All road like this now,” says Ahmed Kharif. He’s just turned off the paved road onto a dirt road and the car is jolting along it. In all directions, there’s nothing to be seen except a few sparse shrubs and a brown wall of dust.
The car has no door handle, so Ahmed uses a screwdriver to get the door open. The side windows are missing.
One wonders whether one will ever return when travelling through the Sudanese desert in a dilapidated vehicle on the way to one of the most important cultural treasures of the country. The ancient city of Naqa is 37 kilometres from the Nile, far from any towns.
Travellers in Sudan who want to see something and are not traveling with a group are dependent on the local population.
Ahmed lives in Shendi, a small town on the Nile about 180 kilometres north of the capital Khartoum. For a few Sudanese pounds he is willing to take tourists to Naqa. The city was built around 250 BC by the Nubian rulers of the kingdom of Kush.
“Naqa was considered the gateway to the south in the ancient world,” according to Dietrich Wildung, who leads a research project into Naqa at the Museum of Egyptian Art in Munich, Germany. “When merchants and caravans travelled from East Africa to the north and entered Naqa, they would have encountered for the first time a city, which for them would have been a world of high culture,” he says.
A visitor today can still see the Temple of Amun, the Temple of the Lion and also the chapel of Hathor, a building with Hellenistic elements. Nearby is the so-called Roman Kiosk in Latinate style. “For the ancients, it would have been a cosmopolitan mix of all the great architectural styles of the west,” says Wildung.
Until the beginning of the recent excavations, the city had remained untouched since ancient times, although European explorers visited in the 19th century and drew plans of the city.
Because of its preserved state in which every object can be dated, Naqa is an archaeological gold-mine, something noticed by the wealthy Gulf states. The Qatar Sudan Archaeological Project from Doha is currently funding 38 archaeological excavations. Qatar is also putting up $3.1 million (2.8 million euros) for a museum.
But no money seems likely for the road to Naqa, so it will probably remain rough and reserved for the SUVs of the few commercial tour operators who go there or Ahmed’s beaten-up old hire car.
After the trip to Naqa, he drops his guests back in Shendi safely and bids them, “Ma’a as-salama” (goodbye).
The journey continues with a local bus travelling northwards, alongside the Nile. The horizon flickers with heat and there’s nothing to be seen except sand, arid bushes and a few old car tyres. The next place worth seeing is 50 kilometres away.
That is the Pyramids of Meroe, where the rulers of the Kingdom of Kush were buried in the period between 300 BC and 300 AD.
The builders were heavily influenced by the death cult of the Egyptians and the numerous small pyramid tombs give the ruins of the royal city of Meroe an almost mystical atmosphere.
The tombs are a short walk from the road. Located next to the pyramids is a small house where visitors buy a ticket.
A man named Abdul offers a camel ride to a desert camp built by an Italian travel company in 2000 and made permanent.
Diplomats and businessmen from Khartoum like to stay the night at the luxury camp, along with monied tourists, most of them from Europe or the US.
“It is best to travel to Sudan now, before it gets ruined by tourists,” advises Fadoul Mobark, the Sudanese manager of the camp.
He cites the example of Egypt where the locals run after tourists and pester for tips for even the smallest favour. He’s afraid the same thing will happen in Sudan.
The path to the ultimate goal of any Sudan journey continues north through the town of Karima to the holy mountain of Jebel Barkal and the city of Napata at its foot.
This is a trip deep into the Nubian past. From 750 BC onwards, Napata was the capital of the kingdom of Kush. But the city was founded long before that, around 1450 BC by the Egyptian pharaoh Thutmose III. Today the city and the mountain are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The walk to the Jebel Barkal is best taken in the late afternoon when it’s not quite so hot. For such a flat region as the Nile valley, the view from the rocky plateau is quite spectacular, taking in the banks of the Nile, the minarets of Karima and the vast desert surrounding.