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.
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
References, Attributions And Further Reading
Copyright January 11, 2023 zteve t evans
- Saudi Aramco World : Searching for Zerzura
- The World Is Our Oyster (worldouroyster.blogspot.com)
- The Lost Oasis of Zerzura. Askwhy
- Zerzura – Wikipedia
- Toubou people – Wikipedia
- The Quest for Zerzura | HistoryNet
- File:Oasis in Libya.jpg – Wikimedia CommonsFile:Heubach dromedary.jpg – Wikimedia Commons