Sudan's pyramids a growing attraction

Pyramids of Meroe, Sudan - A holiday to war-torn Sudan may not appeal to many, but a handful of tourists cross the country's blazing sands each year to discover these distant relatives of Egypt's Great Pyramids.

While more people still crowd the Egyptian monuments in a day than make it to the smaller Royal Pyramids of Meroe in a year, their Sudanese guardian Hamid Abdullah has witnessed growing numbers of visitors here.

"Five years ago, months on end would pass without a soul," Abdullah told AFP at the site after trekking across the desert plain to welcome his visitors.

"Now I still go for days or weeks without seeing anyone in the summer," when temperatures hover around 45 Celsius (110 Fahrenheit). "But someone turns up most days in the winter," said Abdullah, who has guarded the royal tombs since 1977.

Sudan has an image problem, with most foreigners wary of the civil war and the country's reputation for backing Islamic fundamentalist violence.

Yet a small but growing number are drawn to another image here of a deserted cluster of around 40 small, steep-sided 2 000-year-old pyramids, far removed from the fighting in the south and east.

It is the burial site of the kings and nobles of Meroe who ruled from 592 BC to 350 AD, with the larger pyramids devoted to the kings and the smaller ones to the nobles.

Some of the pyramids are fronted by chapels built in a style influenced by the Ptolemys, who ruled in Egypt from 323 to 30 BC.

Two Italian tour operators are now running trips to Meroe, following in the footsteps of notorious 19th century Italian adventurer G. Ferlini who hacked off the caps of the pyramids in search of gold and treasure.

A luxury campsite was opened near the remains in November 2000 and there are plans to restore more of the pyramids, some of which were reconstructed in the late 1970s by German archaeologist Friedrich W. Hinkel.

Ironically, it was after alleged anti-Western terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden built an asphalt road from Khartoum in 1996 that the number of tourists visiting the Meroe monuments began to shoot up.

This season the two Italian companies, which organise around half of all group tours to the site, are hosting some 500 European tourists, while fewer than 100 travellers in total used to visit before the road was paved, George Pagoulatos, representative of Dune Viaggi, told AFP.

But Sudan still looks far from developing the kind of booming tourist industry that Egypt has enjoyed with its more ancient and far larger pyramids at Giza.

Long gone are the thriving days when the Sudanese pharoahs conquered the whole of Egypt, and their Royal City of Meroe bustled with a cosmopolitan mix of African, Arabian, Egyptian and Greco-Roman cultures.

The fact that you need a special travel permit to get through the army checkpoints on the road to Meroe does not encourage independent travellers.

Nor does the incredible fact that the pyramids' ticket office is around 300km away to the south in Khartoum, which has left some ticketless visitors fuming with rage at the gates.

While it may be hard to get to the Meroe pyramids in Sudan's northern desert, there are vast and beautiful swathes of Africa's largest country that the civil war has rendered inaccessible.

Getting a permit to travel to the Nuba Mountains in central Sudan to visit the isolated tribes made famous by the pictures of German photographer Leni Riefenstahl is virtually impossible.

Just last month the government claimed to have recaptured three towns from rebel soldiers in the region, which the northern Khartoum forces are using as a buffer zone against the secessionist southern rebels.

But back in peaceful Meroe, the limited number of tourists is more suited to the slow Sudanese pace of life and most visitors seem pleased to have the pyramids more or less to themselves. - Sapa-AFP

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