Thirty years is a long time to look forward to something. And chances are, with that kind of lead time, expectations will not be met.
I first learned of the pyramids of the black pharaohs in 1986 from watching a documentary called “The Africans,” produced by Kenya’s own Professor Ali Mazrui.
The pyramids of Upper Nubia, built over 2500 years ago, were cited as one of the more dramatic examples of sub-Saharan African civilizations that were even more advanced in many ways than European societies at that time.
Although I was to travel to Khartoum, Sudan for work several times over the coming years, I was never able to make it to the fabled pyramids.
To do so would have required a knowledgeable local guide, a sturdy four-wheel drive vehicle, camping gear and all sorts of government security clearances.
Serendipity beckoned earlier this year when I met a Sudanese artist in Nairobi. I mentioned the pyramids and he lit up – he knew of an Italian tour firm in Khartoum that led guided tours to the pyramids and even owned comfortable properties near the sites.
I sensed intuitively that now was the time and made bookings to join a group in December. I would be there for my 60th birthday, which somehow felt very appropriate.
My sister and I arrive in Khartoum a couple of days before our tour begins. I remember Khartoum as a low-key but friendly place and worry that it might have “modernised” in the 15 years or so since I had last visited.
My fears are quickly allayed. We can hardly proceed 50 metres without customers at one of the tea stalls set up under a tree on nearly every street inviting us to join them.The tea is green, sweet and very strong, served in shot glasses that have to be gripped precariously between thumb and forefinger because they’re so hot.
The mixture of caffeine, sugar and more sweat propels us forward. The Blue and White Nile converge in Khartoum and we stroll along the rivers, making inward forays to museums and cafes, preferably those with air conditioning.
Our third morning, we are met by our tour guide, Sylvio. A polymath, he includes archaeology among his specialities and has made more than 50 trips to the pyramids.
After picking up the other guests, we begin with a morning at the Archaeological Museum. Sylvio’s in-depth knowledge of the history of Upper Nubia is immediately apparent but also alarming: there is no way we can absorb but a small fraction of the facts and figures he has in his head.This king, that dynasty, this temple, that monastery – it is overwhelming and we resign ourselves to trying to understand at a very basic level the context within which the pyramids came to be.
Here’s my neophyte nutshell: the Kushite kingdom arose in the 10th century BC; Meroë, the site of the most well-known pyramids, became the capital after the Egyptian invasion of Kush in 593-591 BC.
As imperialists tend to do, the Egyptians overextended themselves and the Kushites pushed back, invading Egypt and more or less ruling Upper Nubia until the 4th century AD.
They took on and adapted many of their previous rulers’ customs and traditions, including the construction of vast necropolises and the entombing of royalty within pyramids.We spend the better part of nine days exploring tombs and ruins. Some are in advanced disrepair, others have been stunningly restored.
Pyramids, paintings, hieroglyphics, buildings with Grecian columns still standing, underground tombs – they all depict a remarkably sophisticated civilization which flourished for centuries along the banks of the Nile.
Everywhere there is evidence of previous exploration and excavation, some of it shockingly crude. In the 1830s, for instance, Giuseppe Ferlini, an Italian combat medic turned explorer, lopped the tops off more than 40 of the pyramids in his search for treasure.
Having indeed found dozens of gold and silver jewellery pieces, he had great difficulty selling them in Europe because no one believed that such high quality jewellery could be made in Africa.We see European names carved into the stones in the 1800s. I ask Sylvio about this graffiti from an earlier era and he sighs that “the mother of imbeciles is always pregnant”.
Visiting the ruins, contemplating the rise and fall of these remarkable African civilisations, is on its own profound and moving. But the real kicker: we never encounter a single other tourist at any of these sites. If one is desiring knick-knacks or camel rides, this is the wrong place to be.
As we explore the sites in solitude, the silence seems to carry an almost palpable weight. History that can be touched. It’s with a newfound sense of reverence and appreciation that we finally bid farewell to
Meroë and return to “civilisation” in Khartoum and beyond. I know now that it is possible for some expectations to be surpassed even after 30 years in gestation.