Home | News    Friday 12 March 2004

FEATURE-Sudan’s ancient Pyramids bait for hardy tourists


By Opheera McDoom

MEROE, Sudan, March 12 (Reuters) - Think of ancient Pyramids — think of Egypt. Think again.

Some 1,300 kilometres (810 miles) south of Cairo and looming over the east bank of the river Nile, Sudan’s dozens of pyramids peek over the horizon, completely untouched by modern commercialism.

Sudan is better known as the location of Africa’s longest civil war than a holiday hotspot, but with a peace deal on the cards in the south, more tourists are visiting its monuments.

Unlike their larger Egyptian counterparts in Giza where a stream of hawkers greets visitors and fast food restaurants face the Sphinx, visitors can find themselves utterly alone with the Royal Pyramids of Meroe.

In the mid-6th century B.C. Meroe became the central city of the ancient Nubian Cushite dynasty, the "Black Pharaohs", who ruled some 2,500 years ago in the area from Aswan in southern Egypt to present-day Khartoum.

The Nubians were at times both rivals and allies of the ancient Egyptians and adopted many of their northern neighbours’ practices, including burying members of the royal family in pyramid tombs.

To the south of Meroe lies al-Musawwarat, an impressive array of temples papered with ancient drawings of animals, and the ancient city of Naga, impressive and under-researched sites.

But there are no guided tours or sound and light shows.

"I don’t speak English and have to rely on tips from tourists to get money to feed my family," said Mohammed, the lone employee holding the visitors book at al-Musawwarat.

That has not discouraged some adventurous visitors, undeterred by Sudan’s history of war, sanctions and host of militants wanted by the United States.

Awatis Saeed, director of information at the tourism ministry, said tourist numbers had risen in the past two years following the lifting of U.N. sanctions and on hopes for peace based on continuing talks between the government and rebels.

Tourist numbers in 2003 rose to 55,000 from about 44,000 in 2001, she said

"This year it looks to be even more and... we are working to promote Sudan and welcome more tourists here," she told Reuters.


It’s not all plain sailing for prospective tourists in Sudan. Travel around Africa’s largest country is complicated as foreigners need government permits issued only in Khartoum to take photos or move around.

Not to mention the lack of roads.

The tarmac road to Meroe was built only a few years ago, and a long, bumpy dirt track is still the only way to access al-Musawwarat and Naga.

Hiring a four-wheel drive is a must to get around Sudan where there are only five or six main tarmac routes in a country covering about one million square miles (2.6 million sq km) of territory.

Sudan also has a national park, Dinder, in the southeast. Now difficult to access and in a state of disrepair, in its prime Dinder boasted herds of elephants, game and lions with none of the crowds of Kenya’s equivalents.

The colourful Omdurman souk in Khartoum offers tourists perfumes, crafts and, as a testament to the under-regulated tourism industry, shops stuffed full with ivory products.

Vendors say the ivory comes from the lawless south, where for more than two decades a civil war has raged, claiming more than two million victims.

The southern civil war pits the mainly Christian, animist south against the Islamic government in Khartoum, complicated by issues of oil, ethnicity and ideology.


Sudan played host to al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in the 1990s and the United States imposed sweeping economic sanctions in 1997 adding it to its list of states that "sponsor terrorism."

The U.S. sanctions mean credit cards are almost impossible to use throughout Sudan and some tourists say they were daunted by Islamic Sharia law imposed in 1983.

A team hoping to navigate the length of the Nile and some of the wildest whitewater in the world by raft said the political climate in Sudan worried them more than crocodiles.

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