Nubia, Land of the black pharaohs

John Westbrooke visits the ancient land of Nubia, now the deserts of Sudan and finds more pyramids than in all of Egypt. More, but different.

Sudan Meroe Pyramids - Image copyright John Westbrooke

Egypt’s pyramids were huge affairs, taking thousand of men decades to build; they were the tallest buildings on the planet until Lincoln Cathedral came along. Those in the land to the south, which was known as Nubia or Kush, are younger and less labour-intensive. Steeper, lower, and constructed in a few years with a crane, they look like giant pencil tips sticking out of the sand dunes.

Broken pencil tips, in most cases, thanks to Giuseppe Ferlini, an Italian archaeologist/explorer/looter who came looking for treasure in the 19th century. He found some – it’s now in German museums – and dozens of pyramids were decapitated in a vain search for more. Many are now in ruins, though some restoration has been attempted. Time, weather and the creation of Lake Nasser have destroyed others.

In reality, Nubian pyramids were not so much tombs as gravestones, filled with rubble rather than with bodies, which were in a separate burial chamber underneath. Chapels were attached outside that looked like entrances to the pyramids but weren’t. Some of the decoration on their walls is still visible, often a little different from its Egyptian counterpart. Queens, for instance, are depicted with round heads rather than long straight hair, and with broader bottoms.

Sudan Camels - Image copyright John WestbrookeNubia’s relations with Egypt down the millennia were wary. Pharaohs occasionally headed south to conquer “miserable Kush” (and its gold mines). Tutankhamun was buried in sandals with depictions of Nubians on the soles. But Nubia was also home to Jebel Barkal, the holy mountain where Amun, king of Egypt’s gods, lived. Nubians sometimes felt they held him in more reverence than Egyptians did.

Jebel Barkal is low and flat-topped, so we scrambled up its stony slopes by the modern town of Karima one morning, to watch the sun rise over the Nile and the narrow strips of fertile land along its banks. At our feet, 100 metres below, was the skeleton of Amun’s temple and to one side a group of pyramids that Ferlini seems to have missed. Further off are two other historic sites with pyramids in worse repair: Nuri, and El Kurru, where you can visit a couple of the royal burial chambers they once covered.

One of those buried at El Kurru was Piye (or Piyankhe, depending on whether you think the ankh symbol in his name was meant to be pronounced). Piye represented the high-water mark of Nubian power, because he conquered Egypt. By 730BC, its ancient civilisation had fragmented into rival statelets and traditional religion was on the wane. Piye made it his business to reunite the country in the name of Amun and found the 25th Dynasty.

Sudan Desert Mosque - Image copyright John WestbrookeHis son Taharqa built on his work, expanding Amun’s temples at Jebel Barkal and Karnak in Egypt, before finally being ousted by invading Assyrians. He’s buried at Nuri, under another crumbling pyramid.

We don’t know much about father and son, but statues and paintings show dark skin and African features. The colour of the “black pharaohs” doesn’t seem to have drawn much attention at the time, but it did lead modern Egyptologists for years to play down their achievements, on the basis that Africans could never have run a civilisation properly.

Roads into Karima had taken us through bare sand with occasional oases and camel trains making a 40-day trek to market in Egypt. The few villages had low, mud-brick houses, with windowless walls, their drab, horizontal lines offset by mosques with tall minarets in vivid colours.

But we left in a different direction, going across the Bayuda desert in 4WDs. Some parts were dusty, others sandy or pebbly; some ground was even green where wadis or springs brought it to life. However empty it looked, there was usually someone around. Stop for a picnic lunch and kids would soon turn up, whether from nomad tents or from a village we’d failed to spot.

Our guide, Hatim, would interrogate them about whether they were going to school, and invite them to demonstrate by writing letters in the sand. He was firm on the value of education, even though it wasn’t currently doing him much good: he had an archaeology degree from Khartoum, but there is little money anywhere for digging these days, so he was leading tours instead.

Sudan Nomad - Image copyright John WestbrookeFinally, somewhere in the middle of nowhere, we came to a nomad encampment and stopped to speak to the family living there. The children were handsome, with big brown eyes; their parents looked healthy; the older generation were wrinkled and stooped. Though they had a small mud-brick kitchen, their main home was a tent made of skins, rugs and straw over a framework of branches. Animals were tethered nearby: the family were quite well off, in goat-owning terms.

It would be tempting to wonder if they’d ever seen a European face before. In fact, that’s exactly what Joanna Lumley wondered when she filmed the same family on her trip up the Nile months earlier. Not only that, Hatim acknowledged, but they’d hosted more tourists just before us. So our nomads had seen many westerners, including a Bond girl, and were international TV stars.

And yet, for all they might have come from central casting, they really were desert dwellers, living a life few in the west would contemplate. In the hot, dry months they would take the tent coverings – leaving the framework for re-use – and move closer to the Nile, where there was more water. By way of thanks for their hospitality, we left them salt and other cooking ingredients.

On across the desert we went, to look at the pyramids and temples around Meroe. These were built from 300 BC to as late as 300AD – long after the Egyptians had stopped. (True to form as the repository of the old ways, Nubia went on using hieroglyphics longer than Egypt too.) But Egypt fell to Persians, Greeks, Romans and Arabs; and Meroe to Axum, in what is now Ethiopia. Their glory days were over.

Modern Sudan has been divided much as Egypt and Nubia were: Mediterranean and Arab in the north, African in the south; and the division is being made permanent since the south voted to secede from what it sees as a hardline Islamic regime in Khartoum, run by a man sought for war crimes. The oil fields between the two parts may provide a continuing source of friction.

Sudan Sunset - Image copyright John WestbrookeRoaming the sands of north-central Sudan, we saw nothing of this except the Muslim alcohol ban. People were politely friendly and unhassling – very unlike Egypt, but Egypt gets 13 million tourists a year, and Sudan about 200,000. All the same, we encountered petty restrictions. No photos of the disused ferries lying on the river bank at Karima (unless you’re Joanna Lumley), or of the market traders, or of traffic roundabouts. It’s no way to attract tourism, but they don’t mind. For all the Islamic fervour and the Chinese oil deals, life by the Nile goes along pretty much as it always has.

Getting there: Voyages Jules Verne offers tours of Sudan

Bradt publishes the only recent guidebook:

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