Spell It: Welcome to Zerzura, a mythical Arabian oasis hidden by desert dunes
Over millennia, cultures around the world have imagined tales of alluring mythical lands, lost in time and shrouded in mystery. Zerzura, which in Arabic means a place populated by starlings or other small birds, has its origins in a 13th century document by Emir Othman Al Nabulsi and an anonymous 15th century Arab treasure hunter guide , Kitab Al Kanouz (The Book of Hidden Pearls). From these documents, historians have received a fairly clear picture of this mythical land.
Imagine the shifting sands and unforgivable heat of the vast Sahara Desert. In this dry and harsh region, it was thought that there was an oasis like no other – a shining city that could be reached by a wadi between two mountains. The entrance included an intricately carved door that depicted a striking bird, and it was guarded by giants. In Kitab Al Kanuz, the treasure hunter is advised to “take the key from the bird’s beak with his hand, then open the city gate. Enter, and you will find great riches there…” In the city were white houses surrounded by palm and olive trees, springs and pools – a miracle in the arid desert.
Over the centuries, hundreds of people have tried to find the shining city. Its location has been the source of great debate in the pages of the British Journal of the Royal Geographical Society. In 1930, an account in British explorer WJ Harding King’s diary described how he followed ancient trade routes through the region, believing there would be waterholes along its length. When he spotted a flock of small birds entering Dakhla (another nearby oasis) from the southwest, he chased them for food and noticed that they had freshly eaten olives in their stomachs. King became convinced that he was close to the lost oasis of Zerzura – but even after searching an area of over 320 km he could not find it.
Other desert explorations failed to unearth Zerzura, but they did map the barren vastness of the Libyan desert, northeast of the Sahara. Excavators found the water table below – greatly benefiting modern Egypt – and technical innovations helped create motorized vehicles for the desert.
An explorer, Ralph Bagnold, was responsible for some of the most important geological studies in the area, involving understanding dune movement and wind erosion. In 1977, when the American space agency National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) succeeded in landing an unmanned probe on Mars, Bagnold was one of the contributors to the mission. Bagnold, then 81, had a unique understanding of the Martian dunes, which were similar to those on Earth, thanks to his resolute pursuit of Zerzura.