Record Flooding Threatens Millennia-Old Pyramids in Sudan

Rising water levels could damage ancient structures at Meroe and Nuri

The Meroe pyramids in northeastern Sudan sit about1,650 feet from the banks of the Nile. Now, the site's royal bath is at risk of damage from record flooding. Ashraf Shazly / AFP via Getty Images

Two weeks of heavy rain have triggered record-high flooding of the Nile River, displacing tens of thousands and threatening archaeological sites in Sudan, reports Khalid Abdelaziz for Reuters.

Sudan experiences a rainy season every June through October, but this year’s rains are unusually heavy. When water levels peaked last Friday night, the Blue Nile—one of the Nile’s two major tributaries—rose to more than 57 feet high, breaking records set in 1946 and 1988, according to Farah Najjar of Al Jazeera.

So far, the floods have impacted about 500,000 people, partially collapsing more than 100,000 homes across Sudan. Two archaeological sites, the royal pyramids of Meroe and Nuri, face water damage from the unprecedented weather phenomenon.

Located 125 miles northeast of Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, Meroe sits just 1,650 feet away from the banks of the Nile. Beginning in the sixth century B.C., the ancient city served as the capital of the Kingdom of Kush, an independent empire just south of Egypt, writes Isma’il Kushkush in Smithsonian magazine’s September cover story. Its royal pyramids functioned as a necropolis for the city’s elite for almost 600 years.

Meroe’s royal bath, which usually fills with water during flood season, is now at risk of becoming swamped, Reuters reports. To protect the ancient structure, workers have constructed sandbag walls and started pumping out water, Marc Maillot, who leads the Sudan Antiquities Service’s French Archaeological Unit, tells Agence France-Presse (AFP).

“The floods had never affected the site before,” Maillot says.

He continues, “The situation is currently under control, but if the level of the Nile continues to rise, the measures taken may not be sufficient.”

The Nuri royal pyramids, meanwhile, are located just over 200 miles outside of Khartoum. They include the tomb of Taharqa, who ruled Sudan and Egypt in the seventh century B.C. His pyramid is the largest of those built for the Kushite kings, per Smithsonian.

At risk due to rising groundwater, Nuri’s tombs are buried between 22 and 32 feet underground—and some have already sustained water damage, Hatem al-Nour, director of Sudan’s antiquities and museums authority, tells Reuters.

The pyramids are an “invaluable historical relic,” Nour adds.

Kush archaeological sites were long overlooked or considered part of ancient Egypt, but in the late 20th century, Swiss archaeologist Charles Bonnet uncovered evidence that the civilization’s stature rose as that of Egypt’s Middle Kingdom declined, wrote Núria Castellano for National Geographic in 2016.

“They took on influences from outside—Egyptian influences, Greco-Roman influences, but also influences from Africa,” Arnulf Schlüter of the State Museum of Egyptian Art in Munich tells Smithsonian. “And they formed their very own ideas, their own architecture and arts.”

Flooding isn’t the only threat facing Sudan’s archaeological sites: In July, researchers visiting Jabal Maragha in eastern Sudan encountered a group of treasure hunters who had created a 55-foot-deep, 65-foot-long trench in the desert landscape, rendering the 2,000-year-old structure unrecognizable.

“They had only one goal in digging here—to find gold,” archaeologist Habab Idriss Ahmed, who excavated Jabal Maragha’s ruins in 1999, told Sammy Ketz of AFP in August. “They did something crazy; to save time, they used heavy machinery.”

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