The heavy wooden door swings open and the white robed guardian waves his arm, beckoning me to enter. Beyond the gate lies a huge expanse of hard-packed sand, its surface scarred with geometric squiggles, lines and circles. To my non-expert eye, these hypnotic patterns remind me of crop circles, those bizarre patterns occasionally found in fields of wheat that some people attribute to alien spacecraft. However, the lines in the earth here indicate something that’s arguably much more interesting than little green men. Together the lines merge into one giant circular pattern, at the centre of which sits an enormous, tumbledown mound of mud brick, which looks as if it has melted in the heat. This is the Western Deffufa: the largest mud brick structure in sub-Saharan Africa. Not far away from here is the Eastern Deffufa, this one surrounded by a cemetery containing the remains of about 30,000 people; many of whom appear to have been ritually sacrificed.
Not only is the deffufa the largest mud brick building in Africa, but it is also thought to be the oldest. In fact, archaeologists now think the area around the deffufa, which is today part of the small market town of Kerma, has been occupied for at least 10,000 years - making Kerma arguably the oldest continually inhabited town on Earth. Yes, this dusty and overlooked place is older than Rome, older than Jerusalem, older even than the great Pyramids of Egypt. And yet, despite its antiquity and clear importance to humanity, here I was, standing atop the deffufa, looking across the date palms to the far glint of the Nile and, aside from the sites guardian, I was all alone.
I am in Sudan. Until the partition of the country and the creation of South Sudan in 2011, this was Africa’s largest country. Yet, for most people, it’s also one of the continents least known nations. This is probably due, in no small part, to people being put off visiting by the country’s unsavoury reputation as a war racked and politically unstable place. However, as is so often the case with such generalisations, the reality on the ground is slightly different. Yes, the country has had more than its fair share of military coups and war, but the Sudanese heartland, where I am now, which stretches from the capital Khartoum north along the Nile to the Egyptian border, has rarely felt much in the way of a ripple of disturbance from the violent upheavals elsewhere in this vast country. In fact, so calm does this part of the country appear that many people consider it one of the safer parts of Africa for a foreign visitor. I for one was quickly becoming smitten with Sudan. Here was a country with a visible history stretching back to the very earliest days of civilisation, a place with buildings that could make the temples of Egypt look brash and modern, but where other foreign tourists seemed as rare as crop circle creating alien spacecraft.
Although Kerma has been inhabited since at least Neolithic times, the deffufa, which is thought to have been a temple of great religious importance, dates back about 5000 years. At that period in time, Kerma was a major town of about 10,000 inhabitants and was the capital of a powerful kingdom, which spread along the Nile and into what is today southern Egypt. The kings of Kerma were demi-gods along the lines of Egyptian pharaohs, and when a king died, hundreds of his subjects were sacrificed alongside him - as were cattle. Today Kerma is surrounded by sandy desert waste, but back then the climate was very different, with savannah grasslands spreading away from the lazy Nile waters and supporting wildlife of the type more commonly seen today in eastern Africa. It was also ideal cattle grazing country and Kerma society was built on cattle. On ancient temple walls throughout this part of Sudan, engravings depicting cattle are commonly seen and in the cemetery surrounding the Eastern Deffufa, archaeologists have found not just sacrificed humans but the skulls of thousands of cattle.
A few moments drive to the north of the deffufa, an elderly French couple oversee an archaeological dig at a site called Duki Gail. Charles Bonnet and his wife have been working in both Egypt and Sudan for decades. Charles is considered the doyen of ancient Sudanese history and when he talks about Sudan the pitch of his voice rises slightly in excitement. “Working here as an archaeologist”, he tells me, as we stand in the midday sun peering down into a trench containing a history we are only just beginning to understand, “Is how it must have felt to have been digging in Egypt a hundred and fifty years ago. Maybe this is even better. Everywhere you look here there are ancient sites; every time you put your foot down you stand on a fragment of pottery or a piece of ancient brick. Look at this site, Duki Gail. To be honest, we still have no real idea at all what was, but yet look here and you can see the walls of a building - maybe it was a palace - that are two metres thick. Whatever this site once was, it must have been hugely important”.
A few days later I see what Charles means when he talks about standing on fragments of pottery every time you put your foot down. Afloat in the muddy waters of the Nile, Sai Island is a peaceful place where little disturbs the silence, but the thump of the occasional generator. With the remains of a medieval church of which nothing but a few forlorn pillars remain and an Ottoman fort, which in itself sits atop the foundations of a 3,500 year old Egyptian town, Sai Island is something of a synopsis of Sudanese history. And as I slowly amble between the sites, I suddenly realise that with every footfall I was stepping on shards of pottery - big and small. It was everywhere, it seemed to carpet the island, tens of thousands of broken pots, bowls and urns. I was literally walking on ancient history.
If the ruins and monuments of Sai Island were largely a record of foreign invasion and ideas, my next destination, a day-long drive to the south-east, took me back in time to a period when the Nubians (or Kushites) of Sudan battled for supremacy of the Nile with the pharaohs of Egypt. Karima is a small town with a big past, beautifully situated between the Nile and the sacred mountain of Jebel Barkal, which both Egyptians and Nubians alike believed was the home of the god Amun. Its religious importance meant that Karima swayed backwards and forwards between being the southern limit of the Egyptian kingdoms and the centre of Nubian kingdoms, which at times controlled much of present day Egypt. This see-sawing past has left little old Karima with an impressive array of ancient art and architecture. Setting off early one morning, I scrambled and clambered up onto the table-top summit of Jebel Barkal for an eagle-eyed view of the towns illustrious past. From up here, with the wind whipping through my hair, I gingerly (in my case very gingerly) peered over the edge of the mountain and looked down onto a jigsaw of temples, tombs, columns and pillars - all built to glorify whoever was in control at the time. As I gazed down something else caught my eye; something very familiar to us all, but totally unexpected out here. A pyramid. And there was more than one. Even if you’ve never seen them in real life, the great pyramids of Giza in Egypt are so well-known to all of us that we tend to assume that they are unique and exist nowhere else on Earth. The reality is that Sudan is home to more pyramids than Egypt.
Sudanese pyramids come in myriad forms, there are big ones and little ones, fat squat ones and tall tapering ones, some are well preserved, some are mere dusty piles of nothing, but what unites them all is their solitude, their lack of commercial hustle, their total and utter romance. And none come more romantic than those of Meroe, my next destination a few hours drive further down the Nile.
I arrived in Meroe as the heat of the afternoon faded and the sun glowed in the dying light. Apricot dunes rippled across a flat plain and flooded about the base of about a hundred steep-sided pyramids. Eons of exposure to a merciless desert wind and the relentless erosion caused by hungry, marching sand dunes has left many of Meroe’s pyramids the worse for wear. However, despite being more weathered, and much smaller, than their more famous Egyptian cousins, there was something bewitching about these pyramids. For a start, as at every Sudanese historical site I had visited, I had the place completely to myself, but it was more than just solitude that lent such a romantic air to Meroe. It was the way the encroaching sand dunes gave a sense of personal discovery to the place. In order to examine hieroglyphics created by a hand thousands of years ago, I often first had to use my own hands to sweep away the sand covering them, and although treasure hunters have long ago picked these royal graves clean, it was impossible not to let the mind run riot with thoughts of secret passageways linking the tombs and hidden chambers glittering in gold.
As darkness fell, I sat at the base of a pyramid where kings were once buried and thought how sweeping away the sand in order to read the message hidden below could have been a metaphor for my journey to Sudan. Just to have first contemplated coming here involved me brushing away clouds of misinformation, but by doing so, I had discovered a country blessed with treasures we are only just starting to understand and it had left me infatuated in a way few other places ever had.