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Never Heard of Zersura

Searching for Fame and Fortune Kanook – Nov 2009
Since early in the 20th Century the mystery of Zerzura have tickled the minds of men and women who have sat is smoke filled dens in Cairo, discussing the ancient Muslim legend of Zerzura. A legend that speaks of a lost oasis in the Libya where a brave soul could enter, kiss a sleeping queen and be rich beyond his wildest dreams. A legend that travels back into time to around 1481 AD, when a camel driver “Hamid Keila” survived a one-week sandstorm whereas all the others including their camels had died, on climbing from beneath a dead camel he wandered off in search of water. Two months later he turned up in miserable shape in Benghazi 1 on the Mediterranean and spun a wild tale about his journey and the discovery of Zerzura. According to Hamid he wandered from the site of death and was close to dying when he was found struggling up a scarp to determine his bearing when a group of men, like he’d never seen befoe, they were tall, fair-haired and blue-eyed and carried straight swords and not scimitars. Albeit these men spoke Arabic, it was mixed with words that Hamid did not understand where it was only later when their definitions had been explained he was able to converse with them intelligently. They took him in his sorry state back to their city, treating him along the way with kindness, water and food, where eventually they traveled up a wadi2 that ran between two mountains on a road that led between the gates of a walled city, which had a carved bird of unusual appearance at the head of the gate. Inside the city he saw houses that were bleached white from the sun and pools of water and springs in abundance being used by slim light-skinned women and their children for washing and bathing, invited inside the homes he found them richly furnished and well appointed. He did note that the women were not veiled and assumed they were not Muslim, and also did not see any mosque or hear the five cries of any muzzein during the day. He said it was a desert paradise. The Emir (Mahmoud) of Benghazi asked Hamid how he came to be back in Benghazi, with some discomfort Hamid told him that he had escaped one moonless night after he had regained his strength and after a difficult journey north finally arrived in the city. After the glowing report Hamid had given of his rescue and the care they gave him nursing him back to health, the Emir was puzzled and wondered why it was necessary to escape such a wonderful place. Hamid shifted and mumble no clear explanation, so the Emir ordered what little belonging Hamid had searched by his guards who soon found a flawless ruby set in a gold ring. The Emir asked Hamid how the ring had come into his possession and upon receiving an unsatisfactory answer judged that he had stole it from the people who saved his life, albeit they were “infidels” that had shown Hamid a great kindness,
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and he had returned it by stealing and running away. The Emir ordered the guards to take Hamid Keila back out into the desert and cut off his hands, they did! Eventually the “ring” came into the possession of King Idris of Libya 3 and since that time has been examined by several experts who have vouched for its immense value and declared that it was of European workmanship dating from around the 12th Century. This timeframe linking the ring and the Teutonic Arabs with the Crusades and the possibility that an order of Knights who had got lost in the desert and had gone native and survived in their remote paradise. It has been noted that there are records of crusaders getting lost on their way out of the Holy Land and never returning to their respective homelands. There are a few places in the arid zone that have water not far below the surface, one such place is known as the Gilf Kebir Plateau, and it supposedly feeds several surrounding Osaes and springs like Kufra Oasis4 and perhaps Ayn Zuwayyah. The base of the plateau is accessible by road, but exploring it and its steep escarpments is another matter all together. The story remained a story, that is until one individual heard it and took a great number of his years searching for Zersura, if by chance you’ve seen the movie The English Patient, you’ve met the man who the movie is based upon. Count László Ede Almásy de Zsadány et Törökszentmiklós (22 August 1895 – 22 March 1951) was a Hungarian aristocrat, motorist, desert researcher, aviator, Scout-leader and soldier who also served as the basis for the protagonist in Michael Ondaatje's 1992 novel The English Patient and the movie based on it. The Count was a colorful character born with a thirst for adventure who in his early years fell in love with North Africa, and when he fully understood the tale of Hamid he set to establish and expedition into the Great Sand Sea looking for the legendary Zersura. It was during a road trip along the Nile in Egypt and the Sudan that he rediscovered an old caravan route the “Darb el Arbain” or the “40 day road”, that runs between Asyut in the Upper Egypt and Darfur in the Sudan – in 2007 through analysis of space images an underground lake was discovered in the northeast of the Darfur region that is estimated in size to be as big or bigger that Lake Erie (the 10th largest lake in the world) or about 19,110 square miles [30,750 sq kms] over 3x the size of Lebanon.
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Historical reference estimates that hundreds of thousands of slaves made the trip from well-to-well down the several-kilometer-wide road, a journey that took forty days for many, while the “weak” are buried along the way, whereas human and camel remains mark their path along the road. Previous to his expedition into the un-mapped Libyan desert, Emir Mahmound apparently believed Hamid Keila’s tale and had commissioned several excursions into the region searching for the legendary city without success, Almasy remained focused and moved ahead with his plans. Sir John Gardner Wilkinson5 made mention about Zerzura, a tale that he had heard from the inhabitants of the “Dakhla Oasis6”, another explorer W.J. Harding-King wrote one of the first references of lost oasis of Zerzura in his book, Mysteries of the Libyan Desert published in 1925, albeit numerous treasure-hunting books had been authored before his time he basically ignored them, but kept an open mind concerning the old roads and the un-recorded oasis. He notes the activities of his assembly in Farafra digging into archaeological sites collecting coins and throwing mummies haphazardly to one side in their search for buried treasure. He also noted that it was reported that “Zersura was said to lie to the southwest of Dakhla.” Almasy was welcomed in King Fauds7 court where he made friends with Prince Kemel el Din8, who became Almasy’s financial supporter in his search for Zerzura. The Prince had in 1926 discovered an enormous sandstone plateau called “Gilf Kebir9”, which is as large as Switzerland and is noted as being surrounded by steep cliffs, this discovery led Almasy, after consulting scientific reports, maps, historical documents and conversations with native Bedouins, to believe that Zerzura must be located somewhere in the un-explored Gilf Kebin region, and that it must be near the end of the route from the Dakhla Oasis to the Kufra Oasis10. Almasy, spoke six languages, including Arabic, and was welcome in the Egyptian king's court. Prince Kemal el Din11 became Almasy's patron in his search for Zerzura. In 1926 the prince had discovered an enormous sandstone plateau called Gilf Kebir12, as large as Switzerland surrounded by steep cliffs. After consulting scientific reports, maps, historical documents, and native Bedouins, Almásy concluded that Zerzura must be somewhere in the unexplored Gilf Kebir region, near the end of the route from the Dakhla Oasis to the Kufra Oasis. With the exception of the Kufra oases, on its extreme western side, practically the whole Libyan Desert to the south and west of Dakhla was
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unknown, and labelled on most maps as "impassable dunes", the largest area of unknown ground in the world. What is more the dunes were of a soft yielding sand that even the camels could not negotiate. The nearest point to Dakhla in the south-western direction was said to have an old road leading from it towards Egypt. The name, Zerzura, suggests a starling, but is also used of any small bird. An unnamed oasis, with a road running back towards Egypt, was marked on the map as lying in this direction, and flocks of birds migrated northwards annually from this part of the desert. In 1932 a young English baron, Sir Robert Clayton joined Almasy's quest. Wing-Commander Penderel of the Royal Air Force and Patrick Clayton of the Desert Survey, both English, also joined Almásy in an expedition to find Zerzura. Using motor-cars and a light aircraft—Sir Robert Clayton's de Havilland Gipsy Moth I, Rupert—to survey the Gilf Kebir plateau, they found two valleys in the plateau from the air but they could not reach them in their Fords to confirm they were wadis of Zerzura. The party eventually ran out of petrol and water and had to return to Cairo. Patrick Clayton left to pursue the quest his own way via the Desert Survey. Clayton approached the Gilf Kebir from the north to look for the valleys seen from the air the previous year. He found the entrance to the main valley, Wadi Abd el Malik, and explored it. Then he went on to the Kufra Oasis, where he met Sir Clayton's young widow, who joined his expedition. Together, they surveyed a second valley. Almasy's expedition did not set out until March 1933, along with Penderel and other experts. They discovered the Aqaba Pass notched between two sides of the plateau. Almásy led his expedition to the western side of the Gilf, where he discovered Wadi Talh—the third valley of Zerzura. The ancient legend had turned into reality. With the three valleys discovered, Almásy could finally draw Zerzura on the map. Dr Laszlo Kadar, later President of the Hungarian Geographical Society, the geographer of this expedition made several important observations. Prehistoric rock painting sites were found in the Uweinat and Gilf Kebir region at Ain Dua, Karkur Talh and Wadi Sora, south of the Gilf near the present-day intersection of Egypt, Libya, and Sudan. The pictures showed antelopes, giraffes, and even swimmers, which convinced Almasy that the Sahara had not always been a desert. The rock paintings were a scientific sensation and, perhaps, the most important result of Almásy's work. Almasy later led more desert expeditions in which he explored and surveyed

the Gilf Kebir, the Great Sand Sea and the Wadi Hauar in the Sudan. In 1936 he published a scientific account of his expeditions, making reference to Herodotus, the cave paintings and desert scenes. In 1942, Almasy served as a desert expert for the Axis and led secret missions, including Operation Salaam, when he took two German spies from Libya to Asyut across the desert. Germany needed desert experts during the war and because Almásy's fame had spread to Germany with the publication of his book, The Unknown Sahara, he was required to serve as a Hungarian officer in Rommel's Afrika Korps. He made maps, wrote desert manuals, and set up ventures with his reconnaissance patrol. After World War II he was tried by the People's Court in Budapest and released through lack of evidence. In 1947 Almásy fled Hungary and returned to Egypt with British assistance. He wanted to continue his explorations and find the lost army of the Persian king Cambyses. Herodotus had written about an enormous Persian army that was lost in the Great Sand Sea in the fifth century BC. Unfortunately, in 1951 Almasy died of dysentry in Salzburg just as he had been nominated director of the Desert Institute of Cairo. Almásy's untimely death stopped short his explorations, but he left a legacy of mapping and exploration, and unraveled some of the last mysteries of the African desert. Among this exploratory work he might well have been an extremely clever double agent. Almasy's Explorations In 1929, on a 12,000-kilometer trip in Egypt and the Sudan, Almasy rediscovered an old caravan route—the Darb el Arbain, or Road of Forty—the ancient road connecting Egypt and Africa. Hundreds of thousands of slaves had traveled from well to well down the several-kilometers-wide road. The journey took forty days for the lucky, but the weak died en route, and human and camel bones mark the ancient road. Almásy was further encouraged in his explorations. By the time he sought for Zerzura in the early 1930s, only the innermost section of the Libyan desert remained unmapped. Emir Mahmoud had obviously believed the gist of Hamid Keila's story and sent several parties to uncover the lost oasis but none ever did. Would Almasy fare any better? Sir John Gardner Wilkinson (1797-1875), an English explorer, heard about Zerzura from the inhabitants of the Dakhla Oasis in Egypt and mentioned it in his writings, as did Gerhard Rohlfs. Harding King wrote "Zerzura was said to lie to the south-west of Dakhla." Almasy, spoke six languages, including Arabic, and was welcome in the Egyptian king's court. Prince Kemal el Din became Almasy's patron in his search for Zerzura. In 1926 the prince had discovered an enormous sandstone

plateau called Gilf Kebir, as large as Switzerland surrounded by steep cliffs. After consulting scientific reports, maps, historical documents, and native Bedouins, Almásy concluded that Zerzura must be somewhere in the unexplored Gilf Kebir region, near the end of the route from the Dakhla Oasis to the Kufra Oasis.

The legends surrounded one of these "lost oases" in particular: Its name was Zerzura. For three decades at the opening of the century, that name tugged at the imagination of every explorer of the Libyan Desert. Its existence and location were debated in the distinguished pages of the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society under such titles as "The Zerzura Problem," "Problems of the Libyan Desert" and "Lost Oases of the Libyan Desert." The searchers for Zerzura would indeed find treasure, but of new knowledge, not gold. They would discover evidence of earlier peoples who had lived in the region before the climate changed, and they would develop new ways of traveling across the great oceans of dunes. One of them would outline the science of dune formation, and this knowledge in turn would prove to have literally otherworldly applications. Zerzura was long rumored to have existed deep in the desert west of the Nile River in Egypt or Libya. In writings dating back to the thirteenth century, the authors spoke of a city which was "white as a dove" and called it "The Oasis of Little Birds".[1] More recently, European explorers made forays into the desert in search of Zerzura but never succeeded in finding it. Notable twentieth-century explorers Ralph Bagnold of Britain, and the Hungarian László (Ladislaus) Almásy led an expedition to search for Zerzura from 1929-1930 using Ford Model-T trucks. In 1932 the Almásy- Patrick Clayton expedition reconnaissance flights discovered two valleys in the Gilf Kebir. In the following year, Almásy found the third of the "Zerzura" wadis, actually rain oases in the remote desert. On the other hand, Bagnold considered Zerzura as a legend that could never be solved by discovery.[citation needed] The participants of the Zerzura hunt created the Club Zerzura in a bar in Wadi Halfa upon their return in 1930. Many of the club's members remained friends and several went on to serve as officers in the British Army during World War II. Many served in the Long Range Desert Patrol during the North African Campaign. Only Almásy served in the Afrika Korps and possibly assisted the Italians.[2]

Searching for Zerzura
Written by Robert Berg

The vast barrenness of the Libyan Desert stretches from the Nile westward across Egypt and northern Sudan to Tripolitania in Libya. For the ancient Egyptians it was the realm of the afterlife, overseen by Osiris, a place of fear and dread. According to the historian Herodotus, writing in the fifth century BC, a huge sandstorm once swallowed up an entire army of invading Persians there without a trace. To modern Egyptians, the Libyan Desert is increasingly a realm of hope—a hope based on extensive irrigation schemes to increase agricultural land and relieve crowding in the Nile Valley. gilf.htm

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