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May 25, 2007

The Ancient Tombs of Meroe

LOCATION: Khartoum, Sudan
Longitude: N:15deg.35'55.
Latitude: E: 032deg.31'25.
Kms from Djibouti: 2,208

It's been a busy week, or as busy as it can be for a city where embassies and government ministries are only open for 3-4 hours a day, and some only 3 days a week. Plus the town layout, in the shape of the Union Jack thanks to the colonizing Brits, while perhaps looking nice on a map is not the most practical of designs for a present day capital city. Most roads are one-way streets and as many as six of these will converge on each other in certain spots on the flag's design with disastrous consequences: huge bottle necks of traffic that sit jammed to a standstill in the heat. Some streets are open to pedestrians and cyclists, but not to cars or trucks, while some are open to cars but not to cyclists. I had one armed guard run after me down one street opposite the Republican Palace threatening to shoot me unless I turned back. Apparently the last guy (a local Sudanese) who rode a bicycle on the same street had been carrying a chicken that promptly escaped into the palace and it took the entire palace guard several hours to catch. The sight of anyone riding a bicycle since seems to trigger instant hysteria of the possibility of another chicken invasion.


As far as getting closer to gaining permission to cross this wretched lake, the picture is definitely getting clearer as to the ins and outs of what is going to be possible, but I'm not sure I'm any closer to being able to do it. The Egyptian side is proving to be the most difficult as anticipated: all expeditions that have tried to cross the lake in recent years have been turned back; the last being a National Geographic film crew. Nonetheless I have sent off a formal request to the powers that be in Cairo via the Egyptian Embassy here, and in the slim chance that they say yes, the Sudanese Ministry of Tourism have said they would then grant permission from the Sudan side. So I'm going to start biking north towards Wadi Halfa on Sunday morning, and in the 12-14 days that it will take me to get there, hopefully word will come back from Cairo as to the options. But backtracking all the way to India is still a very real possibility.


In amongst all this bureaucratic nonsense I was able to do a side trip to the ancient pyramids at Meroe, thanks to some friends from the International School who were heading out there anyway. The amazing thing about archeological sites in the Sudan is that they are almost unknown by comparison to their infamous cousins across the border in Egypt. While the latter are protected by glass panels and cost a fortune to get in to see, not to mention the hundreds of fellow tourists you have to elbow out of the way just to catch a glimpse, the sites in Sudan are often deserted, with the result that you have the rare sensation of discovering history for the first time, almost Indiana Jones-like.


The tombs at Meroe were built in the 8th century BC for the Kushite Kings that ruled the region from around the 25th dynasty in Egypt. Although clearly Egyptian in inspiration, they differ markedly from the pyramids at Giza: they are smaller (the highest being 30m), the angles are much more acute (approaching 70 degrees) and the tomb chambers were dug directly into the rock below and the pyramid built on top.


Many of the chambers were visited by early explorers who left graffiti of their own name and a date. They continued a long tradition of vandalism started by successive royal benefactors who would replace the names of their predecessors inscribed in the rock hieroglyphics with their own. And somehow the passage of time lends value even to these 19th century additions.


Almost all of the pyramids were decapitated in 1834 thanks to an Italian tomb robber, Guiseppe Ferlini, who was convinced they held great riches. Unfortunately he struck gold on his first attempt: in the pyramid of Queen Amanishakheto he found a hoard of gold jewelry in a chamber near the tomb's apex. This inspired, he proceeded to tear the tops off most of the others, but without finding anything else.


MORE IMAGES (click to enlarge)

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Posted on May 25, 2007 7:49 PM