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A journey through the ancient necropolises of Sudan's Nubian Desert

Scattered across the sands of the Nubian Desert, Sudan’s constellation of ancient pyramids are home to celestial deities, pharaohs and queens — and very few visitors.

A camel and rider pass the pyramids of Meroë, Sudan.

Photograph by AWL Images
Published 26 Jul 2021, 11:51 BST

The night is salted with stars. Orion reclines on his side, and across the vast black blanket streaks a dusty comet. I wriggle an arm out of my sleeping bag and run my fingers across the sands of the Nubian Desert beneath me. The surface is cool, a little crunchy and dimpled with fox prints, but digging my fingers into the sand uncovers softer, warmer depths. These things haven’t changed for millennia, and suddenly I feel intimately connected to all that has gone before. Across these sands paced the ‘black pharaohs’ — Kushite rulers who conquered Egypt in around 747 BC and, for nearly a century, controlled an empire that stretched from Khartoum to the Mediterranean Sea. Its leaders revived the old Egyptian tradition of constructing pyramids as burial chambers for their kings, queens and noblemen with such gusto, they ended up leaving a legacy of some 255 towering edifices — more than twice the number found in Egypt.

Some can be found in the necropolises of el-Kurru and Nuri, around 250 miles north of the capital, Khartoum. Here, the steep pyramids are clustered around Jebel Barkal, a sandstone butte that looms unexpectedly from the endless flatness of the desert. Centuries before the pyramids were constructed, while the area was still under Egyptian rule, the mountain had been chosen as a holy site. 

Read more: Dive beneath the pyramids of Egypt’s black pharaohs

“See that,” says Hitam, my guide and a nubiologist, pointing to a weathered column of rock that has slowly eroded away from the main mass. “They chose this site because it looks like the cobra that gilded the pharaoh’s crown. When Egyptian pharaoh Thutmose III saw the mountain, he said: ‘This is the house of my father, Amun’ (their chief deity). And after that, all pharaohs came to visit it. The Temple of Amun he had built beneath is a copy of Karnak in Egypt — they were almost equal in status, so in texts, the glyphs for each are virtually indistinguishable. It just shows how important it was.” 

The temple ruins are best seen from above, so when the sun’s fierce bite softens, setting the russet rock aglow, I hike to Jebel Barkal’s summit. A warm wind rakes my hair as I walk to the rocky edge. Below, I can make out pairs of giant stone rams, their eyes and ears worn away by time, and rows of cracked and crumbling pillars that lead the eye to the green banks of the pewter River Nile — the same water that ferried Kushite kings to their coronations inside this holy temple. 

Read more: Travel writers share 17 ultimate adventures to inspire your next big trip

But what has been eroded by sand and sun above ground glistens below. Hitam leads me to the western side of the cobra-shaped pinnacle and crouches to enter a collapsed stone doorframe built into the rock. I follow him into the dark interior and stop in my tracks. We’re in the Temple of Mut, goddess wife of the Amun. A few spotlights, suspended from gnarled wooden scaffolding, illuminate scenes of exquisite beauty. Above us, in colours of white kaolin and ochre against a background of deep blue, is the lion-headed Mut, paying tribute to the pharaoh Taharqa. 

We drive a few hours south to the site of Meroë, once the Kushite capital and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, home to the country’s best-preserved cache of pyramids. More than 200 are spread across the sands that sip hungrily at their granite-and-sandstone bases. Inside, the walls are carved with cartouches, whose designs are as numerous as the stars. In the cool hours just after dawn, we meet only a handful of archaeologists who are painstakingly restoring the crumbling corners. I had yearned to feel the glow of Golden Age archaeological exploration and to see an ancient site without the crowds. I had found it in Sudan. 

Explore offers a 12-day Discover Sudan tour from £3,190 per person, excluding flights. British nationals must purchase a £75 visa prior to arrival.

Published in the Jul/Aug 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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