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. 🙂

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. 😀






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