Blog Archives

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 🙂



Basics of Kushite Religion: The Story of Creation, Jebel Barkal, and Maat

Sources of knowledge on religion in Nubia may be traced back to about 6000 BC (Khartoum Paleolithic), as indicated by the deceased positions, the burial items, as well as various indicators of religious rites and rituals. Nevertheless, the material finds for these periods is too much limited to allow for some solid conclusions on the theology of the period.

Ta Seti, in Ancient Egyptian means ‘Land of the Bow’ or Nubia, was described by Old Kingdom pharaohs as composed of tribes, chiefdoms, and proto-kingdoms.1 Probably, each of these tribes had its own deity. However, later by the time the kingdom of Kerma was formed, some common concepts helped to bring various deities together.

The Story of Creation:

Bull figurines. C-Group. From Aniba. Originally courtesy of the Ernstvon Sieglin-Expedition and the Leipzig, Ägyptisches Museum. Source: Wildung, Dietrich. Sudan: Ancient Kingdoms of the Nile.
Nubian bulls

According to Kushite (Nubian) beliefs, before creation, the world was all covered with water.2 Then a mound of earth has risen out of the water. On top of this mound, Atum the first god on earth, was born. Atum then gave birth to Shu, the first man on earth, and Tefnut, the first woman goddess. Shu and Tefnu married and gave birth to Geb (the god of Earth) and Nut (god of the Skies). Geb and Nut then were responsible for giving birth to the most important gods in Nubia, Osiris (god of the pharaohs) and Seth (god of devastation), and Isis (god of motherhood)and Nephthys (protector of the dead). Atum signified the concept of creation. Atum was also believed to have created the heavens and earth. He was portrayed as an old man and sometimes with a ram head in connection to Amon.

Re was the most publicly worshiped form of Atum, though the cult of Re emerged as a universal god. The symbol of Re is a sun disk, which is found to be pictured on chapels of pyramids as well as on temples.

Jebel Barkal:

Source: Wildung, Dietrich. Sudan: Ancient Kingdoms of the Nile.
Jebel Barkal

Jebel-Barkal (in Arabic meaning the Holly Mountain) , in Napata (capital of Kush), Sudan. Both the Kushites and Egyptians believed that Jebel-Barkal was the site where life on earth had started. Thus, this mountain functioned, throughout history, as the center of religious life in Nubia. There, numerous temples had been constructed, including the Amon temple where the major religious ceremonies took place and the annotation of pharaohs. During religious festivals, these temples would have gotten crowded with pilgrims who traveled from distant places to pay homage to the Nubian deities.


Maat is the concept of order and righteousness that was required of rulers to adhere to, and judge by. The concept shaped Kushite politics and played a role similar to the constitution. According to Maat, however, the priests had the right to decide whether a king was ruling properly or not. If they decided that a ruler was inconsistent with the Maat doctrine, they could process an order that he or she commit a suicide.

The system of Maat, however, had also helped to preserve a sense of order and morality among common people. Opposite to meaning of Maat was the function of God Seth, who was believed to cause disorder and challenge immoral behavior and ignite evil acts. Yet, dealing with him in the religious rituals, the Seth had an important role to play accomplishing the function of Maat. This concept remained the main doctrine in Nubia throughout its pagan history.

Amon:Material items found at the Deffufa temple in Kerma (built around 1600 BC) are considered revolutionary in helping to understand the origins of Kushite belief systems. There, statues of Amon, the ram-headed the creator god, were clearly labeled and sculptured. At a later date, this cult was worshiped in Thebes and became the most prominent god in ancient Egypt.Throughout the history of Nubia, Amon remained the chief deity, which greatly shaped the order in which the Kushite pharaohs ruled. One inscription states that King Tanwetamany attacked the Assyrians in Lower Egypt as a response to a vision that he saw in sleep that Amon assured his success. Again, when Tanwetamani withdrew his forces from Lower Egypt, Herodotus tells us that the King’s action was a result of a dream, in which God Amon told him to withdraw.The Nubians believed that the priests had their spiritual ways to communicate with God Amon in order to consult with him on the election of the righteous king from among the candidate family members. At Amon Temple in Napata, in front of the cult of Amon in the holly sanctuary of the temple, the chosen Kushite king was anointed and declared pharaoh.3


Statue of the God Amon. From Gebel Barkal. Courtesy of the Harvard University-MFA Boston Expedition and the Khartoum National Museum. Source: Wildung, Dietrich. Sudan: Ancient Kingdoms of the Nile.

  • 1 D. O’Connor, Ancient Nubia: Egypt’s Rival in Africa (University of Pennsylvania P, 1994) 22, and Ancient Sudan-Early States and Cultures, and the A-Group Proto-Kingdom (Click here for link).
  • 2 For example see: “Nubian/Egyptian Gods and Godesses,” DigNubia, Education Development Center, Inc. Dec. 2008 <>.
  • 3 E. A. W. Budge, Gods of the Egyptians Part 2: Studies in Egyptian Mythology (Kessinger Publishing, 2003) 40, Association for the Study of Northwest Semitic Languages in South Africa, University of Stellenbosch Dept. of Ancient Near Eastern Studies, Journal of Northwest Semitic Languages (Dept. of Ancient Near Eastern Studies, Univ. of Stellenbosch, 2001), and E. A.W. Budge, Osiris and the Egyptian Resurrection (Courier Dover Publications, 1973) 244-6.