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Sai Island, Sudan

I found Sai Island to be quite remarkable – definitely one of my favorite places in Sudan. The island is one of the largest in the Nile Valley yet remains almost completely uninhabited today.

This is despite the discovery of human remains that are over one hundred thousand years old and the presence of a vast necropolis surrounding a ruined fortress. So, obviously, people were here before and have been coming for quite a while.

The fortress, dominating the Nile River, was constructed on the site of a town from the Pharaonic period. It was built during the New Empire by Ahmose (1580 B.C.) or in the time of Amenophis II (1450-1425 B.C.) and has a temple dating from the reign of Thoutmosis III.

The massive necropolis surrounding the settlement shows how funerary practices developed through various periods, from the Nubian kingdom of Kerma with its tumuli of up to 40 meters in diameter, up until the Pharaonic, Napatan, Meroitic and post-Meroitic eras.

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We left early in the morning for Sai Island, but it was already a suffocatingly hot day. Below is the home we were staying in:

Sudan

Driving to the Nile River crossing… Hard to imagine a river the size of the Nile out here, huh?

road-to-sai-island-sudan

We parked in a grove of date palms for shade and then waited for someone to come by in a boat that could take us across. Given that essentially all human development in Sudan takes place along the Nile – both historically and today – if you want to see anything, you probably have to cross the Nile to get there.

I first noticed this guy when I saw him climbing down from this date palm:

Sai Island, Sudan

I’m not sure what he and his companion were doing there, but he looked like he could use a few more dates:

Sai Island, Sudan

After a few moments we found someone to take us across to Sai Island:

boat-to-sai-island-sudan

The lad in the front with the shotgun is on the lookout for the large crocodiles that live in this section of the river:

Sai Island, Sudan

sai-island-sudan

First thing to do when we arrived was to check in and have a tea with the family that lives on the island… And as if to drive home the point about the crocodiles:

Sai Island, Sudan

The pleasantries over, my Italian and I soon headed out to check out the ruins of the fortress:

sai-island

sai-island-ruins

sudan-sai-island

With the Nile so close in the background, you can see how the fortress would have allowed the river to be easily controlled from here:

nile-sai-island

ruins-sai-island

The word “necropolis” had not really resonated with me on the way out to Sai Island, but after wandering away from the remains of the fortress, I realized something – there were human bones everywhere:

Human remains at Sai Island, Sudan

sai-island-body-parts

Sai Island, Sudan

One of the styles of burial involved placing the dead in these “pockets”:

sai_island_sudan

Others buried their dead in the more conventional fashion of today:

sai-island-cemetery

Still others opted to involve these elaborate chambers (behind the Italian) in the disposal of their dead:

sai_island

This is what they look like on the inside:

Sai Island, Sudan

And this is what they look like when they have collapsed… Your editor is pointing to more human remains:

sai-island-necropolis

Part of the experience of Sai Island is provided by the utter desolation – There is just a vast expanse of emptiness. It’s great:

sai island

While down on my stomach exploring this tunnel pictured below (which led to a large burial chamber), I heard my Italian gasp in surprise above me:

sai-island-burial-chamber

Eleonora had literally stumbled across this skeleton encased in a small chamber of stones:

Justin Ames on Sai Island, Sudan

human-remains

After startling a jackal that was holed up near this spot below (the ruins of the fortress are in the background), we retreated from the heat and rejoined the family:

sai-island

The Sai Island family:

Sai Island, Sudan

girl-sai-island

After two more teas, it was time for us to depart. They walked with us to the edge of the Nile and gave us a very warm farewell:

Eleonora Ames at Sai Island, Sudan

sai-island-family

A solid day for Team Ames.

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10 thoughts on “Sai Island, Sudan

  1. Wow – what a life you live!
    I’d give all my money to live this life but you probably have all the fing money in the world to travel the way you do.
    Thank you a gazillion times and then some…hopefully National Geographic is reading this blog of yours and gaining some ideas.

  2. Pingback: Staying With A Nubian Family and Investment Ideas For Sudan « The Velvet Rocket

  3. Yes it’s a wonderful place it the place where to I belong in spite I m very far from sai running my own business in Dubai – United Arab Emirates but Sai is still in my imaginations every moment.
    I hoped if you were toured throughout sai because still there are more places I think you haven’t seen , to discover its very old civilization and meet its people. I hope you go back and have more pictures and information to be posted in this webpage.

    • I’m sorry you missed that, Kai, because that is one of the highlights of Sai Island. They were off to the right of the ruins – in the open desert…

      • My two temporary traveling partners and I passed through the open ground around the two (one standing, one ruined) mud brick step chimney/tombs. I actually have exactly the same picture from inside the tomb, and a worn blue glass bead I assume was from a burial.
        My ultimate goal was to go south to Juba for the referendum elections on January 9th.

  4. Great blog…

    -How did you get to Sai Island?

    -How did you arrange the boat to the island?

    -How did you arrange lodging?

    -Is it easy to arrange travel along the Nile/on the Nile from village to village from Wadi Halfa to Khartoum? How much does it cost?

    Please send me a reply at: buckcreeklodge@hotmail.com

    Thanks,

    Hermann

    • Hello Hermann –

      Thank you for your kind words.

      We made our way to Sai Island by 4WD. There are roads in Sudan, but many destinations require a drive across the desert. So, it is essential to hire someone that knows their way around.

      We hired a fixer in Khartoum to set us up with a driver that knew the area and had a lot of contacts. So, we stayed with a Nubian family our driver knew near Sai Island. The family called someone in the village that then took us across on the boat for a small sum and made the proper introductions to the family that act as caretakers for the site.

      It is easy to travel along the Nile as long as you have a 4WD and a local along with you. You’ll have to deal with a lot of paperwork to get in to Sudan initially and then to leave Khartoum, but a good fixer can cut through much of this for you. It isn’t difficult to find families willing to host you for a small fee along this route, but even if you are unable to find someone to stay with (expect fairly primitive conditions), it is easy and pleasant to just camp out in the dunes along the way.

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