Pyramids. Archaeology. Sandstorm. Dead donkey. The North!

Maria, a friend from Poland, came to visit and stayed for a couple of weeks, she left on Monday. While she was here I wanted to travel around the north, which is where many of the important archaeological sites are. I didn’t have a definite route but I knew that I wanted to go sort-of in the direction of Kerma but not as high as Wadi Halfa (last stop in Sudan before Egypt).

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This is an archaeological map of Sudan. We travelled from Khartoum to Karima – Jebel Barkal – Nuri – Meroe – Dongola – Kerma – Bijurawiya (pyramids near Shendi/Meroe, there are 2 x Meroes, one in the north and one near Shendi). It was quite difficult on public transport, if I did it again I would hire a car and bring a tent. You can camp in the desert, just not within a few metres (I think 10) of the pyramids. The sites are close together but many of them don’t have public transport running to/from them. Another option is to hitch, which we were quite lucky with, but again not all sites have many cars driving between them.

We didn’t know where the bus to Karima would leave from (only that it was somewhere in Omdurman) so we got up early on Monday and walked to Jackson station at about 5 A.M. When we got there we asked around for Karima and some helpful people piled us into a bus going to one of the stations in Omdurman, we waited around for a while (the first of many long waits in busses) and eventually arrived at the departure point for Karima. A helpful old fellow led us towards a place where supposedly the bus would be leaving from for Karima but when we got there all we saw was an empty, dusty clearing. I started asking in my not-great Arabic where we could get another bus to Karima and another old guy emerged and led us towards a brand new white minibus. We jumped in, waited around for about 3 hours, and eventually got on the road to Karima.

These are some road scenes on the way to Karima – pyramids! Unlike the other pyramids we saw,  the ones at Jebel Barkal are in between two very close towns (about 10 mins from Karima and 10 mins from Meroe). These are the only ones we saw which were in such an urban area.

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On arrival in Karima we checked into a grotty place called Hotel Nasser. One of our fellow bus passengers took us there, it was only about 4 mins from the main bus station. As soon as we got there Maria passed out in the bedroom (she suffers from motion sickness. The bus ride took about 7 hours, it stopped once along the way for females to go to the bathroom and multiple times for males – lack of trees etc. for females to hide behind. If you’re female and travelling by bus in Sudan, don’t drink too much).

After dropping my stuff off in the room I had to go to the Karima security office to do the police registration, which is necessary in some Sudanese towns. Many hotels do it for you but the cheaper ones leave you to do it yourself. It was pretty painless, just take a copy of your travel permit and passport to the police station, sit around watching NatGeo on a fuzzy old tv (something about a kid with a massive pet snake, I guess, it was soundless), tell them your travel plans – which they write onto a piece of paper – then take the paper to the hotel reception. On any trip in Sudan (out of Khartoum) make sure you take dozens of copies of your travel permit, which you can get in Khartoum at the ministry of tourism and antiquities. There are numerous security checks along the road and they often take a copy and don’t give it back.

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Karima high street

When I got back to Hotel Nasser I fell asleep in the room and woke up at about 10 PM, absolutely freezing. The room was basically a concrete block with a metal door and metal windows, with large gaps between the door/windows and the walls. There were also two large windows in the bathroom which didn’t have glass in them as well as some other holes in the walls, so the cold wind just swept through the room and made everything rattle. The bathroom had a tap with ice cold water and there were no blankets – just a thin sheet covering the mattress. Anyway I woke up at 10 and went to find some food. I asked around for fuul and was directed towards a place in the bus station, there was no inside seating so I ended up sitting in the middle of the bus station parking lot, by myself, eating fuul. Feeling cold. I didn’t sleep very much that night but in the morning Maria was feeling better so we decided to go and see the pyramids and mountain at Jebel Barkal, in between Karima and Meroe. I hadn’t brought any warm clothes with me so I was wearing a bright blue fluffy pyjama top. Not my best fashion moment, haha.

Dinner for one. Karima bus station:

As soon as the bus stopped near the pyramids a gust of wind blew in and little specks of sand whipped us in the face. There was a sandstorm! Which was magnificent. The pyramids looked so beautiful. It even stopped being cold after a little while. It was so peaceful and lovely to be there. We walked around the mountain a bit, examined the ruins of the temple of Amon then made our way towards Meroe (we thought we could walk but ended up taking a bus).

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A pyramid with Jebel Barkal (Arabic for “Sacred Mountain”) in the distance. At the base of the mountain you can see the remains of the temple of Amon (or Amun). Amon was the Ancient Egyptians’ State God and they believed he lived in the mountain. You can still see some of the foundations and pillars from the temple, which was constructed during the second Kingdom of Kush. There is a rock pinnacle which comes naturally out of the mountain and is said to look like a cobra rearing its head (it does kind of look like it but not really). The mountain was also used by traders to signal a point in the Nile (1.5 KM away, near Hotel Nasser in Karima) where it’s easier to cross.
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The pinnacle.
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Remains of the temple. The colours were so vivid, it was absolutely beautiful.
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The pyramids represent a Royal cemetary from the Meroitic Kingdom (included in the Kingdom of Kush – the capital of the Kingdom of Kush was Meroe).
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Some of the pyramids were in better condition than others. I don’t know what those lines are in the sand, I didn’t noice them at the time. From the wind maybe?
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These date palms grow near the base of Jebel Barkal. There are little streams in there and lots of birds, it also provided cover from the sand storm.

We stayed in Karima for another night (the kindly owner of Nasser gave us some thin sofa-cover type blanket things and an extra sheet each) then headed to Nuri and Dongola the next day. We had planned to walk to Nuri but we bumped into a couple of German archeologists in a shop in Karima (they are working at the Ghazali site, they came into town to buy a Snickers bar each) who said it would take about 3 hours. We got the bus to drop us off at Meroe then hitched to Nuri, we got 2 rides, the second dropped us off at the foot of the pyramids which was very kind. The pyramids were absolutely stunning – I am so, so glad we made it to Nuri. They are crumbling but much larger than the ones at Jebel Barkal and Bijurawiya. It was a clear day, absolutely perfect for pyramid viewing. There was also a very sweet dog that followed us around.

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The pyramids at Nuri are older and more deteriorated than the ones at Jebel Barkal. They are also a lot bigger, but are smaller than the ones in Egypt. They are on the outside of a small village, about 20 mins from Meroe. During the Christian period a church was built at Nuri using some of the stones taken from pyramids (I couldn’t see any sign of a church, although it may still be there).

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On the way back we found a bus that was going to Meroe (we didn’t know that they existed) so we went to Meroe, then Karima, then Dongola. Dongola was only about 2 hours from Karima. The bus was absolutely choca – the guy next to me sat on a crate which had been cut in half and wedged between some other seats. Looked very uncomfortable. The guide book says that in Dongola there is “a large number of high quality accommodation options” so after Hotel Nasser I had high hopes. I remember saying to Maria that there would almost definitely be blankets there and perhaps even hot water. We arrived in Dongola and walked to the hotel – I wanted to stay at Hotel Haifa, which I was told is the best (relative) place to stay in Dongola. I saw a large building from the back which looked hotel-ish, it looked newly painted and had lots of air conditioning units coming out of the back. I could almost feel the hot shower. Anyway by the time we got to the front it turned out that it wasn’t a hotel but the oncology ward for a hospital. We asked around for funduk Haifa and some people pointed us towards a souk-like area, which had three rough looking hotels in a row. Hotel Haifa was full, S hotel didn’t accept females (dormitories only) and Lord Hotel had a room for us, but it turned out that the room was actually the receptionist’s personal bedroom. There was a kitchen at the front with lots of pots and clothes and old suitcases and plastic flowers, and a dark bedroom at the back. There were no lights but he said he’d fix that for us. We decided to try our last hotel option, a place called Hotel Ola which was on a different street. It was massive and they did indeed have a room for us, and it was warm. They even gave me an extra blanket. The only problem was that the room looked like it had never been cleaned, there were matches and cigarette butts on the floor and the shared bathroom made the one at Nasser look five star in comparison (I’m not going to go into detail but the toilet was literally overflowing). Our room also had holes at the top and we shared a wall with the reception, which is why we could hear the receptionist watching Indiana Jones twice in a row, at full volume. Besides that I think I had the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had. The walls used to be blue but now they were a smudged brown-blue colour and someone had written this on them:

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It says “my name is Khalid” with his email add and phone number, together with “I want go to Amurica : or Enguland”.

The next day we wanted to go to Kerma and then Atbarra. We arrived at the bus station early in the morning (7) and got the kindest driver we could ask for. He drove us to Kerma, waited half an hour, then returned us to the main bus station in Dongola, all for the reasonable price of 100 SDG. There are two stations in Dongola, one small one which goes to local destinations (like Kerma, it’s very close to the hotels) and a bigger one which serves further afield destinations like Atbarra and Wadi Halfa (40 mins walk from the hotels).

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On the way to Kerma.
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The villge of Kerma. The actual archaeological site is called the deffufa (on the outskirts of the village).
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The western deffufa, a large mud structure which you can climb to the top of. This was the capital city of the Kerma Culture, which existed in Sudan around 5500 years ago.

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View from the top of the deffufa – these are the remains of graves. Kerma is still being excavated and continues to reveal new archaeological treasures. A significant number  of mummies have been found here. The dry desert conditions cause natural mummification – easy to believe considering Maria and I found a dead cat in a little alley halfway up the deffufa. It was hollow on the inside (there was a hole) but still had fluff on the outside. In the upper deffufa archaeologists found dozens of mummies which they believe were sacrificed victims.

Sacrifices and dead cats aside, Kerma was my favourite site of all the ones I’ve seen. The natural surroundings are gorgeous – little birds fly all around the deffufa, and there is a combination of date palms and desert on the horizon. It was amazingly beautiful.

When we got back to Dongola we tried to get onto a bus for Atbarra. The guy selling us the bus ticket was definitely a bit crooked because he kept telling us the bus would leave immediately but we waited 4 and a half hours to leave. They wanted us to pay for the empty seats, which we made a fuss about, demanded our money back, and got quite angry about, then eventually he found 4 people to fill the vacant seats and we set off. We arrived in Atbarra at 9 PM and ended up staying in a hotel near the station (practically in the station) which was beyond wonderful. It was warm. It was clean. The sheets had been washed. It had tiled floors. It was like heaven and we had our first showers of the trip.

The next day we arrived at the bus station at 6 AM for our bus ride to Bijurawiya. The ticket sellers told us that we had to pay the full fare to Khartoum despite the fact that we were only going about one fifth of the way, but we agreed so that we could get on the bus (which was about to leave). I asked the driver and conductor to drop us off at Bijurawiya and fell asleep on the bus. I woke up, checked my phone, and noticed that we had passed Bijurawiya and were practically in Shendi (30 KM away). I asked the driver and conductor what was going on, put on a disappointed/dissatisfied voice and managed to get a free ride on one of the drivers’ mates’ busses to Bijurawiya (we sat on the floor, which was actually really comfy). I asked them to drop us off at a petrol station which was about 3 KM form the pyramids so that we could get some food. We had some amazing fuul and got some water (they don’t sell food or water at the pyramids) then walked through the desert towards the pyramids. It was definitely a highlight of the trip, so beautiful. It was completely deserted except for halfway there two weird men, one was chubby and the other was skinny with a broken arm, came up to us shouting “Mmoooo….nn”. They were putting some crops (there was a small patch of green) onto the back of a truck. The skinny one was especially excited, he was practically jumping towards us. I thought they were saying “morning” so I was like “hello! Good morning!” then it turned out that they were saying “money! money” repeatedly. They had a beaten up white pick-up truck which they wanted to take us to the pyramids in for…500 SDG! I said no and carried on walking, the skinny one ran after us shouting “200! 150!”. After about a minute they left us alone. Ten minutes later I looked behind us and there were 2 kids running after us who also started asking for money, I have no idea where they came from. They left us alone quite quickly. This is the first experience I’ve had like this in Sudan. 98% of the Sudanese people I’ve met have been extremely polite, welcoming and hospitable. As a general rule Sudanese people do not treat foreigners like this – these people were an exception.

I wrote a previous post about the pyramids at Bijurawiya, I visited them soon after arriving in Sudan.

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Aerial view of the pyramids at Bijurawiya – taken from Atlas Obscura.

When we got to the pyramids I think Maria and I were both in our elements. We wondered around them looking inside and outside, taking pics. We even had a little camel ride. It was lovely. When we finished we walked towards the road, when we got close we saw a German guy, also with all his luggage, clambering onto a camel and making his way towards the pyramids. I think he had come from Khartoum by bus. We got to the road – our plan was to catch a bus from the road (there’s no bus stop) to Shendi or Khartoum. The first bus we saw didn’t stop, the next one did stop but they wanted 40 SDG to Shendi which was very overpriced so I said no. I think Maria was starting to stress about us being stuck in the desert/midday heat and perhaps thought I shouldn’t have let that bus go, we both got a bit snappy with each other and then she pointed out that I was standing next to a dead donkey. It was still perfectly fluffy and in tact, with no smell at all. At first glance it looked like it was sleeping. I went to look at it but (rightly) Maria was like “focus on the road!” so I went back to the roadside and flagged down a white car, which stopped and immediately the driver popped the boot open. I asked how much it would be to go to Shendi and with a big grin he said “free!”. It turned out that he – Ali – was going to Khartoum and he gave us a lift all the way home, which was magnificent. Ali is from the Nuba mountains and he told us loads about his culture and hometown, he also introduced us to some kick ass Sudanese music and taught us some dance moves (while driving, although he was actually a careful driver).

It was great. Even through the lows (dead donkey). I wouldn’t choose to have spent those days in any other way. I am so grateful to have seen these beautiful places! I hope more people can visit Sudan and see them too. I will post more pics when Maria sends me the ones she took on her camera (mine are iphone pics).

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2 comments

  1. Sudan is full of archaeological
    sites, which is equal to the
    Pharaonic civilization in Egypt, but
    was ruled Egypt at a time, by the
    Sudanese civilization. I am very grateful to you write this
    beautiful story about Sudan.
    Thank You very much my friend Laura , i hope you enjoy more in sudan
    and you make me very proud of you !

    Like

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