Nothing stirs the imagination more than legends of a lost city shrouded in mystery. One such legend is Zerzura, a mythical city or oasis in the Sahara Desert, supposedly in Egypt or Libya.
One of the first European references to the possible location of Zerzura can be found in the “Modern Egypt and Thebes: Being a Description of Egypt,” published in 1843 by the English Egyptologist, John Gardner Wilkinson, based on accounts from people living in the Dakhla Oasis in Egypt.
Wilkinson wrote: “Five or six days west of the road to Farafreh is another Oasis, called Wadee Zerzoora [Zerzura], about the size of the Oasis Perva, abounding in palms, with springs, and some ruins of uncertain date. It was discovered about twenty years ago by an Arab, while in search of a stray camel and from seeing the footsteps of men and sheep, he supposed it to be inhabited.”
In the “Mysteries of the Libyan Desert”, published in 1925 by Harding King, Harding gives reference to the Kitab al Kanuz, also known as the Book of Hidden Pearls, which is a lost medieval Arabic manuscript from the 15th century written by an anonymous author. The Kitab al Kanuz is said to be a collection of mystical fables that lists sites in Egypt that hold hidden treasure.
Harding cites from the Kitab al Kanuz: “In the city of Wardabaha, situated behind the citadel of el Suri, you will see palms, vines, and springs. Penetrate into the wadi and pursue you way up to it; you will find another wadi running westwards between two 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 the castle. Do not approach them but take the treasure.”
In a paper written in 1928 by Dr John Ball, called “Remarks on lost oases of the Libyan desert”, Dr Ball refutes the Kitab al Kanuz association by King, and instead cites a manuscript written in AD 1447 by Osman el Nabulsi, a Syrian emir who was appointed administrator of a province by Negm el Din.
El Nabulsi writes in the manuscript that Zerzura was one of a number of villages already abandoned in his time, situated in the neighbourhood of a canal called the Bahr Tanabtawayh which entered the Birket el Qarun from the south.
A. Johnson Pasha weighs in on the argument by submitting a paper in 1930 simply titled, “Zerzura”. Pasha was a member of the Royal Geographical Society and claimed to have a copy of the Kitab al Kanuz which he loaned to the Department of Antiquities for translation.
Pasha writes: “I see that an ingenious suggestion has been made that the tradition of Zerzura started with the inclusion of a village bearing the same name in a list of deserted villages on the north-western border of the Faiyum, written two hundred years earlier than the Kitab al Kanuz. I think that this, though ingenious in the way of controversy, cannot be taken seriously when we are attempting to get a lead as to existence of the traditional Zerzura from actual facts.”
“When I first went to Dakhla (1885-6) I was supposed to be the first high official who had visited the oasis since “the killing,” which I understand was about the time of Muhammad ‘Ali. They spoke a good deal of the oasis of the blacks which they distinguished clearly from Zerzura. They spoke of a Mameluke Bey who had been sent to stop the raids by the blacks and of his having poisoned the water supply that the blacks depended on before they got to Dakhla. They asserted that a man who had been lost in the desert and been saved by reaching Zerzura had died in Dakhla only a few years before. Their idea of Zerzura was a fairly large oasis with many trees, springs, grass, and ruins, and they always dwelt on wild cattle,” added Pasha.
László Almásy, a Hungarian desert explorer and aviator (who also served as the basis for the protagonist in Michael Ondaatje’s novel, “The English Patient”), became enchanted with the stories and legend of Zerzura.
After consulting scientific reports, maps, historical documents, and conducting interviews with native Bedouins, Almásy concluded that Zerzura should be somewhere in the unexplored Gilf Kebir region, near the end of the route from the Dachla Oasis to the Kufra Oasis.
Almásy led an expedition in 1932 and discovered Wadi Talh, supposedly one of the three valleys of Zerzura. The other two valleys were discovered by the expedition of Patrick Clayton and Lady Clayton, and by an air reconnaissance survey conducted by Almásy’s colleagues.
Whether this is the Zerzura from legend is inconclusive. Just prior to the Almásy expedition, Ralph Alger Bagnold, a desert explorer, geologist and soldier, was exploring the region after reading Ahmed Hassanein’s “Lost Oasis”.
After reading a paper on Almásy’s expedition, Bagnold wrote: “I shall continue to think that Zerzura is one of the many names that have been given to the many fabulous cities which the great North African desert has for ages created in the minds of those to whom it was hardly accessible; and that to identify Zerzura with any one discovery is but to particularise the general.”
“There can be little doubt that the wadis in the Gilf Kebir are the truth behind the Egyptian legends of the Oasis of the Blacks [Zerzura]. The actual waterhole has not yet been found, but it most probably will be when next the wadi is visited. Almásy deserves very great credit for his persistence in following up the problem of Wilkinson’s oasis and for the success of his efforts,” added Bagnold.
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