Among the red-brick rubble and shifting desert sands of a remote northern Sudanese town, a Canadian archaeologist has helped discover a beautifully preserved 2,000-year-old city built around a huge temple that may answer questions about the mysterious ancient world of Nubia.
The discovery has emerged during a renaissance of archaeological interest in the rich historical treasures hidden beneath the dunes and savannas of Sudan, a country crippled in the past two decades by war, famine and extreme poverty.
This latest find could help rewrite the historical importance and complexity of the 3,000-year-old Nubian culture, which has long been underappreciated and eclipsed by the pyramids, treasures and omnipotence of ancient Egypt, the Nubians' northern neighbor and trading partner.
Because the discovery is at what was once a prosperous juncture of desert trade routes near an impassable part of the Nile, where Nubian gold, skins, spices and ivory tusks made their way to Egypt, it may also hold the secret to the sudden decline of the richest period of Nubian history, the Meroitic Age.
"Anything we find there is completely brand new," said archaeologist Julie Anderson, a research associate with the Royal Ontario Museum who made the discovery with a Sudanese colleague last summer and writes about it in the autumn issue of the Royal Ontario Museum magazine Rotunda.
"It might be able to cast some light on the end of this kingdom. . . . We know the culture decayed, but we don't know much about how the Meroitic kingdom came to an end. Because everything is preserved so high (in the sand), it is like they gave up and left."
Thirty international expeditions from nine countries are attempting to excavate ancient Nubian temples, cities and burial grounds before they are destroyed by encroaching villages, agriculture or neglect.
"It is a race to preserve these sites from development. There's a real need for rescue operations," said Krzysztof Grzymski, an archaeologist with an expertise in Nubian culture who has been digging in Sudan for the past 14 years, mainly at the site of the ancient Nubian city of Meroe.
Last summer, his colleague and former student, Anderson, took the nine-hour trip from Khartoum to arrive at the site of suspected Nubian ruins called Dangeil, which had all but been ignored by archaeologists until now.
"It didn't look like a regular site. It had a series of discrete mounds. At first, I thought this is really weird. It was enigmatic," Anderson said.
After Anderson and Sudanese archaeologist Salah Ahmed conducted a topographical survey of the site, they realized they had stumbled upon an entire city preserved under the sands with a huge temple in the center and some buildings preserved right up to their rooftops.
Ceramic shards found among the surface rubble helped them date the ruins back to the first to second century A.D. On the first day, they struck the pylon or gate of a temple.
"It got bigger and bigger and bigger. And we realized it's a major temple, one of the biggest in the Sudan," Anderson said.
The excavating team also found ancient cornices and moldings, pottery and even bread molds with bread remnants still in them. (Bakeries were often in temples to feed priests, and bread was used in offerings.)
Anderson is certain that the large temple is dedicated to the ram-headed god Amun, known as the hidden one, to which the Nubians had a singular devotion. Many archaeologists believe the Egyptians adopted worship of the benevolent fertility god from the Nubians. The Egyptian pharaoh, Tutankhamun, whose name translates as "the living image of Amun," is the world's most popular follower of what some believe was a Nubian deity.
The gold riches of Tutankhamun's tomb certainly owed much to the productive Nubian mines in northern Sudan. Nubians were the industrial powerhouses of the ancient world, producing immense quantities of gold and iron.
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service