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Archaeological Treasures

The desert regions of North Sudan yield some of the country’s most impressive archaeological treasures.

Whilst many of these sites are accessible by bus from Khartoum, others can only be reached by private transport. To get to some of the remoter areas, which lie some kilometres away from the main roads, a four-wheel drive vehicle may be necessary.

There is some confusion about whether a travel permit is needed for the north or not. Officially it is, but in practice such a permit is rarely checked. The best advice is to get one before you go, just in case. The Ministry of Tourism (Mashtal Street, Riyad in Khartoum) can issue you one free-of-charge. The Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs (South of Qurashi Park, Khartoum 2) also issues permits, but the process will probably take longer and you may have to pay 5 SDG in tax.

The standard entrance fee for visiting archaeological sites is 20 SDG, payable on arrival. If you plan to visit a number of sites, try to negotiate the entrance fee. If you pay 20 SDG for every site that you visit, your trip can quickly become very expensive. A good trick is to retain the receipt for the first ticket that you purchased, and use that to negotiate entrance to subsequent sites. Often, the officials in charge of entrance to the other sites will agree to a discount.


Some 150 km north-east of Khartoum lies the bustling market town of Shendi. Once a major trading and agriculture centre, its most salient point these days is that President Omar al-Bashir was born in a village nearby. It was once a highly prosperous town, thriving on the back of the slave trade. Now though, there is precious little sign of this former wealth.

The town was founded in around 350 AD by the Daju tribe, which came south from Meroe. The name of the town is believed to be derived from the old Daju word for sheep (‘chenday’) — an indication, perhaps, that the original settlers of the town were nomadic herders, who shepherded their flocks between the north and south in search of fresh grazing land.

There is not a great deal of immediate interest to see in the town, but it makes a good stopping-off point for travellers eager to visit the archaeological sites further north. Shendi is not very far from Naqa, Mussawarat es-Sufra and Meroe. However, you will need your own transport to get to these places.

The local market has a good vibe and there are plenty of bargains to be picked up, if you are in the mood for haggling.


Not far from Shendi lies the important Kushite site of Naqa, possibly one of the best-preserved settlements from the era. The site contains the remains of a huge palace, from where Queen Amanishakheto ruled during the 1st century BC. There are also two impressive Meroitic temples: the Temple of Amun and the Lion Temple.

The Lion Temple is a beautiful sandstone structure, with walls decorated with the images of prominent gods and kings. The temple is dedicated to the Kushite god Apedemak, who is depicted with the head of a lion. King Natakamani, who ruled Kush from the 1st century AD, is also vividly depicted in some of the pictures, standing proudly with Queen Amanitore over his vanquished enemies. Lions are shown devouring the slain.

The Temple of Amun lies on the western outskirts of the settlement. It was commissioned in the 1st century AD by King Natakamani as a tribute to the god of air. The temple was once a glorious structure, possibly one of the most prominent in ancient Kush. But time has been harsh on it, and now only the doorways, built out of sandstone, remain. The rest of the walls, built of fired bricks, have collapsed.

The god Amun is represented on the temple walls in both human and ram-headed form.

Just in front of the Lion Temple is a small kiosk known as Temple B, which incorporates both Roman and Nubian architectural styles. The kiosk would have been connected to the Amun Temple by an avenue lined with sphinxes.

Near to the site is a deep well still used by the nomads.

Mussawarat Es-Sufra

Just north of Naqa lies Mussawarat, which is similar in style and design. There are two principal points of archaeological interest: the Great Enclosure and the Lion Temple.

The Great Enclosure is the largest set of Meroitic ruins in Sudan, consisting of a rambling structure of low walls and toppled columns. The site may have been a training ground for elephants, which were often used for military purposes. Large numbers of elephant images are carved into the walls.

The Lion Temple lies roughly 1 km to the east of the Great Enclosure and is dedicated to the lion-headed god Apedemak. King Arnekhamani ordered the building of the temple around 230 BC. Its distinguishing feature is the massive pylon at the entrance, which depicts the king making offerings to the god. There are also some beautiful carvings of elephant processions at the rear end of the temple. In the 1960s, the Lion Temple was restored by Humboldt University in Berlin, and it is now one of the finest Meroitic structures in Sudan.

A single ticket to visit the entire area costs 20 SDG and can be purchased on arrival.


North of Shendi lies the ancient Kushite capital of Meroe. It is unclear exactly when it was founded, but it probably became the capital of Kush around 750 BC, when King Kashta started pushing south into what is now modern-day Sudan.

The site is most famous for its pyramids. In the past, there may have been as many as 200 pyramids located at the site, but many have since been reclaimed by the desert. There are now less than 20 still standing. Archaeological finds show that, in the 3rd century BC, many tombs were moved to the town from Nuri, further north.

Meroe is a popular destination for those wanting to see a little of Sudan’s archaeological heritage, and it is often the first name that springs off the tongues of those advising you where to travel in the north. This may have something to do with its close proximity to Khartoum and its ease-of-access, or because of the archaeological significance of many of the finds at Meroe.

Whilst Meroe is definitely interesting to visit, don’t expect to be blown away by the pyramids, which lie low among the sand dunes. They are certainly nothing as grand as the pyramids of Giza in Egypt.

As you approach from Khartoum, the pyramids are a little way off to your right. On the other side of the road, to the left, is the Royal City of Meroe — also definitely worth taking an hour or so to walk around.

Officially, you need to buy separate tickets for visiting the pyramids and the Royal City, although you may be able to negotiate with the officials on duty.


Atbara is a dusty little town in the northern deserts where many travellers end up by accident rather than design, caught on their way to somewhere else.

It is located at the point where the Atbara River, flowing in from Ethiopia, joins the Nile — its last tributary before rushing on to Egypt.

There is little to hold the wayfarer here beyond an idle curiosity in locomotives — although, to be fair to the place, the story of the railways is a fascinating one.

Atbara is the historic heartland of Sudan’s railway system. It is also the headquarters of the country’s Communist Party, the history of which is closely linked with that of the railway — a relationship that, to a large extent, explains the decline of the rail industry in Sudan.

As trade unions started to emerge in the 1940s and 1950s, fanning the flames of Sudanese nationalism, Atbara’s railway industry became the focus of industrial unrest. Over the decades, the power of the trade unions grew to become a formidable political force in the country. Sudan’s Communist Party grew out of this trade union movement.

Jaafar Nimeiri, the military leader who took power in 1969, feared the influence of the unions and therefore sought to move against them. In the 1980s, he took the decision to decentralise the country’s rail system, and thus break the political hold that Atbara had on the country — an initiative that was to have a devastating effect on Sudan’s railway infrastructure.

Another significant historical event linked to the railway took place in Atbara in 1898. At this time, Anglo-Egyptian forces, under the leadership of General Herbert Kitchener, were engaged in a campaign to reclaim Sudan for the British flag, having lost the country to the Mahdi more than a decade earlier.

Kitchener knew that, for his campaign to be successful, he had to secure the railway lines, which would provide an important channel for arms and supplies and, most crucially, a way of transporting his gunboats past the shallow stretches of water known as the Nile Cataracts.

The crippling attack on Mahdist forces stationed in the town, which took place on April 8, marked a turning point in Britain’s fortunes in Sudan.

These days, Atbara is much like any other town in the northern deserts. There is a small market to browse around, including a good number of stalls selling spices.

If you have an hour or so to kill in the town, the best thing to do is wander down to the old railway station, where stationary passenger trains huddle together like dead bodies in a crypt.

Poor management of the railway put an end to passenger trains some months before we went to press, although cargo trains still run. A fresh management team is reportedly looking at relaunching passenger services from Atbara, but, this being Sudan, it is probably best not to hold one’s breath.

Just next to the railway station is the Railway Corporation, where you can usually find someone that speaks a little English and is eager to opine about Sudan’s rail industry.


Just south of the Fourth Cataract lie the ancient remains of Merowe There isn’t a great deal to see in the town, beyond a few crumbling pyramids, and there are far richer sights in the settlements to the north and the south.

These days, the reason why most people have heard so much about the area is because of the controversial hydroelectrical dam that was constructed there, just 40 km from the old settlement, between 2004 and 2009.

The noble idea behind the project was to find an efficient way of meeting North Sudan’s growing energy needs. Prior to the dam going live, power shortages around North Sudan, including in the country’s capital, were a regular occurrence. The demands on the national grid had become so high that the government was forced to ration energy, switching off the supply of electricity to certain districts for a number of hours each week.

Now that the dam has been completed, things are much better and power cuts are a rarity. However, such energy security has come with a price.

In order to construct the massive 174 km-long reservoir, the surrounding lands had to be flooded, displacing an estimated 70,000 people. Many of these have been resettled and received compensation. However, a number of nomads in the region have lost out, since they do not have any formal entitlement to land and therefore it has been unclear what compensation they should receive.

It is worth driving past Merowe, just to see the impressive 9 km serpentine dam glistening in the mid-day sun.


Ghazali, 20 km east of Merowe, is another relic of Sudan’s ancient Christian kingdoms. The most distinguishing mark of the town is the monastery, which was probably founded around the 9th century AD. It was abandoned 200 years later, as the advance of Islam resulted in the decline of Nubian Christianity.

At its peak, as many as 50 monks may have lived within the monastery, in cramped conditions. The ancient walls of the monastery are impressive — a metre thick in places to ward off possible invaders. Now, of course, they lie in ruins, eroded by the passing of time. The remains of a medieval church lie within the confines of the monastery.

The remote location of Ghazali means that getting to the town is not easy, and you really need your own vehicle to reach the site. The standard entrance fee to the site is 20 SDG.


If you are looking to immerse yourself in ancient Sudanese history, one of the best places to start is probably the ancient market town of Karima, a six-hour drive north of Khartoum.

Whilst the old market-town doesn’t, in itself, make for a particularly interesting destination, it is surrounded by a glorious wealth of ancient treasures — including royal cemeteries, religious temples, pyramid ruins and the famous cobra-headed mountain of Jebel Barkal.

Whilst in Karima, it is worth checking out the town’s own archaeological museum, which contains many ancient and beautiful treasures that were rescued from Lake Nasser on the Egyptian border when it was flooded with water.

If you are going to stay in Karima, you must register with the local authorities. The registration office is situated in the north part of the market, in an area known as Souq al-Foqh. To get there, face away from the hospital and walk to the right. In the distance, you should see a tall tower. Continue walking in this direction and you will find the market just before the tower. If this proves too tricky, a rickshaw from the main square should cost no more than 3 SDG and will be able to take you straight to the office.

Jebel Barkal

The first thing that you see when approaching Karma is the looming silhouette of Jebel Barkal, a great flat-topped mountain of sandstone rising up out of the desert floor. On its south flank is a distinctive needle-shaped pinnacle, standing at a height of 74 metres. Ancient Egyptian texts describe this pinnacle as a rearing cobra (or uraeus), which was the symbol of the king. Others have suggested that the pinnacle resembles a giant statue of a pharaoh.

Jebel Barkal actually means ‘Holy Mountain’ in Arabic. Ancient Egyptian and Kushites believed that Amun, the god of air, dwelt within the mountain. Since air is associated with life, Amun eventually became known as the ‘creator god’ and was labelled father of gods, one of the most important and powerful deities in Egyptian mythology. Hence Jebel Barkal became a key religious cornerstone for Egyptian and Kushite beliefs.

Jebel Barkal also appears to have been the primary centre for royal coronations and rituals and, for centuries, each new king of Kush would come to the mountain to be confirmed and crowned in the presence of Amun.

The area continues to attract a lot of archaeological interest from all over the world. In the 1990s archaeologists discovered a number of important wall paintings, depicting the military campaigns of Taharqa, one of the most notable kings of Egypt and Kush. At the beginning of 2003, Swiss archaeologist Charles Bonnet discovered the mask of the effigy of Tanoutamon, Taharqa’s successor.

At the foot of the mountain, not far from the pinnacle of the rearing cobra, lie the ruins of the Temple of Amun. Founded in the 15th century BC during the reign of the Egyptian King Tuthmosis III, the temple was later expanded by a series of Kushite rulers, turning it into the largest temple in the kingdom. The temple is now little more than rubble, but some intriguing plinths remain and its former glory is clearly discernible beneath the thick layers of sand and dust that have blown in from the desert.

Not far from the Temple of Amun lie the ruins of a smaller temple, dedicated to Amun’s wife, Mut, the Egyptian goddess of the sky.

If you climb a little way up Jebel Barkal, you will have a fantastic aerial view of the Nile and of the green fields surrounding Karima. The climb will take around an hour. There is no clear path nor any indication of where you should start. The easiest route begins on the side of the mountain furthest away from the pinnacle. Getting down the mountain is much easier — simply slide down the sand at the edge of the mountain. This should take no more than 10 or 15 minutes.

Near to the temple ruins are a few sculptured granite rams, the lonely remains of a long avenue that once stretched all the way down to the Nile.

On the western side of Jebel Barkal is a small royal cemetery of several pyramids, which was briefly used by Napatan kings around the 3rd century BC.


The pyramids at Nuri, just upstream from Karima, are slightly older than those at Jebel Barkal. The Napatan king Taharqa was the first ruler to be buried here, in around 664 BC. Over the next few centuries a further 19 kings and 54 queens were also interred in the great cemetery, but none of the pyramids subsequently built on the site were quite as large — a testament, perhaps, to Taharqa’s prominence as a warrior and a leader. The second-largest pyramid belongs to Aspelta, Taharqa’s great-grandson.

Taharqa’s tomb was excavated in 1917, but many of the original treasures had long since been plundered. The tomb was also flooded with water. After pumping the water out, archaeologists discovered over 1200 carved funerary figures, which would serve the king in the afterlife.

The pyramids at Nuri are slightly less well-preserved than those at the foot of Jebel Barkal, although this probably has as much to do with the young lads who scurry up and down them as it does with their age.

There are also some rather splendid sand dunes to look at. There is no place to stay in Nuri and you probably won’t want to spend much more than an hour in the town.

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