enclosure of the ruins, with an intricate complex of pillars, terraces, courtyards, rooms, passages and ramps, to the right. To the left there is a major temple, and the loose stones on the ground are original pieces being inventorised for eventual restoration (of the wall, perhaps).

The main entrance to the temple within the Great Enclosure, looking spectacular even 2,300 years later.

This is a rendition of how it might originally appeared. The two figures must have been local gods. (Source: 

Close-up of the figure on the left. The stones around it are filled with carvings of snake, lion, elephant, and some characters. Here in Meroe, the Kush people abandoned the Egyptian hieroglyphs brought from Nabata, and developed their own writing scripts. The interesting bit is, though archaeologists are able to read this Meroitic script, they are still unable to decipher or understand it yet, even after decades of study … such a mysterious language.

The wall encloses the main stucture in the Enclosure. There are rubbles everywhere but the team from Humboldt University are hard at work cataloguing the pieces and restoring these ruins. It is a tough, painstaking job.

There’s a makeshift museum along one side of the wall, to protect valuable relics found in the ruins from the elements, in this case statues of local gods.

The main structure is made from local sandstone, and one can imagine the walls to be plastered in white and decorated with paintings and murals. It must have been beautiful.

The whole complex is deteriorating fast with rubbles everywhere, which makes conservation and restoration of utmost priority in order to save these precious ruins.

I can just wonder at the engineering ingenuity of these ancient people. The building blocks of the walls — perfectly-cut sandstone pieces — were neatly stacked and locked into place, lasting for more than 2,000 years. Of course they were plastered over and decorated with paintings, fit for an important royal (religious) site in the Kushite Kingdom.

In some parts the encroaching desert sand is threatening to overwhelm and destroy the ruins.

More crumbling walls in this amazing ancient complex.

The wild desert is out there, and these outer walls bear the brunt of the extreme weather. They were thought to have been covered with tough white plaster, filled with beautiful paintings. There are no settlements discovered around here, maybe because this plain was regarded as sacred — so the space out there could possibly be dotted with pilgrims’ camps and temporary homes.

I cross a rather large courtyard, to reach those pillars. The Germans have been digging and preserving this place since the 1960s, specifically by teams from Humboldt University of Berlin, and they are doing a great job.

After crossing the large space, I climb a wall and look back to the east, where I have been wandering.

There is a team from Humboldt University diligently at work now, cataloguing every piece of the stones. They are also trying to interpret the so-called rock art or graffiti on the stones, key in the understanding of these ruins.

We come to a row of pillars, possibly a major temple. This is a very interesting part of the Great Enclosure.

Some of the pillars are decorated with reliefs depicting interactions between the gods and the kings. Note the elephant in the background.

There are many representations of elephants inside the Great Enclosure, but this statue (as a wall terminal) is the most obvious one. It seems elephants played a significant role in ancient Meroitic culture, but were elephants widespread in this part of Africa at that time, 2,300 years ago? There is none now.

This pillar depicts a god and a king facing each other.  The god is falcon-headed Horus, on the right, and this is believed to show the coronation of the king on the left. Horus is an ancient Egyptian god, adopted by the Kushites.

In what is thought to be the temple, there is a room with more pillars. This is puzzling — if the Great Enclosure is indeed a palace complex, then what is a temple doing inside it? In those days, temples were normally built outside palaces. This supports the theory the Enclosure was a sacred religious complex.

I move away from the area for a better appreciation of the ‘temple’. The sun is baking hot, but this is truly fascinating stuff from 300 BC. Unfortunately it’s time to leave — we need to hurry some 700m to the east for another temple, said to contain very well-preserved relief.

And here we are … the splendid relief on the side of the Lion Temple, dedicated to the god Apedemak, dated 230 BC. It shows the king (figure, second from right, with the queen behind him perhaps?) facing left to make offering to a row of gods led by Apedemak, the lion-headed warrior god of the Nubians. Behind Apedemak, I can make out other (Egyptian) gods, namely Amun and Horus (falcon-headed).

This amazing relief is an excellent example of the fusion of Egyptian and Kushite (Nubian) theology. And the whole thing is huge as indicated by the presence of Ambassador Ashri. ūüôā

It is very hot outside the temple, so it’s a big relief (pun unintended) to enter it.

Restoration is still on-going, and we oblige the caretaker by signing his visitors’ register, which he proudly holds.


What an experience it has been at Musawwarat es-Sufra, and I get to pose with archaeologist Dr Cornelia Kleinitz from Humboldt University, here for the winter dig (which is ending now). She asks me to wear a GPS tracking device, a Garmin, which I attach to my belt, to track movements among the ruins — so that she knows where visitors spend their time here, a splendid idea. By the way she’s a specialist in rock art and graffiti, but she still can’t make out what the Meroitic script is saying. All the best to you, Cornelia!


Pardon our exuberance, I hope the gods do not mind.



The Ruins of Jebel Barkal in Northern Sudan

Sudan > Jebel Barkal

March 2014

[This episode is dedicated to my dear brother, Nadzru Azhari, a Nile apologist.] 

The main reason why we are bunking in Marawi (see earlier story HERE) is to visit the crown jewel of ancient Nubian history, the ‘holy mountain’ of Jebel Barkal, also designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s only about 10km away on the other side of the Nile, so as soon as we have checked in at the hotel, we make our way across the Nile in the late afternoon. The city of Nabata, at the foot of Jebel Barkal, was once the capital of the Kingdom of Kush, which existed in parallel to the more famous Egyptians to the north. The Egyptians conquered them (16th-11th c. BC), and they returned the favour (8th-7th c. BC) when they had their capital right here in Nabata.

Again we pass through the lush countryside made fertile and green by the water of the magical Nile.

Rows of date palms interspersed by plots of vegetables, but do not let these green calmness belie the extremely rich ancient history that this land has to offer.

Finally at the sacred Jebel Barkal, a huge sandstone butte 100m high, a geological blip in an otherwise flat desert landscape, which had inspired the Egyptians Pharoahs and Nabatan Kushites since 1500 BC. The pinnacle at its front was said to resemble the ancient cobra (uraeus), the symbol of kingship. Between 8th-6th c. BC, this place (Nabata) was the capital of the Kingdom of Kush (which existed 11th c. BC to 350 AD). In 6th c. BC the capital was moved to Meroe, on the other side of the Bayuda desert, 280km away.

Sacred to the ancient Egyptians of the New Kingdom (that’s about 3,500 years ago), they and the local Kushites believed that life on Earth started here. In the 13th c. BC, Pharaoh Ramses II came to reconstruct a temple dedicated to Amon Ra, the so-called king of gods of the Egyptians. But this is entrance to Mut temple, which had been dug into Jebel Barkal, concealed behind the brick wall.

Columns dedicated to Hathor (a popular ancient Egyptian goddess), thousands of years old, have managed to survive the rigours of time. Mut temple was built in 7th c. BC by Taharqa, the great Kushite king who managed to conquer the whole of Egypt, right to the Nile delta.

Close-up of Hathor, goddess of the sky, love, beauty, joy, motherhood, foreign lands, mining, music and fertility. In short a wholesome all-rounder, a very nice lady I’m sure.

There are 13 known temples around Jebel Barkal, and virtually all of them face the Nile, hidden among those date palms. Grand avenues probably connect the temple’s entrances to piers along the great river, only 1.7km away.

We gingerly enter Mut temple carved inside Jebel Barkal, just in time for the lights to fail, hence the poor interior shots. Mut is queen of the goddesses and lady of heaven. She’s accompanied by Amon (king of gods), Hathor and Bes (goddess of¬†¬†households, especially of mothers, children and childbirth). Definitely a very feminine temple.

Mut temple was built in 7th c. BC by Taharqa, the black pharaoh who conquered Egypt and hence was heavily influenced by the Egyptians. Mut temple is full of hieroglyphs, which was adopted by the Kushites until they moved their capital from here to Meroe.

About 150 metres away, we come to the great temple dedicated to Amon Ra, the king of gods of ancient Egyptians. Originally built by Thutmosis, the Egyptian pharaoh from 16th c. BC, it was rebuilt by Amenhotep IV (aka Akhenaten) in 14th c. BC. Such was the importance of this site.

The temple was substantially rebuilt by Ramses II in 13th c. BC. These rams line up the main path leading to the temple’s grand entrance.

A piece of sandstone used for temple construction, but not from Jebel Barkal itself. The mountain is too sacred to be cannibalised for building materials, so sandstones were brought here from somewhere else.

Remnants of some outer wall of the great temple. With 13 known temples and 3 palaces, this place was indeed the seat of power of the Kingdom of Kush during the period 8th-6th c. BC. From here their mighty kings conquered Egypt to the north, right to the Mediterranean.

The ruins have been exposed to desert elements and plunderers throughout the millennia. Only recently the government has started to protect and conserve them (esp. with the UNESCO recognition in 2003), but due to lack of security and funding, looting still happens now and then. Archaelogical digs are always on-going.

This used to be part of the grand entrance to the great temple of Amon. The famous pinnacle thought to represent the sacred cobra head (uraeus) of Jebel Barkal can be prominently seen to the left.

One can only imagine how grand it looked like during the glory days. [Source:]

This is a good representation of what the above pinnacle (cobra head) and Jebel Barkal meant to the ancient people — the whole mountain was worshipped as a holy site, where Amon resides.

Jebel Barkal conceptualized in Egyptian art:¬† Here Ramses II is shown making offerings to the god ‚ÄúAmon of Karnak,‚ÄĚ seated inside the mountain; the pinnacle is rendered as a giant uraeus (cobra head) springing from the god‚Äôs throne. [Source:¬† ]

It is believed an avenue, maybe a processional way, started here at the temple’s entrance and went all the way to the Nile, hidden behind the rows of date palms in the background, just 1700m away.

In any case, the great temple of Amon is a heaven for professional and amateur archaeologists alike. It’s just full of stuff to explore, like a playground to me.

Done with the the temples on the southeastern side of Jebel Barkal, we move northwest of the hill to face the setting sun, where the pyramids of the royal cemetery are. There are two groups of pyramids, northern and southern. These are the southern group, Egyptian style, not as famous as the northern ones. Used to be spectacular structures, these poor pyramids are now virtually rubbles.

These are the more famous northern group of pyramids, very well-preserved, built in 7th c. BC. Pyramid-building was thought to have been started by King Piye (Piankhi), the black pharaoh who conquered Egypt in 8th c. BC.

Pyramids are actually graves, and this royal cemetery of the Kush kingdom was in use from 300BC to 50AD. First excavated by Harvard University in 1916.

Very spectacular indeed, especially in the setting sun. These pyramids date from 300 BC, when the capital was already moved to Meroe, 280km to the southeast.

They are much smaller than their Egyptian counterparts, only 30m high the tallest one. They also have different construction style and stone-finishing technique. Steeper for sure.

One can only imagine the glorious original finishing — it must have been spectacular, fit for dead kings and queens.

The most important difference between these pyramids and the Egyptian ones is functionality. Egyptian pyramids contain burial chambers right inside them; Kushite ones were built as monuments, with the dead buried underneath them.

The sun gets lower, and the pyramids’ stones get even redder. So too the sandstone of Jebel Barkal at the back.

From this vantage point, I can see sacred Jebel Barkal virtually in its entirety — 100m high, with a distinct flat top, just like the much bigger Table Mountain of Cape Town.

I just can’t get enough of these 2,300-year-old behemoths, really — the significance of it all in our human civilisation, such mind-boggling raison d’√™tre, a living history I’m witnessing.

The desolateness of the pyramids is enhanced by the failing sunlight.

We are told to go up Jebel Barkal for the sunset … what, climb that huge stone? But it sure looks inviting, so we hurriedly take our car to the foot of the rock.

I see people climbing up the sandy slope, some sliding and slipping backward, but the majority soldier on, …¬†and most are having fun, I bet.

It looks like a harmless day out for the whole family, climbing this sacred hill – see that 45-degree slope!

The sun is setting fast, so we decide to stop just maybe 20m up the rocky slope before it completely disappears … and Sabariah does her usual leap, with the famous Nubian pyramids in the background.

One of us, Tok Mat, even manages to make friends. Good on you!

With the sun slowly disappearing over the desert horizon, the changing hues and colours make a surreal presentation of the ancient pyramids.

With the sun finally gone and the celestial show over and the pyramids looking very lonely indeed, we grudgingly descend Jebel Barkal for our vehicles for the evening ride back to Marawi.

Verdict: Jebel Barkal is as awesome as it could get, when history and nature put up a great show together. Please visit!



Our Turkey Tales


February 2013



A collection of stories from Turkey. February, 2013.


From Kuala Lumpur to Izmir

Hierapolis of Phrygia (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

Pamukkale the Cotton Castle (Part 1, Part 2)

Ephesus, Capital of Roman Asia (Part 1, Part 2)

Virgin Mary and St John in Ephesus

Breathtaking Cappadocia (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

Ancient Anatolian History Lesson in Ankara

Ankara to Urfa 

In Search of Prophet Abraham – the Cave

In Search of Prophet Abraham – the Fish Lake

The Bazaars of Old Urfa

In Search of Prophet Abraham – the Damlacik Hill

Fantastic Harran and Gobekli Tepe in Southeastern Anatolia


Also videos from the trip … (please watch in HD)







Italian Motorways and Cinque Terre

Italy > Cinque Terre

September 2013

We are in France, driving the A8 motorway just north of Monaco heading for the Italian border. The weather has not been good since we left Antibes, where we picked up Nukmae, our #5 kid. The terrain is virtually rocky mountains and they seem to go all the way to La Spezia in Italy. Somewhere to our right Monaco clings to the narrow mountain slope as it drops into the Mediterranean sea.

Typical of the French tunnel — note the blue lights which are used to gauge distance. Rule of thumb is, use gap between successive blue lights as distance between your car and the vehicle in front for safety. I thought that was clever, as we speed at 100kph through the dark tunnel.

The nearest major Italian city is Genoa, still a distance away, as we pass from tunnel to viaduct to tunnel to viaduct … ad infinitum! At first it is exciting to drive through tunnels and viaducts but soon we get fatigued by them!

Spectacular engineering at the sea’s edge. I call this a rich man’s motorway — no curves, no twists, just straight through mountains via tunnels and across deep valleys via viaducts.

The France-Italy frontier, but I suspect the border is actually in the middle of that tunnel — the sign is put here for convenience.

All in Italian now, but as always, we can always figure out what the notices or warnings mean. We better be!

Now we start seeing distances of some major Italian cities — we are indeed getting somewhere.

Italian tunnels are a bit spartan compared to the French ones — in general safety features along their motorways are somewhat behind the French’s.

And of course, a motorway cannot be free, especially when it’s an expensive one full of tunnels and viaducts.

I just can’t imagine how they built this hole and nothing above it is touched. ¬†Sometimes there are even farms and houses up there, but during construction I’m sure there were vibrations.

A Fiat Bravo patrol car, looking quite sleek in this livery.

We started the day in Nimes, visited Arles, stopped at Antibes to pick up Nukmae, and finally the much-anticipated night stop somewhere near the Mediterranean town of Varazze. We travelled 450km today, more than 10 hours on the road in two nations, so this dinner of seafood pasta and risotto was most welcome! And the cook himself comes out to greet us — an Egyptian Muslim he is. He says very rare to see fellow Muslims here.

Very tasty risotto packed with shellfish …

… and pasta full of fresh mussels. Fantastic!

We had a good rest, and good morning from the hotel balcony — the Mediterranean does not look too friendly today. We are just northeast of the town of Varazze, which is west of Genoa.

We get onto the motorway again, but skip Genoa because weather is not too good. Feeling ingenious I decide to get off here, hoping to find my way into the famous Cinque Terre area via mountain roads. A scenic route, off the beaten track, I tell the others.

We were on that motorway just now, which goes all the way to Rome, far far away.

We just have to admire this incredible piece of engineering.

So far so good, the road signs are quite decent and we being seeing beautiful villages along the way. The rented manual Opel Corsa 1.4 performs pretty well along the narrow winding mountain roads.

We start to climb into the mountains, fog sets in and the temperature drops, with an ominous sign by the roadside. Uh-oh!

We seem alone, no cars around us, and I’m getting suspicious. Is this a through road that would get us to the famous seaside villages of Cinque Terre? The offline Google Maps we use seems to be saying so, and we push on.

Then we come to this prominent sign across half the road. My worst fear is realised … I can barely make out what it says … road closed, access only to residents or those authorised by the municipality of Vernazza. We promptly make a U-turn and leave … so near and yet so far … Vernazza is one of the five villages of Cinque Terre.

We retrace our way to get out of the mountains, and use the normal roads into Cinque Terre via the town of La Spezia. We lost good time in our aborted ‘shortcut’ to Cinque Terre, but at last we are here — Riomaggiore, the most famous of all five villages of Cinque Terre.

At the junction on the hill before we go down to Riomaggiore, I see this curious notice — restrictions for buses — which says a lot about what to expect down there, must be the narrow winding roads. No problem for cars hopefully.

From the mountains we descend towards the spectacular Mediterranean coastline.

There’s a familiar notice nearby declaring the whole area of Cinque Terre as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The narrow road hugs the cliff and we see Riomaggiore, the first of the five villages of Cinque Terre.

We leave our car by the roadside temporarily to enjoy the splendid view of the cliffs jutting into the Mediterranean.

Cinque Terre means ‘Five Lands’, and it comprises the villages of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso. ¬†These villages were first settled some 1,500 years ago, and the people have built terraces along the cliffs above them for planting olives and grapes.

The narrow road connecting the villages can be seen along the awesome cliffs. This is truly rugged country. There is a rail line connecting these villages with La Spezia, which is especially useful for travellers — probably the only real access in the old days.

We drive further down, and Riomaggiore opens up.

One can imagine in the old days how secure this location was, due to the sea and mountains acting as natural barriers to unwanted visitors.

We soon come to a small roundabout, and a traffic jam. There’s a checkpoint to the left with a boom gate and nobody’s moving. We soon find out, we cannot enter the town until a car leaves — all parking lots are already taken up! It’s a Saturday so I guess the town is full of day-trippers.

After 10 minutes of waiting and still no movement, so we decide to leave, only to give way to a bus escorted by a patrol car. Very congested indeed.

We return to the mountains and decide to try the other village, Manarola.

Time is not on our side, alas, and Manarola looks congested too, so we stop at a layby to take a look at Riomaggiore from this vista.

It looks like a really cosy village, this Riomaggiore, especially on a fine day like today’s. On a bad weather day probably I’d think differently. Five of them all in a row, these colourful ancient villages.

Soon we are out of Cinque Terre and back in La Spezia.

Past La Spezia we find our motorway again, now heading south towards where the leaning tower is …




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Please click HERE for a full list of stories from 2004. Pleasant viewing, thanks!