Though it is relatively little known to the outside world, Sudan has more pyramids than Egypt. Many of the African nation’s 200 pyramids — especially the best-restored ones — lie in the ruined city of Meroë, a two-hour desert drive north of Khartoum. To get there you pass semi-abandoned villages, the odd checkpoint and a modern, Chinese-built railway line.
Most visitors to Meroë have an entire UNESCO World Heritage site to themselves. The tallest of the pyramids is 90 feet on one side — hundreds of feet shorter than the pyramids at Giza, in Egypt. That these pyramids receive only a handful of daily visitors give one a feeling of being on a 19th century expedition. Collapsed pyramids here and there are, in fact, a testament to real 19th century expeditions that were little more than glorified treasure hunts.
For the Beja, a nomadic people native to this part of Sudan, these pyramids are a crucial part of their economic ecology: they peddle traditional curios, including models of the pyramids and daggers that strap to the arm. Tourists to the Meroë site will invariably be offered to pose with a Beja sword known as kaskara. The sword wouldn’t look misplaced in the hands of King Richard I, the Lionheart or a character from The Lord of the Rings.
In early June, the nation of Qatar found itself blockaded by, and diplomatically isolated from, its Arab neighbors and a host of other countries. One of the sources of that current geopolitical situation began at the base of one of the Sudanese pyramids.
In March, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser, the Queen Mother of Qatar, visited Sudan on a charity mission. Seeking more than just a photo-op, she and her entourage spent two hours visiting the ruins of Meroë. In recent years, Qatar has spent more than $135 million to restore and promote Sudan’s pyramids.
Guards at the Meroë site knew about the visit only a week in advance; to prepare for it, additional guards were brought in from Khartoum. Queen Mozah reached the site via helicopter and was warmly greeted by accompanying officials and local staff. Later, in a March 19 press conference, Sudan’s Minister of Information, Ahmed Bilal Osman, claimed that the pyramids in Sudan are older than those in Egypt. The claim is a matter of conjecture.
“In reality, there is no country called Sudan: it was always part of Egypt,” I heard one Egyptian news announcer explain. In fact, Sudan was a colony of Egypt from the late 19th century until it achieved independence in 1956. But on a different TV channel, I heard another announcer say, “Shut up, because Sudan is part of Egypt — we just gave it to you.” Queen Mozah then became subject to much vitriol in the press, handing Osman and the Sudanese government a crisis.
The vitriol would have drawn a sharp rebuke from Egypt in normal times — but these are not normal times. The incident instead added to tensions that were already brewing between Qatar and its Arab neighbors, which boiled over on June 5 when Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt broke off diplomatic relations and imposed a blockade on Qatar, accusing it of supporting terrorism, fostering positive relations with Iran, and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and its Palestinian offshoot, Hamas, which is considered a terrorist organization by the US State Department and most European governments. Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Russia and the United Arab Emirates all list the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization; in particular, Egypt’s current president, Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, sees Qatar, a tiny nation, as the greatest threat to its long-term national security.
So why are Sudan’s pyramids now a pawn in this geopolitical moment between Egypt and Sudan? This November, UNESCO will choose a new Director-General to replace the outgoing Irina Bokova, the first woman, and first Eastern European, to head the organization.
At stake is a budget of over a half-billion dollars a year and one of the U.N.’s most important positions. As with the Secretary-General of the UN, sensitive positions rotate between geographic regions — and there has never been a UNESCO leader from an Arab League country. Of this year’s nine UNESCO candidates, four are from Arab countries. The contest is largely seen as a horse race between Moushira Khattab of Egypt and Hamad Al-Kuwari of Qatar, with Dr. Saleh Mahdi Al-Hasnawi of Iraq and Vera El-Khoury Lacoeuilhe of Lebanon the long-shots in the race.
Which brings us back to Sudan’s pyramids. Khattab launched her campaign to lead UNESCO in front of the Egyptian Museum. Located near Tahrir Square, it is home to King Tutankhamun’s face mask and innumerable other Egyptian antiquities. Khattab has gone out of her way to highlight her nation’s deep cultural ties.
Qatar, meanwhile, can claim its own major role in arts and culture, on which it has spent lavishly in recent years. In 2012, the Qatari royal family paid $250 million for one of Paul Cézanne’s five “Card Players.” The painting, showing two men playing cards and presumably gambling, announced Qatar (where gambling is illegal) as a major center for world art; the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the Courtauld in London, and the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia have the other four. Qatar’s painting is rumored to be destined for the under-construction National Museum in Qatar, designed by architect Jean Nouvel.
The Cézanne acquisition was the pinnacle of a shopping spree that began several years earlier, when Qatar spent $72.8 million for Mark Rothko’s “White Center.” Qatar’s royal family is also a patron of more popular cultural expressions as well: it will host the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Egypt is home to seven UNESCO world heritage sites. Qatar is home to one.
“What Qatar is spending here on these pyramids is part of a way to undermine Egypt’s claims to be the only country with a history of pyramids and pharaohs,” a Sudanese official in Khartoum, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told me. “Qatar is also spending to strengthen ties with Sudan.”
Such efforts are also needed: photos at Meroë show how the Saharan winds have sandblasted away the pyramids — and the carved hieroglyphs and other runes carved amongst the stones.
The Beja, for their part, are happy with the controversy and attention that the Qatar crisis is bringing to their part of Sudan.
“The Sheikha’s visit was good,” said Abdul Rahman, a Beja tribesman who offers tourists rides on camels. “I don’t care about the controversy. Controversy is good for business. The Egyptian pyramids are less popular than ours. Now more people are coming here.” As he speaks, the camel he is riding lowers its head, searching the parched earth for a morsel. After a moment, the camel raises its head toward the Nile River, a mile or so to the west.