Located deep inside Sudan’s orange, desert scenery lie some of the most visually stunning but wildly unknown monuments from the ancient world; the Pyramids of Meroe. Here’s what you need to know before you visit the lost pyramids of Sudan with kids.
Where Are The Sudan Pyramids Of Meroe
The Meroe Pyramids are approximately 200km north of Khartoum and 100km south of Atbara and although now easily accessible this lost site once served as the principal residence of the rulers of the Kush kingdom, known as the Black Pharaohs.
Shendi is perhaps the closest town but don’t expect anything of great significance there other than perhaps a few roadside stalls and a petrol station. The nearest hotels are in Atbara, an hour’s drive away.
How Much Did It Cost?
The archaeological sites of Sudan have no official prices for visiting. This makes it pretty challenging for those of us not used to haggling but really you must negotiate HARD, otherwise it has consequences for all of the other visitors to the site.
Originally the lady requested $40 and then she quietly slipped in that was for EACH of us. Never, ever admit to having dollars. Ever. This is because the black-market exchange rate gives 90SDG to the $US and the official rate is 35SDG to the $US. To put this into perspective, the average Sudanese family (outside Khartoum) can live on less than a $ a day. Our driver earned $6 a day and this was considered a good wage.
So never, ever admit to having $ and always, always negotiate the price. We paid 940SDG for entrance for five. You can see the difference between $40 x5 and 940SDG.
What To Take With You
We visited in January in what is considered winter and it was still an average of 26*c most days. You will categorically need sun protection and water. Check out the post below where we discuss what you’ll need to backpack Sudan.
Be mindful that Sudan is a Muslim country and only just coming out of a period of great oppression. Rural people are largely not educated, confounded by religion and what you wear can impact the way you’re received and treated. I made the mistake of wearing a short-sleeved t-shirt once at breakfast in Port Sudan and had older men wagging their fingers and tutting at me. Women wouldn’t look at me or say good morning and I was ignored or stared at. I very quickly learned to layer my t-shirts with longer sleeves!
You Might Be The Only People Visiting The Lost Nubian Pyramids
Although they’re significantly less famous than Giza in Egypt, the complex at Meroë in Sudan is a thousands times more remarkable. There are an estimated two-hundred and twenty pyramids in Meroe that are recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, yet they remain relatively unknown to the outside world. I feel compelled to tell you of their beauty but at the same time, I selfishly want them to remain a hidden mystery as they’re incredibly special.
The Nubian pyramids differ from Egyptian ones in that they are smaller, roughly 20-90ft per side, in comparison with the Great Pyramid’s 756 feet. Nubian pyramids have much steeper sides and most were built two thousand years before those at Giza. Over 3,000 years, the Nubians adopted aspects of Egyptian language, religion and technology and while the Egyptians abandoned pyramids for hidden tombs, the Nubians continued to use them.
This site is perfect for kids who love to explore, climb dunes, try to decipher hieroglyphics, play chase, hide & seek, spot animal life and meet curious locals. We were the only ones there and our kids had a wonderful time running, jumping, learning and listening.
There Are Two Sites Within The Pyramds of Meroe
Online information about Sudan is challenging and I had read somewhere that were three sites at Meroe (including an eastern cemetery) however we only found two; north and south. Google maps seems to corroborate this information although it does label the larger area as eastern.
Our driver didn’t speak English and we don’t speak Arabic, so I definitely recommend trying to find an English guide/driver to take with you.
The South Side
You enter the site through the south side or southern cemetery which was in use between the 8th and 3rd century BC. Among the pyramids are the royal graves for the first two ruling Kushite kings Arkamaniqo and Amanislo and seven that belong to non-ruling Queens although there are about twelve pyramids in this vicinity. It’s a smaller site than the northern side and a great introduction for what is to come because, as you round the corner and see the larger northern cemetery, prepare to have your breath stolen!
The North Side
The northern cemetery is much bigger (at least twenty-four pyramids to date) and seems to have been used between the 3rd century BC and the 4th century AD (The last known Kushite king to be buried here was Pharaoh Yesbokheamani). This is the burial-place of at least forty Kings and Queens and I think it was the most spectacular archaeological site I’ve ever seen.
It still blows my mind to look back at these photos and I wonder why we ever bothered with noisy and dirty Egypt. The Nubian pyramids of Meroe are by far a more impressive sight, there is very little litter on site, we were the only people visiting in the morning, the local people were friendly and we had very positive experiences throughout Sudan (with the exception of Al-Kurru in the north). This is the only site we visited where there were stalls set up at the entrance however it’s very small and unobtrusive in comparison to say Petra, Jordan or anywhere in Egypt.
If you’re looking for a truly mesmeric experience in a little visited country then I think this could be it. Once upon a time this would have been deep inside the Sudanese desert, however now it’s just a short 4×4 drive from the main road between Khartoum and Atbara. Despite that, the experience was one of the best we’ve ever had and one I’d gladly repeat. This is one of those sites where the wind changes the sand dunes all the time and there must be hundreds more graves to find. We were probably stood on one without even realising it and that is a phenomenal concept. In our global world, it often seems as if there’s little more to discover but you really don’t get that feeling here.
Book Cheap Flights To Sudan With Skyscanner
The cheapest flights we found to Sudan involved a layover in Bahrain. We paid £1946.85 for five return flights using Skyscanner.
Take Your Time To Explore
This is the ancient land of Kush, the old kingdom of the Meroitic kings, and you’ll discover the pyramids which were lost in what used to be the heart of the Sahara for centuries.
Forget time and any modern constraints and lose yourself in the beauty of the heat, the silence of the location, the dust and wind, the colours and the sights of the partially destroyed pyramids. I read that they were blown up the 1800’s by an Italian explorer (Giuseppe Ferlini) who was looking for treasures. Sadly he found treasures on the first and proceeded to blow up all the others, finding nothing but leaving a wanton trail of destruction behind him.
It’s a shocking and tragic history but I felt myself feeling a sense of relief that for once it wasn’t the British destroying great artifacts! Although the British were in Sudan and of course, have left a tails of tragedy and destruction, it hasn’t been as bad as certain colonies and there doesn’t seem to be any mis-feeling left behind. Strangely one Sudanese told me that the British reign gave them stability, jobs & food and that since they’ve sought freedom, Sudan has encountered a dictator, war, famine and nothing but instability.
Find An Official Guide & Open Up The Doors
You no longer need a travel permit from Khartoum or a visitor’s permit to come here. There are two main reasons why travellers visit Sudan and of course the most prevalent reason is because of Sudan’s forgotten Nubian pyramids. The second is of course the allure of the Sudanese.
Most Kush pyramids do not have a door but those that do you’ll need to find the man with the key. Don’t worry, he won’t be far and as a bonus he’s adorable.
Look Behind Them, In Them, To The Side Of Them
The site is impressive so don’t rush it. Really savour the experience as it’s not one you’ll probably get to repeat. Sudan is not that popular a country and the marginal threat of violence that lingers puts most tourists off. Of course this threat is tiny and we never experienced any danger whilst we were there.
One thing you must be aware of is that visiting Sudan forfeits any American ESTA visa you may have. Is it worth it? I would categorically say yes – if you only had a short time to visit Sudan and you had to visit just a few archaeological sites, I would say that Meroe is hands down one of the best places we’ve ever visited and that’s in comparison to Angkor Wat of Cambodia & Jordan’s Wadi Rum. We now have to apply for an American visa in writing and are subjected to interviews at the US embassy in London. Of course, if you’re clever enough to have a second passport….
Climb The Dunes And Admire The View
The dunes are ever-growing and changing and the ripples in the sand were just something special for me. Why? Possibly because they were so unspoiled and there were few signs of humans there. Of course by the time the kids had run up and down them, they were marked but just for a short amount of time the presence of homo sapiens was nil.
Growing in the dunes are some vegetables which look like round courgettes. We broke one open to have a look and it was a white, squash like vegetable with large seeds. I’m fairly convinced they were similar to a courgette or pumpkin.
Moving Sand Dunes
Are they fighting a losing battle? It seems that nature is always one step ahead of us and the wind whimsically blows the sand dunes around, covering a wall or the base of a pyramid which will them require shovelling out.
It’s easy to see how they were covered and forgotten about.
How Far Should You Expect To Walk?
The site is spread between the north and south cemeteries with each being roughly half a kilometre in between. However the northern cemetery is much bigger than the southern and spread over a linear space of roughly another half a kilometre.
You should expect to walk approximately 3-4km and take into consideration the soft sand that you’ll sink into and the heat. You’ll need to be relatively fit and carry water.
For fit kids, the dunes and Pyramids Of Meroe should present no challenge but do be mindful of the heat and carry water with you. We wore long sleeves and also had shemagh scarves.
Inside The Meroe Pyramids
The hieroglyphics show decorative elements from the cultures of Pharaonic Egypt, Greece and Rome, and according to UNESCO they are priceless relics. We would agree.
Some of the pyramids are open however some of those with drawings intact are locked and you’ll need to find the man with the key. He speaks pretty good English and was very helpful trying to explain some of their meaning and history.We left him with a tip of about 150SDG which was roughly $1.50. It seems meagre but it isn’t and you should be wary of tipping too much otherwise foreigners get the reputation for being rich and stupid.
The Oldest Pyramid On Site
Sudan’s tourism industry has been devastated by a series of US imposed economic sanctions, civil war, conflict in Darfur, toppling a dictator and now an unstable government at the mercy of its people. Sustainable tourism is really important to us and so we made the decision not to stay in foreign-owned hotels or to eat in foreign-owned restaurants (with the exception of the Syrian displaced immigrants). We stayed in lokandas and locally owned hotels, ate fuul and bread by the side of the road and only employed local people.
There are camels at Meroe and although we would be supporting the local economy, we made the decision not to hire camels because it goes against our beliefs of using animals for human exploitation. It seems heartless to tell the camel owners that we don’t want to ride their camels (for what is a measly sum of money) but we felt it was important to our own morals and stuck firm to those.
The oldest pyramid is not well preserved and may be that of Amantekha, a little known king of Nubia.He most likely ruled in the third century BC and was definitely buried first here, although little else is known about him. The king’s name appears on blocks from the south wall and the throne name Menibre is only partly preserved.
The Pyramids Of Meroe Are One Of Three Sites Locally
Meroe is one of three archaeological sites that we visited to the north-east of Khartoum.
The city of Meroë was on the edge of Butana which contains the two other sites of Musawwarat es-Sufra and Naqa. The presence of numerous Meroitic sites within the western Butana region is significant to the settlement of the developed region with the orientation of these settlements exercising state power.
Look out for this post coming soon.
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