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Desert camping in an ancient kingdom

Every now and then you have an unforgettable experience that helps remind you why you made the decisions you did.
I had one of those moments recently while camping in the desert just next door to Sudan’s ancient pyramids.
Six of us set off walking about 11pm from Bagrawiyah villagewhere we stayed with Rami’s family during the Muslim holiday Eid.

At the time, it seemed both reckless and exciting to be walking through the quiet village streets into the darkness beyond.

Guiding our way is intrepid fellow volunteer Robert, who is an experienced traveller and has already camped at the Meroëpyramids on previous trips to Sudan.

We navigate by the moonlight and the shadowy outline of the pyramids in front, walking parallel to the road so as not to be seen by passing cars.

Behind us the green minaret of the Bagrawiyah mosque becomes smaller and smaller.

The Meroë pyramids were constructed about 800 years after their Egyptian counterparts.

Good morning!!

The area is the final resting place of more than 40 kings and queens from the Merotic Kingdom, also known as the Kingdom of Kush.

There were once more than 200 pyramids scattered across the desert sands at Meroë, but today that number stands at about 20.

While some remain well-preserved, others are crumbling or slowly being reclaimed by the desert sands.

One of the first stories locals will tell you is that of Italian explorer Giuseppe Ferlini, who infamously smashed the tops off 40 pyramids in 1834 in search of treasure.

While Ferlini hit the jackpot inside the first pyramid he plundered, the 39 he subsequently destroyed yielded nothing.

Desert campsite

Once back in Europe, he struggled to find a buyer for his treasure trove, as no-one believed that such exquisite jewels could come from black Africa, with collectors assuming Ferlini was an imposter trying to pass off fakes.

Since then, the pyramids have been virtually plundered of all their wealth and many historical treasures and artifacts relating to the period are now housed in British and German museums.

Still, there is something sacred about Meroë, and not simply for the fact it is an ancient burial ground, but also because it remains virtually undiscovered by modern tourism.

Technically tourists are not allowed to camp at the pyramids; however guards tend to tolerate the practice if done discreetly.

After an hour-and-a-half walking we arrive at the edge of the dunes and climb to the top to scope out a good spot to pitch our tents.

Our desert sunrise

The wind has picked up and setting up our tents in near darkness proves challenging, particularly when we discover mid-way through that the pegs are missing.

An ancient kingdom

Imagine how ridiculous we felt in the  morning when we discover the bag of pegs in the sand nearby.

In the end we anchor them down with our backpacks and set off for a moonlight stroll amongst the pyramids.

The silence of the desert and the ghostly shadows   of the ancient pyramids and the surrounding dunes  makes for an eerie experience.

We talk in hushed tones and keep in the shadows, which to me is more out of reverence for the ancient crumbling kingdom we are walking amongst, than staying out of the way of any patrolling guards that may be in the area.

It’s just after six when we wake in the morning. As we step out of our tents the sun is just rising and a pale pink sky highlights the desert horizon.

I have to say, it’s a pretty special moment…

We climb to a nearby vantage point and watch as the light changes, illuminating the sands in various golden shades.

Young souvenir sellers

As we return to our camp to pack our tents away, a solitary man on a donkey waves at us across the desert and promptly sets up a small makeshift stall with small trinkets and pyramid replicas carved from the region’s distinctive sandstone.

This sets off a retail chain reaction and we are soon totally surrounded by a group of small children waving various replica pyramids at more and more reduced prices.

Something in their eyes and the desperation in their pleas makes me wish that I could do more for them than simply buy a dusty souvenir.

We set off on a hike later and quite by accident stumble across a series of mountains, housing a network of small caves. The rolling orange dunes give way to a rocky barren moonscape and the view from the top provides an impressive scale for the endless expanse of desert stretching out across the horizon.

It’s true that the Meroë pyramids may lack the grandness and scale of their Egyptian counterparts, but here you can have them almost to yourself – and that’s pretty hard to beat.

The intrepids 🙂



The Blue Nile and White Nile

The two major tributaries of the Nile River are the Blue Nile and White Nile. The striking difference between them is their color. The Blue Nile, which begins in the mountains of Ethiopia, starts off with a bright blue color. As it passes through Sudan, however, it picks up black sediment that gives it a darker hue. The White Nile, which begins in the forests of Rwanda and flows through Lake Victoria, is a whitish-gray color, due to the light gray sediment it carries. Although the White Nile is longer than the Blue Nile, the Blue Nile carries around two-thirds of the Nile’s water supply. The two Nile tributaries join together near the city of Khartoum, and when the Nile River reaches Egypt, it divides into two branches, known as the Damietta on the right and the Rosetta on the left, which empty into the Mediterranean Sea.


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The stem ship Sudan, The most beautiful boat cruising down the Nile

A Legendary boat

A boat inhabited by the memory of the King Fouad who received it as a gift in 1885, the memory of the Belle Époque travellers who used it, or that of Hercule Poirot who Agatha Christie had walking its decks in her writings…

Along the broad passageways, one can easily picture refined ladies with parasols and gentlemen archaeologists strolling or relaxing in comfort. With the eager anticipation of a Champollion or a Carter, we look forward to discovering the magical sites that will punctuate our journey along the Nile.

Life on board takes one gently back in time, stopping off in the early days of the last century. At the bar in the lounge, the woodwork, copper and furniture are genuine period craftworks. The walls display old photographs of visitors who made their mark in Egyptian history, such as the legendary King Farouk. The restaurant has lost nothing of its period charm, and as the velvet strains of Oum Kalsoum’s golden voice enchant us, we can settle down in comfort to enjoy the finest Egyptian cuisine. The crew is made up of both Muslims and Christians, sharing one unique relgion : service with a smile.

Cabins and Suites

Each cabin is a haven of Belle Epoque refinement and comfort, allied to  services and facilities worthy of a grand hotel.

The 5 suites and 18 cabins are laid out between the two decks, off broad passageways where the passengers can sit, relax and read in the evening, or enjoy a delicious hibiscus punch. Each cabin proudly bears a name linked to Egyptian history. On the upper deck, the Agatha Christie and Lady Duff Gordon suites, at the prow of the vessel, benefit from spectacular views over the river. The Aida and Queen Victoria suites, nestle spaciously in the gentle curves of the stern. The warm-toned wooden panelling, gilded and copper bed-frames, classical furniture and distinguished parquet floors bestow a definite period charm, revealed in every detail, such as the bathroom fittings. The decor is subtle and airy, enlivened by coloured textiles and fabrics in shades of fuschia, orange or absinthe.

Every bedroom has air conditioning.

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The Dynastic

From Luxor to Assouan

5 days / 4 night

Board the Steam Ship Sudan in Luxor for a 5 day journey through time. On this refined cruise from Luxor to Aswan, you will visit all the major archaeological sites of Upper Egypt and discover the spirit that so inspired Agatha Christie to write ‘Death on the Nile’…



Eternal river

From Assouan to Luxor

4 days / 3 nights

Departing from bustling Aswan, this 4 day cruise will journey north to the ancient city of Luxor. Cruising in the spirit of the Bell Époque, you will not miss any of the grand Pharaonic sites along the Nile Valley.




Ancient Kingdoms in Land of War

KHARTOUM, Sudan — Every winter they come and go, like birds migrating south. Most of them nest in downtown Khartoum’s oldAcropole Hotel, but they’re not here to rest. They’re here to work in Sudan’s blistering deserts, and the past few years have yielded outstanding results.

Excavation work in Sedeinga, where 35 small pyramids have been found in the past few years.

For many people around the world, Sudan conjures images of war, instability, drought and poverty. All of those things exist here, often in tragic abundance. But lost in the narrative are the stories of the ancient kingdoms of Kush and Nubia that once rivaled Egypt, Greece and Rome.



Lost to many, that is, but not to the archaeologists who have been coming here for years, sometimes decades, to help unearth that history.

“Sudan is the only country in sub-Saharan Africa that has real archaeology and local teams working,” said Claude Rilly, the director of the French Archaeological Unit in Sudan.

Though its historical importance has long been overshadowed by Egypt, its neighbor to the north, Sudan’s archaeological record is pivotal to understanding the history of Africa itself, experts say, and a wave of new discoveries may be adding crucial new information.

“The history of Sudan can play a role for Africa that Greece played for the history of Europe,” Mr. Rilly said enthusiastically. “People have been living here for 5,000 years” along the Nile, he added. “It is difficult not to find something.”

One overlooked fact is that Sudan has more pyramids than Egypt, in places like Nuri and Bijrawiyah, though they are smaller and not as old. In the town of Sedeinga in northern Sudan, for instance, Mr. Rilly and others excavated 35 small pyramids in the past few years, a discovery that points to what he called an ancient “democratization of pyramids.”

“Anyone who could afford it built one,” he said. “It was for social distinction.”

The pyramids at Sedeinga are built close together. Made of mud brick, they range in height from under three feet for children to as high as 32 feet for nobles.

Not far from Sedeinga is the town of Dukki Gel, where a Swiss archaeologist, Charles Bonnet, has been working in the area for 44 years. He focuses on the ancient civilization of Kerma — so much so that his friends call him Charles “Kerma” Bonnet — which flourished around 1500 B.C. Mr. Bonnet’s colleagues say that his research has greatly added to the understanding of 1,000 years of Sudan’s ancient history.

“I discovered a Nubian city in Dukki Gel with original African architecture from around 1500 B.C., and in a cache we found 40 pieces of seven monumental statues of black pharaohs,” Mr. Bonnet said. In late 2012, he found what he believes are the city’s walls.

At the height of its military power around 750 B.C., the ancient kingdom of Kush in northern Sudan ruled over Egypt and Palestine, inaugurating what historians call the rule of the 25th dynasty and the black pharaohs.

In the heartland of the Kush kingdom, Richard Lobban Jr., an American archaeologist who has been visiting Sudan since 1970, works mostly in the area of the Island of Meroe, which was added to Unesco’s World Heritage sites in 2011. Along with colleagues from Russia and Italy, Mr. Lobban uncovered an ancient and previously unknown Merotic temple in late 2011.

“The orientation of the temple has the sun directly pouring into the temple twice a year,” said Mr. Lobban, suggesting that it was dedicated to the ancient Egyptian sun god Amun.

Ancient Meroe, known today as Bijrawiyah, was a second capital in the kingdom of Kush from around 300 B.C. to 350 A.D. It was a major center for iron smelting, earning it the nickname “the Birmingham of Africa” by historians. Meroe was often ruled by queens, known by the title “kandake,” and boasts scores of pyramids similar in shape to the one exhibited on a one-dollar bill.

“We hope to excavate further and deeper and find still more of the missing pieces of this ancient puzzle,” Mr. Lobban said.

As fruitful as it may be, archaeology in Sudan faces many challenges, including the difficulty of protecting sites from development projects. There has even been a literal gold rush, in which many young Sudanese head to the desert in search of gold but occasionally find artifacts instead, leading to a rise in illegal trade in relics.

“Someone was arrested recently for trying to smuggle a statue,” says Abdel-Rahman Ali, director general of the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums.

Financing archaeological efforts has also been low on the list of priorities for the Sudanese government, but in February the government signed a $135 million agreement with Qatar that would provide money for 27 archaeological missions, the renovation of the Sudan National Museum and the development of tourism projects.

“Archaeology in Sudan is getting ready for a boom,” says Geoff Emberling, an archaeologist from the University of Michigan, who has been working in the town of El Kurru.

The impact of new archaeological discoveries has generated interest beyond the ring of specialists.

Since South Sudan split off from Sudan in 2011, Sudan’s economy has been hard hit because most of the oil is in the south. In January 2012, South Sudan shut off production in a dispute with Sudan. An agreement between both countries now promises to send the oil through the north for a fee, but some in Sudan have been searching for new sources of hard currency, including tourism.

Sohaib Elbadawi is a member of Sudan Archaeological Society and heads a private group working on establishing a five-star resort near the ancient site of Jebel Barkal.

Showing a model of the project in his office in downtown Khartoum, Mr. Elbadawi said that foreigners told him, “ ‘You have a history, but you don’t know how to market yourself.’ ”“There are voices rising in Sudan that tourism should be a source of income for the country after separation,” Mr. Elbadawi added optimistically.

Sudanese archaeologists are also conscious of current opportunities.

“We have been working to illuminate Sudanese heritage through exhibitions held abroad, such as in France and Germany, and we are planning for exhibitions in Qatar, Japan and Korea,” said Mr. Ali of the National Corporation for Antiquities.

Of course, it will take years for Sudan to turn itself into a tourism attraction, if it ever can. The lack of fully developed infrastructure and facilities, United States sanctions that bar the use of major credit cards, a maddening bureaucracy and, above all, political instability stand in the way.

But archaeologically speaking, the bounty is evident.

“This is a land of great history indeed,” said Mr. Lobban.

Archaeologist, Peter Lacovara “Ancient Nubia: African Kingdoms on the Nile”

Photographer Chester Higgins, Jr., Peter Lacovara, the Carlos Museum’s curator of Egyptian, Nubian and Near Eastern Art, Marjorie Martin Fisher of the University of Michigan, and Egyptologist Sue D’Auria, discuss their collaboration on the book “Ancient Nubia: African Kingdoms on the Nile,” recently published by the American University in Cairo Press. The panel discussion and book signing will be held at the Carlos Museum on

Ancient Nubia,” published by the AUC Press in 2012, is a lushly illustrated gazetteer of the archaeological sites of southern Egypt and northern Sudan

April 23, 2013 at 7:30 p.m.

Nubia’s remote setting in the midst of an inhospitable desert, with access by river blocked by impassable rapids, has lent it not only an air of mystery, but also isolated it from exploration. “Ancient Nubia” documents recent archaeological discoveries about ancient Nubia, with its remarkable history, architecture, and culture. In describing his work to capture the essence of this civilization through photography, Higgins Jr. notes, “Working on the Ancient Nubia project, among the antiquity sites in Sudan, once peopled by a distinctive mindset, was like slipping into a parallel time, pulled along by the sight of the monuments, the place, and the desert air under a blistering sun. The very meaning and presence of these ancient remains informed the photographs, collapsing the images into something visually precious.”

Lacovara says, “This book is a testament to the commitment of many in our field to share the history and culture of ancient Africa. Ancient Nubia was the birthplace of many important kingdoms and the cradle of the pharaohs’ Egypt. Both recent excavations and new studies of earlier discoveries have offered us a better understanding of the uniqueness and significance of this lost land.”

“Ancient Nubia” wins the PROSE award
“Ancient Nubia,” published by the AUC Press in 2012, is a lushly illustrated gazetteer of the archaeological sites of southern Egypt and northern Sudan, with contributing essays by Lacovara, Fisher, Salima Ikram, professor of Egyptology in the American University in Cairo, and D’Auria, all leading experts on the history, archaeology, and material culture of the region. Many of the book’s 200 color illustrations were taken by the highly acclaimed photographer Higgins Jr. “Ancient Nubia” was named best book in the Archaeology and Anthropology category during the 37th Annual American Publishers Awards for Professional and Scholarly Excellence ceremony in Washington.

This book is a testament to the commitment of many in our field to share the history and culture of ancient Africa.

Oxford University Press slideshow of Higgins Jr.’s photographs here.

About the Michael C. Carlos Museum
The Michael C. Carlos Museum of Emory University collects, preserves, exhibits, and interprets art and artifacts from antiquity to the present in order to provide unique opportunities for education and enrichment in the community, and to promote interdisciplinary teaching and research at Emory University. The Carlos Museum is one of the Southeast’s premier museums with collections of art from Greece, Rome, Egypt, Near East, Nubia, the Americas, Africa, and Asia, as well as a collection of works on paper from the Renaissance to the present.