The Pyramids of Meroe, Sudan

Did you know that there are far more pyramids in Sudan than in Egypt? In fact there are more than 250  of them. Indeed Meroe, the final capital of the Kushite kingdom, is the largest pyramid field in antiquity.  While the the iconic pyramids at Giza were built around 2,500 BCE. The Sudanese pyramids go back to the Nubian Pharaohs of the 25th dynasty who revived  the tradition of building pyramids first at el Kurru (890-860 BCE) then Nuri (founded 680-669 BCE) and finally at Meroe (270 BCE -320 ACE) over two thousand years after the first Egyptian pyramids were constructed. In reclaim an ancient Pharaonic funereal practice  the Nubians claimed the ancient rights and religious authority of  the tradition for their Kings and Queens.

These magnificent Pyramids  are the primary reason that most tourists visit to Sudan. Listed by  as a World Heritage site in 2011, the areas of Meroe is described by UNESCO as 
" the heartland of the Kingdom of Kush, a major power from the 8th century B.C. to the 4th century A.D. The property consists of the royal city of the Kushite kings at Meroe, near the River Nile, the nearby religious site of Naqa and Musawwarat es Sufra. It was the seat of the rulers who occupied Egypt for close to a century and features, among other vestiges, pyramids, temples and domestic buildings as well as major installations connected to water management. Their vast empire extended from the Mediterranean to the heart of Africa, and the property testifies to the exchange between the art, architectures, religions and languages of both regions."
It is an extraordinary site and as the heartland of an extensive kingdom there's a great deal to see over a large area, but I'll start will the thing everyone comes for, the pyramids. 
Our Journey - When I first heard there were pyramids in Sudan I knew I wanted to see them and to understand the linkages between these smaller, pointy pyramids and their much earlier Egyptian cousins. At the time it was one stop shopping because I knew nothing about the complex history of Nubia  and the relationships between these African kingdoms and Egypt. Because our trip started in Soleb, we had the luxury of seeing Meroe, Naqa and Musawwarat towards the end of our trip when we could fit these later cultures into the histories we'd be following as we travelled south. 
I feel I'm writing the same three things about each of the sites in Sudan; that I knew nothing about them, that they were highly captivating and almost empty. It's shocking to visit a place like Meroe filled with such history and importance and to realize you have it entirely to yourself, that the only others there are working on an archeological site or manning the ticket booth. Its so quiet that you're welcome to return at night, to stroll around in the moonlight. We went for sunset and walked back to the tented camp in the dark, only to find Emed our driver waiting half way, anxiously concerned that we made it back safely!
Here was the sunset view the next night. As you can see below the tented cap faces the pyramids which are just over a 1km away. 
First noted in  Western literature in 1772,  by the Scot James Bruce, Meroe was rediscovered and described by  Frédéric Caillaud  in his 1826 publication  “A Trip to Meroe on the White River”  leading to its popularity with adventurers , vandals and  thieves.
 As you can see from my photos, most of the pyramids have lots their peaks. Apparently they were destroyed by an Italian adventurer and treasure hunter Giuseppe Ferlini in the  1830s. Having found treasure in the peak of one pyramid he infamously used gunpowder to access/destroy 40 more. Roger Pearse has translated a section of Ferlini's diary on his blog page which makes for interesting reading if you're curious. 
The site was excavated extensively between 1916 and 1923 by the American archeologist George Reisner in a joint expedition from the Boston Museum of Art and Harvard University. Consequently the Boston Museum has the best collection of Nubian artifacts in America, you can take an online tour here if you're interested.   Reisner found Greek and Roman objects which established the extensive trade between Meroe and the Mediterranean. Indeed, located at the junction of trade routes by caravan over land and by river Meroe was well situated to connect Egypt with Africa and the Arabian peninsula.
A 2010 New York Times article on the Mysteries of Meroe exhibit at the Louvre notes, "In the last three years, dozens of objects beggaring belief have shown that the Meroitic Kingdom was in contact with most northern and eastern Mediterranean lands. Wine was imported in amphoras of the common pottery type found along the shores of the French Riviera. A precious glass flask with a marvered pattern, alternately turquoise and black, that is typical of the finest Syrian production were recovered at Sedeinga. The greater surprise is the culture of Meroe itself, derived from Ancient Egypt and yet profoundly different."
One of the most interesting aspect of visiting the Merotic sites was this combination of Egyptian cultural forms with African influences. Below you can see a figure in a  Egyptian pose of veneration, hands raised and stretched out in front of the figure.  However, in contrast to the sylph like representations  seen in classical Egyptian art this figure is far more naturalistic, with curving lines  and a realistic representation of the African body.
I loved this image of a Merotic lion below. 
One of the reasons so little is known about Meroe and earlier Napatan civilization  is that Meroitic script (which derived from Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics  remains untranslated. Vincent Rondot an archeologist quoted in a 2008 BBC article notes  "It is one of the last antique languages that we still don't understand. We can read it. We have no problem pronouncing the letters. But we can't understand it, apart from a few long words and the names of people."
With all of this information, timelines and different groups,  we found having a guide was absolutely necessary at Meroe. Ayad was incredibly helpful in answering our questions and piecing together the history for us, you can see him in action below! It was great to visit first with a guide and then to go back to spend time wandering around the pyramids on our own.
We saw ongoing archeological work across the sites we visited in Sudan, much of it funded by grant money from Qatar. Its worth noting that because there are so few tourists you often have the chance to talk to both foreign and Sudanese archeologists at their dig sites. 
The pyramids at Meroe  are interesting because they combine two distinctt Egyptian architectural style, the pyramid (as tomb) and the temple (for offerings). The pyramid are far smaller than the Egyptian pyramids, narrower and have attached   temples attached as you  see below. The pylon wall is of course a familiar design from Egyptian temple architecture.  
Most have a single offering temple, but the one below had a larger more ostentatious double offering temple in front with an additional pylon as you can see.
In the next imageyou can see the contrast between the single and double temple entrances and how the pyramids follow the ridge of the hill.
While these pyramids are tombs of the Meroitic Kings and Queens, the nobles are buried in more modest but similar structures nearby . This division is comparable to the Valley of the Kings and Queens on the West Bank outside Luxor which has a Valley of the Nobles in close proximity. Interestingly the role of the Queen and Queen Mother in Meroitc culture seems more prominent than it was in Egypt and this can be seen in the  number of pyramids dedicated to women and in the representations of strong female figure.
Meroe rose in prominence after the Persian conquest of Egypt, when the previous Kushite capital at Napata lost its economic standing. Consequently the capital (and place of royal burial) moved from near Jebel Barkal to Meroe - around 300 BCE. The Kushite rulers of this period, were contemporaries of the Romans and the Ptolemies of Egypt. Indeed they collaborated with the Ptolemaic Pharaohs to renovate temples in Lower Nubia that were sacred to both Egyptian and Kushites. 
 Here you can see several restored pyramids.
 Because when you see a pyramid you just want to dance! 
Though much of the details of the dynastic history of Meroe  is unclear  it seems the area  eventually went into decline as the Abyssinian Kingdom of Axum in the south increased its sphere of influence and by 350 ACE the army of Axum entered and destroyed Meroe. 
Seeing the pyramids was certainly a highlight of our trip to Sudan, but more important than merely seeing them  was learning about the culture, power and longevity of the Kushite and Nubian kingdoms. We slowly developed a sense for the  rise and fall of regions; Kerma, Napata and Meroe, as well as the expansion and contraction of regional powers including Egypt in the north and Ethiopia in the south. This expanded understanding  of  history provides  a greater place and importance to Nubia and indeed African culture.

If you haven't read my other Sudan posts you can find them here and as always our highest recommendation goes to our travel agent Waleed at Lendi Travel who made all of the ease we found in traveling in Sudan possible.


Thank you so much for this lovely extract. It showcases a very lively image of the Yangon's colonial architecture and famous heritage buildings.