Without doubt Sudan is a fascinating country to visit. Not only are the temples more numerous than those in Egypt but they’re also more readily accessible, cheaper to visit and there’s far less hassle. We literally stumbled across a real life archaeological excavation whilst visiting the Nuri Pyramids and it occurs once every year. Here’s how we met an underwater archaeologist currently excavating the tomb of the Nubian King, Nastasen.
Where Are The Nuri Pyramids?
The Nuri Pyramids are a short distance from the town of Karima and the sacred mountain of Jebel Barkal, in the northern central area of Sudan. You could get here within roughly a full day’s drive from Khartoum although it is much easier to access Karima from the north of Sudan.
Nuri sprawls across 170 acres of sandy plain near the east bank of the Nile. Seen from the sky, Nuri’s most prominent feature is an arc of twenty pyramids built between 650 B.C. and 300 B.C. that appear like a crescent moon on a bleak landscape, more akin to a long-lost planet. It’s hot, dry and dusty and the pale, sandy underlay stretches for vast miles.
We accessed Nuri whilst road tripping from Port Sudan and we stayed in Karima, which is a lively market town. We stayed in some of the cheapest accommodation we could find which was definitely an experience (I wouldn’t repeat). Lokandas are Sudan’s cheapest accommodation and you literally get a bed in a room. We booked an entire room so that we could all be together but you also have the chance to share, if you want to. If you’re off to Sudan, take a look at the ten things we travelled with that we couldn’t have lived without.
What Is The Significance Of Jebel Barkal?
The small mountain of Jebel Barkal and the five sites of the Napatan Region sit on both sides of the Nile in an arid area considered part of Nubia. They cover an area more than 60 km long and include Jebel Barkal, el-Kurru, Nuri, Sanam and Zuma.
The sites represent the Napatan (900 – 270 BC) and Meroitic (270 BC – 350 AD) cultures of the second kingdom of Kush and includes tombs, with and without pyramids, temples, burial mounds and chambers, living complexes and palaces. This unique architectural tradition shaped the political, religious, social and artistic scene of the Nile Valley for more than 2,000 years (1500 BC- 6th Century AD). The remains, with their art and inscriptions, are testimony to an ancient culture that flourished only in this region.
Jebel Barkal has been a sacred mountain since New Kingdom times (circa. 1500 BC). The Egyptians believed that their God, Amun, lived in this holy mountain and that his image is visible in the side of the rock face. For this reason, the Amun Temple was built at the foot of the hill and is still considered by the local people as a sacred place.
Who Were The Kushites?
The ancient Kingdom of Kush ruled the region of Nubia between 10 BC and 4 AD. During its rule it had three capitals: Kerma, Napata and Meroë. The Kushite royals were described as ‘Black Pharaohs’ and they emerged as a force of their own during the political chaos of the demise of the New Kingdom.
From about 760 B.C. to 650 B.C., five Kushite pharaohs ruled all of Egypt from Nubia to the Mediterranean Sea, embarking on ambitious building programs up and down the Nile and reviving the religious practices of a much earlier Egyptian empire—including the construction of pyramids, which they buried their kings under. By this time, the practice of building pyramids had been replaced with burying royals in chambers. This is seen in the Valley of Kings and Queens, Egypt, in rock-cut tombs deep underground.
Why Are These Pyramids Famous?
Although the site of Nuri looks a little on the shabby side, in 2003 it was designated a world heritage site of outstanding universal value. Why, you might ask?
Nuri was once a royal necropolis for the ancient city of Napata; the first capital of the Nubian Kingdom of Kush. The Kushites are the 25th dynasty (the last) of Egypt and some consider them inferior to other Egyptian rulers.
The oldest and largest pyramid at Nuri belongs to the fifth pharaoh, Taharqa, a Kushite king who ruled during the seventh century B.C (690-664BC) and is mentioned in the Old Testament. His pyramid measures 51 metres square by approximately 50 metres high and is special due to its placement. When viewed from Jebel Barkal at sunrise on Egyptian New Year’s Day, the beginning of the annual flooding of the Nile, the sun would rise from the horizon directly over its point.
How Do These Pyramids Compare To Those Found in Egypt?
In comparison to the three pyramids of Giza (built 2550-2490 BC), the Nuri pyramids are quite young. The pyramids at Nuri are smaller than the Egyptian ones and are today often heavily degraded (caused by humans and nature).
Many Sudanese pyramids were destroyed by local people using the bricks to construct buildings, during the Christian era a church was erected and built from reused pyramid stones, the desert around Nuri permanently shifts moving sand & covering the pyramids, earthquakes have made them less stable and the Nile has risen significantly following its damming and the increase of palm plantations and human habitation.
The pyramids at Nuri were built during the Meroitic period and unlike Egyptian pyramids, they have a distinctive, Nubian style with a smaller, narrower base and steep walls at an angle of about 70°. Many Nubian pyramids are still being discovered and its thought that some still contain parts of the funerary equipment of the Kushite rulers who were buried there.
One major difference between the pyramids in Sudan and Egypt is that the Nubian kings were buried below the pyramids in chambers, instead of inside.
How Many Pyramids Are There At Nuri?
The royal family of Kush was buried in the cemeteries at the sites of Nuri and el-Kurru (about 30 minutes drive away). It’s estimated that there are over a hundred pyramids on the site; currently, sixty-one pyramids have been discovered although some remain unidentified and many remain unearthed.
The pyramids of Nuri are built on two different plateaus. The highest point in the cemetery is taken by Taharqa’s pyramid on the western plateau and the pyramids of other kings are located on the eastern plateau.
The pyramids of royal women are placed close to Taharqa’s pyramid on the western plateau. These pyramids fall into three categories: (1) A group of pyramids is located to the south and west of Taharqa’s pyramid; (2) Two parallel rows are located to the north of Taharqa’s pyramid; (3) A group of very small tombs is located to the far north.
The King’s Mothers were buried in the southern group, but this is not an area exclusively used for the burial of King’s Mothers. Most of the King’s Wives were buried in the parallel rows just north of Taharqa’s tomb. The tombs to the far north were much smaller and may have been built for wives of lesser rank.
Were The Nuri Pyramids Previously Excavated?
George Reisner, a Harvard Egyptologist, visited Nuri between 1907 and 1916 to excavate the burial chambers beneath Taharqa’s pyramid.
His team mapped Nuri’s funerary monuments which included more than eighty Kushite burials however his field notes suggest that many tombs were already inundated with groundwater from the Nile, making excavation unsafe or impossible. This is great for historians because it means that grave robbers couldn’t easily access the tombs and there’s more chance of discovering the sarcophagus, a mummified body, gifts, drawings and who knows what else.
Reisner never published the results of his work and had offhandedly (and wrongly) dismissed the Kushite kings as racially inferior and their accomplishments as an inheritance of older Egyptian traditions. He wrote, “The native negroid race had never developed either its trade or any industry worthy of mention and owed their cultural position to the Egyptian immigrants and to the imported Egyptian civilization.”
However, from his studies at Jebel Barkal, Reisner discovered the Nubian kings were not actually buried in the pyramids but under them. He also found the skull of a Nubian female (who he thought was a king) which is in the collection of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard.
Why Are The Pyramids Of Nuri Being Excavated Now?
Nastasen, a minor pharaoh, who ruled between 335-315 B.C is buried in the fifteenth pyramid at Nuri. The 2,300-year-old royal tomb appears moderately untouched however all the chambers are submerged in rising groundwater from the nearby Nile. Impossible a century ago, it means that those excavating the pyramid of Nastasen must be competent divers using 150-foot hoses supplying air, pumped from a noisy and smelly generator above.
Cut into the sandstone bedrock below the pyramid are three burial chambers for the king. In 2019 the chief archaeologist Professor Pearce Paul Creasman was able to swim through the first, second and third chambers, seeing what looked like a big sandstone slab underneath him, which is probably the covering of the sarcophagus. If it is the sarcophagus, it has remained there, potentially untouched for more than two thousand years and could contain Nastasen’s human remains.
As well as this discovery, ground teams are exposing the pyramid base and external faces of Nastasen’s pyramid, the funerary chapel is being reconstructed and its inscribed walls recorded as well as excavation of an early Christian cemetery with box graves.
The dig is featured on NatGeo’s Overheard Podcast which you can listen to.
Who Is The Team Behind The Excavation?
The project is a joint expedition between several US Institutions and the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums of Sudan, directed by Prof. Pearce Paul Creasman with the assistance of a global team from America, Sudan, Switzerland and Italy.
You can see photos from the dig on the Nuri Excavation’s Instagram Page.
What Can You See At Nuri?
There are roughly twenty standing pyramids remaining at the site. The majority of pyramids there are visibly of poor standard and you can see the loose sandstone blocks tumbling from the tops. Due to this some are of more pyramid shape than others which look like sand-covered mounds.
The earliest known pyramid at Nuri belongs to king Taharqa however if the pyramid of Nastasen is the most interesting because, if you visit during the winters months of December & onwards, you can see the archaeological teams at work. Flanked by the large, white, dig tent, Sudanese men work to uncovered the base of the pyramid digging the sand and passing it down a line in buckets.
Other men can also be seen supporting the actual dive by holding the air pipes, checking the machinery is working and removing tubs of wet sand brought up by the dive team. There are steep steps dug into the side of the pyramid to allow for access and you can see the murky brown water, gently lapping at the bottom steps. Obviously, don’t attempt to get into the water yourself!
Outside the dig tent you might be able to see archaeologists sifting dirt in large wooden sieves taken from inside the subterranean chambers. They’re looking for any clues to fill the gaps on current knowledge of how the Kushites might have lived or impacted the lives of the Egyptians at that time.
When you look around the site you might stumble across pillars buried within the desert or christian artefacts & pots from a more modern era. You’re free to explore the entire site however you wish and there’s no shortage of interesting stones to see!
How Can You Visit The Pyramids Of Nuri?
The pyramids of Nuri sit roughly 20km from Karima, 500km from Khartoum and 600km from Wadi Halfa. In order to visit you’ll either need to self-drive, get a driver or catch a bus. Hitchhiking is a popular form of transport in Sudan but it’s so unreliable that I wouldn’t recommend it. I know little about buses although from Karima they seem plentiful and regular.
You’ll need to negotiate Nuri’s entry price. We paid 100SDG (for 5 of us) on leaving the site to a man dressed in full white robes. Never ever pay in dollars and never admit to having dollars.
If you want to see more photos and learn about what the team at Nuri find, head over to their Facebook Page where they’re documenting their fascinating progression.
Special Thanks To Prof. Pearce Paul Creasman
We were fortunate enough to stumble over the dig just before they took a break for lunch and we were able to accost the poor Professor into giving us a history lesson and a short tour.
He spent a significant amount of time with us talking us through the subterranean dive and taking us to an area with christian builds that they were unearthing. He already has a significant archaeological background, having discovered two pyramids in Luxor, Egypt and he envisages spending the rest of his career undigging Nuri.
We’re very appreciative to have encountered such a engaging gentleman who was happy to educate us on the history of Nuri. A big thank you from us.
You can follow his adventures from Nuri on Facebook, Instagram, the Nuri website and his own website.
Where Can You Stay In Sudan?
Check out these properties & hotels for rent in Sudan before you get there.
What Else Could You Do In Sudan?
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