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.
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:
Driving to the Nile River crossing… Hard to imagine a river the size of the Nile out here, huh?
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:
I’m not sure what he and his companion were doing there, but he looked like he could use a few more dates:
After a few moments we found someone to take us across to Sai Island:
The lad in the front with the shotgun is on the lookout for the large crocodiles that live in this section of the river:
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:
The pleasantries over, my Italian and I soon headed out to check out the ruins of the fortress:
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:
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:
One of the styles of burial involved placing the dead in these “pockets”:
Others buried their dead in the more conventional fashion of today:
Still others opted to involve these elaborate chambers (behind the Italian) in the disposal of their dead:
This is what they look like on the inside:
And this is what they look like when they have collapsed… Your editor is pointing to more human remains:
Part of the experience of Sai Island is provided by the utter desolation – There is just a vast expanse of emptiness. It’s great:
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:
Eleonora had literally stumbled across this skeleton encased in a small chamber of stones:
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:
The Sai Island family:
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:
A solid day for Team Ames.
A great day for Team Ames! One of the most impressive days spent in this amazing and fascinating country.
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.
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very glad to see it and i find this would be helpful in my writings…
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 went to Sai Island in January but I missed all the skeletons popping up out of the ground… now I’m sad.
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.
-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?
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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.