Sudan: Other pyramids in Africa

In a country with even more pyramids than Egypt, Meroë is the pick of Sudan’s ancient sites, with 220 of the glorious steep-sided structures waiting to be explored.

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Royal Pyramids of Meroë at sunrise, Sudan.

The car crunches across the sandy plain and deposits us, in silence, behind a hillock. The hour is early and a wash of violet stains the sky behind me, as I shoulder my small bag and set off westwards. The cool sand spills over my flip-flops, so I bend to remove them, planting my feet awkwardly into the deep dunes. The exertion pulls beads of sweat to my forehead despite the crisp morning air.

The Pyramids of Meroe, Sudan

We stand in the noiseless desert, the kataha (‘sandy air’) blowing softly around us until the sun rises above the horizon, lighting the pyramids like shards of honeycomb protruding from the sand. We’re surveying the northern site, where the great Kushite queens and kings were buried. Ruled by the Egyptians for 500 years, the Kushites absorbed all aspects of Egyptian culture, including the penchant for pyramids, albeit with their own twist: making them steeper with smaller bases. In 760BC, when the Egyptian empire was weakening, these Nubian emperors invaded and ruled as pharaohs for nearly a century during a period known as the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty. Their empire stretched from Khartoum to the Mediterranean Sea, with Meroë as the capital. Only discovered by Europeans in 1821, the pyramids were looted a decade later by Italian explorer Giuseppe Ferlini, although all but one were empty.

The Forgotten Pyramids of Sudan - JSTOR Daily

Several archaeologists, making the most of the cooler early morning hours, are painstakingly restoring the crumbling corners. They nod sagely as we pass, before returning to their work. One of the smaller pyramids, restored in the 1980s, bears a smooth rendered exterior. But it looks a little cartoonish and I veer towards the untouched structures. There’s an air of defiance about them as they stand firm against the sands that are trying to swallow them up.

Sudan's 'forgotten' pyramids risk being buried by shifting sand dunes

Unharassed by touts or hemmed in by barriers, I get a genuine sense of exploration as we duck into different doorways and I run my fingers lightly over the ancient etching on the walls. Eventually, we come to tomb number six, which belonged to the warrior queen, Amanishakheto. It was the first one destroyed by Ferlini in his search for gold and the one in which he hit the jackpot, unearthing a stash of jewellery hidden near the apex. In brutish fashion, he crowbarred the cartouche of her face off the slabs of stone at the entrance — but it has since been replaced with a replica, and I trace my finger over three scratches raked across her cheek. “What are these?” I ask. “They’re the tribal markings of Kushite women,” Hitam explains.