The wooden door of the tomb is pulled back, and the underworld reaches up to drag us into its dark grip. Holding a low-intensity torch, my guide Hatim El Nour goes first, the meagre beam identifying rough “stairs” in the soil whose edges have been eaten away by the millennia. We choose our footsteps carefully, the air noticeably cooler as we descend into the burial chamber – where nothing, and nobody, awaits us. Not even the dead.
King Tanutamun – the 17th-century BC monarch who once resided in pyramid K16 of the El Kurru necropolis – is long gone, his sarcophagus vanished. His only presence now is on the walls, in the elegant paintings which depict his achievements. There he is, recreated by a masterful artist, being helped into the afterlife by gods and goddesses of the Egyptian pantheon. Hatim traces them with the torch – Isis, the mother goddess; Anubis, the jackal, the guardian of the departed; Thoth, the baboon, the god of wisdom. Together they convey Tanutamun towards the powerful figure of Osiris, who weighs and measures his soul. “The verdict is a good one,” Hatim says, turning to the mural on the other wall, where the king is seen moving back towards the exit, on into the “next world”.
To glimpse these Egyptian deities, portrayed so clearly in the grave of a man who died in 653BC, is an utter privilege – but, without context, also misleading. For El Kurru lies not in Egypt, but in Sudan – 275 miles north of the capital Khartoum. Strange? Perhaps. Or perhaps not. Because the realm of the pharaohs reached far south of what is now delineated as Egypt – along the Nile, past what is now the Aswan Dam and Lake Nasser, and a considerable distance across the modern border. Here, in North Sudan, the Ancient Egyptians left behind a wealth of temples and pyramids – and, 42 centuries on, precious few tourists.
That one word, “Sudan”, is the reason for the low traveller numbers at sites which, in a country with a less hair-raising image, would be a blur of coach parties and queues. But this nation has a reputation for trouble which may even stretch back to the Egyptian invasion of its territory by Mentuhotep II in the 21st century BC – but which certainly colours its last 200 years: Ottoman annexation in 1821; coming under the thumb of colonial Britain in 1882; independence in 1956 and a subsequent slump into civil war that eventually sparked the birth of a separate state, South Sudan, in 2011; a dabbling in violence in the Nineties that saw the United States decry it as a sponsor of terrorism, to the point where bombs were dropped on Khartoum. Even now, Sudan’s citizens have been listed in the divisive travel bans put in place by the Trump administration. Tourists? It’s amazing there are any at all.
The reality, as is often the way, is more pleasant than you might expect. Hatim and I continue 15 miles north-east, along the leafy corridor daubed on to this aridity by the Nile, to the town of Karima. Around us, all is motion – cattle, conversation and a cavalcade of tuk-tuks in the market square; a contrasting silence beyond at the railway station, built by “civilising” Victorian hands, but bereft of trains for a decade now. It adds up to a North African everydayness which helps explain why – in contrast to some areas of Egypt – the Foreign and Commonwealth Office considers much of Sudan safe to visit. Over coffee – strong, thick, aromatic, brewed on a charcoal burner in a rudimentary “café”, and served in tiny glasses – Hatim dissects the intricacies of the heritage that has brought me here. As a historian and PhD-level expert in ancient Sudan, as well as a guide, he baulks at the word “Nubian” – the term often used to denote the Sudanese who tussled with the warlords of Luxor and Giza. It relates, he says, to a people who would not appear until 300AD. He talks instead of the Kingdom of Kush, which took shape in the Bayuda Desert around 2500BC. Its fortunes waxed and waned according to Egypt’s strength, weathering Mentuhotep II’s incursion (in 2032BC) and striking back in the eighth century BC, when the mighty King Kashta strode north with intent, and the Kushite kings became the pharaohs of the 25th Dynasty, ruling both “countries” between 760BC and 656BC. These men were no footnotes. They were warriors and empire builders, and they left their imprint across this dusty landscape.
El Kurru was just one of the Kushite royal necropolises. It was in use between 795BC and 315BC – but posterity has not been kind to it. Archaeological study has still to fill all the gaps in the timeline: there is no consensus on who was buried in K1, the biggest of the site’s 22 pyramids (which is currently under excavation). And many of its tombs were pared back to rubble by military magpies in the 19th century. On the outskirts of Karima, Hatim shows me Al Teraif – an agricultural village in the Nile greenbelt which would be unremarkable but for its Ottoman fort. This once-colossal stronghold is also now a ruin, and in the crumbling of its walls, the thievery from which it is born is laid bare. There, in its flanks, are slabs of Kushite masonry, adorned with carvings of kings, queens and gods.
Staring back at Karima from the opposite bank of the Nile, Nuri has fared better. In use from 664BC to 310BC, it superseded El Kurru as royal graveyard – thanks to the status of the men and women who were committed to eternity here. It has 73 pyramids, most of them intact – but the keystone is the earliest, built for King Taharqa, a titan of the 25th Dynasty who wanted his tomb to be a new headline statement befitting his pomp as a ruler of Egypt. Around him grew a Valley of the Kings, a Westminster Abbey – and again, I have it to myself. Aside from Hatim and me, there is nobody here but for the farmer who wanders by as the sun is setting.
I am agog at the pyramid of King Aspelta, a structure of symmetrical perfection, and there are amused observations from Hatim on the number of photographs I am taking. It dawns on me that, for this Sudanese man, the note of fascination is not the ancient joys he has ambled past every day since childhood – but that anyone would come to see them.
We return to Karima and the comforts of the Nubian Rest House, an Italian-run boutique property of 10 rooms, which overlooks the glue that held this region together. I wake before sunrise to climb it – Jebel Barkal, a sandstone monolith which, although just 322ft tall and simple to ascend, was regarded as sacred by the rulers who held sway here.
Once I reach the summit, I can appreciate why. On the south-east side of the butte, gazing towards the coming sun, is a column of rock. At this elevation, its resemblance to a rearing cobra – a symbol of Egyptian royal strength – is obvious. So is the outline of the Temple of Amun, constructed circa 1400BC, below this serpentine pinnacle (probably to harness its imagery), by Egyptian pharaoh Thutmosis III, a miracle of lion statues and tumbled pillars, heavily expanded by Taharqa around 680BC. Near the sanctuary, a wall of hieroglyphics reveals the skill of the Egyptian craftsmen – and the lesser abilities of the Kushites in later centuries.
Metres away, the fertile tranche of mud provided by the Nile is extra evidence as to why ancient leaders would have built here. We follow it upstream, cheating by forging south-east through the unforgiving Bayuda sandscape, clipping off the curve of one of the river’s loops, to the railway town of Atbara – then flitting down to the endgame for the kings of Kush, to the wonder among wonders – the pyramids at Meroë.
Here is the mother lode of Kushite heritage. It was used from the ninth century BC to the fourth century AD, but especially from 300BC onwards, in an era of diminished circumstances, when the 25th Dynasty had fallen, the new players of Assyria (modern-day Iran and Iraq) and (later) Rome had wrested control of Egypt, and safety was to be found further south.
Some 177 pyramids stand here, the majority in the Northern Cemetery, in various states of preservation and glory. They could easily have been lost. One notable destroyer was Giuseppe Ferlini, an Italian medic and amateur treasure-hunter who, accompanying Ottoman forces in 1834, decapitated several structures in his lust for gold. Even now, the devastation he wrought on the first-century BC tomb of Queen Amanishakheto is visually shocking, a cultural rape of brute ignorance which left much of the brickwork spilt over the dunes. Thankfully, he did not desecrate the whole area. Adjacent, the tomb of Naherka (built in 140BC) is a proud survivor, its “H-shaped” entrance – so distinctive of the Meroë pyramids – opening on to a funerary chapel where fine etchings of Isis and Osiris greet the dead king. Above both, Jebel Barkal is visible on the wall.
Two doorways along, the final fate of the Kushite kingdom is embodied in the pyramid of Queen Amanirenas. A Sudanese Boadicea, she took the fight back to Egypt – and to the Romans who were now in charge – in 27BC. She met with partial success in a war that lasted five years, and was concluded by a favourable treaty, negotiated with Emperor Augustus. This was, though, the last defiance of a civilisation that would fade in the next 300 years, condemned to irrelevance by a new world order on the Mediterranean.
I take my leave too, to Meroë Tented Camp, a luxury retreat a mile away. Here, I look back at the pyramids and decide the Kushites would be pleased with the song they sing of their former greatness. Even if, for now, so few are listening.
How to get there
Cox & Kings (020 3411 1707; coxandkings.co.uk) is offering an 11-day Treasures of Ancient Nubia trip through Sudan which visits the pyramids at El Kurru, Nuri and Meroë, as well as Khartoum.
Prices start at £2,845 per person for a group tour, or £3,745 per person for a private journey – including high-end accommodation, international flights, chauffeured internal travel and guides. Ethiopian Airlines (0800 016 3449; ethiopianairlines.com) flies to Khartoum daily from London Heathrow, via Addis Ababa.