The Meroe sites in Sudan – Pharaonic temples and pyramids (UNESCO)

The Meroe Pyramids of Sudan

The Pyramids of Meroe are visible from afar, a dozen or so triangles made from stone bricks sticking out from the hills like a row of broken teeth. The Sudanese passengers in our crowded overland bus are dozing in their seats. The curtains are drawn, they are on their way to Khartoum and don’t care for the views outside. “Please stop here,” we shout to the driver in Arabic. Or at least we hope that is what we shout … Anyway he gets the point and lets us get off into the desert. From the road we have to trod just about 500 m across the sand towards the ticket office of the huge pyramid compound, but the souvenir sellers and the lone German tourist resting in the shade with his guide and driver are speechless for a moment at seeing two backpackers: “Did you walk all the way here?”. There aren’t many tourists at the Meroe Pyramids of Bagrawiyya, Sudan’s No. 1 tourist attraction, and they generally come in Four-Wheel Drives and mostly in groups. The other Meroe sites in Sudan are much less visited.

Capital of the Kushite empire

The pyramids belong to the ancient Kushite capital of Meroe nearby and served as a royal cemetery from the 8th century BC until the 4th century AD. The next village is Bagrawiyya. So, since Meroe is now the name of a quite distant but important town, Sudanese prefer to call them Bagrawiyya Pyramids. Since the Kushite kings of Meroe saw themselves as legitimate heirs to the Egyptian Pharaohs – the 25th Dynasty had been from today’s Sudan, Meroe controlled some important temples, and Egypt itself was meanwhile under the control of foreign powers – they continued to build in a super-Pharaonic style. They built (smallish) pyramids over their stone tombs, and decorated their temples with Egyptian gods and hieroglyphs.

Lion detail on the Meroe Pyramids

The Europeans smashed most of the pyramids right after their discovery in the 19th century, because the Italian treasure hunter Guiseppe Ferlini had found gold in the tip of one of them. Since the 1970s, several pyramids and most prayer chambers have been restored or rather rebuilt: Some of the Pharaonic gods are now executed in a distinctly Socialist Realist style …

When we come back to the ticket office, the ticket lady who had collected our 50 USD entrance fee and agreed to watch our backpacks, has fallen asleep in her office: It seems she does not expect any more tourists for the day.

Sleeping cashier at one of the Meroe sites in Sudan

The Lion Tempel of Musawwarat es-Sufra

Two days later we hire a Landcruiser to reach two more distant Meroe sites. Musawwarat es-Sufra and Naqa, both of have been named UNESCO World Heritage sites in 2011 together with the Meroe pyramids. We also visited the Pharaonic sites of Jebel Barkal, Nuri and El Kurru, another UNESCO site in Sudan.

backpacker and local warden at Musawwarat Temple in Sudan

Musawwarat es Sufra is a half-hour desert ride away from the asphalt road. There is nobody except a warden with a cardboard box full of dollar notes who points out the various temples to us in the vast archaeological area. They are named Temples 1 to 5 as almost nothing is known about the site. Some walls still have decorative carvings with elephants, lions, pharaohs and decorative bands. In one corner, German archaeologists have set up a small open-air museum to shelter some of the stone reliefs. The Lion Temple about one km away was the only one with extensive decoration, including hieroglyphics and images of Egyptian and Meroitic gods such as the Lion God Apedemak. This temple is also a reconstruction of the 1970s.

The Amon Tempel at Naqa

Beyond Musawwarat es-Sufra the desert track gets even rougher, and it takes us another half hour to reach Naqa.

Naqa Amun temple, another one of the Meroe sites in Sudan

A row of rams with tidy woollen curls is guarding the access way to the temple of Amun in Naqa. High Egyptian-style pillars are towering over the courtyard. Also, beneath the rubble of partly collapsed walls, archaeologists have discovered an unusual painted altar. Nearby is also a delicate kiosk with florid Corinthian capitals and another Lion temple with reliefs of the Kushite lion god Apademak.

Is it worth visiting the Meroe sites?

You may want to consider the high entrance fee of 25$ per person per site before you commit to visiting all three of them. Apart from the costs and the difficulties to get there – we liked Mussawarat es-Sufra most. The spread-out area and the isolated setting gave us a feeling of exploration, and the open air museum was lovely. On the contrary we found the reconstructed Bagrawiyya pyramids a bit artificial. The ongoing excavation that included numerous workers with blue wheelbarrows intensified the impression of the pyramids just being built. A big plus is that this site is easily accessible, even as a day trip from Khartoum.

workers at the Meroe Pyramids

How to get to the Meroe sites?

Independent travel on the back of a truck in Sudan

The Bagrawiyya pyramids are right on the road between Atbara and Khartoum, close to the village of Bagrawiyya. Every public bus going along this road can drop you nearby. Getting onwards or back to Khartoum might be a bit trickier, as the frequent buses tend not to stop to pick up passengers. Private cars might be more likely to take you but you may have to wait a while. There is a rest area a few kilometres down the road where you can by water or soft drinks. Nothing is available at the pyramids, though.

To get to Musawwarat es-Sufra and Naqa you will need a 4×4. We rented one (with driver) in Khartoum. With a lot of bargaining and asking around we paid 100 $ for the day including fuel. It might be cheaper to rent a car in the town of Shendi, which is closer to the sites. However, there will be fewer options available and the drivers WILL take advantage of this. Besides, accommodation in Shendi is a nightmare …

Overall, Sudan was an easy country to travel independently. And it was quite cheap too! Have a look at our budget for 15 days of travelling through Sudan.

We were not sponsored to write this blog post and paid all expenses ourselves.

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  1. What a real lovely blog about a part of the world that always intrigues me. I will agree that is a very steep price to pay but as it’s a once in a lifetime moment I’m sure ever penny was worth it.

    1. The entrance fee is inflated, compared to all other things in Sudan. However, I do hope that they use the money from the entrance fees for the conservation and research of the sites. But I guess it just goes straight into the pockets of some politicians.

  2. We were very sorry we missed the pyramids when we visited Egypt. So if we ever get to Sudan we would want to check out the Meroe Sites. So sad to read that Europeans smashed most of the pyramids when they were discovered. But great that many have been rebuilt or restored – even if they may be a bit articial. The ram in the front of the temple of Amun in Naqa looks fascinating with the stone curls.

    1. Dear Linda, if you are interested in the pyramids, I would strongly suggest to return to Egypt and see the real thing! The Meroe pyramids and the Nubian culture are fascinating but they are very small and no comparison to Egypt.

  3. I have never thought of exploring Sudan. But you make it sound like an adventure. It would be interesting to see the pyramids and the pother excavations. the landscape is surely very inviting.

    1. It is an adventure for sure, but this is usually the case if you go somewhere off the tourist path. Sudan does not see many tourists. The landscape is mostly desert.

  4. I have always wanted to visit pyramids and I do hope I visit it someday. I have read so much about it and the stories behind the pyramids that I have been interested in them. Thanks for your post that I am reminded that I need to bring visiting Sudan forward and plan for it.

    1. Dear Raksha, please notice that the pyramids you have read about are probably in Egypt. The Sudanese pyramids are from a much later period. Back then the Nubians were the rulers in Egypt and they “copied” the Egyptian culture and building style.

  5. I can see why this was designated as an UNESCO World Heritage site. It should be protected site and an opportunity to visit and learn about its history. What an amazing experience this must be to visit this.

    1. We had read about the Nubian culture before and seen some pieces in museum around the world. So it was amazing to finally visit the excavation sites!

  6. My husband has lived in Sudan for a few months and I have heard stories of these places from him. And once again, in this blog, you have created a vivid picture of some of the heard names. I wish to see Pyramids of Meroe some day. The pictures look great. He also mentioned about Nimule where Nile enters South Sudan. Did you go there?

    1. Dear Manjulika, if you have the chance to visit Sudan, go! It is really and adventure. We did not go further south than Khartoum on this trip. I think Nimule is now in South Sudan. That would require another visa…..

  7. I haven’t been to Sudan yet, but I love to admire the UNESCO sites. You had a fantastic adventure! The Meroe sites with pharaonic temples and pyramids seem spectacular. It’s so irritating, annoying that the Europeans destroyed most of the historic pyramids after Guiseppe Ferlini had found gold in the tip of one of them. It’s awful that they had no respect for this art and culture. I would love to visit the Amon Tempel at Naqa most.

    1. Traveling in Sudan and visiting the Nubian sites is an adventure for sure. You would love it. And going through the hassle to get to some of the outlying sites is definitely worth it!

  8. I would possibly pay for this as it is unusual and quite unexplored. Moreover, they are interesting from an art perspective. Thanks for all the tips that you have suggested including the high price. It definitely is higher than usual but well…the price of seeing something unusal.

    1. If you are interested in archeological sites like this, the high entrance fee is very well worth it! You will be alone on the site in most cases!

  9. What a lovely part of the World and I’m happy that I’m knowing all of these sites places through your posts. I want to visit Egypt for it’s pyramids but now seeing Sudan in a different way took my breath away. Amazing post

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