A few kilometres away, on the other side of the modern road, lie the remains of the former city of Meroë. This is mostly just ruins now, but you can see the size of it all (it had 25,000 inhabitants in its heyday). A Roman-style bath house has been discovered here. Nature is slowly taking over the site again: due to restrictions on wood collecting, an acacia forest is starting to regrow. We saw some fine birds here, such as a hoopoe and a small owl.
Musawwarat es-Sufra covers the third location of this WHS. It lies in the desert 35km inland of the Nile and 40km south of Meroë. The site of Musawwarat (meaning “pictures”) holds a monument that could be a WHS in its own right: the Lion Temple. This is a beautifully restored sandstone structure covered on all four sides with almost complete bas reliefs. They show local and Egyptian gods and goddesses, kings and queens with African hairstyles. The temple is dedicated to the typical Meroitic Lion God Apedemak. German archaeologists have “adopted” it since the 1950s, and have pieced it together again carefully. Really great WHS produce a Wow!-feeling when you see them with your own eyes, and the reliefs of Mussawarat did the trick for me.
Naqa is the fourth location that comprises this WHS. It lies not far from Mussawarat, in a similar desert setting. The serious photographers and video shooters in our tour group were immediately drawn to a pastoral scene near where we parked (some even never bothered to enter the archaelogical site itself). All people and animals living in the wider area seemed to gather at this spot, where water was being collected deep down from a well. Two donkeys did the hard work, pulling the long rope connected to the bucket downhill.
I prefer looking at old buildings above pestering locals, so I followed our Sudanese guide into the grounds. Naqa is the site where the Nubians of the Kushite empire show that they’ve been in contact with Roman / Hellenistic structures. Neighbouring Egypt was a Roman colony during the Meroitic Kingdom of Kush. Naqa's “Roman” kiosk, a small temple, shows familiar capitals and arched windows. There are also two larger temples on site, both again with large bas reliefs on the outside. One carving shows a bearded Greek, not far from where our 19th century friend Prince Pückler left his mark.
The sites in and around Meroë seem slightly more visited than those at Gebel Barkal, probably because of the relative proximity to the capital Khartoum. The Pyramid fields of Meroë even are fenced off (a rare sight in Sudan). There are souvenir sellers at the gate, and guys that offer camel rides. It's all still low-key of course, but Meroë is the center of Sudanese tourism and rightly so. The site saw 6000 visitors in 2010, I wonder how high the numbers are nowadays.
Paul Tanner (UK):
It is good to see Meroë on the list for possible inscription in 2010. One of the “Top 50 Missing” identified by users of this Web site, it is incontrovertably “World class” and needs to be present on any credible UNESCO list, even though “Egyptian civilisation” is already quite well represented. I visited it in Dec 2005 – just we 3 visitors across the whole evening, night and morning we spent there - so different from the crowded sites in Egypt! Meroë is primarily about pyramids (Photo - there are an amazing 200 or so of them) and atmosphere – which you must sense as you clamber up and down the sand dunes to enter the enclosures just like some Victorian explorer getting there for the first time – oh and look out for the tablets with Meroitic script too!
The T List documents rather strangely call it “The Island of Meroë”. I say strangely because it isn’t an “island” and is in fact located a distance away from the Nile, very much in the sandy desert. It appears that this phrase was used by Classical writers to describe the entire region from Atbara in the North to Khartoum in the south – at these 2 extremities, around 300kms apart, the main Nile is joined by the Atbara and Blue Nile rivers. These rivers on 3 sides led to use of the term “island” with some poetic license! The area was the heartland of the Meroitic civilisation around the 3rd Century BC at which time it was breaking away from centuries, first of political, and then of cultural subservience to Egypt. Use of Meroë by kings of the area continued through to around 200AD with links also to Aksum. The great sites of an earlier “Kushite” period when the Nubian provinces were in the ascendant some 4 centuries before Meroë are within the existing inscription of Jebel Barkal. There are in fact 3 significant Meroitic sites and, from the T List description, it appears that the other 2 at Naqa and Musawwarat es Sufra (both some distance south of Meroë) are to be included within the nomination. Interestingly, before the submission of Sudan’s latest T List each of the 3 sites was on the list separately – Sudan must have figured/been advised that the 3 sites together would make a more compelling nomination – hence the adoption of the “Island” title to encompass all 3! I visited these 2 also and would recommend anyone to try to take them all in rather than just see Meroë. However, unlike Meroë, they are some way off the main road (c 30kms) and you will need a private vehicle (and ideally a knowledgeable driver) to reach them (they are relatively close together) – whereas a bus will get you to Meroë. Naqa is primarily 1st century AD and shows Roman influences. Among other interests, Musawwarat has a fine restored temple and magnificent carvings. Both demonstrate Kushite “African” cultural influences but, unless you are an expert Egyptologist, you will need a good guide to point out the relevant aspects. You would ideally need at least 2 days from Khartoum return to take in all 3 sites – we overnighted twice (in tents) first at Naqa and then at Meroe before continuing north west across the Bayuda desert to “Merowe” and Jebel Barkal. Meroë does possess an upmarket “camp” of permanent tents run by an Italian company but we found the experience of “wild” camping almost in the ruins magical.
A word about “Merowe” is perhaps called for. First it is a totally different place from Meroë (!!) and second it is the site for the building of an enormous dam by China at the 4th Cataract. This will impact your visit to Meroë in that an unsightly line of Pylons (of the electrical non-Egyptian variety!) disfigures the view – carrying power from the new dam to Khartoum. It also means that a spanking new road will have been built across the Bayuda desert making it rather easier to visit both Meroë and Jebel Barkal.
What could prevent inscription? Well, at all 3 sites the management regime seemed somewhat “thin” – security is limited to some barbed wire and a poorly paid “ghaffir” who collects the permits which you are supposed to have obtained and paid for beforehand in Khartoum or Atbara – a significant nuisance if you are travelling up the Nile from Egypt by public transport! The reconstruction of the Musawwarat temple was done by Humboldt University so presumably should be ok by ICOMOS. But those electricity pylons? The main problem will be the earlier years of destruction and the extent to which it has been controlled. One problem shouldn’t occur again :- At Meroë in 1834 the treasure hunter Ferlini blew the tops off some 40 pyramids – unfortunately he struck gold with his first explosion and just kept going in the hope of a second success which never came. They aren’t meant to have “flat tops”!
Date posted: July 2009
Have you been to Archaeological Sites of the Island of Meroe? Share your experiences!