If you’re asked to think about pyramids, you would be forgiven for immediately thinking about Egypt. Pyramids are synonymous with ancient Egypt, and although the great pyramids at Giza are by far the most famous, and the most visited, you might not know, that there are actually more pyramids in Sudan, most of which lie 900 miles to the south of the hustle and bustle of Giza, in an unremarkable patch of desert near an abandoned petrol station; an abandoned petrol station I had arrived at the night before with the aim of tracking down these elusive antiquities.
Despite arriving in the middle of the night, the cooler temperatures we had been hoping for never really materialised, and so we had packed up our tents early, and were sat having a coffee by the time the sun came up. It was going to be another hot day in the Sudanese desert, but the weather had changed in one very considerable way – the wind had picked up and was dramatically blowing sand around. Visibility outside the dirty windows of the petrol station had been reduced to less than 20m and the sun was struggling to fully penetrate the grainy atmosphere. Whilst having a suitably strong coffee, and even stronger gust of wind blew open a set of double doors, knocking over a solid wood table and coating everything in a thin layer of orange dust – it was at this point we decided to stay put for breakfast to see if the wind would pass.
Fuul was served with fresh bread, salt, raw onion, and a good helping of oil which the beans were submerged in – we ate and watched the large screen where the national news had replaced the Ethiopian music videos of the night before, all the while hoping for the wind to die down. It didn’t, but with some chronic optimism we managed to convinced ourselves that there was a definite “lull”, and so, eager to get out and explore we grabbed our rucksacks, pulled a buff over our faces, and headed out into the storm.
The visibility had improved slightly, but the wind was still strong, and blew abrasive sand directly into our faces as we followed the road north passing dozens of shredded tyres encouraged along by the sporadic beeps from passing lorry drivers. We soon came across a rusty sign peeking out of the gloom, pointing us off the road and into the desert proper with the promise of discovering “The Royal City”. Sure enough, a couple of minutes after leaving the strip of concrete we came face to face with a set of small crumbling pyramids. Initially we were a little disappointed as we had been expecting something much grander, but there was something suitably ‘Indiana Jones’ about walking across the desert with all of our gear and stumbling across some genuine antiquities, so we put that aside and set out to explore them up close and personal. The only thing signifying this as a site of incredible historical significance was a broken wire fence surrounding the various ancient squat buildings, and a small homestead nearby, which we headed towards to try and find out a little more information.
As we neared the neat collection of buildings, we were greeted by a young man flanked by two young boys with dusty clothes and cheeky smiles. Once again after a couple of enthusiastic greetings our Arabic was exhausted, and the language barrier made the conversation a little awkward and stilted, at least on our part – the young boys thought our attempts were hilarious, and quickly took matters into their own hands and motioned for us to follow them back towards the pyramids (at least the small collection next to their house anyway). As soon as the first boy vaulted over the concrete post which once held up the sad looking fence, it was clear that this site of antiquity was essentially the family’s private playground with the boys climbing, running, and leaping off every pyramid and sand dune going in a spectacular display of unexpected free running.
The pyramid playground was impressive, but we knew that it was just a prelude to the main event, which, after some more awkward pointing and map drawing, transpired was on the other side of the road, typically, in the opposite direction of the sign we had followed! We were keen to see what this other site had to offer but found it impossible to turn down the family’s invite into their house, and so we spent the next couple of hours escaping the wind with the young man and the two enthusiastic young boys, which we had established were his two younger brothers. We drank litres of sweet and minty shai, played cards, and beat-boxed our way through the afternoon without more than a couple of words of shared language, it was fantastic. As tempting as it was to stay, we eventually shouldered our bags and headed back out into the wind, politely declining the kind offer of the family’s donkey to confused looks all around.
We headed back towards the road, and peered through the orange haze in the hope of spotting what, on a clearer day, should have been easy to see. As we neared the strip of tarmac, we began to see unusual geometric lines in the distance, standing out against the natural shapes and curves of the surrounding landscape suggesting that something man-made was slowly appearing from the dust; and sure enough after a few more steps we began to see the familiar outline of a pyramid.
Known by few and visited by even fewer, the 200 plus pyramids at Meroë are what remains of the ancient capital of the Meroitic kingdom which flourished almost 3000 years ago. Walking across the desert sand towards these imposing structures, I was hit by a sense of excitement that we were about to see something that most people didn’t even know existed.
At the small building which served as the entrance to the site, we sat out of the wind and chatted with the small selection of souvenir sellers, camel drivers, and old boys who seemed to be there just to tell jokes and to drink tea. We were the first (and only) tourists of the day, and after paying the very reasonable entrance fee, we headed into the site, and began to climb the large orange dune, excited to have these incredible antiquities all to ourselves (save for a sole Sudanese researcher methodically and meticulously mapping every brick on every pyramid for his master’s thesis!).
I was already quite out of breath when I reached to top of the dune, but what little breath I had left was immediately taken away when I looked down from the sandy summit towards the collection of ancient tombs in various states of ruin; from the almost untouched, to the fully crumbled. This was one of the most incredible things I have had the privilege to experience, and I tried my best to take it all in. There is something about the power of ancient monuments which strikes a sense of awe into me in the truest sense of the word; perhaps it’s the scale of the structures or the human power required to build them, or perhaps it’s something about sharing an experience with another human separated by such a vast expense of time, or perhaps I just watched too much Indian Jones as a child, whatever the reason, the pyramids at Meroë are quite simply awesome.
Wanting to make the most of this incredible experience, we surfed down the sandy slopes of the dune and set about exploring the pyramids in the same way a toddler explores a playground: lots of running around, with no real aim, but with a constant smile on their face. We discovered intricate carvings of ancient Gods, and Meroitic inscriptions explaining the origins of the tombs and the lives of those people they had been built for (although we of course had no idea!); we found sculptures dedicated to the river Nile, as important now as it was then, and half buried entrances hinting at more adventure. We explored, took photos, and ran up and down the sand dunes some more, just because we could.
The enduring dust storm had intensified, meaning the late afternoon sun was struggling to fully illuminate the desert, turning the sky a dramatic shade of orange adding atmosphere to this already adventurous experience. Heading back towards the entrance we weren’t really ready to leave the pyramids behind, and we certainly had no desire to return to the abandoned petrol station in a hurry, so we assembled the collection of wise old men still drinking tea and cracking jokes, and tried to find out if there was an alternative sleeping option. After much discussion (none of which we understood), the old men collectively pointed towards a flat rocky area of desert just behind the pyramids we had spent the afternoon exploring, and indicated that this would be an excellent place to spend the night, we couldn’t believe our luck!
We were about to spend the night sleeping in the Sudanese desert next to 3000-year-old pyramids and an ominous looking cloud of dust heading in our direction, what could possibly go wrong?