Hidden beneath an ancient palace in what is now central Sudan, archaeologists have discovered the oldest building in the city of Meroe, a structure that also may have housed royalty.

The capital of a vast empire that flourished around 2,000 years ago, Meroe was centered on the Nile River. At its height, the city was controlled by a dynasty of kings who ruled about 900 miles of territory that stretched from southern Egypt to areas south of modern-day Khartoum.

People of Meroe built palaces and small pyramids, and developed a writing system that scholars still can’t fully translate today. Although Meroe has been excavated off and on for more than 150 years, archaeologists are not yet clear how it came to be. The city seems to have emerged out of nowhere.

“In the region of central Sudan, we have an interesting research problem,” said team leader Krzysztof Grzymski, a curator at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada.

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