Monuments in the Sand

It’s difficult to associate the situation in Sudan today with the country that I visited back in January 2023. As a photographer, you work hard and develop your practice precisely for this kind of commission – a trip that demanded I use all of my skills, from logistical planning through to kit selection. I did my due diligence when it came to security, carefully considering the guidance from the British foreign office and the US State department, who both flagged the unrest in the Darfur region and the borders with South Sudan. I was reassured that my colleague @ikushkush was on the ground in Khartoum, and that I would be accompanied by someone who knew the lie of the land.

The photography days were generally split into 2 parts – early morning starts, a long break to avoid the hottest part of the day, and then an evening session as the light fell away. I photographed three consecutive sunrises at Meroe, the main pyramid site. On each occasion, our group of 3 (myself, Ismai’l and our guide Manal, an Archaeology professor from the University of Khartoum) were the only people present. As the red light illuminated the pyramids, and the desert wind began to pick up, it was easy to be transported to another time, and to really feel the scale of the world around you. I don’t think there can be too many places in the world where you can experience such solitude in the presence of antiquities dating back thousands of years.

The historical sites in Karima were different in nature to Meroe; surrounded by a small city and close to the Nile, it was fascinating to observe how daily life continued in and around the monuments. In one particularly memorable encounter, a Darfuri family picnicking in the dunes invited us over to share their coffee and pastries. It was these uniquely Sudanese moments (often involving cups of strong, black coffee) that made my trip so memorable. On my first morning in Khartoum, I sipped espresso flavoured with cinnamon, cardamom and ginger, squatting on tiny plastic stools alongside Ismai’l, beneath a road bridge that spanned the Nile. I drank coffee at 8am in the morning with Mansour, the warden of El-Kurru pyramids, after photographing the tomb of Queen Kalahata. Another brew was shared with the sons, grandsons and great grandsons of Umm Al-Hassan, the woman who founded Qawwat Umm Al-Hassan, the oldest cafe on the highway linking Khartoum with Karima, Merowe and eventually Cairo.

The Sudanese dialect has specific words for the first, second and third coffee of the day – Manal and Ismai’l chuckled patiently as I struggled to pronounce these words correctly. I found this gentle good humour to be a constant on my journey through the desert. I dearly hope that the Sudanese people can navigate a route through this most recent strife, and are once again able to extend their hospitality to travellers from overseas.

Monuments in the Sand

A road trip through the deserts of Sudan, visiting the nation's ancient pyramids.