The Island of Meroe
Following the Nile as it flows north, some 200 kilometres from Khartoum, one comes close to the last capital of the Kushite Kingdom, one of ancient Africa’s most prominent cultures. The site, known as the Island of Meroe, is no island at all, but rather an expanse of land that stretches between the Nile and the Atbara River. One of two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Sudan, the archaeological sites of Meroe includes Meroe itself, Naga and Musawwarat es-Sufra.
Visitors to these isolated sites will find pyramids, temples, relics of residential buildings and irrigation infrastructure dating from as far back in time as the eighth century BC.
The Kingdom of Kush, which was heavily influenced by Ancient Egyptian culture, built its own pyramids, over two hundred of them. Whether at Meroe, El-Kurru or Nuri, the unique architecture of these pyramids is self-evident.
Unlike their Egyptian counterparts, the Nubian pyramids are much smaller in size (a base no broader than eight metres), very steep (an angle of seventy degrees) and rather elongated (no higher than thirty metres). Before delving into more details, we start with the first site.
Naga, at the Hall of Natakamani
A monumental pylon looms at a distance. As we came closer, we could decipher the bas-reliefs: the King Natakamani and his wife and co-regent Queen Amanitore appear grasping their enemies by the hair and beating them triumphantly.
This first-century temple is dedicated to a local god: Apedemak, the Kushite lion-headed warrior deity. On the sidewalls, Natakamani is accompanied by Apedemak, Horus, and the ram-headed Amun, while a curious image of Apedemak as a lion-headed snake emerging from a lotus flower never fails to grasp attention.
Back to the pylon, one can easily understand why many visitors like to think of this temple (and other Sudanese ones) as Pharaonic, while, in reality, they are only of Pharaonic inspiration.
These monuments are all Kushite, and a closer look would reveal artistic features typical of their culture: the Queen has clear African features, and the same goes to the broad-shouldered King with his round head and his necklace of large beads. Moreover, the Queen is depicted as the same size as the King, something symbolic of an equally important role.
A stone’s throw from the temple is an interesting kiosk with a hybrid style that fuses Egyptian, Greek and Roman elements. No interpretation whatsoever is offered. Not far from here is yet another temple, a big temple dedicated to Amun, also commissioned by the King Natakamani.
In addition to the hypostyle plan and the colonnades, the Temple of Amun has its own avenue of rams, reminiscent of the one in Karnak, Luxor.
The Great Enclosure, dating from the Napatan Period, is the name given to an architectural ensemble comprising three temples, all with courtyards, chapels and ramps. Why ramps? The answer comes from a funny-looking statue of an elephant.
Other reliefs of elephants here and in the nearby Lion Temple led many Egyptologists to conclude that the Great Enclosure served –among other things- as a place for training elephants for battles.
As for the Lion Temple, it is a compact and elegant structure dedicated to Apedemak by the King Arnekhamani. Dating from the third century BC, it is one of the earliest Merotic monuments, and its interior presents a fantasy world of elephants, lions, sphinxes and griffon-like creatures depicted on the walls and the columns. The temple in its current state is a reconstruction dating from 1969.
“Clearly visible from the Khartoum-Atbara highway, the pyramids of the Royal Cemetery of Meroe stand alone on a sandy ridge like a row of broken teeth," Paul Clammer, the Bradt Travel Guide – Sudan.
These teeth were broken (or better said, these pyramids were decapitated) by Western explorers and treasure-hunters in search for gold. Giuseppe Ferlini is probably the one name responsible for most of the damage.
Someone once said that the pyramids were archeologically significant but visually unimpressive. As we approached the Royal Pyramids of the Northern Cemetery (one of three pyramid fields of Meroe), we quickly came to realise that that was wrong.
The landscape in this pyramid field, dominated by the perfect harmony of the massive yellow sand dunes and the reddish hue of over thirty pyramids, is made even more serene by the absolute absence of tourists and touts tying to sell you a papyrus roll or a camel ride.
The site has a melancholic feel, and the clustering of so many pyramids in such compact a space only adds to the magic. The pyramids here have funerary chapels attached to their eastern side, something that cannot be seen in Egypt. Some thirty kings, eight queens and numerous princes were buried here, with the oldest burials dating to the third century BC, and continuing all the way to the fourth century AD.
Several construction styles are visible, and can be classified into types: stepped stone courses, smooth surfaces, moulded corners, hybrids; the examples are many. As we silently roamed between these pyramids, we came to wonder about the fate of Meroe, which came to an end with the rise of Axum in Ethiopia and the vandalism of the Bedouins, among other factors.
My travel companion and friend Ahmed Yehia, who has a graduate degree in cultural management, summed it up nicely: "Meroe is a place where you not only see the history in front of you…you also feel it. I couldn't have believed that such a place existed with all these pyramids around you…I’m sure people in Egypt don't know about this amount of pyramids in our sister country Sudan."
Our words were swallowed by the looming silence. A slight breeze carried the sand westwards, towards the direction of our next destination: Jebel Barkal and the land of the Black Pharaohs.