Sudan: Pyramids, Pharaohs and More

Sudan has –among other attractions- over 200 pyramids distributed over two UNESCO World Heritage Sites. These are excerpts from my travel account of the Kushite Kingdom Tour in search for the Black Pharaohs and the capitals of Kush.

1- Meroe: Pyramids, Sand Dunes and Sands of Time

I have never in my life seen as many pyramids in such compact a space…tens of pyramids, all partly in ruins to varying degrees, dominate the horizon. At a distance, they look like a row of broken teeth, but as we approached them they started coming into shape, interrupted only by beautiful and mighty sand dunes whose gold yellow seemed to conspire with the reddish brown hues of the pyramids to lend the site an unearthly feel: We are at Meroe, the third (and last) Kushite capital, and the most extensive pyramid field in Sudan. It doesn’t get more exotic (or so we thought).
How many times did I dream of visiting this site? I can’t remember, and it doesn’t matter. I am here now, contemplating the work of man when man was god.

Unlike their Pharaonic (Egyptian) counterparts, the Kushite (Sudanese) pyramids are much smaller, rising from a narrow base in a steep angle…a ‘trick of composition’ to create a false sense of verticality. Each with its funerary temple attached to it and giving access to its inside, the Meroe pyramids casted their shadow on the sand, while their essence remained buried under the sands of time.

Earlier, we had visited the sites of Naga and Musawwarat, where the temples dedicated to Amun and Apedemak (a local lion-headed god) never fail to impress. Clearly inspired by Pharaonic art, the Kushite elements are never lacking, and the images of the King Natakamani are a clear example: posing like a pharaoh, he and his wife have African features: round faces, wide hips and bead necklaces. It all started earlier in Napata.

2- Jebel Barkal: At the House of Amun

The Meroitic Period lasted from the 4th century BC to the 4th century AD. It succeeded an earlier period of the Kushite Civilization, known as the Napatan Period. Jebel Barkal is at the heart of old Napata, standing gracefully as the house of the God Amun and boasting its own pyramids, temples and cult centre.

Today, Jebel Barkal is one of several sites of the Napatan Period that collectively form Sudan’s most recent UNESCO addition, but here the history is more impressive than the archaeology. It was during the 7th century BC that the Kushite Kings, having united their lands, decided to make a move and unite Egypt as well. They had already adopted several elements of the Pharaonic culture as early as the 15th century BC, and were relatively ‘Egyptianized’. The move came in 730 BC when Piankhi conquered and united Egypt under his rule, becoming the first ‘Black Pharaoh’, and establishing the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty in Egypt, which ruled for over 70 years.

He returned to Kush where, upon his request, he was buried in a pyramid…the first in what we know today as Sudan. The burial site (El Kurru) is also the resting place for several other Twenty-Fifth Dynasty’s kings, queens and princes. A nearby site, Nuri, has another cluster of pyramids, the oldest and largest of which is that of Taharqa, the greatest Kushite King/Black Pharaoh. Then comes another cluster around Jebel Barkal.

One can talk forever about the splendors of the Kushite Kingdom, but one also has to capture the moment and start climbing Jebel Barkal for a splendid sunset and an unforgettable view of the Nile Valley and its lush greenery.

3- Khartoum: A Metaphor of a Nation Divided

Probably, the most ‘emotional’ moment that I had in Khartoum was that of contemplating the spot where the White Nile and the Blue Nile meet, becoming one Nile that flows north to Egypt (and whose water quenched the thirst of every Egyptian since the dawn of time). Then came the National Museum, the Mahdy Fortifications and the Tomb of al-Mahdy with its silver domes. Khartoum has a relatively limited offer, but scratching beneath the surface reveals an interesting –though drastic- situation: a recipe for a new civil war.

Being a mini-cosmos where Sudanese people from different regions are concentrated, the ethnic discrimination is ‘institutionalized’. In their IDs as in all their official documents, the Sudanese people have to state their ‘tribe’…and belonging to one tribe or another can open certain doors or lock them. Now, there are around thirty armed groups in Sudan…armed factions on ethnic basis.

For the last 23 years, every president that ruled Sudan came in the name of Islam. Sudan has the largest Salafist group in the Middle East and the second largest Muslim Brotherhood community in the region. In the Nubian Mountains to the North, several international organizations are actively evangelizing, making use of the poverty and the marginalization of the Nubian community. This religious polarization only adds to a paranoid tension in the country, a country that has the largest delegation of UN soldiers anywhere in the world. To the south is the newly born South Sudan, poor and in need, and on the border are several zones whose fate is yet to be decided by international arbitration (like the oil-rich Abyei). No matter what the outcome is, controversy is served and the Sudanese people are very skeptical about their future.

Darfur is still bleeding, fresh violence erupts from time to time, ethnic discrimination is the norm, and the country suffers an alarming brain-drain as more and more qualified people leave to Saudi Arabia and other parts of the world.

I end it here because a more detailed account of the Kushite sites and their history will be published soon.

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