I arrived just before sunset in Karima, another bland desert town along the Nile. Although nothing much to look at these days, it's built on the spot of ancient Napata, once capital of the Kingdom of Kush. In the 8th century BCE, Napata had managed to spread its control over both Upper and Lower Egypt, even extending the Kushite reach as far as Jerusalem and Tyre. The mesa of Jebel Barkal, long considered the southernmost boundary of ancient Egyptian dynasties, rises as the dominant landmark just south of town. It loomed between the the highway and the Nile as my bus sped past, complete a cluster of steep-angled pyramids in its sand-swept foreground, all glowing reddish-gold in the last light of day.

I wandered the new town's broad, dusty streets in search of the police station. My low-key lokanda wouldn't allow any khawaja to check-in without registration papers. On the way I met all the eager friendliness I'd come to expect in Sudan, both bearded old sheikhs in white gallabiyas and fresh teens in pink collared shirts pointing the way to the station, even when neither seemed to have a clue where it might actually be. Papers stamped, I picked one of the lively main square's handful of restaurants to get all my fuul and fresh juice for next few days in town. It was well-past dark when I settled into my lokanda, Al-Nassr, equipped with the standard set of earthen jars filled with cool Nile water, metal-spring cots spread out in a neat courtyard and surprisingly bearable bathrooms, just wide enough to crouch without scraping the grimy walls. Scrambling around within the little toilet hole were just under a dozen cockroaches.

I circled Jebel Barkal the next morning. Once holy ground, its eastern side is now graced with the ruins of an old Temple of Amun. Winding south out of town, I only recognized the ruins when I came close. A few toppled columns and a row of carved lions marked the entrance. Just beyond them flapped a large tent for the temple guard. No one was there. A pack of barking dogs on my heels sped up my walk to the mountain's eastern base. From there rose the pyramids I'd glimpsed from the road. Again I was alone in a cluster of pyramids. Another tent shook in the wind between the base of two pyramids, but it was also empty.

The following day I crossed the Nile on a minibus to reach Nuri, where most of Napata's pyramids were spread. A guard was laying in front of the post when I arrived, curled within its scant shade. He sat up as I approached, asking 25 pounds for entry. I explained my plight as a poor student with just enough cash for the ferry to Egypt and without a pause they dropped the price to 10. He went back to sleep when I passed.

Dilapidated pyramids spread out for nearly a kilometer before me, most easily-climbable. Again, no one was around. Buried beneath the sand before each crumbling pile stretched long stairways leading to ancient tombs, dating back as far as the 7th century BCE, once filled with elaborate sarcophagi, organs in animal-headed jars and thousands of little shawabtis, statues of servants the kings and queens hoped would do their cooking and laundry in the afterlife. From the weathered summit of one of the highest pyramids, I rested a while to take in the view. Across the Nile to the west, jagged mesas were scattered endlessly into the desert, their summits just high enough to retain an air of mystery. Even 10km from Karima, Jebel Barkal remained the obvious point of worship.

No comments: