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Lost treasures of… Ancient Nubia

| 28 Feb 2017

Visiting much of Sudan today must feel similar to how the first travellers to Egypt felt over 200 years ago. There is something quite thrilling about arriving at an ancient monument where the only footprints are yours – it’s as if you are the very first tourist.

Mussawarat, Sudan

And indeed, tourism here is in its infancy, so it’s rare that anyone else will encroach on those quiet moments as you walk across virgin sands towards crumbling relics; no queues, no hawkers, no battling to hear a guide.

Sudan is the ancient land of the Kush, the kingdom of the Meroitic kings and warrior queens, where for so long many of the incredible archaeological sites and monuments were buried under the sands. This is Nubia, with its Black Pharaoh temples and where hospitality is simply a way of life. Sudan was once the largest and one of the most geographically diverse states in Africa. It split into two countries in July 2011 after the people of the south voted for independence. What is now northern Sudan was in ancient times the kingdom of Nubia, which came under Egyptian rule after 2600 BC. This Egyptian and Nubian civilisation, called Kush, flourished until 350 AD.

The capital city of Khartoum is organised chaos, steeped in British history, still with evidence of an imperial past: roads planned in the shape of a Union flag, vestiges of General Gordon and Kitchener, and old Sheffield steel bridges over the River Nile. The river is the lifeblood of Sudan and Egypt and it is in this vibrant city that the Blue and White Nile converge. A gentle boat ride to this very point is a must, as is a visit to the busy and colourful Omdurman souk, the largest in the country, with its endless alleys and side streets.

View of the Nile in Khartoum, Sudan

View of the Nile in Khartoum, Sudan

I travelled to this truly amazing country in May – not the best time to visit, with temperatures regularly hitting 45 degrees and more (October to April are the ideal months to travel here). Thankfully my comfortable 4×4 Landcruiser (with the ever smiling Shorba at the wheel) was air conditioned and supplies of water were plentiful. I persuaded myself that I was good in the heat and, as I love a desert, the next part of my journey was to be a treat, never mind the temperature.

Driving across the desert

Driving across the desert

Soon out of the city we hit mile after mile of dunes and desert landscapes, with roads as straight as an arrow, often encroached by sands causing a slowdown of our progress. The drives were long, but stops were well timed and there was always something interesting to see, not least the occasional herds of sheep or wandering camels. One particular diversion took us across the Bayuda desert, seemingly barren but home to a number of nomad tribes. We met a family of Bisharin nomads, who warmly welcomed me to their mud and cane home (well, shack) and offered us tea. Through my guide, Abdulmoneim, I learnt that, despite their apparent limited wealth, they were regarded as rich among the rest of their tribe: they owned 18 camels, a small herd of goats and a beaten-up old Toyota, used for occasional trips to the market.

Family of Bisharin nomads

Family of Bisharin nomads, Bayuda desert

Reaching the key sights always seemed to involve a sudden veer off the tarmac and up to 45 minutes carving tracks across dunes, adding to the intrigue and excitement. Suddenly the sandstone butte of the ‘Holy Mountain’, Jebel Barkal, appeared to rise out of the desert. This Unesco-listed site, along with the ancient city of Napata that lies at its feet, was once a landmark for Nubian caravan traders. A gentle climb to its top in the early evening gives a stunning sunset view over ruined temples below, established almost 3,500 years ago. The temple of Mut, cut into the mountain’s base, was built by Taharqa, the last Kushite king to rule Egypt. Inside, the walls are decorated with incredible reliefs, comparable to anything in Egypt.

The view from Jebel Barkal

View from Jebel Barkal, over the ancient city of Napata

There are in fact more pyramids in Sudan than in Egypt. Although undoubtedly smaller, it seems to me that their remote locations give them more appeal and certainly greater atmosphere. My first sighting was at the royal Kushite cemetery of El Kurru, where the earliest date from the ninth century BC. The tombs here are decorated with stunning murals, very similar to those in the Valley of the Kings. At Nuri, the weather-beaten pyramids appear to be crumbling into the sands, reclaimed by the desert.

Murals in Nuri

Murals in Nuri

But for me, it is Meroë that has the greatest charm. The royal cemetery was transferred here at the beginning of the third century BC, marking a shift away from Egypt’s influence towards a more African identity. There are over 50 pyramids here, some poorly preserved and, unfortunately, in a sorry state, largely due to the work of an Italian treasure hunter, Giuseppe Ferlini, who in 1834 destroyed some in his quest for riches. Yet this does not detract from the rare sensation of visiting this site, which I did early in the morning, as the sun started to throw shadows over the pristine sands, changing the buttery yellow colours of the pyramids to gold.

Pyraminds in Meroe

Pyramids in Meroe

On my final day as the sun was setting on Khartoum, Abdulmoneim and I shared tea with locals in a streetside cafe, a prelude to a truly incredible performance by the infamous Whirling Dervishes. Not originally intended as entertainment (I was one of only a handful of tourists in a crowd of many hundreds), this religious dance is performed in an attempt to achieve a state of religious ecstasy. It’s colourful, very noisy and a unique experience.

Whirling Dervish ceremony, Khartoum

Whirling Dervish ceremony, Khartoum

As astonishing as the performance was, it was the people of Sudan that most surprised me. On that last evening I was greeted by so many friendly faces, inquisitive men, women and children who were excited to meet me. Many just wanted to shake my hand and say welcome, with the young especially keen to try out their limited English.

Meeting people in Sudan

Meeting people in Sudan

But the truly unmissable experience is the peace and solitude of the desert sights. Go now, before the crowds descend!

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