Click on any image for details about licensing for commercial or personal use.
This edited article about archaeology originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 362 published on 21 December 1968.
To the west, a fiery-red dot had appeared over the low acacia trees. Eastwards, the tops of a dozen small pyramids caught the first light of dawn. The sun rose quickly, and the long, snake-like shadows cast by the trees drew back under the branches.
The two horsemen stood watching the pyramids glow pink and mauve. One wore Turkish and the other Arab dress, with curved knives stuck in their belts, and rode handsome mares which fidgeted in the growing heat of the sun.
They were in fact neither Turks nor Arabs. Here, in the heart of the Sudan, with the Nile only a mile away, two Frenchmen were searching for the ancient city of Meroe, once the capital of Egypt.
The last European to see this sight was John Burckhardt, seven years before, in 1814, and before that, in 1772, an extraordinary Scotsman named James Bruce had followed the Nile from Ethiopia to Cairo. He claimed to have found the ruins of Meroe forty miles down river from the famous slave market of Shendy. Now Frederic Cailliaud and his companion were determined to establish once and for all the location of the city of the Aethiopians, the capital of the Empire of Kush.
The greatest difficulty lay not in finding the ruins, but in actually getting to the Sudan. Cailliaud may have read everything there was to read about the area, but that was little use in itself. Without permission from the Egyptians, he had no hope of travelling down the Nile.
But Cailliaud’s patience was as great as his curiosity, and in time a chance came. It came through Muhammad Ali, the ruler of Egypt.
Muhammad Ali had ambition, ability and greed. He was also very afraid of his own army. The soldiers had brought him to power and, if they wished, could easily remove him again. Perhaps he would be safer sending them to conquer the Sudan, where they could use up some of their dangerous energy.
Such an invasion would be no easy task but, with skill and luck, it could succeed. To Muhammad Ali the gamble was worth taking. There were, after all, so many legends about a fabulously wealthy land to the south that there must be some truth in them.
A picturesque but not very efficient army was drawn up, and its command was given to the young prince Ismael Pasha. In 1820, this tiny force of four thousand thieves, mercenaries and adventurers set off down the Nile to find fame and fortune.
Cailliaud went to see Ismael before the army left, but he was not welcome. However, he knew how to soften a Turk’s heart. He went back to Cairo and told Muhammad Ali that he was searching for gold, and this changed everything. Unfortunately, by the time he had won Muhammad Ali’s confidence, Ismael Pasha and his army were well up the river.
Undaunted, Cailliaud followed the great river south and, after crossing the ghastly battlefield of Korti, where Ismael had defeated the tribesmen, he caught up with the army in the squalid little town of Berber.
The scene there was a mixture of Oriental pomp and barbaric splendour. In a magnificent green tent surmounted by a huge gilded ball, Ismael sat on fine cushions and rugs attended by the Mamelukes of his personal bodyguard. Silks hung around the walls, and a large glass chandelier was suspended from the roof.
Soon after Cailliaud arrived, the defeated King of Shendy, Mek Nimr the Leopard, came to kiss the foot of the conqueror. It was a scene of that medieval magnificence which was soon to disappear before the advance of European colonialism.
Enthralled as he was by these strange sights, Cailliaud did not forget the real reason for his journey. Meroe was only a few miles to the south, so, claiming to be off in search of diamonds, he and his companion rode on ahead of the army.
It was dawn when they first saw the pyramids. There were dozens of them. Though they were far smaller than the famous pyramids in Egypt, and were crumbling into ruin, they were still an awe-inspiring sight.
Cailliaud galloped towards the highest of them, leapt off his horse and, in the first flush of excitement, scrambled to the top. There he carved with his dagger the name of the famous French geographer d’Anville. It can still be seen there.
The ancient Greek geographers wrote about the “Island of Meroe,” and this had led to a great deal of confusion. There is in fact an island with ruins on it in the river Nile near Meroe, but what the Greeks really meant was the fertile area bounded by the rivers Nile and Atbara. This was an “island” of trees and greenness in a barren “sea” of desert. Cailliaud was thus misled when he came to decide where the ancient city lay. Nevertheless, he noticed the ruins on the mainland and spent a fortnight among the flies, sand and heat exploring them.
There was much more for the archaeologist to see in 1821 than there is today, for later, during the war against the Mahdi, material from the ruins was used to build a railway.
The pyramids lay in the desert, but the city itself was in a large clearing amid trees along the river bank. Cailliaud followed the ancient city wall until he saw two rams carved in stone some yards inland. They had fallen on their sides and lay half covered with sand. Between the rams and the wall, the ground was lumpy and broken.
The remains of two temples stood out quite clearly. To the south was the Sun Temple described by the Greek traveller Herodotus as the “Table of the Sun,” where the gods assembled for an annual feast. Northwards lay a jumbled pile of stones known to the locals as El Keniseh (the Church).
These two buildings summed up the mournful fate of the Meroeites. At first the whole area had been a province of Ancient Egypt, but in about 700 B.C., the tide had turned. Kush, as Meroe was then called, conquered Egypt and invaded Palestine. The Meroeites’ period of glory was short-lived; they were driven back into the Sudan by the Assyrians only one hundred years later.
But this was not the end. Their eruption on to the world stage had been short, but they were still powerful in their homeland.
While Egypt was being overrun by Assyrians, Greeks and Romans, Meroe grew fat on trade. The conquering civilizations of the north always paid well for gold, ivory and slaves from the mysterious southern kingdoms of Africa.
But as the rest of the world advanced, Meroe seemed to stagnate. Soon a death-blow came from the south. Around the city of Axum, in Ethiopia, a new nation was growing. At first it had taken Greece and Rome as its example, but now it was absolutely African. The future lay there – not with Meroe.
When the two Frenchmen saw dawn break over those crumbling pyramids, the glories of the Kingdom of Kush were long, long past.