Blog WHS Visits

WHS #554: Magnificent Meroë

After I had visited the excellent Gebel Barkal, I wondered if Meroë could surpass it. Well, it did. I do not hesitate to compare this collection of 4 archaeological sites in the heart of Sudan with Jordan's Petra. Meroë is testimony to the period when the Black Pharoahs of Nubia found their own style: less Egyptian and more African, with far-reaching trade connections. The focal point of the nomination is the pyramid field of the Meroë Necropolis, where about 100 structures are clustered. It lies within sight of the busy tarmacked road between Khartoum and Atbara, with mainly trucks and buses plying the route to Port Sudan. The pyramids here have been uncovered since the early 20th century. The reconstruction of their characteristic pylon gateways or votive chapels often dates to as recent as the 1990s. Fresh sand covers the entrances to these chapels every day, making it still adventurous to tread and explore. Most are empty inside, but some have carvings or paintings so it's worth to just check them out one by one to see what you find.

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.

Els - 13 december 2014

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Comments 1 January 2015

I have never been in this place - but thanks to your description, I m sure it will be my next place worth to visit.
Regards, El

Clyde 19 December 2014

Extremely interesting review and incredible comments and photos showing the site before and after reconstruction! I've added this site to my personal Top 100 places I would like to visit :)

Paul Tanner 16 December 2014

Regarding Els's comments about the reconstructions which have taken place at Meroe. It might be of interest to see the changes which have been brought about at Meroe in recent years by such (re)building work. I attach a couple of photos taken around 75 years apart but from a very similar viewpoint! The first is a B+W photo which I have scanned from Volume 6 of a book published c1930 +/- by Fleetway Press titled "Lands and Peoples". The second is a photo I took in Dec 2005. I did not of course realise at the time that an old book I owned would have a photo taken from almost the same viewpoint! My later photo shows the very large number of pylons which have been "constructed" in front of the pyramids - together with the 2 "new" pyramids mentioned by Els. ICOMOS commented that "Conservation works to the pyramids and temples have involved more reconstruction (in the Burra Charter sense of introducing new material), than in situ stabilisation or restoration (where new material is not introduced) or true anastylosis."

Els 15 December 2014

What I wondered about is the level of reconstruction of the "pylons" (votive chapels) and the Pyramids. In my pictures (see first above) one can clearly see what is the original and what is the reconstructed part (looks lighter, more smooth, concrete?). Also, 2 small pyramids have been erected among the original ones just to show how the complete ones looked like. To my untrained eye, the restoration at Mussawarat is done much more carefully.

Paul Tanner 15 December 2014

It is amazing to think that, if ICOMOS had got its way, this wonderful site of Meroe wouldn't have been inscribed in 2011 but would have been deferred - probably for some years! And not just because of protection issues and poor management etc. I have just looked again at the ICOMOS evaluation and it didn't consider that the case had been made out on ANY of the 4 criteria suggested by Sudan (2,3,4, and 5). It did concede that a case could be made out on 2 and 3 if certain things were done - better comparison analysis for instance - it had a bee in its bonnet about the lack of a Nile port as part of the nomination. Seems a classic example of ICOMOS not seeing the wood for the trees!
Although the 2011 WHC was not broadcast publicly I have access to some notes from the session. Sudan was perhaps lucky that the WHC included Egypt, Ethiopia, Jordan, Iraq, UAE and Bahrain! Egypt stated that it was a "deed of honour" to inscribe the site. Ethiopia said that the importance of Meroe could not be doubted. Bahrain - The site is exceptional. BRZ, CHINA, EGY, ETI, JOR, IRQ, MAL, NIG, UAE all proposed acceptance. France agreed and Egypt proposed that it be inscribed on all 4 criteria. A few face saving (to ICOMOS)recommendations were put in and it was done! It will be interesting to see how many of the recommendations actually get done.