OK it's not the British Museum nor is it the Cairo Museum but it does contain a wealth of ancient treasures that are an unexpected joy to behold. In particular, I was charmed by the delicacy and finery of the pottery, impressed by the intricacy and detail of some of the hieroglyphs and simply taken aback by the beauty of the early Christian frescoes.
The National Museum of Sudan in Khartoum is possibly not top on your list of must-see museums but this is unsurprising when so little is known of the treasures of this remarkable country. Sadly Sudan, or rather its government, is better known for its indefensible policies in Darfur that have led to death and misery for hundreds and thousands. Atrocities in Darfur make any visit to Sudan contentious, an ethical dilemma. In no way wanting to condone the actions of the government I wrestled with this problem long and hard but in the end decided to go - a tourism boycott would in no way effect the government (funded amongst others by China) but rather allow it to pursue its policies in isolation and behind closed doors.
Sudan is a culturally wealthy country. Over a hundred languages are spoken by dozens of different tribes making Sudan as diverse as Africa itself. For many, Sudan's history is best known for Gordon of Khartoum; less often told is the story of Sudan's ancient past. The kingdom of Kush dealt with the pharaohs of Egypt and emperors of Rome as an independent power and left behind a wealth of archaeological treasures.
My appetite whet by the tantalising treasures of the museum, we headed north to Meroe, the old Kushite capital, famed for its pyramids of the Royal Cemetery. Sudan's most popular tourist attraction - receiving only one hundred visitors a month in the cooler 'winter' months - the pyramids of Meroe have long been overshadowed by the headline-grabbing pyramids and treasures of Egypt. But this is part of the joy of Meroe: namely that as it is so little visited you have the pyramids virtually to yourself.
The pyramids are surrounded by the desert, imbuing them with romance and mystery, so much so that I slipped into reverie and imagined myself stumbling across these pyramids for the first time. The site itself is divided into two main clusters: the older and smaller southern cluster and the more impressive, better preserved, northern cluster, which spans the 4th C BC to 3rd C AD and has some 44 pyramids in various states of repair. Many of them contain interesting designs depicting scenes on which the kingdom derived its economic wealth, worship to the gods and the passage of the dead to the afterlife.
Although individually not as grandiose as the Egyptian pyramids, from which they are clearly derived (they are smaller, the tallest being thirty metres, and have a steeper pitch at 70º), the pyramids of Meroe are enchanting and intriguing. If you do visit the pyramids of Meroe, as I sincerely hope you will, then I hope that you behave a little better than the Italian treasure hunter Ferlini who in 1834 literally blew the tops off many of the pyramids.
There are a host of other sites from the Lion Temple and the Temple of Amun at Naqa, which carry some beautiful representations of Apedemak, Horus and Amun. Musawwarat es Sufra is the largest set of Meroitic remains in Sudan and yet its exact purpose is unclear - a metaphor for our incomplete understanding of Meroitic culture. The frequency of carvings of elephants suggests that elephants may have been used or possibly trained here.
The accommodation throughout was much much better than I had expected. In fact I felt spoiled. Meroe tented camp overlooking the pyramids was charming whilst the Nubian Guesthouse in Karima was exquisite and certainly belies its name. I ate dangerously well in both.
I had done a little reading and had learned of the treasures of the Kushite kingdom but I was taken aback by their splendour and I was unprepared for the ethnic diversity of the people but more especially their unfailing hospitality and welcome. Wherever I went I was made to feel at ease with everyone saying 'Marhaba' (you are welcome), some stopping to shake my hand and other demand I take a photograph of them. Given my experiences I totally endorse the line in the Bradt guidebook, "Indeed, it's not uncommon for trans-Africa travellers to commend Sudan as their favourite country in the whole continent."I hope that some of my images convey the beauty and grace of the people.
I leave you with the enchanting early morning scene on my penultimate morning as we were headed back to Khartoum:
We arrived at the Karima ferry as the sun was rising over the east bank of the Nile, silhouetting the palms on the far bank. Its warming rays bathed the waiting crowd in the soft hues of morning light. It was a gentle, timeless scene. The white of the men's gellabeyhs given colourful contrast by the brightness of the women's dresses; the buzz and hum of greetings filled the air; smiles of recognition and welcome. The slapping of shoulders as is the Sudanese way. Some sat on stools for coffee and a chat. The woman of the shack wafted charcoal to speed up the boiling of her battered kettle - the only hint of pace in this unhurried start to the day. With the building of the bridge in the next few years such morning rituals will sadly be lost.