With immaculate timing the army has staged a coup in Sudan, just as I am leaving Eritrea for Addis, en route to Khartoum. They immediately shut the airport. I pass on this information to the desk clerks at Addis, when I arrive, but everyone keeps insisting the flight is still scheduled to leave. Until they finally cancel it one hour after it is supposed to depart.
Cue bedlam, as the Ethiopian Airline officials try to dispatch everyone to hotels. Somehow, I manage to weave my way out of immigration very quickly, losing everyone else in the process. I’ve no idea how to get to my hotel. There’s no bus. Eventually, a customer service agent on his way home takes pity and drops me at a different hotel. He also, amazingly, manages to alter the airline paperwork, so that I can stay there.
I try to take stock, which is difficult, as my brain isn’t functioning. The hotel in Addis has no soundproofing whatsoever. It’s very close to the airport runway and groups of noisy passengers arrive all night. So, I haven’t had much sleep. There is no information about when flights will resume. Do I still want to go? I’m trying to find out how safe Sudan is. The FCO advice now says they advise against all but essential travel. Not a total ban then. Ethiopian Airlines say it will cost £750 to amend my ticket if I decide to go back to London. That’s not a great incentive. And my flat is booked by Airbnb guests.
Technology is against me. The Wi-Fi in the hotel crashes, closely followed by the landlines and my mobile signal, so I can’t gather any more information or take advice. It’s just a tad stressful. At midday I’m told the flight will go at four, so I decide that if it actually departs then I will make the journey. The plane is a Dreamliner, big enough to hold all the passengers from the two delayed flights in addition to today’s manifest. It takes an extra hour to load all the wayward passengers and even then, we sit on the runway for what seems ages. I’m convinced that a cancellation announcement will be made at any moment. But, no, we’re just sitting out a storm.
It’s a bumpy flight: ‘Rough weather ahead,’ announces the captain, to my consternation. But we make it to Khartoum, the first plane to land after the airport re-opens. The Sudanese leap out of their seats to much jollity, cheering and flag waving, the second the plane hits the tarmac. To my relief, I’m welcomed at immigration, met with no difficulty and escorted to my hotel. The streets are quiet. A policeman pours a dozen locals onto my mini-bus for a lift across town. They’re not allowed to walk the pavements.
The hotel is welcome luxury – hot water and decent food. But I’m rattling around. There are only two other people eating dinner. One of them tells me that everyone else has just left as I've arrived. Am I mad or adventurous?
An estimated two million people died as a consequence of disease, famine, and war during the Second Sudanese Civil War from 1983-2005. Children from all sides involved were enlisted to fight. The United Nations has described the Sudan/Darfur conflict fighting between rebel groups and the government one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. Between 2003 and 2008, at least 300,000 people were killed, and three million displaced. In 2010, President Omar al-Bashir was charged with genocide by the International Criminal court, but remained in office. Following months of pro-democracy protests against President Omar al-Bashir, he was ousted by the military and arrested after 30 years in power. But the military took over government leading to ongoing conflict between them and pro-democracy civilians.
Sudan has only taken its current geographical form relatively recently, combining the lands of several ancient kingdoms. I’ve written more than I usually do about the history of the country here, as it’s such a crucial aspect of visiting Sudan.
46% of people live under the poverty line, however, Sudan is not eligible for sorely needed debt relief, due to still being on the United States list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. Negotiation is ongoing.
We’re leaving this morning for Karima, in the north, of Sudan, to escape the protests about the coup in Khartoum. Guide Diba, driver Mubarak and I, head out of town,
Through Omdurman, Khartoum's twin city, but out of bounds because of the coup. Our highway divides the Western Desert from the Bayuda Desert, the eastern most stretch of the Sahara. For the most part, it’s a mainly level, but beautiful panorama, stretching far way to the horizon, clumps of dunes beckoning. There are scatterings of grey basalt patterning the sand: curry powder to golden, flecked with geometrically spaced scrub. There’s a breeze flowing and walking is like bathing in hot water. The few cars we meet waft orange trails behind them, camels chew laconically on acacia and donkeys line the edges of the tarmac. These are the most common form of transport, most commonly harnessed to carts.
Mubarak and Diba find a lunch spot under a suitably shady flat-topped tree and decant three chairs and a trestle table from the boot. Diba then prepares a variety of salads, arranging them artistically on platters. She has just placed the last dish, when the wind gusts strongly and deposits the whole lot upside down on the sand. We pack up, and half an hour down the road, set up again by a roadside community erected to service the road – the first in Sudan. Mubarak disappears into the café to entertain the locals while Diba and I eat. There seems to be plenty more food, enough for us to eat far too much and still leave bag-fulls with the café crowd.
We pick up the Nile again after 200 miles, having cut off a huge bend and we now follow the green irrigated belt. Jebel Barkal, an isolated flat topped mountain appears in the distance, and as we cross the river, I can just make out my first Sudanese pyramids at its base. There are five and a half and two bits, circa 600 AD and some crumbling piles of others that are 1500 BC; they are magnificent, glowing in the setting sun.
For two periods Nubia and Egypt were ruled jointly (hence a crown with double cobra heads), by the so-called Black Pharaohs. The Nubian kingdom of Kush (as it was known) was actually the superior power. (See Sudan in a Nutshell.) Jebel Barkal was considered a holy mountain - no less than the residence of the super god Amun. If you use your imagination you can see the Egyptian crown complete with cobra crest in the mountain side. There are the remains of the old capital Napata and pre and post Egyptian dynasty temples to explore, round the base, unsurprisingly mainly dedicated to Amun.
Much was destroyed when the capital was moved from Napata to ancient Merowe. However, there are a few pillars and some carvings remaining, and it’s still possible to get a perspective on the size and orientation of the complex, which was extended over many years. It’s approached by the remains of an avenue of sand battered rams.
The most interesting bas-reliefs are in a room carved directly out of the mountainside. The frescoes in this temple to Mut, were deliberately destroyed by fire, but are being painstakingly restored by archaeologists. Most of the famous gods of the Egyptian pantheon are represented: Mut, Amon, Horus and (outside) Hathor, with her cow ears.
Back to the pyramids, for a daytime view. Diba proudly explains that there are over 300 pyramids in Sudan, double the number in Egypt. The pyramids here are all brick built decoys - the tombs are below ground and have separate, hidden entrances. This group of five and a half, though not as magnificent as those at Giza, are striking. There’s a little museum with a few headless statues and some jewellery, but the most important artefacts are in the Khartoum museum, the one that is closed.
Diba persuades me to climb Jebel Barkal for the evening Nile view. (It’s a sign of our times that autocorrect on my phone offers Nike rather than Nile). The path is steep and it’s a climb rather than a hike. It’s also very windy on top. But there are great views across Karima, the temples, nestled way below, the pyramids behind us and the river. We descend using the fast route – sliding ankle deep, down a sand lake.
My Nubian style hotel, on the outskirts of Karima, has 22 domed rooms surrounding a circular green lawn (the sprinklers run all night). It’s very romantic, lit by hurricane lights in the evening, but I’m the only guest.
Down the road, El Kurru is the site of some of the most important archeological remains in Sudan, dating from the 25th Egyptian dynasty and the Early Kingdom of Kush. There’s a necropolis divided into three areas by two wadis: kings, queens and horses. The tomb of the pharaoh Tantamani, accessed via 33 steps, is the only one open and it’s fabulous. The decorated chamber with its star patterned roof is the equal to many of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, though, to be fair, it post-dates these by a thousand years.
Nearby, some gorgeous mini canyon wadis and a petrified forest; hundreds of huge trunks half submerged in the sand, toppling and abandoned forever, as the Nile flood plains retreated over millions of years.
It’s a relaxing day. We shop for our picnic lunch at the small, quiet market at Karima. It’s next to an open British built brick souk that runs down to the river.
Next, we take a canopied motor boat cruise down the Nile, and up to the cataract, looping around tranquil islets and admiring the papery white sand stretches and the glistening rock reflections in the still water. Yellow weaver birds are darting in and out of their basket nests, dangling high over the water, perennial Christmas decorations. It’s blisteringly hot, literally. I have flip-flops on and when we moor up, to stroll across an island for cataract views, the sand I’m kicking up burns the soles of my feet. Even the giant monitor lizards are abandoning their sunbathing and are sliding into the water to cool off. We eat today’s salad and fruit at a deserted 'resort' on one of the islands and afterwards everyone dozes on the shady beds.
It’s Sudan, so no day is complete without ruins. Nuri is approached through myriad irrigation canals, dividing mango and date orchards. There are enough small bridges to rival Venice, varying from ornate painted metal to rickety planks. There’s another acropolis at our destination, with 19 pyramids and 53 tombs. One of these is the remains of what was the largest pyramid in Sudan, that of Taharqa, one of the double cobra pharaohs. We’re accompanied by a group of screaming children who assemble themselves into an orderly group and pose as soon as they spot my camera. These are the first tourists I've seen.
The roads are well maintained. The tarmac has far fewer pot holes than the streets of Brighton at the moment. It even has line markings and cats’ eyes. Mubarak keeps the land cruiser spotless and specialises in ice cold water, as well as pockets full of boiled sweets. Diba is refreshingly efficient and speaks reasonably good English. What I don’t understand I clarify on the Internet. (I’ve commandeered the modem, seeing as I’m the only guest.) It’s all, thankfully, very professional.
The hotel usually organises buffets and they are still providing a four course choice at each meal. Even our picnics are more like sumptuous banquets. I’m eating far too much at each sitting. Nevertheless, the waiters are concerned, whispering to Diba that I don’t eat much.
Everyone seems fairly relaxed about my baggy western dress, despite the fact that strict and, in some cases medieval, sharia law applies here. All the women are fully covered, and there’s definitely no alcohol.
The electricity has been off all day but it’s come back on, in time for bed.
Today, it’s the ruins at Dongola. The road east and north in Sudan hugs the edge of the fertile Nile strip, passing through more flat sand stretches - this time the golden Nubian desert. There is a small sand sea and Mubarak has a great time careering over the dunes in the Land Cruiser, while Diba and I hang on grimly. The sand is blown constantly, so the surface is pristine, like new snow. It seems a shame to step on it. The drifts accumulated on the road are cleared with caterpillar ploughs.
Dongola was an early Christian settlement and walls and pillars denote churches and palaces with a delightful setting overlooking the river. There’s a ninth century fortress and some Sufi Beehive tombs too.
The view is pretty, but it’s scorching hot and I’m not really concentrating as the sand kicks up an insect who lands in my hair. I shake my head vigorously and Diba can’t see anything, so I assume it’s leapt away. I’m happy to get back to the car and we wind through whitewashed houses and palm trees for another, much livelier market. As we park up, I’m stung above my ear. The insect has been lying low all this time - I screech and rummage in my hair and manage to knock a large winged object onto the car matting. Mubarak and Diba declare it not to be poisonous, but Diba is keeping her distance.
Lunch is taken in a traditional Nubian house, owned by a delightful family with some curious children. Whilst I’m eating, I feel a tickle on my arm. I decide my imagination has become overactive after my recent encounter. But no, I’m bitten again. I jump out and whip off my top. Insect Number Two comes flying out. Fortunately, the children have disappeared.
I come back from each of my explorations with my trainers full of red sand and Mubarak helps me to wash my feet. Then he leans over and whispers into my ear. ‘I give you massage later tonight’. Things have definitely got much too exciting. I pretend I don’t hear and resolve to make sure my door is properly locked tonight.
It’s been an adrenaline packed day.
All of the landscape so far on my travels here has been desert. Desertification is a serious environmental issue in the Sudan, due to over-exploitation of the soil through human activity and climate change. And, driving to Meroe is a full on desert experience. For the first three hours we bump down Wadi Dom. The dried up riverbed is vast; the Bayuda Desert a mass of yellow volcanic rock topped hillocks interspersed with grey flat patches. Every so often Mubarak throws in some dune bashing for good measure. Kamikaze goats dash across the track, tails bobbing. The goats here are very energetic and have long floppy ears that frame their faces, King Charles spaniel style.
We stop at the ruins of the medieval Ghazali monastery and visit the nomads in their wicker houses. As with everywhere in Sudan the people are extraordinarily friendly, gentle and hospitable. You certainly wouldn’t know there was political upheaval. We picnic with the goats and donkeys, battling the wind again. The lifted sand forms a haze and makes my eyes stream.
The highlight of the day, and possibly the whole trip, is a halt at a well,. Here pairs of donkeys haul leather bags from a deep tented bore. Men stagger with the sacks and pour the water into low edged pools. Camels gather in groups, stretching their long necks down to drink. Herds of goats also take their turn and patient donkeys hover. A seven year old boy, small for his age, manages all the camels with aplomb, brandishing a rope whip and charging after a group of twenty who are wandering away. He corrals them as effectively as any sheep dog and brings them safely back.
Today’s finale is a ferry across the Nile. The boat is metal and decrepit. It looks to me as if the bow is lower in the water than the stern, but we arrive swiftly and safely. Diba says that these ferries rarely sink - unlike the Nile pleasure boats.
Accommodation tonight is in a not entirely welcome tented camp. My tent is spacious, with beds, wooden furniture and a concrete floor. However, this is definitely not glamping. My bathroom is situated in a block behind me and I’ve been given a lecture about checking thoroughly for scorpions before I use the toilet or shower. The compensation should be a view of the Meroe pyramids, but the wind is still throwing up too much dust for me to see them.
The wind has whistled through the canvas all night, keeping me awake, and I’m having to abandon my contact lenses, there’s so much sand in the air. This makes for interesting exploration, as my spectacles are for emergencies only and distort shapes on the ground. Steps look like vertical trapezoids, so they’re not very easy to negotiate.
There’s a camel running amok in the yard, protesting with very loud braying because an over optimistic employee has been trying to break him to the saddle. A stream of men are running after it, as it tries to make a break for freedom.
Today’s ruins, at Meroe, are over two hundred pyramids in three groups. The necropolis was built for the new capital, after it was moved from Napata. In the third century B.C., Ferlini, an Italian explorer of the early nineteenth century, taking avarice to its limits, blew the tops of most of the royal pyramids in search of treasure. He didn’t find much - most of it had already been stolen. This area has reliefs with hieroglyphics, and Meroitic script on it. The kingdom was invaded by the Greeks and then the Romans so there’s a lot of later interesting graffiti and artefacts around too.
The Qataris are now supporting a reconstruction project, with some of the smaller pyramids, antechambers and pylons, so it is possible to get a better feel for the original appearance. Although as is often the case with restoration, for me, the result is overly modern and so, less evocative.
There’s also the royal city itself, with the remains of palaces and temples - Amon features heavily again. We finish the day perched on top of a dune waiting for the sun to set over the largest, southern group of pyramids. The breeze is whipping up the sand to the extent that rivulets of sand are snaking across the top. I’m caked in tiny particles. At least it’s free exfoliation. The sky behind the monuments is so murky that the pale sun looks more like the moon, dropping into the V between two tombs.
Back to Khartoum today, via the best preserved Meroite temples in Sudan. All these temples are dedicated to the lion-headed Meroitic god, Apedemak, who takes precedence in this period, Amon is thrown in as a subsidiary on the bas reliefs, for good measure. The ruins at Naqa have been partially reconstructed and one small temple at Mussarawat fully rebuilt. Though the purpose of the sprawling main buildings there remains a mystery. One temple is dedicated to the elephant god and there are many animal frescoes. One theory suggests that this was a huge animal trading area, dealing in exotic beasts from both Africa and Asia.
I’m still the solitary tourist in Sudan. Even if the coup hadn’t taken place, I’m not sure the sites would have been much busier. Many of the ruins have been neglected for some time; the main reconstruction took place in 1969. There was an upswell of interest at the beginning of the century, when some work was done. Very recently there have been more restorations , as the various civil wars have ended and the political regime softened. Stands for some interpretive signs have even been erected. No information has been attached as yet though.
It’s difficult not to make comparisons with Egypt. I suppose the short answer is that Sudan’s ancient ruins provide quantity, rather than quality. Karnak this isn’t. However, these lesser known archaeological sites certainly add depth to my knowledge of Egyptology and ancient history. And the everyday life of the people and the red hued desert scenery definitely make the visit worthwhile.
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