Sudan has so much to offer the modern traveller, but what really interested me were the monuments of the ancient civilisation of Kush, often known as the ‘Kingdom of the Black Pharaohs’. For a thousand years from 750 BC, the Kushites created an extraordinary hybrid culture that blended Ancient Egyptian and distinctively African features.
Lupine’s tours set off from the modern capital Khartoum, and head straightaway for Kushite monuments. After a few hours northwards up the modern highway, we turned off the tarmac and headed some 20km over rough tracks into the Butana, a dry area of scrub and acacia trees. This was the heartland of Ancient Kush, and after motoring into what seemed like the middle of nowhere it was remarkable to see a pair of sandstone temples of Naqa emerging from the sahel. Built in the first century AD, these were Egyptian in style, but the decoration had some distinctive Kushite touches: one temple was devoted to the originally Egyptian god Amun, while the other was in honour of the Kushite god Apademak (who is shown as a lion-headed snake emerging from the cosmic lotus flower).
The front of his temple was decorated with a symmetrical Egyptian-style scene of the Kushite pharaoh Natakamani smiting his enemies. Opposite him, his full-figured queen Amanitore was shown doing exactly the same. Kushite queens (known by their title of Candace) were extremely influential in Kushite politics, and it was fascinating to see this formidable African queen (jewelled up to the nines) looking so terrifyingly empowered.
After another 20km or so across the scrub, and we came to another Kushite temple site, Musawwarat es-Sufra. An Egyptian-style temple, built by King Arnekhamani in the third century BC, preserved some remarkable reliefs of elephants. A few hundred metres away lay a much larger and more mysterious complex – huge stone enclosures and ramps, a few columns, and relief decoration. The function of this site remains mysterious – temple, palace, grounds for training war elephants? The whole site was covered in ancient and not-so-ancient graffiti, testifying to its importance to generation after generation of visitors.
We eventually found our way back to the tarmacked road, and motored on northwards. We arrived a little before sunset at one of the greatest sights I’ve ever seen on the Nile – the pyramids of Meroë, standing silent and evocative on a low ridge on the desert’s edge, like a row of jagged broken teeth against the sky.
For six centuries from 300 BC this was the cemetery of the Kushite rulers. We had the site to ourselves as we admired the deepening orange and red hues of the setting sun on the ancient stones. We camped overnight in tents, just over the hill from the pyramids, dining al fresco under the surprisingly bright light of the moon. In the morning, we had some time before breakfast to admire dawn from the pyramids, and to look at the decoration in the funeral chapels attached to them.
The next leg of our journey took us across the Bayuda Desert, heading for the original capital of the Kushite kingdom, Napata. This city lay near Gebel Barkal ‘the holy mountain’, an isolated table mountainwhich the Kushites believed was the southern home of the Egyptian god Amun. At the foot of the mountain are a set of temples, quite ruinous but impressive in their grandeur. It was great fun to climb up to the top of the mountain to get an overview, and even more fun to slalom back down again along a giant sand slope! We stayed overnight in a guest-house near the site, and enjoyed simple but delicious Sudanese fare.
The next day we drove a few km to el-Kurru, which was the earliest Kushite royal cemetery. Only one pyramid survives today (the stone for the others having been robbed over centuries), but you can still visit the subterranean chambers of the tomb of King Tantamani (c. 650 BC). This Kushite king actually invaded Egypt (he had a dream where the gods told him to do so), but he was driven out of it by the Assyrian emperor Ashurbanipal. Inside Tantamani’s brightly-decorated burial chambers, the decoration is more Egyptian than the Egyptians – the hieroglyphs come from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and the painted scenes show the path of the dead king through the underworld.
Over the river, we also stopped at Nuri, which was the royal Kushite cemetery after el-Kurru and before Meroë. Lonely and somewhat forlorn, the pyramids here are in somewhat ruinous shape, but that just makes them all the more evocative to potter around. Excitingly, we could actually see in the distance an archaeological excavation currently in progress in one of the pyramids – it’s very exciting to think that this site could still provide new discoveries!
That afternoon we motored back southwards towards Khartoum. There was so much to see in Khartoum in our time there – but again, for me personally, if I had to pick just one highlight it was the museum of antiquities. This is an amazing collection that tells the story of northern Sudan from prehistory to the middle ages. The main exhibit is full of impressive statues and stelae of the Kushite kings (and, before them, monuments of the Egyptian empire that ruled northern Sudan). They even have several whole Ancient Egyptian temples in the garden –moved in the 1960s so they weren’t lost under Lake Nasser (of the Nubian Lake, as the Sudanese call it). Perhaps the most moving exhibits, though, are the Christian frescoes form the middle ages.
All in all, I am so glad I have visited Sudan and got to see these rarely visited yet fascinating remnants of one of Africa’s earliest great civilisations. Go and see for yourselves – I promise you won’t regret it!