Sudan 1980

I had a lot to learn if I was going to be a guide so I tagged on behind while the old man took the bearded stranger around the ruins of Meroe. The town was inhabited from 750 before their Christ until 350 after his death. What was left were mostly temple ruins, the largest being the one to the God Amon. This had pillar bases running along a long transept, a fountain base and a tall free-stone wall at the end. There was an altar, of large black stone, with reliefs of Nilotic figures, limp-wristed females, men with fancy head-dresses; and there were thrones, a high one for the king, a lower one for the queen. When the guide finally left him at the baths (which were full of dust and thorn trees where goats reached high on their back legs to find green leaves) I was there to take him on.

Temple at Old Meroe

Temple at Old Meroe

 I stood there with my stick behind my neck, held in place in my elbows. On my upper left arm I had my dagger, ready to be drawn by my right hand, and my right forearm held two leather pouches with prayers and Quranic quotes.  He wanted to go to the pyramids at al-Bagrawiya; I’d heard him asking after them when he got out of the car which had dropped him here. So I addressed him directly, saying I could take him to the place he wanted to go. I used the Arabic ‘Makanak’ (your place) and his eyes lit up. We started to walk. Its about 2 kilometers across the desert and I could soon see he wasn’t expecting this. Its worth it at the end: the pyramids contain the tombs of the ancient Meroitic kings who ruled this place. Some are step pyramids, some smooth, but they rise from the plain as perfect geometric shapes. Some have been taken over by the dunes, some are dramatically ruined, some have entrance porticos with columns and rows of small figures. Probably gods or the royal person buried there.

al-Bagrawiyya pyramids

al-Bagrawiyya pyramids

 After he’d looked around I took him back to my hut for a drink of water and tea. Its just a small room built of wattle (mud and straw) with an area in front shaded by reeds and branches held up by what my father told me is a British Army tentpole, which I have covered with labels soaked off food cans.

 As he drank, and the amusing redness in his face began to fade, he began to recover from his exertion and realise the mistake. When I had said ‘makanak’ he had thought I had said ‘makina’ (motor vehicle) and that I was offering to drive us across the desert to the pyramids.