Camping in the Kingdom of Kush

 

Even though dusk was fading, it was still well over forty degrees, my legs were complaining about the slope and the sand, and I knew I was needing yet another rehydration pack. I didn’t care – the pyramids were on the other side of the sand dune. When I reached the top, they rose into view, basking in the orange glow of the dying light below the horizon. Over forty crooked, crumbling and still stately pyramids were dotted around the dunes like ancient alien structures on a Martian vista.

Heat exhaustion? Discovering the Meroe pyramids

These are the Pyramids of Meroë in Sudan. Built between 300 BC and 300 AD, they served as tombs for the ancient Kings and Queens of Kush. Smaller in size and steeper than their more famous Egyptian counterparts, each one is completely solid, with a burial chamber attached to the front and facing the rising sun to the east in worship of the sun god Amun-Ra. Meroë was the capital of the Kushite Kingdom from about 600 BC until its collapse in the 4th century AD. During this period the Kushite people were heavily influenced by Egyptian culture and religion, having been rulers of the Egyptian 25th Dynasty, although many indigenous practices, such as a new script, were developed. Thankfully they were in agreement with the Egyptians that pyramids were a sensible idea.

I sat for around half an hour slowly taking in the view in the remaining light, nodding to myself as if I’d just discovered Meroë on behalf of the Western world. Sadly this was not the case. After being brought to the attention of the West by French mineralogist Frédéric Cailliaud in 1812, they were half-demolished in 1834 by Italian treasure hunter Giuseppe Ferlini who dynamited the tops off in the search for gold. As a result, if not complete piles of rubble, many of the pyramids look somewhat truncated with their peaks clipped. The antiquities that Ferlini found can now be found in museums in Berlin and Munich. If anyone was so inclined, they could still inflict similar damage today; while there is an official entrance hut and a token fence at the front of the site, there was no security to speak of and, fortunately for us, no other visitors.

Up close at Meroë

Later that evening, like a pack of excited school boys, four of us from our group set off in the dark to explore the tombs. Sadly these contained only sand – perhaps our hopes of a supernatural encounter with the ancient dead were optimistic. We spent about half an hour sitting high up on the side of one of the pyramids, gazing at the ruins in the moonlight, taking in the still and arcane atmosphere. Our official visit was early the next morning, when we entered the site through the official entrance, this time paying the fee. Of course by now I was well acquainted with the area, although this time I was able to admire the hieroglyphics and carvings in the tombs depicting Egyptian gods such as Horus and Isis.

The following night we stepped things up a notch. After driving through the Nubian desert in temperatures exceeding fifty degrees centigrade, we camped at Gebel Barkal, a 100 metre high rock formation by the Nile which the ancient Egyptians considered sacred. In the immediate area there are numerous temples and pyramids dating from the earliest period of the Kingdom of Kush, the Napatan era (900 to 270 BC). Unlike those at Meroë, some of the pyramids here are in near perfect condition. Once again there were no other visitors, never mind a visitor centre, or anything else for that matter. We were able pitch our tent in the middle of one of the pyramid fields and had a moonlit view of the ancient site all night from our tent window.

Our campsite at Gebel Barkal

Visiting these sites in Sudan, you feel like a Victorian explorer, as if you’ve stumbled across ancient ruins which have lain undisturbed and unseen for thousands of years. I would advocate that you go, but, like an archaeological hipster, I think you might ruin it for everyone else by being there. Just go before it gets too popular.

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