The Myth of Zerzura – the legendary desert cityZerzura is a legend which has already spurred many an adventurer and explorer into setting off into the Middle Eastern deserts to track down the mystery.
According to legend, Zerzura is a mystical white city – an oasis in the middle of the Sahara, located in a wadi, a periodically dried out riverbed feeding the Nile and said to lie somewhere between Libya and Egypt. To this day, no adventurous explorer has yet found the oasis.
The oldest known document which mentions the Legend of Zerzura, dates from the 13th century. It became a topic of discussion in the Middle Ages when, as they travelled through the Sahara, Arabic travellers wrote down their impressions and experiences in a manuscript: the “Book of Hidden Gems”, the “Kitab al Kanuz”. The legend became a kind of guide for treasure hunters who, over the centuries, have found their imagination stirred by the thought of setting out into the desert to seek out the treasures of Zerzura.
The author of the manuscript has never been verified, but it has, however, been suggested that it tells of a certain Hamid Keila… According to historical records which were made by an Emir’s scribe from Libyan Benghazi, the camel rider Hamid Keila arrived in Benghazi and reported to the Emir what had befallen him. The considerably dazed Hamid maintained that he had been in the city of Zerzura.
Hamid was apparently travelling with his caravan from the Nile through the desert to the oases of Dakhla and Kharga. On the way, they were taken by surprise by a vicious sandstorm – and everyone was killed – except for Hamid. He had been able to survive by using his dead camel as protection from the powerful storm. When the forces of nature had abated, he saw that great masses of sand had shifted and transformed the landscape into an entirely different one. He found too that he had completely lost his orientation.
Hamid’s situation looked hopeless: no water, no protection from the burning hot sun and the abiding feeling that he was going round and round in circles was slowly driving him into madness.
But then he was saved! A group of strange looking men picked him up and took him off with them. They were tall, blond and blue-eyed, he reported after his rescue. These men also carried straight swords instead of the typical Arabic scimitars and they took him to the city of Zerzura. Zerzura appeared as though it had been completely dipped in white, and it was reachable only by passing through a wadi. From there, a road led to the gates of the city into which were engraved strange, bird-like carvings. Within the city walls were magnificent houses, palms and beautiful springs running with fresh water in which fair-skinned women bathed their children. Hamid told that the “Zerzurians” treated him with friendliness and kindness. They spoke a strange form of Arabic which was difficult for Hamid to understand. The city’s inhabitants also seemed not to be Muslim, since their womenfolk were not wearing veils, nor did he see anywhere a mosque nor hear the call to prayer.
Hamid had told this story to the Emir months after his arrival in Zerzura. The Emir was then interested in how Hamid had managed to find his way back home from this city in the middle of the desert. Hamid told him that one night he had simply fled the place. But when the Emir asked the question why he had fled from this place where the people had been so kind to him, then Hamid was unable to give an answer. The Emir became suspicious and had Hamid searched by his guards. They found he was carrying a gold ring in which was set an extremely fine and magnificent ruby. When questioned about the origins of this highly valuable piece of jewellery, Hamid tied himself in knots with ever more contradictory explanations and soon the conclusion grew that Hamid was nothing but a common thief. In accordance with the judgement of the powerful Emir, Hamid was taken into the desert where his hands were then chopped off.
However, the Emir had obviously not taken Hamid’s story as being a complete fabrication, for shortly afterwards he rode out into the desert with his men in order to look for the city in the man’s story. But his searches proved fruitless.
For many long years a vast variety of translations, sets of instructions and cryptic clues relating to the story circulated, all of them promising to lead to Zerzura and its secrets. In 1907 the “Book of Hidden Gems” was translated by a certain Maspero, the then curator of the Egyptian Museum, into French.
His motivation, however, was to hinder the amount of damage being caused to ancient Egyptian sites by the flood of treasure hunters and explorers of the day. But in spite of his translation and his ‘interpretation’, Zerzura remained the goal for foolhardy desert expeditions.
Even clever and experienced explorers found themselves lured by the prospect of finding the legendary city – and each of them had developed their own theory as to where this most mysterious place might lie, and also what might be the easiest means by which to reach it. In 1930 the “Zerzura Club” was founded with its one and only goal being to finally solve the myth surrounding Zerzura.
A few explorers were convinced that it lay to the west of Dakhla, while others thought that it was five to six days travelling west from the town of Farafra. And yet others were quite convinced that it was actually the limestone plateau of Gilf Kebir in the extreme southwest of Egypt itself. To this day the oasis remains undiscovered, however.
From unknown sources, the rumour has taken root that the legendary ruby ring, the single known piece of evidence of Zerzura, ended up in the possession of the Libyan king Idris. In 1969 Idris was toppled by Muammar al-Gaddafi and the ring allegedly then passed into his possession. Gaddafi was supposed to have had the ring examined by many experts. This was said to have not only confirmed the ring’s immense value, but also that everything pointed to it originating from the Europe of the 12th century.
This in turn points to the eponymous “Zerzurians”, who Hamid allegedly stole from as being remnants from the earlier European crusades, who would have crossed the Sahara on the way to Jerusalem, or who remained behind during the homeward march and were compelled to build their own hidden place in which to live in the desert.
There is no further verifiable knowledge about the ring, nor about Zerzura itself – but rumours, inklings and signs remain, which is why the myth of Zerzura persists, and the legendary white city in the Sahara continues to cast its spell over explorers and adventurers today, just as much as it ever did.