Matthias Meyer, the German ambassador, had long dreamed of staging a performance of Beethoven works in the deserts of Sudan to raise money to restore at least one of the country's ancient, and little known, pyramids.
The idea took off when he mentioned it to a friend, Klaus-Peter Modest, a conductor in Hamburg who is musical director of the Deutsche Akademische Philharmonie. Preparations began last year, and recently 30 musicians and the Hamburg conductor covered their expenses for a performance to save a 2,000-year-old pyramid.
About 125 miles north of Khartoum, with the 144 pyramids of the Meroitic kings and queens as a backdrop, the orchestra played Beethoven's Symphony No. 1 in C Major on a makeshift stage.
Ticket prices started at $80, and the event raised $23,000, the estimated cost of restoring what is known as pyramid No. 20.
Sudan, poor and ravaged by civil war since 1983, has been unable to develop its pyramids into a tourist attraction to rival the pyramids farther north in Egypt. The Meroitic site lacks running water, electricity and toilets. The few tourists who come have to make their own way to the ruins of the city of Meroe, its temple complex and its vast royal, noble and commoner cemeteries.
For the concert, however, charter buses headed for the desert with the German musicians, a Sudanese theater troupe, and the audience for the night -- a crowd of about 250 that included some Sudanese, but was made up mostly of Western diplomats, U.N. staff members and other foreigners.
Some in the audience had the foresight to bring picnic baskets; most settled themselves on scattered pieces of stone.
The musicians, wearing formal black, were seated on folding chairs on the "stage" -- an area of swept earth.
At one point, an audience member approached the platform and, raising a hand in the air, snapped his fingers in a traditional Sudanese gesture of appreciation that seemed to puzzle some of the musicians.
The Sudanese actors performed a pantomime drawn from what scholars know about ancient rituals involved in the death of a king and the coronation of a new king, a theme of renewal suited for the occasion.
Friedrich Hinkel, a German archaeologist, has been working with Sudan's Department of Antiquities and Archaeological Sites since the 1960s to study and restore the Meroitic tombs. He helped choose pyramid No. 20 as the beneficiary of the concert.
The design of the pyramid, which has smooth faces, corner decorations and a decorative band, is considered unique in the Nile valley. The pyramid, built in the 2nd century for an unknown prince or princess, has a single burial chamber four yards under an offering chapel. It was looted centuries ago.
"The present condition of the pyramid's superstructure gives reason for concern," Hinkel said. "The structure is heavily damaged on its southern side. The offering chapel . . . consists of only a few blocks of the northern, southern and western walls."
The director of the antiquities department, Hassan Hussein Mohamed, said No. 20 was among the most vulnerable pyramids, and that researchers hoped to raise money to restore other monuments later.
Time, neglect and harsh desert wind and sand have left No. 20 and scores of others in ruins. Some were deliberately destroyed -- in the 19th century, Italian adventurer Giuseppe Ferlini knocked the tips off 40 pyramids as he searched for gold. Many of the utensils, tools, jewelry and other treasures that Ferlini found ended up in German museums, establishing a link between Sudan and Germany.
"I think this [concert] is a very special moment in the history of Sudan, and I can also say in my life, because I have never thought that something like this could happen during my stay in the Sudan. This is a dream fulfilled," sad Meyer, the German ambassador.
Abdel Jaleel Al-Basha, Sudan's minister for tourism and cultural heritage, said the significance of the concert went beyond the good it would do for a piece of the past.
"Look at this event, the fact that hundreds of Europeans and musicians and Sudanese are in the middle of the desert shows that there is another face of the Sudan," Al-Basha said.
With its pyramids, Meroe is a monument to the intertwined history of Egypt and Sudan. Egypt ruled what is now Sudan for five centuries, until the collapse of the Egyptian empire in the 12th century B.C. Sudanese kings ruled Egypt some 400 years later and adopted Egyptian burial and other practices.
Meroe was flourishing as the center of an African kingdom by about 400 B.C. Its culture wove threads from Egypt, farther south in Africa and even Greece.
Hinkel is credited with leading efforts to document, preserve and restore Sudan's monuments. In recognition, the concert was held on the 43rd anniversary of the German scholar's first visit to Sudan.
"You know, some people come here to loot, but others like Dr. Hinkel are good for the place," said Ballah Humainda, a guard at the site.