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Glimpses of Sudan’s Forgotten Pyramids

In the midday heat, the bright glow of the desert helped focus my attention on the pyramids themselves. The site was nearly deserted. A few locals were tidying up after recent restoration work, and young camel drivers were out looking for clients. Situated on the east bank of the Nile, some 150 miles by car northeast of Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, the Meroe pyramids — around 200 in total, many of them in ruins — seemed to be in perfect harmony with the surrounding landscape, as if the wind had smoothed their edges to accommodate them among the dunes. Throughout the 30-year dictatorship of Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who led Sudan through a long series of wars and famines, the pyramids of Meroe saw few international visitors and remained relatively unknown.

But among the many consequences of the revolution that led to Mr. al-Bashir’s ouster in 2019 — along with the removal of Sudan in 2020 from the United States list of state sponsors of terrorism — was the hope that the country’s archaeological sites might receive broader attention and protections, not simply from researchers and international visitors but also Sudanese citizens themselves. I traveled to Sudan in February and March of 2020, just a few days before pandemic lockdowns fell into place in my home country of Italy. I was attracted to a nation freed from a dictatorship through its people’s strength, creativity, and determination. And I was keen to meet and photograph this historic moment’s protagonists and young actors.


Late in 2018, Mr. al-Bashir, the former dictator, ended subsidies on fuel and wheat, leading to a price surge. The reaction of the people, exhausted by economic crises, was not long in coming. A wave of demonstrations filled the streets of several towns far beyond the capital, Khartoum. These were Sudanese of all ethnicities, classes, and generations — but students and young professionals above all. During my visit, Amr Abdallah and Tawdia Abdalaziz, two young Sudanese doctors in their 20s, led me through the streets of Khartoum to see the symbolic sites of the revolution, showing me mile after mile of public art — graffiti, murals, verses — that marked the locations of the protests.

When they told me about Meroe and Ancient Nubia, the region name that stretches between Egypt and northern Sudan, I discovered that most Sudanese had never had the opportunity to visit these sites — including the doctors themselves. Fasan Italian equated to never having had the chance to see the Colosseum in Rome. The ancient city of Meroe — part of a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2011 — is a four-hour drive from Khartoum, northeast, along the Nile River. The pyramids, built between 2,700 and 2,300 years ago, stand as a testament to the grandeur of the Kingdom of Kush, a significant power from the eighth century B.C. to the fourth century A.D.

Compared to the monumental pyramids in Giza, Egypt, the structures at Meroe are significantly smaller — from around 30 to 100 feet tall, against the 455-foot-tall Great Pyramid — and their slopes steeper. As in Egypt, though, the pyramids serve as royal burial sites. In recent years, the pyramids at Meroe and other Sudanese archaeological sites up and down the Nile, including those Nuri, farther north — have been threatened by rising floodwaters and the continuing effects of wind and sand erosion. Plans for new hydroelectric dams also threaten specific archaeological sites in Sudan — as they have in the past when the construction of the Merowe Dam displaced tens of thousands of residents and led to a frantic archaeological hunt for artifacts before the dam’s reservoir submerged them.

However, perhaps the most infamous act of destruction at Meroe is attributed to the Italian treasure hunter Giuseppe Ferlini, who, in the 1830s, destroyed several of the pyramids in a ruthless search for ancient artifacts. With one hand on the steering wheel and the other holding his phone, Nour, our driver, was accustomed to bringing visitors to Meroe. Still, in his four-wheel-drive Toyota, we sometimes lost our way as we moved from one site to another through vast stretches of deserts. Local tour guides at the entrance to Meroe invited us to take camel rides, eager to remind us that this is a time-tested, often neglected tourist site. The atmosphere was very different at the Naqa archaeological site, some 50 miles southwest of Meroe.

We walked alone among the buildings, including a temple devoted to Apedemak, a lion-headed warrior god worshiped in Nubia. On the opposite side of the site, ram-shaped sculptures accompanied us to the entrance of the Amun temple, built around the first century A.D. and considered one of the most critical archaeological structures and tourist attractions in Sudan. A stone’s throw from the temple of Amun, a golden sunset illuminated a small herd of goats, which a young goatherd followed. Dusk would soon settle in. The drive back to Khartoum was aong, and our driver warned me to speed up. Back in Khartoum, where the Nile River’s two main tributaries — the White Nile and the Blue Nile — meet, Dr. Amr and Dr. Tawdia and their friends gathered to celebrate a birthday.

Amid the songs and dances, Dr. Tawdia asked what I thought of her country’s archaeological beauties and discussed Sudan’s future. “The Sudanese people have the right to reclaim their country,” she said, adding that she and her friends long for a democratic society that can be open and accessible to everyone. And she said that they want a country that can showcase its treasures to its visitors and people. Alessio Mamo, an Italian photojournalist based in Catania, Sicily, focuses on refugee displacement and humanitarian crises in the Middle East and the Balkans. You can follow his work on Instagram and Twitter.


I have always enjoyed writing and reading other people's blogs. I started writing a journal as a teenager and have since written numerous books and articles. My blog is a place where I can write freely about my personal interests and those of others.

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