Sudan is not a destination that most people will have considered, but there is so much to be experienced in this country. In brief, here are the top things of note and reasons why everyone should consider a holiday to Sudan.
Sudan (which split in from South Sudan 2011, ending Africa’s longest-running civil war) is now safe for travel and welcoming more visitors. I can honestly say that the Sudanese people are the most friendly and hospitable people that I have ever come across!
Is this due to the fact that no one drinks in Sudan, (alcohol is banned), is it because they are not yet on the tourist track, are they just truly lovely people, or all three?
On several occasions we were invited in for meals or drinks. Everyone wants to say hello and ask where you are from and if you are enjoying Sudan. When we arrived at the pyramids a group of medical students from Khartoum were also visiting and they rushed over to offer us dates and sweets.
They also wanted to take photos and have selfies with us and this happened on several occasions! Sudan is a country where people have almost nothing but they will share everything they have with complete strangers.
Sudan is Africa’s third largest country and before it separated from Southern Sudan, it was in fact Africa’s biggest country. Whilst it is hot and dusty, there is so much to see:
Sudan is a destination that's yet to feel the effects of mass tourism and you will have most of the major sites to yourself, which is simply fabulous! Now is definitely the time to go, especially as US sanctions have recently been eased.
Sadly no alcohol is allowed in Sudan, however we had the most delicious hibiscus and baobab drinks, plus fresh juices. As for the food, this is very local and fresh and the local bean dish called ful is delicious especially if eaten with freshly baked flatbread.
After flying in to Khartoum we travelled to Karima which lies between two deserts and seemed like a long way from anywhere, but it was the perfect place to base ourselves to explore the remains of the Napatan kingdom of Kush.
On the edge of Karima is Jebel Barkhal, which means ‘Holy Mountain’ and is a stunning red sandstone mountain. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I stayed at the boutique Nubian Rest House, which is definitely the best place to stay.
From here we visited the museum, which contained a small collection of artefacts, including a mummified male! At the base of Jebel Barkhal lies the ruins of a temple dedicated to the god Amun. The first temple was built in the 15th century BC. Later pharaohs including Rhameses II expanded it, turning it into an important cultural centre. The temple is ruined and whilst some of it is covered in sand, you can clearly see the ground layout.
The Temple of Mut, which is dedicated to Egyptian sky goddess-the bride of Amun, is at the base of the pinnacle of Jebel Barkhal. Inside the temple are fabulous hieroglyphics and relief carvings, with one’s next door being worked on by Italian excavators. The royal cemetery houses the most intact pyramids in Sudan.
A drive away we went to visit the village of El Kurru where we saw one of the necropolises of the ancient capital. The tombs, which are excavated in the rocks under the pyramid are decorated with images of the Pharaoh, of the gods and multicolour hieroglyphic inscriptions.
A wonderful way of putting the area of Karima into perspective, was to walk up Jebel Barkal, which is best to approach from the north side and took approximately 20 minutes. Here I had a wonderful view of the temple ruins, the Nile and after watching the sun go down, I literally ran down the sand path all the way to the bottom, which was great fun!
Another archaeological site was Nuri, where there are many pyramids, including the one of the great Taharqa. This is over the other side of The Nile, about a 20 minute drive away from Karima and we had the place completely to ourselves. This was the perfect spot to watch the sunset whilst drinking hibiscus juice as the sun went down.
From Karima we took a boat trip along the Nile, where you can see monitor lizards and a variety of birds including bee eaters, weavers, pied kingfisher, doves, herons, blacksmith plovers, palm vultures, egrets etc. We were even invited in for breakfast by the local fishermen!
The animal market at Tangasi, was absolutely fascinating and full of the local men selling their prize goats, donkeys, cows and camels. One of the camel sellers took a fancy to one of my travelling companions and offered five camels for her!
To experience a Nubian village, we had a picnic lunch in a Nubian house, which was decorated with painted flowers. It was great to meet a local family and hear all about their way of life.
From Karima, we drove across the desert to Meroe, to stay at Meroe Tented Camp which has stunning views of more than forty pyramids at the Royal Cemetery of Meroe, which stand alone on a sandy ridge, like a row of broken teeth. This was a great place to be based for several days whilst we ventured out exploring.
Meroe was the southern capital of the Kushite Kingdom, or Napata/Meroitic Kingdom, that spanned the period c. 800 BC - c. 350 AD. The culture of Meroe developed from the XXV Dynasty of the Ancient Egypt, and its importance gradually increased starting the so called “Meroitic Period”.
The Kingdom of Meroe is also known for the role of the Queens called “Candaces” who were as strong as their royal husbands as we can well see in the inscriptions found in the many temples and Kiosks.
In total there are around 100 pyramids, although some are in complete ruin. The largest pyramid at Meroe is just under 30 meters high. The site here is divided into two main clusters, the Southern cemetery which houses over 60 pyramids and the Northern cemetery which houses over 30 pyramids. Whilst again we had this sight more or less to ourselves, it was still possible to buy some souvenirs from craftsmen outside the pyramids, such as knives, coffee pots, jewellery etc.
A really fabulous sight in the desert is coming across the local wells, when you will see camels, donkeys, goats and Nomads all gathered around a water hole, using a pulley system to draw the water up, not only to quench the thirst of the animals, but also to fill goat skins with water to take home. They were very happy to see us and highly amused that we wanted to take their pictures! It really was the most magnificent sight and it was as if time had stood still.
It was wonderful to visit the local school, Tarabil School and we stopped at a local shop to buy some books, pencils and pens for the school, which we then delivered. A few footballs also went down well! The school currently has 400 children (150 girls and 250 boys).
They are trying to raise money to build more classrooms, so that the older girls can be in separate class rooms, which means that more parents will send their daughters to school if they can be educated separately to the boys. By visiting Sudan, you are helping support this school.
It was then onward to see the ruins of the Royal City of Meroe, which are on the banks of the Nile, part of which still had flood water from the Nile. The city was the capital of the Kushite Kingdom and may have had a population of around 25,000 in its day. The city was abandoned in around AD350 following the decline of the Kushite power. Also amid the ruins you are able to visit the royal baths.
From Meroe it was time to return to Khartoum. I found Khartoum to be a busy bustling city and full of life, at the confluence of the Blue and White Niles. Khartoum's good facilities, incredibly hospitable people and relaxed atmosphere made for an interesting destination in itself. I stayed at the colonial Grand Holiday Villas, whereas the alternative would have been the ultra-modern and extraordinary shaped Corinthia Hotel.
In Khartoum, one of the highlights of my trip was the Nuba wrestling which took place late on the Saturday afternoon in the Haj Yusef district, about an hour before sunset.
Wrestling is central to Nuba culture and the wrestling ground is specially prepared with the fighters called out to meet their opponents. Things got quite heated when one of the wrestlers felt that their opponent should have won and the police arrived in force to calm things down. The atmosphere was electric!
Another very enjoyable highlight, which occurs on Friday afternoons at around 4.00, is to visit the fascinating Whirling Dervish ceremony. This is one of Khartoum’s most exciting sights, with chanting and dancing dervishes.
It is located next to the tomb of the sheikh and here the tariqa gather to prey and dance, attracting large crowds of both participants and observers. As they march they chant, accompanied by cymbals and drums with incense being burnt and this created a highly hypnotic and charged atmosphere.
The Republican Palace Museum was also well worth a visit and celebrates the history of the Sudanese republic. The ground floor is certainly more interesting as it starts with Sudan’s pre-history. The ground floor covers the rise and fall of the kingdoms of Kush, Kerma and Meroe.
There are some striking royal statues and perfectly preserved 3500-year-old artefacts from Kerma. Upstairs are various medieval Christian frescoes removed from the ruined churches of Old Dongola and elsewhere. Outside are some rescued temples, Abu Simbel–style, from before Lake Nasser was flooded.
I had time for a quick visit to The Mahdi’s Tomb to see the glittering dome from outside and then on to The Khalifa’s House next door, which is where Madhi’s successor Khalifa Abdullah lived and it is now a small museum.
Not to be missed is Omdurman market, which is the largest and most impressive market in Khartoum and the largest in the country and sells everything from spices, to golden syrup, to glass beads and snake skins!
Sadly you are not allowed to take any photos here, so I had to leave my camera behind. There are endless alleys and side streets lined with numerous stalls. The sights, sounds and smells, not to mention the throngs of people captured the essence of the bazaar.
I met so many wonderful people during my ten-day stay and can’t wait to return, to go camping in the desert and diving in Port Sudan!
If you are looking to take in more than one country, then Sudan also combines well with Kenya and Ethiopia. It is only a three hour flight to Nairobi from Sudan and only a 1 hour and 50 minute flight to Addis Ababa.
When is the best time to travel to Sudan?
The best time to visit Sudan is between October and April, ideally when it deigns to cool down a bit with the lowest temperatures being in January, averaging 30°C. However, temperatures can halve at night during December to February, making travel more bearable. In the desert itself, temperatures can drop quite considerably.
If you would like more information about holidays to Sudan, please do feel free to contact me.
This blog was first published in October 2017 and revised and updated in November 2019.