A glimpse into Sudan’s forgotten pyramids


Meroe pyramids in the sahara desert Sudan. PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK

When the word pyramid is mentioned, we instinctively think of the pyramids in Egypt. We think of pharaohs and their giant pyramids which they built during their lifetime or those that were built after their death for them.

Grand structures reflecting the grandeur of the pharaohs and their power to mobilise resources. Perfection in magnificent engineering feats. But did you know that there are almost three times more pyramids in Sudan than in Egypt?

In a desert in eastern Sudan, along the banks of the River Nile, lies a collection of 220 ancient pyramids, many of them tombs of the kings and queens of the Meroitic Kingdom which ruled the area for more than 900 years.

The Meroe pyramids, smaller than their Egyptian cousins, are considered Nubian pyramids, with narrow bases and steep angles on the sides, built between 2,700 and 2,300 years ago, with decorative elements from the cultures of Pharaonic Egypt, Greece, and Rome.

Although the pyramids are one of the main attractions for Sudan’s tourists, the local tourism industry has been devastated by a series of economic sanctions imposed by various Western nations throughout the course of the country’s civil war and the conflict in Darfur.

According to reports, Sudan now receives fewer than 15,000 tourists annually, compared to past estimates of up to 150,000. In contrast, the Egyptian pyramids alone are visited by about 15 million tourists per annum.

Sudan was once home to the Kingdom of Kush, a rival to Egypt that embraced its neighbour’s culture and beliefs. The city of Meroe became its capital, where over 30 pharaohs were buried in more than 200 pyramids.

For a period of 200 years, around 3,000 BCE, Egyptian pharaohs sent their armies south along the Nile River in search of gold, granite for statues, ostrich feathers, and slaves. They built forts, and later temples, to demonstrate their dominance over the Nubians.

The Nubians were the inhabitants of the central Nile valley, present-day northern Sudan, and southern Egypt, and believed to be one of the earliest cradles of civilisation.

The conquered region came to be known as the Kingdom of Kush, with the Kushites adopting all aspects of Egyptian culture, from gods to glyphs. They embraced it to such a degree that when the Egyptian empire collapsed in 1,070 BCE, the Nubian dynasty, led by Alara, King of the Kush, spearheaded a renaissance of Egyptian culture, including the construction of their own pyramids.

With the Nubian dynasty flourishing militarily and economically and believing themselves to be the true sons of the Egyptian God Amum, they invaded their neighbours to the north.

Alara’s grandson Piye moved into Egypt to rebuild the great temples, extending his control to the whole Nile Valley, from Libya to Palestine and down to what is now modern-day Khartoum. Piye became the first pharaoh of Egypt’s 25th dynasty, and for nearly 100 years Egypt was ruled by leaders now dubbed the “Black Pharaohs.

Piye died in 715 BCE, having reigned 35 years. Although he returned to Nubia after conquering Egypt, he wished to be buried in the Egyptian style, a request his subjects granted. Entombed in a pyramid, Piye was the first pharaoh in 500 years to be buried in this way.

The reign of the 25th dynasty and the Black Pharaohs ended in turmoil when an Assyrian invasion of Egypt caused it to fall from power. The visitors struck the names of the 25th dynasty from monuments across Egypt, destroying their statues and monuments to erase their names from history.

After the Nubian pharaohs lost power, they retreated south to the city of Meroe, which sits along the Nile and became their new capital.

This new location was not only strategically positioned at the crossroads of inland African trade routes and caravan trails from the Red Sea, but also blessed with significant natural resources, iron and goldmines that fostered the development of a metals industry, especially goldwork. Meroe became the last great burial site of Kush’s royal pharaohs.

Because of Meroe’s distance from Cairo, the Kushites were able to retain their independence, developing their own vibrant hybrid of Egyptian culture and religion until well into the 4th century BCE. The Meroites built temples, palaces, and royal baths in their capital.

By 900 CE the Kingdom of Kush was in decline. Dwindling agriculture and increasing raids from Ethiopia and Rome spelled the end of their reign. Christianity and Islam followed, and prayers to Egyptian god Amun faded from memory.

Over the centuries, rumours spread of Meroe’s monuments and the gold they contained, eventually reaching the ear of Italian tomb raider Giuseppe Ferlini. In 1834, Ferlini arrived in Meroe, where he set about looting the tombs, which had been found in good condition by Frederic Cailliaud just a few years earlier.

At Wad ban Naqa, he levelled the pyramid of Amanishakheto starting from the top and finally found her treasure composed of dozens of gold and silver jewellery pieces. Overall, he is considered responsible for the destruction of more than 40 pyramids, damage still lamented by archaeologists.

Given the foregoing history of the pyramids in Sudan, it is no surprise that the popular narrative has tended to point more to the Egyptian pyramids and to confine the ones in Sudan to obscurity.