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When Egypt was a Nubian Country: The Pyramids of Meroe

April 18, 2012

[Note: Today is ‘Blog about Nubia‘ day, marking the expulsion of entire Nubian villages in 1964 to make way for Lake Nasser. (here’s a short video in Arabic). This unpublished travel/politics article was written a while ago but I can’t think of a better occasion to publish it]

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The desert, the pyramids, and you. It’s an unbelievable sight, to be walking amongst dozens of pyramids, with virtually no one around you, save perhaps for a convoy of camels afar – and the sun high above you, as you bow to step inside a pyramid’s foyer. It may be difficult to retrace your footsteps in the sand on the way back: on a windy day, they’d have already been erased. In every direction you look, a pyramid hides another; some are in ruins, some are perfectly shaped, pointing towards Amun, the Sun-God, as they tirelessly have for millennia.

This is what awaits the visitor of the pyramids of Meroë, in the Sudanese Nubia, arguably one of Africa’s most impressive sites and truly one of the world’s best kept secrets.

Driving northeast from Khartoum on the road to Atbara, it’s an impressive sight you are met with, apocalyptic even if the sun is rising behind them, casting their long and irregular shadow on the sand.

They are smaller than their Egyptian counterparts, steeper, and far more numerous. Consequently, the funerary chamber was not inside but underneath each pyramid.

Attached to each one is a roofless antechamber, where prayers were whispered and gifts were laid.

Many pyramids were well preserved – desert dryness assuredly helping – until 1834, when an Italian treasure hunter and cultural terrorist by the name of Guiseppe Ferlini decided to blow them up – every single one of them – in search of gold. To Sudan’s bad luck, he did find some golden artifacts in the first pyramid he desecrated, but none in all subsequent ones.

The sight remains impressive nonetheless; and Sudan has restored several of them.

Sudan’s – or, to be more precise, old Nubia’s – pyramids are a reminder of its old glory and civilization, which many Egyptians know remarkably little about, despite the strong historical links that unite us to Nubia.

They are also a tribute to the ambivalent relationship that joined Nubia to its northern neighbour. As Egyptian religions were imported in a land that ancient Egypt thought of as its ‘strategic backyard’, Nubia prospered, despite – and sometimes at the expense of Egypt – “the periods of Nubia’s greatest prosperity tended to come when Egypt was weakest and vice versa”, in the words of Anne Jennings, a scholar specializing in Nubian populations, and whose work informs the following section.

The Nubian homeland runs for the 1100 kilometres along the Nile – from the First cataract, near Aswan, to the fourth in Sudan.

 The Nubian and ancient Egyptian civilizations have always been deeply intertwined – it is thought that the troops that Menes (Mina) conquered Lower Egypt with, thus uniting the country and establishing the First Dynasty, were the descendants of Nubians who migrated northwards to Upper Egypt.

But the relationship between Egypt and Lower Nubia – then called ‘Ta-Seti’, the Land of the Bow – was often a belligerent one, until Egypt ultimately invaded Lower Nubia. Egyptian gold was extracted from Nubian mines, and captives became slaves.

The decline of the Egyptian state allowed however for a regain of prosperity in Nubia, or Kush as it was known, whose subsequent kingdoms – Kerma, Napata, and Meroë flourished politically, economically, and artistically..

During the Egyptian Middle and New Kingdoms, Egyptian-Kushite relationships were uneven, dominated by Thebes which co-opted Kushite Kings and gave them positions of authority within the Egyptian administration.

Culturally however, the influence went both ways – travellers, traders, slaves, workers, soldiers, bureaucrats, all carried cultural elements across borders. The priests of Amun were present and influential within the court of Kush, and a few Kushite kings took the titles of Pharaohs. King Piankhi was the boldest of them – and preempting a presumed Egyptian attack, he invaded it – all the way to the Mediterranean.

Egypt was a Nubian state, colony even, for 100 years, until the Assyrians invaded it from the North-East. The Kushites retreated to Nubia, where their kingdom remained strong for a millennium.

Of course, I barely knew any of this when I walked from one pyramid to the other, breathlessly admiring the remnants of a great civilization. My own ignorance of Nubian history embarrassed me. Despite its importance to Egyptian history – and despite the southern part of Egypt being in the Nubian heartland, we are keen to discard what is not the ancient Egyptian narrative. The winner truly writes history. And the emphasis we put on Arab rather than on African history in the official school curricula means that we sometimes ignore the history of civilizations closest to ours.

The Aswan-based Nubia museum, which was established in 1997 with the assistance of the UNESCO, is perhaps a step towards rectifying a past negligence of Nubian history.

However, “artifacts in the museum seem to focus not on Nubian civilization but on its fall – commemorative stones relate the victory of Egypt’s kings over Nubia”, explained Fatma Emam, a Nubian activist working on women and minorities rights, something that suggests there’s room for improvement.

The museum, with its extensive collection and charming architecture s nevertheless worth a visit if you’re in or up for a trip to Aswan, if only to picture how much better it could have been.

But if you’re really lucky, and willing to travel down to Meroe to witness the breath-taking beauty of those pyramids, then you will, too, discover firsthand this civilization that prospered on the banks of the Nile.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Focis permalink
    April 22, 2012 9:40 pm

    You are writing about an area totally unknown to most of the world. Even the tidbits of history that you list are brand-new information in a world where almost all information is just re-cycled and re-cycled ad infinitum I know of no one else who is writing from the Sudan. Please talk more about your experiences there, what else you have learned about this ancient nation, and what else there is to see. What is the danger level and how hard is the journey to get there?

    • April 22, 2012 10:27 pm

      Thanks, Focis.
      I did write a few articles about my trips to Sudan. They are here.
      The only risk I faced in Sudan was in South Sudan – a drunk soldier with a gun. However in (North Sudan) i was perfectly safe. In fact, the visit to the pyramids of Meroe I am describing here with a work colleague – she’s white American and in her 60s. We continued onwards to a number of tiny villages all the way up to the Egyptian border.
      The journey to the pyramids is easy. Land in Khartoum, take a car north or a bus to Atbara; the pyramids are about 2 hours so it can be a daytrip out of Khartoum. Or you can stay in the town of Shandi, which is not far from the pyramids. There’s a ridiculously expensive Italian-run tourist camp near the pyramids but i would advise against i (200 USD for a night in an air conditioned tent? Peu-lease).
      Also, Khartoum is a beautiful city and the Sudanese are absolutely lovely people.
      Safe trips!

  2. Focis permalink
    April 23, 2012 4:35 am

    Thanks for the links – but they are more political that touristic. Anyway, most of the world and the media hear the word Sudan and immediately have a vistion of armed gangs, refugee camps, hostility, rather than the normalcy you describe. Is this really a place where someone could survive more than ten minutes after getting off a plane? Perhaps you do not appreciate just what a picture of Sudan has been given for years by the media. Your writing is — a shock!

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