Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Siwa and Zerzura Oasis

Great Sand Sea and the “Lost Oasis” Zerzura: The “Lost Oasis” Zerzura: The “Lost Oasis”
With the “discovery” by motorized explorers of Selima, Merga and the Forty Day Road’s water holes, the number of unlocated oases diminished until only the “Lost Oasis” of Zerzura remained. First mentioned in 1246 as an abandoned village in the desert southwest of the Fayoum, it reappeared as a fabulous city in the fifteenth-century treasure-hunters’ Book of Hidden Pearls: This city is white like a pigeon, and on the door of it is carved a bird. 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. Citing native sources, the first European reference to Zerzura (1835) placed the oasis “five days west of the road from El-Hayiz to Farafra”, or “two or three days due west from Dakhleh”. Murray’s Handbook (1891) reported an “Oasis of the Blacks also called Wady Zerzura” to the west of Farafra, and described it quite matter-of-factly. But Zerzura was still unlocated, and the stories placing it west of Dakhla gained credibility after Europeans “discovered” Kufra Oasis in Libya, which the same tales had mentioned. However, both the Rohlfs and Harding-King expeditions heard accounts of black men who periodically raided Dakhla from an oasis seven or eight days’ journey to the southwest. Having weighed the evidence for various speculative locations in the last chapter of Libyan Sands, Bagnold demarcated three zones. The “northern” one – encompassing the whole Sand Sea, but rating the areas west of Dakhla and Farafra as likeliest – was propounded by de Lancey Forth, citing the story of a town with iron gates, seven days’ camel journey to the south, in the Siwan Manuscript; plus tales of Bedouin chancing upon unknown oases while pursuing missing camels. Unfortunately, similar yarns also pointed towards the far south – that vast wilderness between Dakhla and the Selima and Merga oases in Sudan. Dr Ball and Newbold favoured this area, largely free of dunes and often low enough to approach the subterranean water table; in addition, Newbold thought he glimpsed an oasis during a flight over the desert (one of several by the Hungarian aviator Count Läszlö Almassy). The third, “central” zone extended southwest from Dakhla as far as Jebel Uwaynat. Championed by Harding-King, it rested largely on native accounts of incursions by “strange cows”, Tibbu raiders and a “black giantess”. When Ball discovered a cache of Tibbu water jars 200km southwest of Dakhla in 1917, it supported the stories but argued against an oasis; if a water source existed, why bother to maintain a depot in the middle of nowhere? Accepting Ball’s theory of a consistent water level beneath the Libyan Desert, Bagnold argued that Zerzura could only exist in low-lying areas or deep, wind-eroded hollows. As the desert was surveyed, the possibility of such sites escaping notice diminished, and Bagnold doubted that an undiscovered oasis existed. Perhaps Zerzura might once have been a water hole or an area favoured with periodic rainfall, but the fabled oasis of palms and ruins must be a figment of wishful thinking: a Bedouin Shangri-la that tantalized foreign explorers.

Great Sand Sea and the “Lost Oasis”
The Great Sand Sea that laps Siwa and floods the Libyan–Egyptian border still has areas beyond the “limits of reliable relief information” on Tactical Pilotage Charts, but its overall configuration is known. From thick “whalebacks” and a mass of transverse dunes near Siwa, it washes south in parallel ridges (oriented north–south, with a slight northwest–southeast incline) as far as the eye can see. Although its general existence was known at the time of Herodotus, the extent to which it stretched southwards wasn’t realized until the Rohlfs expedition of 1874 headed west from Dakhla into the unknown. With seventeen camels bearing water and supplies, they soon met the erg’s outermost ranges: “an ocean” of sand-waves over 100m high, ranked 2–4km apart. Rohlfs estimated that their camels could scale six dunes and advance 20km westwards on the first and second days, but that their endurance would rapidly diminish thereafter, so with no prospect of water or an end to the dunes they were forced to turn north-northwest and follow the dune lanes towards Siwa. Their isolation was intense: If one stayed behind a moment and let the caravan out of one’s sight, a loneliness could be felt in the boundless expanse such as brought fear even in the stoutest heart … Nothing but sand and sky! At sea the surface of the water is moved, unless there is a dead calm. Here in the sand ocean there is nothing to remind one of the great common life of the earth but the stiffened ripples of the last storm; all else is dead. By the eighteenth day the expedition could no longer water every camel and the animals began dying, yet it wasn’t until the thirty-sixth day that the party reached Siwa. They had trekked 675km, 480 of them across the waterless dunes. The feat wasn’t repeated until 1921–24, when Colonel de Lancey Forth entered the Sand Sea twice by camel from Dakhla and Siwa. Beneath a layer of sand he found campfires, charred ostrich eggs, flint knives and grinders from Neolithic times, when the desert was lush savannah. Meanwhile, Ball and Moore had managed to round the Sand Sea’s southeastern tip (near latitude 24) by car in 1917. However, it was an Egyptian, Hassanein Bey, who circumvented the Sand Sea’s western edge (1923) as part of an extraordinary 3550-kilometre camel journey from Sollum on the Mediterranean to El-Fasher in Sudan’s Darfur Province. He also confirmed the existence of the hitherto legendary massif, Jebel Uwaynat, whose water source encouraged motorized explorers of the 1920s to seek new routes to the southwest. For Prince Kemal al-Din in his fleet of caterpillar-tracked Citroens, and Ralph Bagnold and Co. – who found customized Model-T Fords more effective – the next obstacle was the Gilf Kebir: a vast limestone plateau south of the Sand Sea, which barred the way to remoter Libyan oases.

The lost oasis of Zerzura is a legend that has spurred many on to explore the Western Desert over the years but has always remained elusive. Mentioned by medieval Arab travellers and written about as a site of buried treasure in the Book of Hidden Pearls, Zerzura has excited imaginations over the centuries. Maspero, a famous curator of the Egyptian Museum, was so frustrated by the haphazard damage being done to Egyptian monuments he decided to get the Book of Hidden Pearls officially translated into French, in 1907. He mistakenly believed that by putting a stop to the flow of inaccurate translations, which were causing treasure hunters to wildly speculate as to the actual site of Zerzura, he would put an end to the belief in the myth of Zerzura.

Zerzura was thought to be 5 or 6 days west from Farafra but no-one could find it. Even the generally level-headed were seduced by the prospect of finding the fabled oasis. All the respected explorers of the time had their own theory about the location of Zerzura. Rohlfs was convinced it lay to the west of Dakhla, Almasy thought it was in the Gilf Kebir itself. A Zerzura Club was formed and the Royal Geographical Society even sponsored trips to find the oasis. Only Bagnold remained practical calling Zerzura the wish oasis and writing that the world needed an idea like Zerzura to spur people on to explore remote parts but that eventually it would have to be admitted that Zerzura was just a fantasy.

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