Egypt's iconic ancient pyramids are famous around the world and are undoubtedly one of the biggest draws for visitors to North Africa. The Great Pyramid of Giza, for example, is recognized as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and remains one of Egypt's most popular tourist attractions. In comparison, Sudan's Meroë Pyramids are relatively unknown; and yet, they are less crowded, more numerous and steeped in fascinating history.
Situated approximately 155 miles/250 kilometers northeast of Khartoum near the banks of the River Nile, the ancient city of Meroë is home to almost 200 pyramids. Constructed out of large blocks of sandstone in the Nubian style, the pyramids look quite different to their Egyptian counterparts, with smaller bases and more steeply sloped sides. However, they were built for the same purpose - to serve as a burial site and statement of power, in this case for the kings and queens of the ancient Meroitic Kingdom.
Built between 2,700 and 2,300 years ago, the Meroë Pyramids are a relic of the Meroitic Kingdom, also known as the Kingdom of Kush. The kings and queens of this period ruled between 800 BC and 350 AD and held sway over a vast area that included most of the Nile Delta and reached as far south as Khartoum. During this time, the ancient city of Meroë served as the kingdom's southern administrative center and later as its capital.
The first Egyptian pyramids pre-date the oldest structures at Meroë by almost 2,000 years and probably provided inspiration for their architects. In fact, early Meroitic culture was heavily influenced by that of Ancient Egypt, and it seems likely that Egyptian artisans were commissioned to help build the pyramids at Meroë. However, the aesthetic differences between the pyramids at both locations show that the Nubians also had their own distinct style.
The Pyramids Today
While carved reliefs within the pyramids show that Meroitic royalty were likely mummified and buried along with a rich trove of treasures including precious jewelry, weapons, furniture and pottery, the pyramids at Meroë are now bare of such ornaments. Much of the tombs' treasure was looted by grave robbers in ancient times, while the unscrupulous archaeologists and explorers of the 19th and 20th centuries removed what was left in a series of excavation efforts.
Most notoriously, an Italian explorer and treasure hunter named Giuseppe Ferlini caused irreparable damage to the pyramids in 1834. Upon hearing of the stashes of silver and gold still rumored to be hidden within some of the tombs, he used explosives to blow the tops off several pyramids and to level others to the ground. In total, it is thought that he vandalized more than 40 different pyramids, later selling his findings to museums in Germany.
Despite their careless treatment, many of Meroë's pyramids still stand although some are decapitated as a result of Ferlini's efforts. Others have been reconstructed and give a wonderful insight into how they must once have looked during their heyday.
How to Get There
Although the Meroë Pyramids are certainly well off the beaten track, it is possible to visit them by yourself. Those with a car can simply drive there - from Khartoum, the journey takes approximately four hours. Those that are dependent on public transport may find the trip more difficult. The most reliable way to plan a trip is to take the bus from Khartoum to the small town of Shendi, then hop on a taxi for the remaining 47 kilometers/30 miles to Meroë.
Officially, visitors need a permit to visit the pyramids, which can be purchased from the National Museum in Khartoum. However, anecdotal reports from other travelers state that the permits are rarely checked and can be bought upon arrival if necessary. There are no cafés or toilets, so be sure to bring food and plenty of water. Alternatively, several tour operators make life easy by offering fully organized itineraries that incorporate visits to the Meroë Pyramids. Recommended itineraries include Encounters Travel's Hidden Treasures tour; and Corinthian Travel's Meroë & The Pharaohs of Kush tour.
Traveling with a professional tour operator is also a good idea for safety reasons. At the time of writing (February 2019), the political situation in Sudan renders areas of the country unsafe for tourist travel. Due to civil unrest and the threat of terrorism, the U.S. Department of State has issued a Level 3 (Reconsider Travel) advisory for most of Sudan and a Level 4 (Do Not Travel) advisory for the Darfur region and the Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan states. While the Meroë Pyramids are located in the safer River Nile state, it's a good idea to check the latest travel warnings before planning your trip.
This article was updated and re-written in part by Jessica Macdonald on February 13 2019.