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. 🙂

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.



One Response to “Crossing the Bayuda Desert to Musawwarat es-Sufra Ruins in Meroe”

  1. nadzru azhari says:

    Eeng + Yah,

    Merci beaucoup.This presentation deserves a Nobel prize in geography.Nothing less!

    Ang Ru

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