The Archaeological Sites of the Island of Meroe contain the best-preserved relics of the Kingdom of Kush at the height of its power.
Meroe became their capital in the 3rd century BCE, with its proximity to the Nile making it a viable location for human existence. The three components include the town of Meroe and its cemetery, and the associated sites Musawwarat es-Sufra and Naqa which are located in the desert further from the river. As the site of royal burials, most notable are the more than 200 Kushite pyramids that have survived.
Community Perspective: It doesn’t lie too far from Khartoum, so it is more often visited than Gebel Barkal. The focal point is the pyramid field of the Meroë Necropolis, but don’t miss Musawwarat (it has a finely restored temple and magnificent carvings) and Naqa (where the Kushites showed that they'd been in contact with Roman / Hellenistic structures).
Map of MeroeLoad map
I organized my December 2019 trip to Sudan with ITC Sudan and stayed at their Nubian Rest Camp near the foot of Jebel Barkal and Meroe Camp overlooking the pyramid field. I stayed at Acropole Hotel in Khartoum at the beginning and end of my trip, and in between visited Jebel Barkal, a holy mountain surrounded by the ruins of two thirteenth century BCE temples and some of the most intact pyramids in Sudan, erected between the third and first centuries BCE; Nuri in northern Sudan, where more than twenty ancient pyramids that served as a necropolis for Nubian kings and queens still stand near the Nile; Meroë, an ancient city along the eastern bank of the Nile and home to hundreds of Nubian pyramids; the Temple of Apedemak at Naqa, dating from the first century CE and one of the largest ruined sites in Sudan; and Musawarat es-Sufra, a large temple complex dating back to the third century BCE.
As soon as you enter Sudan, you can see each and every advertisement that have the slightest connection with tourism having the image of the pyramids, and that implies that Meroe is the crown jewel of the Sudanese tourism, and its relative closeness to Khartoum makes it the most touristy place in the whole country. But do not expect crowds of tourist flocking the ruins. When we visited meroe last December seemingly we were the only foreigners there. The presence of desperate souvenir sellers and guys who offered rides on their camels shows that there were better times, and maybe there are days when there are more people coming.
The site consists of two major parts, the capital of the Meroitic kingdom, and its necropolis. The capital is a bit more far away from the main road. it's more or less completely ruined, you need an extremely good imagination to see the lush palaces and pompous temples of Egyptian and local gods in the less than a meter high cramped walls. But the scenery with the trees offering a shadow for the exhausted traveller is impressive and with a knowledgeable guide it can be a somewhat interesting experience.
On the contrary the necropolis in the red desert is touching for the first sight. One of the most impressive sites I've ever seen. The pyramids are much smaller than their Egyptian brothers and much younger too, but not less interesting or mysterious. The black stone buildings in the reddish desert are utterly photogenic. And what it lacks in the grandiose measures it compensates in numbers. You can find places on top of the small hills where you can spot dozens of pyramids. Reconstruction is under way and some pyramids are already covered with white plastered stones as they were in the time they were built. You can enter some of them, but do not expect mysterious deep burial chambers inside - there are small burial chapels in the pyramids with some reliefs on the walls.
If you have a car it's not difficult to get there from Khartoum. The necropolis is on the side of the (new) Khartoum - Port Sudan highway cca 350 kms from Khartoum. Beware that not only a means of independent transport is needed if you want to go there - getting there by public transport could be a great challenge as there are no modern settlements around - bur you need a special permission from the Ministry of Interior to leave the capital. There is at least on checkpoint where you have to show it. Allow a whole day for Meroe with early morning departure from Khartoum. There are no restaurants of food stalls around so either take food and drinks with you, or stop at a roadside eatery.
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 archaelogical 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 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 just checking them out one by one to see what you find.
A few kilometers away, on the other side of the modern road, lie the remains of the former city of Meroë. This is mostly just ruined 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 basreliefs. 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 archaeological 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 basreliefs 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 have been 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.
Read more from Els Slots here.
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”!
Includes former TWHS Naqa (2003)
2011 Advisory Body overruled
ICOMOS recommended Deferral for reasons of comparative analysis, management etc. Brz, Chi, Egy, Eti, Jor, Irq, Mal, Nig, Uae get acceptance of inscription
2010 Incomplete - not examined
The site has 4 locations
The main site (the one with the pyramids) is easily accessible from the highway north of Khartoum. Buses can drop you off. The ruins of Meroë town are just a few kms away, but too far to walk in the heat - maybe you can persuade a camel driver to take you there. The other 2 locations (Mussawarat and Naqa) are remote and need private 4WD transport.
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