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. šŸ™‚

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 thatĀ hereĀ 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. šŸ˜€

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 Ā — 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 lodgingĀ in Dongola,Ā 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!




2 Responses to “The Nuri Pyramids and the Wondrous Nile”

  1. Nadzru Azhari says:

    What can I say/ another Nobel prize for Geography! Abe Ru

  2. naim says:

    Thank you, thank you!

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