Travel inspiration: The mysterious Pyramids of Ancient Nubia
Off the beaten track
It has taken a fair bit of time for me to understand and admit that I am who I am today because of my childhood in Sudan (also thanks to the adventures of a boy reporter named Tintin). I was an active child and sitting still to read did not come naturally to me — I only developed an interest in reading while perusing Tintin's adventures in the library of the French mission in Khartoum, Sudan. In the span of my entire life, getting lost in the Sudanese desert to find the forgotten pyramids of Ancient Nubia in Meroë was as close to Tintin's adventures as I was going to get. Are you ready to dive in with me?
Sudan actually has more than twice the number of pyramids as compared to Egypt — with 255 known pyramids as compared to Egypt's 138 — and were built by members of the Kingdom of Kush, an early civilisation that ruled areas along the Nile River from 1070 BC to 350 AD.
From 3100 to 2890 BC, Egyptian Pharaohs sent their army south along the Nile in search of gold, granite for statues, ostrich feathers, and slaves. Arriving south to Jebel Barkal, a small mountain north of Khartoum, they built forts and temples later along the road to show their dominance over the Nubians, an ethnic group in Sudan.
The conquered area became known as Kush, and the inhabitants adopted all aspects of Egyptian culture, from gods to glyphs. When the Egyptian empire collapsed in 1070 BC, the Nubians were free. However, the religion of Amon was deeply rooted and 300 years later, Alara, king of the Kush, led a renaissance of Egyptian culture, including the construction of their own pyramids.
"The magical site of Meröe is surrounded by mysteries — for example, why did some pyramids have a cupola, while others did not? "
At the height of their reign, under the command of the famous King Kush Taharqa, their territories extended to Libya and Palestine. The king's crown bore two Cobras — one for Nubia, the other for Egypt. The last great burial place of these royal black Pharaohs was in Meroë, an ancient city on the east bank of the Nile, a famous destination in Sudan.
THE MAGICAL JOURNEY TO MERÖE
Our starting point was Khartoum and it took approximately four hours to travel the 200 km to Meröe. We had two serious off-roaders loaded with food, water, and extra jerrycans of fuel in case we got lost in the Sudanese desert. I remember feeling safe in our weathered Toyota Land Cruiser — but also recall our friends getting stuck in the sand a few times with their much smaller Suzuki 4x4 and the immense joy I felt every time we got them out of the sands.
Our journey was filled with amazing landscapes of temples and ancient cities, and there was always something to look at until we reached our final destination — Meröe, the capital of the Kingdom of Kush for several centuries.
All the pyramids are made of red bricks, but a particular architecture distinguishes some of them. The magical site of Meröe is surrounded by mysteries — for example, why did some pyramids have a cupola, while others did not? In addition, no one expected Greek and Roman objects to be found on site. Archeologists have uncovered a wine vessel in the form of an Amazon figure riding a rearing horse. This is a 5th Century BC piece, signed by an Athenian potter called Sotades.
IS IT SAFE TO VISIT THE NUBIAN PYRAMIDS?
I grew up in Sudan and last visited the country three years ago. Apart from catching malaria a couple of times, my family and I never had any safety issues. I've always felt safe in Sudan despite the ongoing conflicts in the south-west region of the country.
British tour operator Lupine Travel operates trips to Sudan. Lupine Travel requires that all customers attend a mandatory safety briefing before each tour. Cox & Kings also offers an 11-day Treasures of Ancient Nubia trip through Sudan that starts at $5,000.
Whenever it comes to travel safely to Africa, plan your trip and advance and use common sense — do read up beforehand, especially when it comes to tips for first-time travellers to Africa. Otherwise, it's an otherworldly place that is completely worth the trip.
About Mehdi Elaichouni
Always ready for his next adventure, Mehdi took his first flight to Sudan when he was three years old and stayed there for seven years with his family. Mehdi is now based in Singapore where he founded ANIA, a skincare company inspired by his childhood in Africa, with a focus to bring the highest quality natural and organic formulations from Africa. Follow his adventures with ANIA on Facebook and Instagram.