Archaeology's Fertile Desert
Archaeology's Fertile Desert
In my recent trip to Sudan, I enjoyed ancient archaeological sites without having to wait in line... I was the only one there! I experienced warmth and hospitality in a safe country. Among the ruins of one of the great Nile civilisations, I discovered the beauty of the Nubian desert and a travel destination that has been unjustly ignored by tourism, offering a rare opportunity for those seeking authenticity.
The 4x4 is leaving a trail of dust behind. We are in the middle of the desert. I would not be able to say if we got lost. “Places like [the desert] are able to make momentary mystics of almost anyone. They evoke a powerful sense of presence, offering a point of entry into the deep interiority of things,” said Belden C. Lane, the author of The Solace of Fierce Landscapes. In Sudan this is a feeling that transcends time, and I am about to walk with the ancients.
Sudan is the largest country in Africa, and once of the most culturally diverse. Egyptians, Greeks, Turks, and Arabs passed here for thousand of years producing the sophisticated ethnic diversity one can see today: are they arab or african? Possibly the best of both. While walking the streets of Khartoum or visiting a Nubian family along the Nile, or visiting a simple eaterie cooking chickpea stew, the traveller is rewarded by the encounter with one of the most gracious and hospitable people on earth, with broad smiles and warm eyes.
Sudan revolves around the River Nile and its valley. The river is the giver of life. It also provides the people with irrigation, electricity, and food. It was the ancient trade route liking West Africa to the Arabian Peninsula and the Egyptian Coast. An immense desert plateau sprawls beyond the green belt that adorns each bank of the river. Beyond the mantle of the Nile, there are no settlements. Nomads with their camels roam this arid landscape. They depend of water holes for their life and sustenance.
I am driving with Amir, the most experienced desert driver. For 20 years he has guided expeditions, archaeologists and desert lovers deep into the sands. We are crossing the desert of Bayuda, in-between the great bend of the Nile. There are no desert tracks, no visible waypoints. All the way to the horizon there is nothing, yet he looks very attentive. What is he looking at? Sometimes he veers West, then North, then West again? In my mind we are going A to B and this is not a straight line. Is he lost? Of course not.
We pass by a water well and close by we see a nomad settlement. "They don't like the city," Amir tells me, as I comment on the harsh reality of living in the desert. "It is a difficult existence, but they are free."
Across North Africa and the Middle East, the Beduin, the Berber, the nomads, are almost mythical to others. The desert nomads represents the purer self of the Arabs in the cities. They are seen as the courageous lovers of freedom to the point of willingly paying the cost of a harsh life in the desert.
Amir and I are headed to Jebel Barkal, the isolated red sandstone mountain, the Olympus of the Nile, considered holy since ancient times by both the Nubians and the Egyptians. It is considered the home of the god Amun, with a 90m meter pinnacle that resembles a pharaonic crown with its cobra. Here was the ancient city of Napata, the powerful capital of the Meroitic civilization. A temple and a shrine dug in the mountain with painted bas reliefs and hieroglyphs still bears traces of life at the time.
At sunset I climb Jebel Barkal: looking west and north into the infinite desert. The golden with the light of the sun at the horizon, a group of pyramids in the foreground. To the north, a dense palm groove and the town on the shores of the majestic Nile, then another strip of green and desert again. At the base of the mountains the temple of Amun. I am alone, taking all this majesty in.
Sudan is the cradle of one of the most ancient civilizations on Earth. What archeologist thought to be an extension of Egypt was instead the powerful kingdom of Kush, with its own civilisation: Ancient Nubia. It came under the influence of Egypt at times, but also ruled Egypt during the 25th dynasty of Black Pharaohs. Its power came from the gold mines and from controlling the trade of African commodities of ebony, ivory, slaves, animals, into Egypt and beyond.
The feelings I experienced on top of Jebel Barkal are still with me this evening. I look at the dark shape of the mountain from a beautiful lodge that Mrs Elena Valdata, an Italian pioneer of tourism in Sudan built here 17 years ago; she is still the only one here. I can see what she found here, the magic of the place is still intact. From the beauty and conforms of this beautiful Nubian home I rejoice in the Nile, the desert, the remains of an ancient civilisation… and having it all for myself!
We drive again out into the desert. In the middle of nowhere we find Nagaa, with its the temple dedicated to Apedemak depicted in bas-relief with a lion’s head. There is nobody else, I walk into them in deference, like there is something unknown that lurks within, not just carved stones. The only sound is the wind, and your heart. You give into this mysterious presence, maybe just a myth.
I imagine a time when these were not ruins. The ancient priest is in your footsteps as he enters the sacrificial chamber. I take a step into the sanctum and become him, I embody the priest. I see the colored walls, the fire, the gold, the people around waiting to give me their offerings. I tell that Amun gave life to the Pharaohs, and through sacrifice, their power will be theirs too.
I stumble into a black and white archaeological disk and I become the explorer instead of the priest, seeking riches and glory ― more of the former. I am a tomb raider. I experience the joy of discovering this place, after months of hardship in the desert. It is remote enough in a 4x4 today, how it must have been a sortie into the unknown back then. What I see, is what the Indiana Jones saw before he started digging.
At first I see the display of the ingenuousness of a civilisation and the measure of their wealth. Then the fact that it all lies in ruins hits you: a potent symbol of time past, of the impermanence of even the greatest achievements. This civilisation, proud and powerful, is gone. Then I look closer, and see the mystery of the hieroglyphs and the paintings which convey a spirituality that in my neighbourhood church it would be easy to overlook, perhaps due to lack of novelty. It is testimony of the spiritual component of our being.
A beetle walks in the sand, at the base of the altar, bringing to life the scarabs on the walls. I look for eagles but there are none, nor rams, just a few donkeys a few kilometres from here. The is a high relief of Pharaohs in front of a Goddess holding the key of life. The Goddess is Isis, mother of Horus, giver of life like Holy Mary. They are both virgin.
The ancient world here casts a spell on me. On a wall the king and the Candace Queen, a African woman, not Mediterranean, with the same power as a king, are shown to be subjugating their enemies, with facial features of both the North and the South, aided by a lion who is eating one of the prisoners.
Under the acacia next to the temples, we set up a table and eat a simple lunch under the solemn shade of the columns. Bread, oil, tomatoes, cheese and falafel. This picnic is the perfect place to enjoy the allure of the Ancients and their mysterious sites. I any other country, it would cost several thousand Euro to have an archaeological site just for myself.
We drive North to a beautiful tented camp, another act of love of Mrs Elena Valdata, next to the site of Meröe, which has more pyramids than the whole of Egypt. The next morning, in T.E. Lawrence fashion, I dress with a white hemma on my head and a white jalabia and ride a camel to the Royal Necropolis of Meröe.
On a hill covered in Saharan sand, the steep sided pyramids are built over the burial chambers of the Pharaohs. An altogether magnificent sight to behold. The richness of the artefacts that were buried was beyond reckoning. Whole harems and courts were buried here too, to serve the king in the afterlife. The artefacts have been stolen over the centuries by a long list of tomb raiders. Some visitors casually left their name and year off visit as a memento on the walls. The most infamous was the Italian Giuseppe Ferlini, who 1834, while looking for loot, damaged many pyramids and caused several to collapse. Ironically, he was not able to benefit from the treasures that he looted. African history was very much a mystery, and no one knew that a civilisation to rival that of Egypt had sprung on its own. His artefacts were considered fakes, as the motifs were different from those of Egypt. He sold the artefacts for pennies.
We drive north, deeper into the Nubian Desert. The desert, as much as the Nile, defines Sudan. It is a playground for adventure, thousand of square kilometers of nothingness which is surprisingly diverse in its geography. We drive long hours, mirages comes and go. Look! There is a lake over there. Oh, where did it go?
Our mobile tented camp in the desert is simple, yet comfortable. It rests among boulders in front of a flat expanse of white sand. Muhammad is cooking beef on the charcoals. I look all around me. Night is falling and the firmament is filling with stars. They are distant. There is nothing close, there is nothing around me. There is nothing to take with me, nothing to conquer. A quote from Saint-Exupéry comes to mind:
”As the desert offers no tangible riches, as there is nothing to see or hear in the desert, one is compelled to acknowledge, since the inner life, far from falling asleep, is fortified, that man is first animated by invisible solicitations. Man is ruled by Spirit. In the desert I am worth what my divinities are worth.”
Back on the road to the Nile which we will follow through Nubian Villages whose houses are painted and decorated with colourful patterns and flowers. The banks of the Nile are full of life, we pass youths riding donkeys at a gallop, men sitting in the shade, women in their colourful dress with geometric patterns, children in school uniform.
We reach the archaeological site of Old Dongola, home of ancient Christian Coptic monasteries, cathedrals and smaller churches of around the 7th century. They are a hint to the beautiful story of the fabled Prester John, the Christian priest king whose empire stood against the Islamic power and was supposed to be somewhere in Asia or Abyssinia.
I am greeted by professor Wlodzimierz Godlewski from Warsaw university. He is the director of the excavation and very excited because he has recently found a cathedral with beautiful colourful paintings. I join Adam, one of his most senior assistants, who introduces me to Vincent from the University of Leiden, one of the few Ancient Nubian linguist in the world.
They are working to decipher a psalm on the wall: one line in Greek, one in Nubian, possibly the priest reciting and the choir responding. Vincent is writing a grammar of Ancient Nubian. I asked what brought him to it.
“The same Archangel Gabriel who stands before us in the wall painting,” he says, “came to me in a dream and showed me the way to learn old Nubian.”
He gives me a very smart look and continues his explanation:
"While it is possible to work on photographs, the most difficult thing when deciphering the language of the ancients is that we lack context. Here I can understand where these people are coming from better and solve the riddle."
His words ring true. In these last few days, I have stood in the places of the ancients where the history I have read in books comes to life. In the desert, I have heard my inner voice, I’ve seen ritual and worship, glory and ruins, the ancient past and my own self. I have experienced unparalleled hospitality and friendship… and I’ve had it all to myself.
How to get there
There are no direct flights from Hong Kong to Khartoum. A connection in the Middle East (Dubai or Doha) is your best choice. Alternatively, you can fly to Sudan from Addis Ababa. All expeditions to the desert leave from Khartoum.
You need a visa to enter Sudan, which has a fee of US$154. You need a passport that has at least 6 month validity, and no Israeli stamps or visas on it. To travel more than 25km outside of Khartoum you need a special tourist's permit. A tourist visa usually takes around 6 weeks to be ready, so plan accordingly. We at Blueflower can advise and take care of the paperwork for you.
What to do
In the desert north of Khartoum you can find many archaeological sites that are rarely visited and true treasures of humanity. Chief among them are the Pyramids of Meröe and the sites around Jebel Barkal. To venture into the desert it is highly advisable that you recruit the services of an experienced and reputable guide.
Sudan is one of those countries one doesn't associate with luxury and rewarding travel. Such conception is a mistake. I have personally designed an itinerary that will allow you to see the best of Sudan. Click here to find out the detail.