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, curtains 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 we do – 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 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, and 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.
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.
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.
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.
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, and 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.
How to get to the Meroe sites?
The Bagrawiyya pyramids are right on the road between Atbara and Khartoum, close to the village of Bagrawiyya, and 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 – but nothing at the pyramids.
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, but there will be fewer options available and the drivers WILL take advantage of this. Besides, accommodation in Shendi is a nightmare …