Lost Cities: Seeking Zerzuria And The Oasis Of Little Birds

The Oasis Of Little Birds

Rumours of the lost city of Zerzura have been circulating for centuries, pointing to its existence somewhere in the Sahara Desert west of the River Nile in Egypt or Libya. The first known mention of it was by Osman al-Nabulsi, the regional administrator of the Fayyum writing in the 13th century.  He referred to is as a city, “white as a dove,” and called “The Oasis of Little Birds.”  The next known reference comes from a mysterious Arab manuscript called “The Kitab al Kanuz,” or “The Book of Hidden Pearls,” from the 15th century by an unknown author who places it vaguely somewhere in the Sahara,

 “You will find palms and vines and flowing wells. Follow the valley until you meet another valley opening west between two hills. In it, you will find a road. Follow it to the City of Zerzura. You will find its gate closed. It is a white city, like a dove. By the gate, you will find a bird sculpture. Stretch up your hand to its beak and take from it a key. Open the gate with it and enter the city. You will find much wealth and the king and queen in their place, sleeping the sleep of enchantment, but do not go near them. Take the treasure, and that is all.”

This passage alone generates a wealth of romance and mystery; even more enigmatically, scholars cannot find the book if it ever existed. Many researchers suspect the lost book, either in the form of a manuscript or idea, was the creation of Hamid Keila, who we shall meet later in this work.

There are also claims the city was guarded by black giants which may have referred the Toubou, or Tebu people, a Saharan ethnic group of nomads whose ancestors raided Saharan oases and were traditionally considered warriors and spoke the Tebu languages.  Their name means “rock people.”

The Wadee Zerzoora

John Gardner Wilkinson, an English Egyptologist in 1835, provided the first European account of Zerzura based on a report from an Arab who claimed to have found the oasis while searching for a lost camel. According to him, Zerzura lay five days west of the track between Farafra and Bahariva. He described it as abundant in palm trees and springs of water with ruined buildings nearby and called it the “Wadee Zerzoora.”  The evidence was second-hand and quite vague, and stories of several secret places in the desert had been circulating for many years.

But, once again interest grew in the legendary city. Further hope of its existence strengthened later when explorers came across an undiscovered oasis believed to be the one that the Arab had referenced in the account to Wilkinson. Nevertheless, the lost city was not found, but European explorers and adventurers continued the search for Zerzura.

Seeking Zerzura

In the twentieth century Ralph Bagnold, a British pioneer of desert exploration, took up the search. Inspired by Ahmed Hassanein’s book “Lost Oasis,” he explored a vast area from Cairo to Ain Dalla in 1929,   using three motorized vehicles.  Furthermore, between 1929 and 1930, László (Ladislaus) Almásy, a Hungarian, led an expedition in search of Zerzura using trucks. In 1933 the Almásy – Patrick Clayton expedition using airplanes, found two previously unknown valleys in a region called Gilf Kebir. He speculated these to be part of Zerzura, and possibly the third of the so-called Zerzura wadis.

In 1930, the participants of the search for Zerzura, met in a bar in Wadi Haifa and formed the Zerzura Club. Many later served as British officers in World War Two in the Long-Range Desert Patrol during the North African Campaign and remained friends. However, Almásy served the Axis powers during the war.

The Account of Hamid Keila

In 1418, scribes for the emir of Benghazi, Libya, documented the case of Hamid Keil,  a camel driver, who visited a mysterious city in the desert called Zerzura after being rescued by its inhabitants. He had been traveling in a caravan from the Nile bound for the oases of Dakhla and Khaga when they ran into a powerful sandstorm. Fortunately, He had managed to shelter under a dead camel, until the storm finally abated, to find, he found he was the only survivor. Physically weakened by the storm, confused by the changes the sandstorm had brought to the landscape, he wandered around, looking for a familiar landmark. Finally, lost and alone he  ran out of water, and became delirious.

Fortunately, a group of unknown men came across him, providing aid and taking him to their home, which they called Zerzura, situated in a valley between two mountains. Keila describes Zerzura as a white city with entry gates decorated by a carving of an unknown bird. These men were unlike others in the area, being of tall stature, with fair hair, fair complexion, and blue eyes. Furthermore, their swords were long and straight rather than curved like Arab scimitars.

Inside the gates were many women and children with fair hair, fair complexion, and blue eyes. The city had many luxurious white houses, palm trees, springs, wells, and pools. Water was plentiful and used for drinking, bathing, and washing clothes. Keila claimed the people treated him kindly and spoke a form of Arabic he was unfamiliar with but could understand with difficulty. The Zerzurans, or “El Suri” did not appear to be Muslims. There were no mosques in the city, and he never heard calls to prayer by any muezzin. Moreover, the women did not wear veils.

Eventually, Keila left Zerzura and travelled to Benghazi, where he presented himself to the emir with his story. The emir was puzzled as to why he should risk a long and arduous journey to Benghazi when the Zerzurans were well looking after him. Keila became uncomfortable with the line of questioning and told the emir he had escaped one night. 

The puzzled emir wanted to know why it was necessary to escape from people who had treated him with all benevolence. Keila was becoming increasingly uncomfortable and could not give an adequate explanation making the emir suspicious. He ordered his guards to search him, and they found a beautiful gold ring set with a ruby concealed in Keila’s clothing. 

The emir asked how Keila had come into possession of the ring, but he could not give a satisfactory answer. Although he accepted Keila met the Zerzurans and visited their city, he also believed he had stolen the ring from them or someone else. The emir condemned Keila to be taken into the desert, where his hands were severed. He was then left alone at the mercy of providence. Although the emir searched for Zerzura, he never found it.

King Idris of Libya

The ring was purportedly possessed by King Idris of Libya, who Muammar al-Gaddafi dethroned in 1969. Expert opinion had concluded that it was a highly valuable work dating to the 12th century and believed to have been of European origin. From this, people speculatively assumed that the Zerzurans were a lost army of crusaders either traveling to Jerusalem or returning from it. They had either lost their way or set up home purposely in the remoteness of the desert because, for unknown reasons, they did not want to be found.

Although much romance and mystery are attached to the legend of the lost city of Zerzura, there is extraordinarily little evidence supporting it. The existence of the ring is not substantiated, and experts consider Hamid Keila was the author of the “Kitab al Kanuz” if it had ever existed.

New Exploration and Scientific Knowledge

Nevertheless, although it has not been found or proven to have ever existed, the quest yielded a great deal of new and essential information about the region’s geography and the formation and movement of sand dunes. When Nasa managed to land a remote-controlled probe on Mars, it sent back images of dunes like those found on Earth. Therefore, they sought out Zerzura Club member, desert explorer, and geologist Ralph Bagnold, by this time 81 years old, for advice. He had extensively studied Aeolian processes, which is how wind shaped and formed the landscape, especially how it created and moved sand dunes. The  Bagnold Dunes on Mars were named after him by Nasa.

Like other quests for lost cities of gold and treasure around the world, such as El Dorado in South America and the Seven Cities of Cibola in the North American continent, Zerzura has yet to be found. Nevertheless, the quests for these fabulous cities, whether driven by greed, romanticism, or curiosity, did lead to the exploration and mapping of vast unknown territories and new scientific knowledge. In recent years archaeologists and scientists using modern technology have successfully found hidden cities, temples, roads, and other products of human activity concealed in vast tangled jungles, or underneath the sea, or in the empty deserts of the world.

Maybe, lying in wait under the shifting sands of the Sahara Desert, are the ruins of a white city with a ruined gate, where a small sculpture of a bird holds a key in its beak. Maybe the key will open the gate, and somewhere inside the city, a king and queen are still sleeping through the ages. 

© 11/01/2023 zteve t evans


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Copyright January 11, 2023 zteve t evans


Divine Retribution: Three Doomed Cities of Myth and Legend

Divine Retribution: Three Doomed Cities of Myth and Legend

Moreau.henri, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Myths and legends of great and wealthy cities lost or destroyed appear worldwide. A common theme is an excessive pride or ungodly behavior of the rich or ruling classes that eventually invokes divine retribution upon the city. Presented here are three examples of such legends taken from the collection, “Tales of the Lost, The Drowned and the All-Seeing Eye: Vengeance Will Come!” by zteve t evans.

THE DROWNING OF KER-IS

In Breton folklore, a beautiful city named Ker-Is, or Ys, was located in the Bay of Douarnenez, Brittany, France, reaching its zenith during the reign of King Gradlon before disaster struck. Unfortunately, tidal erosion from the sea threatened to drown the city. So the rulers built massive walls around it to keep out the rising water installing great gates giving access and egress between the harbor and the sea. Gradlon wore the key to these gates on a chain around his neck at all times. 

He fell in love with Malgven, a beautiful pagan woman who bore him a daughter named Dahut. Shortly after, she told him her time in the world was over and she must leave. However, she insisted Dahut should be well-schooled in pagan ways. Gradlon honored this though he chose to convert to Christianity himself.

Dahut grew up to be as beautiful as her mother and became a high-priestess of the old faith. Gradlon gave her Ker-is to rule but retained the key. She planted beautiful gardens filling them with exotic animals and plants, and the city flourished.  One day there came to Ker-is, a mysterious stranger known as the Red Knight who stole Dahut’s heart.  On the night of a great storm, to please him, she foolishly stole the key from her father as he slept, and the Red Knight used it to unlock the gates allowing the sea to flood the city.  

Gradlon managed to mount a horse and rescue his daughter, but the horse could not carry both of them to safety. As the horse struggled, God spoke to Gradlon, commanding him to throw her into the sea. After initially refusing, he complied and survived.  

The old pagan gods rescued their high priestess transforming her into a sea morgen. But, even today, local people and mariners say she is still to encountered sitting on rocks along the wild coastline singing strange songs to lure passing sailors to their doom.

TANNEN-EH: THE CITY ENTOMBED IN SNOW

Kenwbar – Kenneth Barclay – Public Domain

High in the snowy Alps, there was once a beautiful city named Tannen-Eh whose citizens were honest, hardworking, and god-fearing, living harmoniously with one another and their environment.  They fulfilled their basic needs by careful husbandry of agriculture and natural resources. Artisans and those who worked by physical labor were granted as much respect as academics and administrators. The rich happily looked after the poor, who lived in the valley below, who repaid by giving their best service. In this way, for many centuries isolated in the alps, time moved slowly, and Tannen-Eh flourished peacefully untainted by the world beyond.

Outside everything moved faster. Factories churned out toxins contaminating the environment and consuming natural resources ever more quickly and quicker. There was never enough; they wanted more, more, more. Airborne toxins spread far and wide, eventually blighting the pure white snow of Tannen-Eh, but with it came something more frightening. It came slowly, quietly, and unseen, but it was a blight of the worst possible kind.  It crept into the human heart, into the very soul, and the people of Tannen-Eh fell victim to it.

The wealthy grew richer, craving ever more frivolous luxuries. The more they brought, the more they wanted. Their wealth increased, and so did their pride, and they regarded the struggling poor with disdain.   Putting the poor to work, they built a great tower like that of Babel and in it placed a bell. The bell would ring out for every birth, christening, marriage, or death of the fortunate wealthy ones, but not for the poor who they now regarded as unworthy of acknowledgment or commemoration.

 The poor prayed for help, and their prayers went up beyond the tower, beyond the skies, and heard.  But, Heaven works in mysterious ways, and there came a great famine, and the poor starved and suffered. The rich locked their treasure in strongrooms, refusing to spend it to alleviate poverty and distress, and many people died of starvation.

In the first days of winter, snowflakes began to fall, gently at first but soon thick and fast. Soon snow rose above the windows, covering the roofs, leaving only the top of the magnificent tower visible. The rich folk struggled to their tower and tolled the bell seeking assistance from outside. No one came. Snow entirely entombed the city below, and the building became encrusted in an icy white shell so thick it prevented the sound of the bell from escaping.  

Down in the valley, the poor saw the entire city completely covered in snow with only the tower reaching up to Heaven like a glimmering, silvery-white needle. Today, the Oetzthal Glacier entombs the city of Tannen-Eh.

THE DROWNING OF STAVOREN

Statue of the “Lady of Stavoren” in the harbour of Stavoren – Emperoredwin, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons

A Dutch folktale called “The Lady of Stavoren” tells of the ruin of a wealthy widow and the divine retribution inflicted upon the city named Stavoren. The widow moved in the highest circles of Stavoren society, whose members were all rich, proud, and very arrogant, competing continuously to outdo one another. The town was populous and prosperous, but only the elite few owned the wealth. Insatiably, the fortunate ones clawed in ever more wealth while the poor endured beggary and poverty.  

The richest and proudest of these elites was the widow who was always seeking new ways to increase her fortune. One day, she had an idea, and to bring it to fruition, sent for the captain of Stavoren’s largest cargo ship. Giving him a chest of gold, she commissioned him to sail the seven seas and buy her the most precious commodity in the world.  The captain had no idea what the most precious merchandise was but set sail in search of it anyway. Eventually, he decided the most precious commodity was wheat, so he purchased a complete cargo and returned to Stavoren. 

Meanwhile, the widow boasted to her wealthy friends how she would soon possess the most precious commodity in the world. Intrigued, they asked what it could be, but she teasingly told them to wait and see.

When the captain returned, she went down to the ship, and he showed her the wheat. She was furious, ordering him to dump every kernel into the sea. The shocked captain begged her to alleviate the hunger of the poor of Stavoren with it. She refused, again commanding him to dump it overboard.  As the wheat went overboard, beggars gathered at the harbor begging for food. Nevertheless, the widow would not relent. The captain was ashamed and angrily foretold God would punish her and know hunger herself.

The widow looked coldly upon him and, removing her most expensive ring from her finger, held it aloft. Then, arrogantly, she told him there was as much chance of that as the precious item of jewelry returning to her as cast it into the sea. 

Divine retribution works in strange ways. The next day she attended a splendid civic banquet attended by all the city elites and served fresh fish. Imagine her shock to find the ring she had thrown into the sea in the body of the fish she was eating.  From then on, her luck changed. All her businesses and investments failed, forcing her forced into begging, but none of her former friends would aid her. She died impoverished, hungry, and cold.

With her death, the elites of Stavoren continued with their arrogant and greedy ways, unaware divine retribution was still unfolding. A sandbar formed blocking the harbor and on that strand grew wheat, but with no kernel. With the port unable to trade, the prosperity of the town plummeted. Businesses failed, shops closed, and the elites lost their wealth. 

One night a powerful storm blew in from the sea, causing the tide to rise, sweep away the dykes, and flood the town. Today Stavoren is a village of about one thousand people, and in the square is a statue representing “The Lady of Stavoren.”

DIVINE RETRIBUTION

Tales such as these provide a quiet but powerful reminder of the consequences of deviance from God’s laws. They attempt a subtle form of social control by interpreting natural catastrophes as the vengeance of an angry God while providing an engaging experience for the audience. The message is that God will not tolerate hubris, uncharitable behavior, and ungodliness in anyone. God knows and sees all, is both omnipotent and omnipresent, and when required, punishes or rewards at will, in a manner of his own choosing. 


Copyright 05/01/2022 zteve t evans

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Copyright January 5th 2022 zteve t evans