Everyone knows the pyramids of Egypt. But few seem aware that there are even more pyramids farther up the Nile in Sudan.
Unlike the more familiar Egyptian style pyramids, those found in Sudan are tall, narrow structures with steeper sides and a smaller base. Most have a rectangular room attached to one side which acts as an offering temple for the deceased whose body is entombed beneath the giant stone memorial.
Egyptian pyramids, by contrast, have a much broader base, up to 5 times larger, and a shallower incline.
I was in Sudan recently for a desert expedition, and I had a chance to explore some of these ancient sites while driving north from Khartoum.
We reached the pyramids of Nuri, near the modern town of Karima, right at the peak of the afternoon heat.
The sun scorched the top of my head as I trudged across soft sand to stumble heat-addled among silent crumbling monuments that were used as burial places for the royal family of Kush until about 330 BC.
A group of dogs huddled in the shade halfway up a pile of rubble. They watched me walk past, but they were too tired to give chase or even to bark. The call to prayer broke the silence, drifting over from a distant village and lending a modern Eastern note to a site associated with much more ancient beliefs.
This region was once part of the city-state of Napata, founded by the Egyptian pharoah Thutmose III after his conquest of Nubia in the 15th century BC.
Fast forward a bit to 750 BC. Egypt was suffering political instability, and the people of this region turned around and invaded the Nile Valley, bringing it under Kushitic control.
The kings of Kush ruled Upper Egypt for approximately one century, and the whole of Egypt for about 57 years. This is referred to as the 25th Dynasty.
Their arrival brought a bit of a renaissance to the Nile valley. No new pyramids had been built in Egypt for more than 500 years. But the rulers of Kush went so pyramid-crazy that modern Sudan now has more surviving pyramids than Egypt.
The people of Napata were culturally Egyptianized as well, and Egyptian burial rites, writing, painting and religions flourished.
Ten kilometers from the crumbling ruins of Nuri, the holy mountain of Jebel Barkal rises from the desert to tower over a great bend in the Nile.
It isn’t a large mountain, but because it’s set in flat desert, the 98m tall table-topped peak has been used as a landmark by traders for centuries. We huffed and puffed up its steep slope just as the late day sun was casting a gentle evening glow over the town of Karima and the waters of the Nile.
There’s another group of pyramids tucked into Jebel Barkal’s shadow, and these are in much better condition. The earliest burials here date back to the 3rd century BC, and the pyramids served as a royal cemetery during the Meroitic Kingdom.
There are Egyptian ruins too. At the foot of the steep cliffside of Barkal sits a much older structure, the Temple of Amun, built in the 13th century BC when the Egyptians first conquered the Kingdom of Kush. Jebel Barkal was believed to be the birthplace of their god Amun, and his chief southern residence. The mountain also formed the southernmost boundary of Egypt’s African empire.
There isn’t much left of the temple but crumbling foundations, a couple inscriptions, and the odd standing pillar. But distance does wonders. If you go there, climb to the top of Jebel Barkal, find a stone to sit on, and watch sunset alchemize the temple and pyramids into burnished gold.
We spent our last Nile night in a Nubian house near what is probably the best preserved Egyptian site in Sudan: the temple of Soleb. This large sandstone monument was built by Amenhotep III — the same guy who brought us Luxor in Egypt — and consecrated to the god Amun Re, and to the pharaoh himself.
Because of a breakdown, we didn’t reach the area until well after dark. And so we pulled our Land Cruisers up in a line with their headlamps shining on the sandstone pillars. An owl flitted between them on silent wings, and the crunch of our boots on gravel and the shutter click of a camera were the only sounds. In the distance, mosquitoes rose from the Nile and drifted towards us in search of blood sacrifice.
And that was the last we saw of the Kingdom of Kush.
The next morning we refueled at a dump we’d established in Toshka and turned into the open sands, to explore the deep desert and uncharted sections of Jebel Uweinat.
When we returned to the Nile valley a couple weeks later, we made camp beside the royal cemetery of Meroe, and the best preserved pyramids we had encountered so far.
The Napatan phase ended when the royal cemetery was transferred from Napata to Meroe in the 3rd century BC. This break also brought a break in the dominant culture, and Meroe seemed to free itself from strict adherence to Egyptian norms and traditions.
The rulers of Meroe were contemporary with the Ptolemies in Egypt, and with the Romans in Europe. More than 200 pyramids have been found in the vicinity of the Meroe town site, most in a badly ruined state. The group we camped next to are half buried in drifting sand, lending the place a suitable end-of-time atmosphere.
Meroe survived the arrival of the Romans, although it began to decline at that time, eventually fracturing into several different states.
And that’s where we’ll leave the story as well.
If you have an interest in ancient Egypt, I strongly suggest extending your explorations into Nubia — the stretch of the Nile valley covering southern Egypt and northern Sudan. It’s a rewarding place to travel, with some outstanding ancient sites.