An unflinchingly barren landscape of sand, wind, and heat welcomed us into the north. Unable to enter Egypt, we wanted a taste of what our end destination could have been. We longed to see the gods we knew by heart from elementary school, to stare upon Isis and Horus and Amun, and to touch the timeworn hieroglyphics of the Book of the Dead. And so in search of Sudan’s ancient treasures, we journeyed northward into the vastness and quiet stillness of the Sahara desert.
Musawwarat es Sufra
Our first historical site was Musawwarat, an enormous pile of ruins of which no one knows the purpose of, and of which is only accessible via private vehicle. Pulling up to the Lion Temple, we didn’t have to search far for the ghaffir. A man in a billowing white tunic and sporting Einstein hair greeted us in Arabic, and after a meager Arabinglish conversation, we were allowed access to one of the finest Kushite temples.
Unfortunately, we completely missed the informational board (which, in our defense, was facing the wrong way). Thus most of the time, we were unsure exactly what we were looking at. But nonetheless, it was awe-inspiring. Especially as the carvings look remarkably fresh for 230 B.C. and we had the whole place to ourselves!
In the same vicinity is the Great Enclosure, a complex dating from Kushite history. From the ruins it’s easy to see how expansive this plaza must have been. As the sun set, we wandered the ancient collapsed hallways in silence, trying to conjure up who would have walked upon these floors, our fingers tracing some of the ancient carvings.
The Royal Cemeteries of Meroe
For an archaeologically significant site with over 200 pyramids, the Meroe pyramids are surprisingly accessible. The north cluster, clearly visible from the main highway, are dwarfed by Egypt’s. But there’s a charm and tranquility to these Sudanese treasures. Almost no touts heckle you, and on most days, you’ll have the 8th century B.C. pyramids completely to yourself.
[Click photo to enlarge]
Unlike their Egyptian counterparts, these Nubian pyramids are built on top of the buried. As a result, there is no labyrinth inside, but only a simple funerary chapel where offerings were made. But that didn’t stop an Italian explorer, who lopped off the top of each pyramid in the hopes of treasure. Besides some jewelry in the Tomb of Queen Amanishakheto, he walked away with nothing. And Sudan was left with a field of decapitated pyramids.
Possibly the best preserved Kushite site in Sudan, the Naqa ruins showcase Sudan’s classic architecture and artwork. The Temple of Amun, erected in the 1st century A.D., is proceeded by a fleet of rams. With some columns re-erected by German archaeologists and delicate stone carvings, it’s an impressive glimpse into what you’d see walking these hallways thousands of years ago.
An even better preserved site is right across the alley. The Lion Temple is dedicated to the lion-headed Kushite god Apedemak. The portal is flanked by enormous relief carvings of the King Natakamani and his queen Amnitore in victorious poses. With one hand armed with weapons and the other holding prisoners by the hair, both royals tower over lions who feast on the defeated.
On the Lion Temple’s doorstep is a Romanesque kiosk, with a row of Egyptian sacred cobras lining the top–a clear portrayal of how different cultures have influenced old Sudanese art.
And so concludes our tour through Sudanese history. With one last pit-stop in Khartoum, we were off back to Ethiopia!