The ancient pyramids of the Unesco heritage site of Meroe
Situated approximately 250 kilometres northeast of Khartoum near the banks of the Nile River, the Royal Necropolis of Meroe is the most famous and visited archaeological site in all of Sudan. UNESCO Heritage site since 2011, Meroe boasts around 100 pyramids surrounded by the golden sand of the desert that stand out with their shapes against the clear sky, giving the visitor the sensation of still discovering a long-hidden secret.
Located in a strategic position that allowed easy access to trade routes leading towards the Red Sea, Ethiopia and sub-Sahara Africa, the settlement of Meroe became the most important political centre of the Kushite kingdom around the third century BC. During this century, the Royal Necropolis was moved from Napata to this area, where it remained until 350 AD when Meroe suddenly vanished. Before Meroe became the Royal Necropolis, the Kushite kings’ pyramids were built in El Kurru and Nuri.
Visiting the Meroe northern cemetery
The site of Meroe is divided into two main clusters – northern and southern cemetery – and boasts around 100 pyramids, but many of those are poorly preserved, or it’s possible to spot only the outline trace. The northern cemetery is well-preserved and the one we visited. So as in all the other Nubian archaeological sites, it was impossible to know the entrance fee in advance. Once we reached the site, we haggled with the ticketer since he wanted us to pay 50 Usd! In the end, we spent 10 USD each. At the entrance gate, you’ll find some stands with local vendors who sell souvenirs (very nice the small pyramids made of sand, and the daggers) and also some guys with camels in case you don’t want to cover the site on foot (the distance from the entrance to the pyramids is about 800 metres – 20 min on foot).
The site trail
Leaving the entrance gate and walking along a sandy path, the first few pyramids you’ll come across are the ones of the so-called “eastern cemetery”. Keep walking for 15 minutes, and you’ll reach the most famous and visited 41 pyramids of the north cemetery where 38 of which belong to kings who ruled the region between 250 BC and 320 AD. Even though the burial site is still in a good state, most of the pyramids are decapitated due to the Italian doctor and treasure hunter Giuseppe Ferlini who came here in 1834 and blew off the tops of the structures looking for treasures. Despite that, some pyramids have been reconstructed and give the visitor an excellent insight into how they must once looked during their flourishing period.
Compared to the famous Egyptian pyramids, the Nubian monuments are decidedly different, featuring smaller bases and more steeply sloped sides. They do not have the mortuary room inside them; the actual tomb is dug below the pyramid itself and is connected to the outside through a sloping tunnel. A small votive chapel is located in front of the pyramids, with the walls entirely decorated with bas-reliefs showing the Royals and the Gods’ lives. After finishing exploring the charming tombs, remember not to miss the sunset sitting on a dune!
HOW TO GET TO MEROE
If you stay in Khartoum without travelling around the country, it is possible to self-visit Meroe by renting a car or, better, with a local tour operator on a daily trip. From Khartoum, the trip takes approximately 4 hours (250 km). You can also use local transport, but it takes more time. However, take the bus from Khartoum to the town of Shendi, then hop on a taxi for the remaining 50 km to Meroe. There are no cafés or toilets at the site, so be sure to bring food and plenty of water. Click here to know how to plan a trip to Sudan.
WHERE TO SLEEP
Although Meroe is the most famous archaeological site of Sudan, we only found a hotel and a tented camp. We slept at Raidan Tourist Village, a couple of kilometres from the Meroe entrance gate (70 USD for a double room – phone: +249 912301928/+249 183798547 – WhatsApp too). The Meroe tented camp is a bit more expensive and is set in a spectacular location to watch the sunset over the pyramids (phone: +249 011 487961). Alternatively, you can look for a cheaper Nubian Guesthouse in Shendi, about 50 kilometres from Meroe.
OTHER ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITES IN MEROE
If you have time, it’s also worth visiting the southern cemetery. It’s the oldest cluster dating back to the 8th century BC and where the first rulers of the Meroitic kingdom who moved its capital from Napata to Meroe were buried. You can also visit the ruins of the Royal city of Meroe that lie on the Nile bank. Although most of the city’s area has to be excavated by archaeologists yet, the site is heavily ruined. It’s often only possible to see the outlines of the buildings. Anyway, our suggestion is to concentrate your visit to the north cemetery if you don’t have much time.