An Oasis in the Desert of the Real: Looking for Zerzura


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“The desert is no longer a landscape, it is a pure form produced by the abstraction of all others” – Jean Baudrillard


Zerzura has the best roadside diners.

One thing that really sticks in a historian’s craw is a lost city, long relegated to the nether realms of folklore that is rediscovered or turns out never to have been lost in the first place.  Of course, once we pinpoint the location of these elusive places, learned dissertations on them are produced by the veritable ream, mostly geared towards explaining our earlier confusion about their mythological status.  Humans are really good at losing stuff in the sands of time.  Or in the literal sand.

You see, our comfy little biome is constantly changing.  Fertile lands turn to desert.  Grasslands turn to tundra.  Mountains erode or are uplifted.  Rivers change their course.  Oceans swallow shore or expose it.  Geologic shift happens.  These days, only about 30% of the earth is dry land.  Of that dry land, about 33% is desert and 24% is mountainous to the point of inhabitability.  That means that a whopping 43% of the dry land on the planet is actually inhabited to any large degree.  If you’re not comfortable with percentages because you were making out with your girlfriend under the bleachers that day in math class, basically of the 57,308,738 square miles of land surface, only 24,642,757 square miles are inhabitable.

If all the habitable land (loosely defined) on earth was equally divided among the 7.2 billion Homo sapiens alive today, we’d each get about 2.3 acres.  Sadly, we would have to forgo a lot of amenities which contribute to our swanky lifestyles like roads, schools, and hospitals, and just because a plot of dirt is considered “habitable” it doesn’t mean it is richly endowed with arable land or drinkable water, so we’ll probably have to shelve that idea, although it’s interesting to note that if we wanted everyone to enjoy the lifestyle of the average American, we would need about 10 planet Earths.  Frankly, we better get busy figuring out how to clone planets.  I hear the other side of our orbit is nice this time of year.

The point, which I’ve taken a roundabout way to get to as I mused about our ultimate doom (everyone needs a hobby), is really (1) we’re doomed, and (2) vast swaths of the world are essentially uninhabitable, although which particular parts have desiccated or been covered by ice, snow, or water varies over time.  No wonder we lose stuff.  The savvy readers among you are no doubt thinking, “Hey, people do live in deserts”.  True, but not for long.  And not comfortably.  And generally, not by choice (unless you’ve read too much Frank Herbert).

At this historical juncture, you would think that we have found enough lost cities, that we might take folklore a little more seriously, not in an Ancient Aliens way that maintains that whatever we have lost was clearly some sort of extraterrestrial-influenced super-civilization, rather that changes in climate, geology, and even the migrations of people have obscured the past, both philosophically and geographically.  The list of “rediscovered” cities mentioned in ancient literature and folklore that folks were doubtful ever existed is extensive, in fact too extensive to list here.  Go do your own research if you’re into it.  Do I have to do everything?  Geez.  But that simple fact should give us pause.  I’m not suggesting we take Atlantis or Mu too seriously.  I’m not so ambitious.  But to historians, this is a slippery slope.  And they’re not wrong.  A lost city is a blank slate.  Until someone finds it.  Or doesn’t find it and finds it later.  Or doesn’t find it at all.  The “Lost City” is the ancient emptiness upon which we can inscribe our hopes and dreams, to evaluate what was, what is, what might have been, and what the future could hold.  This brings us to Zerzura.

Zerzurah—lt is doubtful whether any place of this name exists. “Zerzur” is Arabic for a small bird, so “Zerzura” would have some such meaning as “the place of small birds,” and appears somewhat fantastic. Zerzura seems to be a generic name applied to any undiscovered or traditional Oasis. In addition to Dendura—Bholf’s Zerzura—I have heard it applied to the “Egyptian oasis,” and also to some reported ruins west of Mut (King, 1913, p283).

While it seems many a locale has been referred to as “Zerzura” (or the variation “Dendura”), we also get rather specific references to its location, as in “It is said to lie seven days due west from Bu Mungar. A very large ‘sif’ i.e. longitudinal dune, which is almost impassable, is said to lie just to the east of it. It may be under the lea of one of the three big longitudinal dunes mentioned under the heading of ‘Dunes,’ or of a shorter ‘sif’ that has not come down to the direct road between Dakhla and Kufra” (King, 1913, p279).  Now, the desert is a fairly inhospitable place, not the sort of clime you want to be wandering around in digging in sandpiles.  This has not stopped many an intrepid explorer from traipsing off into the Egyptian and Libyan deserts and digging in sandpiles, looking for clues about Zerzura.  Attention has tended to focus on a region called the Gilf Kebir (the “Great Barrier”), a plateau roughly the size of Puerto Rico in remote southwestern Egypt and southeastern Libya.

The Gilf Kebir consists of a broad elliptical plateau capped by extremely resistant sandstones of the Nubia Series (Peel, 1939b). Since its first sighting in 1909 by W. J. Harding King (see discussion in Bagnold, 1931), the Gilf Kebir and surrounding region has been the destination of several expeditions to southwestern Egypt, although the remote setting and harsh environment have not allowed extensive field work. Many of the early expeditions concentrated on mapping the extent of the plateau, exploring the many archaeological sites, and finding ways to go around it. Legendary accounts of the lost city of Zerzura, reported to be in the interior of the plateau (Bermann,1934), no doubt were responsible for several of these trips. Serious investigation of the geomorphic history of the Gilf, however, began in 1938 (Maxwell, 1982, p282).

The Gilf Kebir also happens to be home to a plethora of Neolithic rock paintings and carvings, depicting a time when the region was teeming with flora and fauna, and populated by reasonably large numbers of human beings.  Even since 1900, the Sahara Desert has expanded at least an additional 6000 square kilometers, so lord knows what one might find under the dunes.  Frankly, the Sahara has no doubt swallowed quite a bit of history.  So, why have folks been so interested in Zerzura?  It’s the traditional reason humans take interest in a lot of things that would otherwise go completely un-noticed.  Treasure.  While there is an early mention of Zerzura in 1246 A.D. by Osman el Nabulsi, a Syrian Emir and administrator of Faiyum province on the edge of the Nile, who stated that it was only one of a number of abandoned villages south-west of Faiyum, it is the mention of Zerzura in a 15th Century treasure-hunters guide that has captured the imaginations of many an explorer.

There is a much more imaginative allusion to it in the Book of Hidden Pearls, a 15th-century magical treatise by an anonymous Arabic author, who describes the locations of over 400 hidden treasures in Egypt alone and how to discover them by incantations and other occult means. He refers to Zerzura in the most enchanting terms: “In the city of Wardabah,” he writes, “situated behind the citadel of el Suri, you will see palms, vines and springs. Penetrate into the Wadi and pursue your way up to it; you will find another Wadi running westwards between the mountains. From this last Wadi starts a road which will lead you to the city of Zerzura, of which you will find the door closed. This city is white like a pigeon and on the door of it is carved a bird. Take with your hand the key in the beak of the bird, then open the door of the city. Enter, and there you will find great riches, also the King and Queen sleeping in their castle. Do not approach them, but take the treasure” (Epton, 1953, p105-106).

As a rule of thumb, always approach anonymous 15th Century grimoires with a degree of trepidation.  If it’s not pure fantasy you might be unleashing preternatural horrors on the world.  If it’s just a way for somebody to make a buck, you’ll probably end up dying of thirst as you roam about the desert trying to pick up a trail.  Sir John Gardner Wilkinson, Father of British Egyptology took a side interest in Zerzura, suggesting that stories about it shared archetypal elements of many a tale about lost oases.  Pro tip.  Lose your camel.

Sir Gardner Wilkinson mentioned Zerzura in 1835 along with other places not then known to Europeans, but which have been discovered since. According to his account Zerzura would be somewhere in the Great Sand Sea of the south, and many other travellers have collected stories about it since from the Arabs and the Bedouins. Most of these stories mention palms and ruins, or a lake surrounded by little birds, and always the finder at the time of his discovery is either lost or in search of a stray camel (a very common occurrence in the desert). When he wishes to return to this oasis in the company of others he can never retrace his steps. Zerzura is the secret, elusive paradise of legend and literature; and just as the biblical Eden, the mythical Atlantis and the Garden of the Hesperides have never been exactly located in spite of unending speculation and research, so presumably will Zerzura (which is made of the same fabulous tissue) remain forever inaccessible except to the poets of the desert and to romantic travellers far from home, who weave fantasies round tent fires during the long nights in the starry desert (Epton, 1953, p105-106).

A puzzling little tidbit about Zerzura has been spread far and wide, but I can find no indication what the original source was.  A tales was supposedly recorded by the scribes of the Emir of Benghazi in 1481 A.D., regarding a camel driver called Hamid Keila.  He appeared in Benghazi and recounted a tail of having been lost in the desert, and rescued by the inhabitants of Zerzura.  Keila reported that Zerzura was spectacularly wealthy, and gave strange details about the people who lived there.  They were fair skinned, blue-eyed, carried straight sword rather than scimitars, spoke an odd version of Arabic, were clearly not Muslim (women were unveiled, there was no mosque, and no muezzin was heard).  They nursed Keila back to health, and he repaid their kindness by stealing a ruby ring and fleeing to Benghazi.  Even the Emir thought Keila was a jerk, and ordered his hand cut off (as a thief), since clearly he had stolen from folks, who while presumably infidels, seemed to have shown him great hospitality and charity.  The implication of course is that there was a city of lost Crusaders out there in the Libyan Desert.

Take this story with a grain of salt, as nobody seems to be able to identify the original source, or makes much effort to.  Color me suspicious.  Throw in some Templars and you’ve got a Dan Brown novel.  It has also been suggested that Hamid Keila was actually the anonymous author of the Kitab al Kanuz (Book of Hidden Treasures).  If anybody ever runs across the original source for the Hamid Keila story, I’d be intrigued.  Personally, I suspect it was invented to add a little more mystery and spice things up, but I couldn’t say where or when this occurred, as there doesn’t seem to be a paper trail, and it’s awfully hard to track down the records of the scribes of a 15th Century Emir of Benghazi, if such records exist at all.

Nonetheless, in the 20th Century, European explorers kept up the search.  Ralph Bagnold of Britain, and the Hungarian László Almásy led an expedition to search for Zerzura from 1929-1930 using Ford Model A trucks.  In 1932 the Almásy- Patrick Clayton expedition reconnaissance flights pinpointed two curious valleys in the Gilf Kebir.  Still, nobody has ever stumbled across definitive proof of Zerzura.

And perhaps that is a virtue of the desert.  It shows us the limitations of our knowledge, the inexorable change of our world impelled by forces outside our control, the ultimate desiccation of our civilizations, which will all one day be buried in our memory with the shifting of the sands.  As Will Durant said, “Our knowledge is a receding mirage in an expanding desert of ignorance”.

Epton, Nina Consuelo. Oasis Kingdom: the Libyan Story. New York: Roy Publishers, 1953.
King, W.J. Harding.  “The Libyan Desert from Native Information”. Royal Geographical Society (Great Britain). The Geographical Journal v42 (Jul-Dec). London: Royal Geographical Society, 1913.
Maxwell, Ted A, Farouk El-Baz, and Planetary Geology Program (U.S.). Desert Landforms of Southwest Egypt: a Basis for Comparison With Mars. Washington, DC: Scientific and Technical Information Branch, NASA, 1982.