Land of the pharaohs

[words and photographs © Mark Eveleigh]

Even under the shade of the desert shack the temperature is topping 45°C. When the gusts of the sandstorm blow in through the open front of the hut, it feels like the blast from an oven door. The wind rattles the tables and slaps the canvas awning like an infuriated djinn. It coats everything in yet another layer of grit.

Luckily I have already become accustomed to having my food seasoned with sand: it’s not so unpleasant once you become accustomed to chewing without actually letting your teeth grind directly onto one another. When the sand blows in, Tajidine, my guide, quickly tips an empty dish over the top of our large shared plate of ful (bean stew) to keep out the worst. We tuck the hunks of bread that substitute for cutlery into the palms of our right hands and duck our heads until the sand has blown out of the open back of the shelter.

A small boy comes in with two eggs to sell. I find it hard to believe that there can even be enough forage for a hen in this place where the earth and the air seem so interchangeable. The eggs would be too precious a commodity for the boy’s family to eat – far better to sell them to “rich” travellers and use the few coins to buy a bag of beans or some bread. I’m tempted to buy the eggs, but I have nowhere to cook them and we are unlikely to find wood for a campfire before we stop for the night.

So I shrug an apology and climb guiltily back into the air-conditioned cab of our Toyota. We will drive for eight hours across the Nubian Desert before we make camp. In the scale of Africa’s largest country, this is nothing but a short jaunt.

As we drive I think about the Darfuri caravan that will still be plodding doggedly onward through the sandstorms. We had first seen them on the horizon that morning as they trudged out of what appeared to be nothing but empty, lizard-baking wilderness. The three men were driving a caravan of about 40 camels and the animals’ legs melted into a watery mirage so that they seemed to sail like true ships of the desert. We drove over to intercept them and they stopped to chat with the typical friendliness of desert nomads everywhere. They were far too polite to show surprise at seeing a “khawaja” in this uninhabited and remote area. The ubiquitous Sudanese slang word for foreigner dates back to the days of British garrisons and the habit of the troops of greeting the locals with a simple “how are ya?”.

I learn that these men are nearing the end of a six-week trek from their native Darfur. Livestock is cheap in troubled Darfur now and they were bringing these camels north to the Egyptian border. They carried sweating goatskins full of water and saddlebags of beans and grain. They also carried bundles of leather. The going would be so tough across the great stretch of stony hamada desert to the north that by the time they reached their destination, they would have had to make leather shoes to protect the feet of their precious charges.

These tough nomads – tempered by a punishing sun and one of the world’s most unforgiving environments – are part of a tradition that goes back as far as 4,000 years. Their forefathers would have travelled from tropical Africa with cargos of ivory, ebony, incense, gold, skins and even slaves. For these men the gusting habab (sandstorms) are just a minor inconvenience. They would continue northward, guided by the sun, the stars and their infallible internal GPS. In just a day or two they would reach the great curving sweep of the Nile River, where it snakes south to turn the seemingly endless dustbowl of the Nubian Desert magically green. With ample water, the going would be easier for a while.

Life for the desert people of northern Sudan sometimes seems to be reduced to just two preoccupations: sand and water. It is only the presence of the world’s longest river that makes life feasible here and it is hard to believe that this was once the centre of a great civilisation. We are close to the cradle of mankind here and there are ancient megaliths in the Nubian Desert dating back 7,000 years.

The Nubian civilisation rose to a point where it once briefly conquered the Egyptian empire. It was the great Nubian tribes that once held the Roman advance at bay and (according to local legend) even sent Alexander the Great into retreat.

The recent history of Sudan has been traumatic to say the least. The country emerged from a civil war that lasted more than 20 years (and cost the lives of almost two million people) only to see another war break out in the western province of Darfur. As many as 300,000 people have been killed in ethnic cleansing in Darfur and Sudan’s current president Omar al-Bashir has the notoriety of being the only serving head of state ever to be issued with an arrest warrant, for “war crimes and crimes against humanity”. When I arrived in Khartoum a week after the warrant, the road from the international airport was adorned with posters of Sudan’s “beloved leader” and statements of defiance against his accusers at the International Criminal Court.

Against this background of tension and (according to many news reports) violence I had planned a four-wheel-drive trip that would take me more than 1,000 miles across Africa’s largest country. As for the dangers and risks, I need not have worried. The Sudanese people in general remain among the friendliest and most hospitable in the “dark continent”. In Khartoum’s back-street quarters and bazaars, I soon came to the conclusion that I had never felt safer in any city in the world. There are very few tourists and travellers in Sudan now and the average Sudanese man-in-the-street seems to view every “khawaja” as an honoured guest in his country.

We cross the Nile on the old Dongola ferry, queuing up behind a long line of pick-up trucks and donkey carts. By late afternoon we are among the ancient pyramids at Jebel Barkal (Sudan’s Nubian Desert actually boasts more pyramids than the whole of Egypt). It is said that Amun, the ram-headed god, once dwelt in the great granite slab and there had already been a temple here for 1,000 years before Cleopatra ruled the north. Hatim Osman, the guardian of this sacred mountain, leads me by torchlight into the gloom of the temple that is carved out into the face of the rock. The Temple of Mut is dedicated to the Egyptian sky goddess (bride of Amun) and the walls are still carved with complex hieroglyphics. Hatim shines his torch into the biggest burial chamber. The beam of light sets off the high-pitched squeaking of startled bats but cannot penetrate all the way into the darkness: it is said that a tunnel once stretched from here all the way to Egypt, but Mr Osman refuses to let me scramble over the jumbled rock to investigate. Caves in general are still known as the preferred habitat of malicious djinns and spirits and even today many Sudanese will not set foot in these ancient tombs.

By the time we are back outside the sun is already settling onto the horizon and the palms of the Nile Valley are showing as a dark band of shadow. We drive over the dunes behind the pyramids. “Taj” makes his bed in the cab and I pull my bedroll out of my pack to stretch out in the flatbed of the truck. The bright lights of Khartoum are about 300 miles to the south and apart from a few desert towns there is little here to interfere with the incredible vault of stars that stretch from horizon to horizon. In the peace of the desert it is hard to remember that I am in what is often thought of as a troubled part of Africa. Sometime during the night I am woken by a sudden sense that someone is near and there follow a tense few minutes as a Sudanese military patrol scans our travel permits by torchlight. But all seems to be in order and the stars soon lull me back to sleep again.

The sun is already high by the time we reach the temple complex of Meroe, site of Sudan’s most famous pyramids. The Nubian pyramids might not be built to the scale of their Egyptian counterparts but there is a unique atmosphere about approaching these haunting (almost alien) structures across wind-rippled dunes that are not marred by a single human footprint. Apart from a guard’s shack there is nothing in the way of infrastructure here and you feel a world away from the camel rides and souvenir stalls of the Egyptian pyramids.

There is a constant feeling of wildness and majesty in the lonely immensity of Sudan’s million square miles. It is now almost impossible to imagine that this was once a fantastically rich area and a land of mighty pharaohs. Some say that the name Nubia may have been derived from the nub, the Egyptian word for gold. It seems a cruel fate that this once great land (Sudan still has vast oil deposits and rich agricultural areas) should have been reduced to a place where two eggs can seem like a shameful luxury.

Mark Eveleigh travelled to northern Sudan on assignment for CNN Traveller and Etihad Airlines


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