Visiting the ancient pyramids at Meroe, Sudan

Khartoum lies on the confluence of the Blue and White Nile rivers in the centre of Sudan. Neem trees shade the larger avenues and many smaller streets also. High rise buildings tower over dusty paved streets. We walk past juice bars, pharmacies and call shops with telephone booths. The pavements are stepped and sometimes even blocked by walls so we walk, with everyone else, in the hot chaotic streets around Souq Arabi at the heart of Khartoum.

In the souq, young men shout out their offerings in a call and response song. They sell clothes, small radios, kitchen utensils and nick-knacks. Men peddle lovely old sewing machines near shops selling bright materials, making and adjusting clothes while you wait. Young boys roam the pavements looking for shoes to shine, clanking shoe polish tins to attract customers. Women sit with trays full of nuts, beans, raisins or peanut cakes. Hawkers sell single commodities; cigarettes, shoes, shirts, tissues, iced hibiscus drinks, cupfuls of water. Business seems slow.

We drink juices several times a day. There are delicious fresh mango, orange, and guava juices or cool hibiscus and sugar cane drinks. We’ve tried a few that we can’t distinguish, some ridiculously sweet. Grapefruit is cut into two or three pieces and crushed to order. The juice falls into a large dish with sugar and crushed ice. Pips and large pieces of ice are scooped out. It is a life saver. More than once, we have been caught without water and a juice bar has been a joyful occasion. In the evenings, we sit under neem trees where women shawled in bright topes boil pots on charcoal. They make fabulous mint tea, coffee and Turkish coffee – shai bi-nana, jebbana and qahwa turkiya. Each one is a sweet, tooth decaying ritual which we have come to adore.

There is less choice when it comes to eating meals in the restaurants around Souq Arabi. At least twice a day, We eat fuul, a nutritious but tiresome, oily, stewed fava bean dish. At breakfast we have fuul with diced liver and a pale omelette – kibda and bael-batoa. For variety, we sometimes eat it with delicious barbecued chicken or beef, sitting on plastic chairs.

Fast-food restaurants near the bus depots serve juices with egg hamburgers or chicken shwarma. The same places usually have an amazing ‘energy food’ called mochbasa. A doughy base is sprinkled with seven or eight sweet fruity toppings such as banana and raisin, and syrups to make an enormous delicious desert. Colourful food markets prove to us that people cook lovely meals in their houses that don’t rely on beans or hamburgers but we have yet to find a restaurant that serves such almost forgotten meals.

We took a three wheeled rickshaw out of Khartoum to see Obdurman Camel Market. Large herds of camels and cattle are traded in this barren expanse. Some herdsmen had made camps while awaiting a bargain. Many were arriving and leaving with their large herds running ahead of them. The camels mainly come from Western Sudan and many are destined for the 30 day trek through the desert to Egypt. At the border, herdsmen get a good price – the camel meat is more valuable in Cairo than in Khartoum.

A few days later, we visited the pyramids of Meroe, which lie near the banks of the Nile about 150 km north of Khartoum. Two dozen pyramids, in varying states of ruin, stretch out in a crescent – faded jewels on a crown of beautiful red silky sand dunes. The monuments are much smaller than their cousins in Egypt but quite charming. The Meroitic pharoes who built these tombs thrived from 592 BC until they were overrun by the Abyssinians in AD 350. Some of the tombs, whose walls are decorated with hieroglyphics, have become partially submerged by sand drifts. Some good reconstruction work has already taken place but so far, there are no tourist facilities in what should be Sudan’s top tourist attraction. Hopefully this will remain true.

We arrived as the sun set. This is the first place on our trip where we have found rippled sand dunes so we were delighted to feel the fine sand slip through our fingers. In the dusk, the surface sand was cool but when we pushed our hands a few inches down into the sand, it was still warm from the day. After wandering around the pyramid complex, which we had all to ourselves, we found a place to sleep among the northern most pyramids. Lying in our warm sleeping bags under the bright stars, we listened to the noises of the desert around us, crickets singing and a donkey braying in the distance. Far off over the hills to the east, lightning flashed threateningly but didn’t reach our soft bed of sand.

In the morning, we explored the pyramids, with their tomb porches, a little more thoroughly. Soon the heat of the day forced us back to the road. It was Friday (the equivalent to Sunday here) so traffic was light. Under a shawl, like the wrinkled begging mothers on the kerbs of Khartoum, we hid from the merciless sunshine as best we could while full busses and trucks passed. At last, just as we were ready to wither up, a small converted pick up stopped for us. Defying the lifeless, parched land, green trees sported perfectly flat tops, as if grazed by some airborne herbivore. Near the brown villages of square, mud brick houses litter was scattered around the empty land. Bushes bore pretty but sad fruit of red, yellow, black, brown, blue and purple plastic bags.

Our skin shone with a film of sandy sweat as we looked out at the barren landscape on our way back to the capital. We didn’t hesitate to share a refreshing cup of water with every other passenger. The practice of sharing a cup which we had scorned earlier was now most welcome. The squat toilets and cold shower of our hotel in Khartoum lay ahead of us like a cherished comfort.

– Written by Malachy Harty and published in The Imokilly People

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