Meroë is an ancient city on the east bank of the Nile approximately 200 km north-east of Khartoum, Sudan. It was the capital of the Kingdom of Kush for several centuries. The site of the city of Meroë is marked by more than two hundred pyramids in three groups, of which many are in ruins. They have distinctive size and proportions of Nubian pyramids. (extract from Wikipedia).
We visited Meroë during our overland trip from the Netherlands to South Africa.
The background music is royalty free music from Jon Sayles (http://www.jsayles.com/familypages/EarlyMusic.htm).
Pyramids of Meroe
In approximately 1000 BCE, following the collapse of the 24th Egyptian dynasty, the Nubian kingdom of Kush arose as the leading power in the region of the Middle Nile. From 712 - 657 BCE, the Kushite kings conquered and ruled much of Egypt. Around the time of 300 BCE, the capital and royal burial ground of the kingdom moved from Napata further south to the Meroe region, located between the 5th and 6th cataracts of the Nile. Meroe was ideally situated at the junction of river and caravan routes, to connect central Africa, via the Blue and White Niles, with Egypt, the Red Sea and the Ethiopian highlands. Historical information concerning the history of the Kushite kingdom and Meroe is limited. By approximately the 1st century BCE, when the Kushinite royalty and their scribes stopped writing in Egyptian and began using their own script, it becomes impossible to understand their official inscriptions. Thus far the Kushite script has not been deciphered and historical knowledge of the civilization is based on archaeological findings and surviving Greek and Roman reports.
The pharaonic tradition of dynastic Egypt continued with a succession of rulers at Meroe, who erected stelae to record the achievements of their reigns and pyramids to contain their tombs. Meroe's political succession system was not always hereditary the matriarchal royal family member deemed most worthy often became king. The queen mother's role in the selection process was crucial to a smooth succession. The crown appears to have passed from brother to brother (or sister) and only when no siblings remained from father to son. The extensive ruins of pyramids, temples and palaces at Meroe indicate a cohesive political system that utilized a large force of laborers, architects and artists.
During the height of its power in the second and third centuries BCE, Meroe extended over a region from the third cataract in the north to Sawba, near present-day Khartoum, in the south. This area was the heartland of the later Kushite kingdom, and came to be known in classical literature as "the Island of Meroe." The rulers of Meroe were contemporaries with the Ptolemies of Egypt and the Romans. In the third century BC, they maintained good relations with the Ptolemies, since the kings of the two neighboring Nile states collaborated in renovating the temples of Lower Nubia that were sacred to both Kush and Egypt. Agents of the Ptolemies also traveled up the Nile as explorers and emissaries, some perhaps traveling to Meroe to haggle with the Kushite ruler over the price of war elephants which they sought to purchase for the armies of Egypt. Relations between Meroe and Egypt, however, were not always peaceful. In 23 BCE, in response to Meroe's military advance into Upper Egypt, a powerful Roman army moved south and destroyed Napata, the religious center of the Kushite kingdom. The Romans enslaved its inhabitants but then departed the area, considering it too poor for permanent settlement. Finally the Kushite kingdom declined following the expansion of the Abyssinian state of Axum (in modern Ethiopia). About 350 ACE, an Axumite army captured and destroyed Meroe, thereby ending the kingdom's independent existence.
The major god of the Kushite religion was a divinity of regional origin. Known as Apede-mak, and possibly a lion form of the Egyptian god Amun, he was sometimes associated with the moon. Frequently portrayed as an armored and lion-headed man, he was depicted in temples standing or seated on an either an elephant or a throne, while holding weapons, prisoners or lions and elephants. Grand temples were constructed in his honor at numerous places throughout the Kushite region.
The most visible remains at Meroe are its pyramids, which contained the tombs of more than forty kings, queens, and other important individuals. Given the existence of several large tomb-pyramids of queens and the remains of buildings exclusively bearing their names, Meroe after the 3rd century BCE appears to have been ruled by queens as well as kings. While these royal tombs were all plundered in ancient times, frescos preserved in the tombs show that the rulers were either burned, mummified (or not), and then covered with jewelry and laid in wooden cases. Some of the tombs, of both royal and wealthy individuals, also contained the skeletal remains of other humans, as well as animals. These associated burial remains indicate a belief, similar to that in dynastic Egypt, that the deceased would need and enjoy the same things in the afterlife as they had while living. Additional damage was done to the pyramids by the 19th century Italian explorer Giuseppe Ferlini who demolished the tops of more than forty pyramids in his search for treasures. Ferlini found gold in only one pyramid and his plundered artifacts were later sold to European museums. Contemporary archaeological excavations have revealed that some of the larger tombs still contain remains of weapons, wooden furniture, pottery, stained glass, and silver and bronze vessels, many of these being of Egyptian, Greek and Roman origins. Today Meroe is the largest archaeological site in the Sudan. Situated about a half a mile from the Nile, the city ruins extend over a square mile in area. Meroe was included in the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites in 2003.
Pyramids of Meroë stand as Last Remnants of a Powerful Civilization
The Great Pyramids of Giza are among the most recognizable structures in the world today. Yet just south of the Egyptian border is a set of equally impressive pyramids that stand beautifully maintained in the barren landscape of Sudan. Unlike the pyramids of Egypt, however, they are deserted and rarely spoken of or visited, despite their recognition of great historical importance as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today, the pyramids of Meroë stand as the last remnants of the great Kingdom of Kush, one of the earliest known civilizations in the Nile region.
Meroë was an important city in the ancient Kush Kingdom. According to the archaeological evidence, the city was settled as early as the beginning of the 9 th century BC. By around 300 BC, Meroë became the capital of the Kingdom of Kush, and remained so until the middle of the 4 th century AD, when it was invaded and conquered by the Kingdom of Aksum.
Photographs of the Pyramids at Meroe in Sudan, 2005. Photos taken by: Fabrizio Demartis ( Wikimedia Commons )
Due to the contacts between the Kingdom of Kush and Pharaonic Egypt (the Kushites even managed to control Egypt for about a century), it was only natural for cultural practices to move between the two entities. One of the Egyptian practices adopted by the Kushites was the building of pyramids. Unlike the pyramids built by their northern neighbours, the pyramids of the Kushites were constructed using large blocks of sandstone, and have a steeper angle. Additionally, these pyramids are smaller in size when compared with the Egyptian ones. What these pyramids lack in size, however, they make up for in numbers.
At present, archaeologists have discovered more than 200 pyramids in Meroë. The pyramids are divided between three areas, the South Cemetery, the North Cemetery, and the West Cemetery. Incidentally, recent excavations at Sedeinga, a contemporary site about 700 km from Meroë, uncovered a dense field of miniature pyramids. This has been regarded as evidence that the practice of building pyramids trickled down from the royals at Meroë to provincial elites such as those living in Sedeinga.
An aerial view of some of the pyramids at Meroë. Photo source: Wikimedia.
Like the Egyptians, the Kushites also believed that the afterlife was a more perfect version of life on earth, and that the dead ought to be buried with the things they need in the netherworld. Unfortunately, most of the tombs at Meroë were plundered in ancient times. Some of the pyramids were further damaged in the 19 th century by the Italian explorer and treasure hunter, Giuseppe Ferlini. In his quest for the treasures of the Kushites, Ferlini is reported to have demolished the tops of more than 40 pyramids. As a result of ancient looting, however, only one pyramid was found to contain treasure, and Ferlini sold the priceless artifacts to European museums.
Despite the destruction caused over the centuries, archaeologists are still able to piece together a rough idea of the way the Kushite elites treated their dead based on the reliefs found in the tombs. According to these images, the dead were mummified, covered with jewellery, and then laid to rest in wooden coffins. In addition, later archaeological excavations have unearthed some pretty interesting artifacts. For instance, the American expedition led by George Reisner at the beginning of the 20 th century found a 5 th century BC wine vessel from Athens and a 1 st century A.D. silver wine cup from Italy, indicating that the Kushites were in contact and trading with the Mediterranean world.
The archaeological importance of the pyramids of Meroë has earned them a place in UNESCO’s World Heritage List, as part of the ‘Archaeological Sites of the Island of Meroë’. Despite this prestigious status, the pyramids of Meroë do not receive even a fraction of the tourists that visit Giza each year. According to one reporter, a ticket seller at Meroë mentioned that the site usually receives just 10 visitors a day. The fact that Meroë is much less crowded than Giza, plus the lack of merchants and ‘guides’ pestering tourists, would certainly make Meroë an attractive destination for those who wish to travel off the beaten track.
Kush Empire, present-day Sudan has more pyramids than Egypt
Did you know that there are more pyramids outside Egypt? The undisputed kings of the pyramid-building world, in number at least, were from the Kush Empire.
The truth is that pyramids at Meroe, modern Sudan, were built between 2,700 and 2,300 years ago.
This civilisation arose after the fall of the 24th Dynasty of Egypt in c.1000 BC, and ruled much of the country until they were expelled by the Neo-Assyrian Empire.
The Kushites eventually moved their capital to Meroë (modern Sudan) in their remaining territory.
Though they had left Egypt, Egypt had not left them, for they set about building hundreds of pyramids around their new capital, 350 of which have been discovered to date.
These pyramids are grouped across five sites, and were built as funeral monuments to great people and rulers.
Kush was formally dissolved in the 6th Century AD.
Though they are smaller than their Egyptian forebears, the Nubian Pyramids, as they are commonly referred to, are testament to a mighty empire with copious wealth.
In the 1st Century BC, Kush fought against Rome, and though the European nation was victorious, Kush was never conquered.
The empire ended when its traditional industries of pottery and iron tools, dating back to Ancient Egypt, declined, and Christianity took hold of the region.Pyramids in Ancient Kingdom of Kush | Photo Wikimedia Common
A New Look at the Little-Known Pyramids of Ancient Nubia
In 2011, photographer Christopher Michel chanced upon an online course about ancient Egypt and signed up. What was intended to be a diversion led, some six years later, to a voyage of 8,509 miles, to the orange deserts of Sudan.
Although it’s less famous than the grouping of pyramids at Giza in Egypt, the complex at Meroë in Sudan is remarkable. More than 200 pyramids, primarily dating from 300 B.C. to A.D. 350, mark the tombs of royalty of the Kingdom of Kush, which ruled Nubia for centuries. They are recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, yet they remain relatively unknown. The Nubian pyramids differ from Egyptian ones: They are smaller to 90 feet on a side, compared with the Great Pyramid’s 756 feet—with much steeper sides, and most were built two thousand years after those at Giza.
“When I thought of pyramids, I thought about the Great Pyramids of Giza,” says Michel. “I hadn’t known that Egypt had significantly influenced the Kushite Kingdoms of Nubia to the south—and that over 3,000 years, the Nubians would adopt aspects of Egyptian language, religion, and technology. While the ancient Egyptians basically abandoned pyramids for hidden tombs, the Nubians continued to use pyramids.”
The endless Sudanese desert near the pyramid field of Meroë.
For an archaeological site of such significance, Michel found Meroë to be remarkably tourist-free—no doubt due to the warnings about travel in Sudan. As a precaution, he bought a satellite phone and registered with the U.S. State Department. “It turned out to all be completely unnecessary,” he says. “The Sudanese people couldn’t have been kinder or more hospitable.”
Most of Michel’s time in Sudan was spent camping and visiting archaeological sites. “It was pretty rough going—blazing desert heat, blowing sand, and millions of very, very annoying gnats. But completely worth it,” he says. “Sunrises and sunsets over red, wind-sculpted sand dunes engulfing vast pyramid complexes. And almost no tourists. Just the occasional villagers or desert nomads living very traditional lives amidst ancient, yet advanced, artifacts of another time.”
Michel traveled with renowned Egyptologist Bob Brier, known as “Mr. Mummy,” for the experiment in which he mummified a modern human cadaver. Atlas Obscura chatted with Michel about his experience and the particular thrill of retracing the steps of ancient rulers.
What did it feel like to stand in such an ancient setting, surrounded by pyramids?
Honestly, it felt like I had been transported back 2,000 years. These ancient places haven’t been commercialized. It’s just you, desert, and history—and the occasional camel, who wander unbothered through the deserts.
Sand dunes consistently threaten to cover the pyramids. All Photos: Christopher Michel />The steep, smaller Nubian pyramids differ significantly from their Egyptian counterparts.
Did Bob Brier tell you any unusual or surprising stories about Meroë?
Archaeologist, explorers, and treasure hunters have been digging around the Meroë complex for over a thousand years. Almost all the Nubian pyramids have been plundered by tomb raiders looking for treasure—sadly causing significant damage to these sites over the years. Bob shared the story of a treasure hunter and doctor, Giuseppe Ferlini, who blew up more than 40 tombs looking for valuables in the 1830s. At the time, no one thought it was a problem. Hard to believe.
Workers are constantly digging sand from around the pyramids to keep the desert at bay. />A few of pyramids look new because they have been reconstructed.
You’ve photographed in some interesting and remote locations. What stood out to you about your experience in Sudan?
I have one very specific memory of visiting a deep desert well. Above the well was a wooden frame and rusted pulley—and there was a large nomadic family there collecting water. A young girl was leading two donkeys that pulled the bucket from the well. Twenty or so camels fought to drink the well water that was poured into a wooden trough. Nearby the pulley was a rusted, wrecked electric motor. In remote Sudan, the old ways are the ones that work. I imagine that the lives of these people may not be much different than those of their ancestors who watched those pyramids being built. In Sudan, the past is alive.
Nomadic life at a well. Sudan’s color palette: blue and orange. Local villagers are offer camel rides for the right price.
What precautions do you have to take with your equipment when you’re photographing in a desert, in the heat and the sand?
I brought two cameras—a Fuji X-Pro2 and a Mamiya 7II medium-format film camera. There was a dust storm almost every day. And that Sudanese sand is some of the finest, most invasive sand in the world. The trusty Mamiya delivered for the whole trip. But, although I kept my Fuji covered most of the time, the sand absolutely destroyed that camera. Badly enough that it just stopped working altogether, and was buried in Sudan. One day, some future archaeologist will find that camera and start looking for the bones of the photographer.
A close look at the differences between the reconstructed and original pyramids. />Red sandstorms blend sky and land.
Pictures of Sudan’s forgotten Nubian pyramids
Bagrawiyah, Sudan – More than 200km from the Sudanese capital Khartoum, the remains of an ancient city rise from the arid and inhospitable terrain like a science-fiction film set. Nestled between sand dunes, the secluded pyramids seem to have been forgotten by the modern world, with no nearby restaurants or hotels to cater to tourists.
The Nubian Meroe pyramids, much smaller but just as impressive as the more famous Egyptian ones, are found on the east bank of the Nile river, near a group of villages called Bagrawiyah. The pyramids get their name from the ancient city of Meroe, the capital of the Kingdom of Kush, an ancient African kingdom situated in what is now the Republic of Sudan.
Around 1000 BCE, after the fall of the 24th Egyptian dynasty, the Nubian Kingdom of Kush arose as the leading power in the middle Nile region. The Kushite kings took over and ruled much of Egypt from 712 to 657 BCE. In 300 BCE, when the capital and royal burial ground of the kingdom moved to the Meroe region, the pharaonic tradition of building pyramids to encapsulate the tombs of rulers continued here.
10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About the Pyramids of Meroe
View of the pyramids of Meroe. Credit: Mosa'ab Elshamy / AP
Everyone has heard of the Egyptian pyramids, but few people know that there are almost 200 pyramids in the desert of eastern Sudan, which differ from their counterparts in Giza in their small size and lack of valuable artifacts – the Pyramids of Meroe.
Unfortunately, over 40 of the pyramids were either partially or completely destroyed by treasure hunters. Credit: Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah / Reuters
1. The ancient structures are located in the Meroe region (on the eastern side of the Nile between Aswan and Khartoum) – an ancient city on the territory of modern Sudan, which became the capital of the state of Kush after the destruction of Napata by the pharaoh of Ancient Egypt Psammetichus II in the 6th century BC.
2. The Meroe Pyramids were built between 720 and 300 BC. The entrances to the tombs were usually located from the East – facing the rising sun.
Hieroglyphics and frescoes inside one of the pyramids of Meroe. Credit: Mosa’ab Elshamy / AP
3. The walls are covered with frescoes, hieroglyphs, and inscriptions, testifying to the influence of the culture of ancient Egypt on the development of the kingdom of Kush. The decorative elements of the stone pyramids of Nubia are borrowed from the cultures of Egypt, Greece, and Rome.
4. The first of the Europeans to reach the Pyramid of Meroe was Linan de Belfon in 1821. In the same year, they were first explored by the French scientist and traveler Frederic Cayo. In 1834, the Italian adventurer Giuseppe Ferlini undertook an expedition here. In search of treasures, Ferlini destroyed about 40 pyramids, 5 of them were destroyed to the ground. It is believed that Ferlini used explosives to achieve his goal.
Entrances to tombs. Credit: Abd Raouf / AP
5. Over the course of this destructive expedition, Ferlini discovered gold in only one of the pyramids of Meroe. It is known that the royal tombs have been plundered in the ancient past, so not much has remained for modern archaeologists. Ferlini later sold his loot to European museums.
6. Real dedicated archaeologists began excavating Meroe in 1902. In 1909-1914, they were led by the English archaeologist John Garstang (however, their results were never published). In 1920-1923, the royal necropolises were investigated by the American scientist George Reisner. The excavations of Meroe by the English archaeologist Peter Shinnie were of great importance.
Like most ancient monuments, the Pyramids of Meroe were built with extreme precision. Credit: Mosa’ab Elshamy / AP
7. The frescoes discovered in situ describe the burials of the rulers. Some were burned while others were mummified just like the pharaohs of Egypt.
8. In some tombs, archaeologists have discovered remains of people and animals which suggests that the local beliefs were similar to those in ancient Egypt. For example, rulers were often buried with their favorite animals and belongings in order to enjoy them in the afterlife too.
The Temple of Hathor, located south of the Pyramids of Meroe. The local culture shared similar beliefs to the Egyptian culture. Credit: Reuters / Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah
9. Today, the ancient pyramids of Meroe are in danger of the approaching desert. Sand is the main problem in the preservation of this unbelievable necropolis.
10. Archaeological work continues to this day but the country does not have the money to fund large-scale work. This is why if you visit the pyramids of Meroe, you will see local workers digging the sands with shovels which is a nearly impossible task in the middle of the desert.
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• Castellano, N. (2021, March 16). The Nubian Kingdom of KUSH, rival to Egypt.
• Mamo, A. (2021, March 22). Glimpses of Sudan’s FORGOTTEN PYRAMIDS.
• Taylor, A. (2015, May 04). The forgotten pyramids of meroë.
The Nubian Pyramids: Sudan’s Long-Lost Ancient Pyramids
The Nubian pyramids are the ancient monuments that were built by the rulers of the Kushite kingdoms (centered on Napata and Meroë) and Egypt. The Nile Valley area, known as Nubia, which is located in present-day Sudan, was home to three Kushite kingdoms during ancient times. The first had its capital at Kerma (2600-1520 BC). The second focused on Napata (1000-300 BC). Finally, the last kingdom centers around Meroë (300 BC-300 AD).
Kerma was the first centralized state of Nubia, with its own autochthonous forms of architecture and burial customs. The last two kingdoms, Napata and Meroë, were heavily influenced by ancient Egypt, culturally, economically, politically, and militarily. The Kushite kingdoms, in turn, competed strongly with Egypt. In fact, during the late period of ancient Egypt’s history, the rulers of Napata conquered Egypt and unified it. The Nabataeans ruled as pharaohs of the XXV dynasty of Egypt. Napata’s domination of Egypt ended with the Assyrian conquest in 656 BC. The Nubian pyramids are recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and are a striking architectural example of ancient pyramid-development in Africa.
A Panorama image of the pyramids of Meroe in the desert in Sudan
While pyramids, in general, are associated with Egypt, the nation of Sudan has 220 around pyramids, which makes the African country home to one of the most numerous pyramid examples in the world.
The ancient Nubian pyramids were constructed at three distinct sites in Sudan. Just as the Egyptian pyramids, their counterparts in Sudar are thought to have served as tombs for the kings and queens of Napata and Meroë. The Pyramids of the Kushite Kingdoms are very different from the Egyptian examples the Nubian pyramids were built with a much steeper angle than the ancient Egyptian ones. Furthermore, the Pyramids of Sudan were still erected as late as 200 AD, a time when Egypt had already long-forgotten the majestic achievements of Pharaohs such as Djoser, Sneferu, Khufu, and Khafre.
An image showing the pyramids of Meroë, north of Khartoum in Sudan. Shutterstock.
Depending on which source you look at there were anywhere between 200 and 255 pyramids in Sudan, erected in three specific sites over a course of several hundred years.
The first of Nubian pyramid examples were built at a site called el-Kurru: there, we find the ancient the tombs of King Kashta and his son Piye, together with Piye’s successors Shabaka, Shabataka, and Tanwetamani. Archaeological surveys have revealed the pyramids were constructed for their queens, several of whom were famous warrior queens.
Compared to the Nubian Pyramids, the Egyptian pyramids are much fewer, although much larger. Egypt is thought to have around 120 pyramids in different states of preservation while Sudan, on the other hand, has anywhere between 200 and 250. The Pyramids of Sudan are nonetheless much smaller than their Egyptian counterparts. The Nubian pyramids were constructed of stepped courses of horizontally laid stones blocks, ranging in size from around 6 meters in height. Their pyramids rise from the foundation rarely exceeding 8 meters (26 ft) in width, which results in tall, narrow pyramids inclined at approximately 70°.
The most extensive archaeological site with pyramids in Sudan is centered at Meroë, located approximately 240 kilometers (150 mi) north of the city of Khartoum. It is believed that during the so-called Meroitic period, more than 40 kings and queens were buried at the site.
A close-up image of a pyramid in Meroë, Sudan. Shutterstock.
Many of the pyramids of Sudan were built with a structure identified as an offering temple at their base, decorated with unique Kushite characteristics, not found anywhere else.
If we compare the Kushite pyramids to Egyptian pyramids of similar height, we see structures with a foundation at least five times larger and built with varying inclinations reading from 40 to 50°. The earliest example of Egyptian pyramid building can be traced back to the Third Dynasty reign of Djoser, around 4,700 years ago.
According to experts, just as the ancient Egyptian pyramids and tombs were plundered in ancient times, so were the pyramids of Sudan. Unlike the inside of many Egyptian pyramids–Khufu’s King Chamber as an example– the wall reliefs preserved in the tomb chapels of the pyramids of Sudan reveal that their royal kings and queens were mummified, and then covered with jewelry.
An image of the pyramids of Sudan. Notice that many pyramids have their top missing. Shutterstock.
The pyramids of Sudan wer explored by archaeologists in the 19th and 20th centuries and many of the pyramids were found to contain an extensive range of different artifacts that help understand the life of people thousands of years ago. Experts have recovered the remnants of bows, quivers of arrows, horse harnesses, wooden boxes, pottery, glass, metal vessels, and many other artifacts attesting to extensive trade between Egypt, Greece, and Meroe.
A particular pyramid excavated at Meroë was home to hundreds of large items such as large stone blocks decorated with rock art, including 390 stones that comprised the pyramid. Archeologists have found ringing rocks that were tapped to create a melodic sound in the pyramid as well.
Many of the Nubian pyramids were destroyed beyond recognition. In the 1830, a man called Giuseppe Ferilini, an explorer and treasure hunter traveled to Sudan seeking treasure. He identified the pyramids as an excellent opportunity and raided, and demolished many of the pyramids which were documents as being “standing and in good shape” by French researcher Frédéric Cailliaud. According to experts, Ferilini is responsible for the control of more than 40 Nubian pyramids.
Discover the Meroe Pyramids, Sudan
When we hear the word 'pyramid', our minds immediately go to Egypt. There is one other country, however, which hosts more pyramids in a small stretch of the desert than all of Egypt.
While Egypt is home to the world's biggest and most famous pyramids, it is Sudan which holds the record for the world's largest collection of these magnificent ancient structures.
Often dismissed as a war-torn country afflicted with civil war and disease, the North African nation has a lot to offer for culture and history enthusiasts with its rich, and long-ignored, archaeological heritage in areas that are far from the conflict hot spots.
The Pyramids of Meroe top the list.
Partial view of the Meroe pyramids, which hold burial chambers for Kushite kings and queens whose rule spanned nearly five centuries from 592 BC to 350 AD, near the banks of the Nile River in an area known as Nubia in northeastern Sudan [ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP via Getty Images]
Constructed in Nubia, one of the earliest civilisations of ancient Africa, the pyramids represent the final resting place for the last dynasty of royal Black Pharaohs in the ancient Kushite capital city of Meroe.
The Meroe archaeological site, 300 kms north of the Sudanese capital Khartoum [GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP via Getty Images]
A day trip approximately 240 kilometres north of the Sudanese capital city of Khartoum will take you into a stretch of the desert where rows of these striking ancient pyramids loom before you like a mirage.
Over 200 pyramids, grouped across three sites, were erected as royal tombs for some 40 kings and queens who ruled the Nubian Kingdom of Kush on the banks of the Nile for more than 1,000 years during the Meroitic Period, until its demise in 350 AD. Some of Meroe's and Napata's wealthiest nobles were also buried there.
Built of granite and sandstone in the Nubian style, the Meroe pyramids are marked by small bases and steep slopes between six and 30 metres in height, in contrast with Egypt's colossal Pyramids of Giza, the greatest of which is up to 139 metres high.
Compared to some ten million tourists who visited the Egyptian pyramids in 2018, however, roughly 700,000 tourists made their way to Sudan's Nubian pyramids.
A visitor walks past pyramids in the cemetary of Meroe north of Khartoum, Sudan [EBRAHIM HAMID/AFP via Getty Images]
Having the UNESCO World Heritage Site all to yourself without the need to queue up or strenuously navigate your way through crowds of tourists makes the hot drive into the Sudanese desert worth it. Not to mention the route to the pyramids itself, which is dotted with quaint villages that offer a glimpse into the traditional lifestyle of Sudan's warm and welcoming local population.
Sudanese men ride camels past Meroitic pyramids at the archaeological site of Bajarawiya, near Hillat ed Darqab [ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP via Getty Images]
Many friendly locals offer camel rides around the pyramids for a small fee. Alternatively, you can walk, so make sure to bring comfortable shoes and water.
Unguarded, visitors are free to enter many of the pyramids where intricate drawings and illustrations adorn the interior walls, piecing together highlights of the reigns of deceased kings.
Many artefacts have been discovered inside the tombs over time, including pottery, coloured glass and quivers of arrows. Italian explorer Giuseppe Ferlini blew up several of the pyramids in his search for treasure in the 1800s, leaving many of the tombs missing their pointy tops.
A bas-relief of the pyramids at the Meroe archaeological site [GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP via Getty Images]
Having withstood the test of time and vandalism, the pyramids are particularly magical during sunrise and sunset. And if you are brave enough, it is possible to camp overnight and enjoy some stargazing in the pure darkness of the desert.
For a burial site, the Meroe Pyramids are a spectacular historical monument to an ancient civilisation and sure make for a sight to behold.
The he Royal pyramids, (500 km) north of Khartoum, Sudan, built in Nubia about 800 years after the last Egyptian pyramid was built [KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images]
Check out other destinations in our series to learn more about the heritage and culture of the Middle East and North Africa.
The Nubian pyramids of Sudan
A collection of nearly 200 ancient pyramids stand along the banks of the Nile River in a desert in eastern Sudan. They have been the tombs of kings and queens, rulers of the Meroitic Kingdom for nearly 1000 years. Within the north of Sudan, in an area of the Nile valley known as Nubia. The Nubian pyramids of Sudan of Meroë were said to have been built by the rulers of these ancient Kushite kingdoms, known as the “black pharaohs”. The five Kushite pharaohs ruled Egypt from Nubia to the Mediterranean Sea from around 760 B.C. to 650 B.C.
The 35 pyramids grouped in five sites discovered in Sudan remain a huge attraction for Sudan’s tourists. The industry ravaged the effects of economic sanctions imposed throughout the country’s civil war and the conflict in Darfur. The country now receiving fewer than 15,000 tourists per year. This is only 10% of the numbers of tourists it received in the past.
Built of granite and sandstone, Nubian pyramids were built between 2,700 and 2,300 years ago. it has decorative elements from the cultures of Pharaonic Egypt, Greece, and Rome.
Meroe Pyramids Sudan Photoneer.de Thomas Markert
Sudan has more ancient pyramids than Egypt
Although different in stature and build and created earlier than the famed Egyptian pyramids, Sudan has more ancient pyramids than Egypt. There are around 2000 Kushite pyramids in upper Sudan, compared with 200 Egyptian pyramids.
Showing the relationship between the African civilizations, the Kushite pyramids depict bilateral trade, movement of people and knowledge.
Kerma was Nubia’s first centralized state with its own indigenous architecture and burial traditions. Nubia’s Napata and Meroë kingdoms were influenced by ancient Egypt. While influenced culturally, economically, politically, and in matters of military, they also competed strongly with Egypt in these fields.
Meroe Pyramids Sudan Photoneer.de Thomas Markert
The first three sites are located around Napata in Lower Nubia, near the modern town of Karima. Fourteen pyramids were constructed for their renowned warrior queens. Later Napatan pyramids were sited at Nuri, the burial place of 21 kings and 52 queens and princes including Anlami and Aspelta. They were placed in huge granite sarcophagi, some lids alone weighing four tons. The oldest and largest pyramid at Nuri is that of the Napatan king and Twenty-fifth Dynasty pharaoh Taharqa.
Meroë, the burial site of over forty queens and kings is the most extensive Nubian pyramid site. Tomb walls depict mummified royals bedecked in jewellery, their wooden caskets containing bows, quivers of arrows, horse harnesses, rings, pottery, glass and metal artefacts pointing to Meroitic relationship and trade with Egyptian and Greek civilisations.
In the 1830s Giuseppe Ferlini, an Italian soldier turned treasure hunter, raided and demolished over 40 Meroitic pyramids. Returning home, Ferlini tried to sell the treasure but nobody believed that such high quality jewellery could be made in Africa. Today these priceless treasures rest in the State Museum of Egyptian Art of Munich and the Egyptian Museum of Berlin.
Ongoing excavations of the pyramids conducted by the Humboldt University of Berlin, the German Archeological Institute and the University of Muenster. Photo: Photoneer.de Thomas Markert
About the Film Producer Thomas Markert – The Photoneer.de
Photoneer.de Thomas Markert in Sudan for the production
Thomas Markert created this beautiful short film about the Nubian pyramids and temples of Sudan in Meroë. Through video he depicting his journey from Khartoum and the kind and generous people and photogenic camels he met along the way. Thomas gives us insight into these fascinating and mostly unknown treasures of the modern and ancient worlds.
Travelling became my hobby when I met my wife. Together, we visited many countries in Eastern and Southern Europe. When she was working in South Sudan our focus shifted to Africa. I realised that I had a wrong idea of these countries that are falsely known mostly for war, genocide and famine from the European media. The hospitality and kindness of people we’ve met, combined with the unspoiled nature sparked the desire in me to discover this continent that is highly misunderstood in my part of the world.Thomas Markert