So often overlooked in favor of Giza’s better-known monuments, the pyramids of Meroe are among Africa’s forgotten treasures
NEED TO KNOW
Meroe is 143 miles (230 km) north of Khartoum
DATE OF CONSTRUCTION
260 BC to AD 350
Up to 98 ft (30 km)
90°F (32°C); Apr: 106°F (41°C);
Jul: 100°F (38°C) ; Oct: 104°F (40°C)
Some ideas are too good to be forgotten. When Egypt’s pyramid boom burned out in 2500 BC, the country’s signature tomb design found its way up the Nile to northern Sudan, where it was embraced more than 2,000 years later by the Kushite Kingdom. Evidence of this architectural revival can be found at the great royal cemeteries of Bagrawiya, better known as the pyramids of Meroe, where dozens of steep-sided, chocolate-colored pyramids litter the desert. This may be Sudan’s most iconic sight, but visitors are likely to have the tombs all to themselves, with little more accompaniment than the sound of the desert wind in their ears.
The Kushite rulers had seen themselves as the true inheritors of Egyptian religion and culture long before they built the pyramids at Meroe, and even invaded their northern neighbor in the 8th century BC to establish an empire stretching as far as Libya and Palestine. Although Egypt later came under Roman control, it continued to influence the cultural life of the Kushite Kingdom.
The pyramids of Meroe are all that remain of a once-magnificent Kushite city, and bear witness to an empire once powerful enough to hold its own against Rome. Not all of the pyramids at Meroe are intact. In fact, many look as if they have been bitten off at the top, one after the other, like a row of quickly sampled Easter eggs. This vandalism was the work of a 19th-century Italian treasure-hunter who dismantled the monuments as part of his largely unsuccessful search for gold.
The decapitated pyramids reveal rubble cores covered in brick – an ancient, quick-fix building technique that allowed Sudanese rulers to erect huge numbers of the structures with ease. Each pyramid sits above a simple tomb chamber, which is dug into the rock below. The porch-like structures on the eastern sides of the pyramids house funeral chapels decorated with carvings and hieroglyphs, designed to ease the dead into the next world.
A small town now stands slightly away from the pyramids on the banks of the Nile. Excavation here is ongoing, in the hope that more clues to the mysterious Kushite Kingdom will be unearthed. Any visitors to Meroe who want to know more about the ancient Kushite people will relish a trip to the excellently preserved temples of Naqa and Musawwarat to the south, where beautiful carvings show the mix of Egyptian, African and Roman influences that fed into Kushite art.
FORGET THE PYRAMIDS OF GIZA?
The Pyramids of Giza have a good claim to be the world’s oldest tourist sight, having had a constant stream of visitors ever since the Greek historian Herodotus wrote about them in the 5th century BC. The awe-inspiring pyramids remain among the largest man-made structures in existence: the Great Pyramid of Giza stands at 476 ft (145 m) high and has a base area of 63,270 sq yards (52,900 sq m).
Cairo’s urban sprawl has seen houses and fast-food chains expand to the very edge of the ancient site, where an unbroken procession of tour buses spill out their charges. The Egyptians have had thousands of years to perfect the tourist hard sell, and relentlessly offer camel and donkey rides to visitors.
The Egyptian authorities plan improved fencing around the pyramids to reduce the hassle from hawkers. In themeantime, visiting early in the morning gets you away from the big groups, as will riding in by horse from the desert side of the site.
Getting There and Around
Khartoum International Airport, on the outskirts of the capital, is the main point of entry into Sudan. Tourist visas are readily available, and the peaceful north is a long way from the troubled Darfur region. From Khartoum, the pyramids are easily accessible for day trips on public transportation. Naqa and Musawwarat lie off road, halfway between Meroe and Khartoum, and a trip to either town will require 4WD car and driver.
Where to Eat
Khartoum has a virtually nonexistent restaurant scene, and alcohol is banned. Breakfast, which is the most important meal of the day, is served in the late morning in nameless canteentype eateries on every street. It consists of ful (mashed beans), salad, cheese, and bread.
Where to Stay
Most visitors choose to visit from Khartoum, 1mile (2 km) north, has plush tents overlooking the pyramids.
When to Go
The coolest time to visit is from October to March; summer is ferociously hot and best avoided. Budget per Day for Two US$300 if you stay at the Meroe Tented Camp and hire a 4WD.
Entry to the pyramids is US$9