In the depths of the Sahara Desert, concealed beneath layers of sand, lies a potential treasure trove – the remnants of ancient civilizations. Around 4,000 years ago, this very place flourished with lush vegetation and teemed with diverse wildlife. It’s almost unimaginable that such a promising environment would be overlooked by human settlers.
According to the captivating legends passed down by the inhabitants residing near the Sahara, particularly in the oasis city of Dakhla, as well as the oases of Farafra and Bahariya, the sandy dunes were once home to numerous prosperous and highly developed cities.
Among these tales, the accounts of the legendary city of Zerzura hold a special place. Far from being mere folklore, references to this extraordinary city have been discovered in the 15th-century Arabic manuscript known as “Kitab al Kanuz” or “The Book of Hidden Pearls.” The manuscript vividly describes Zerzura as a magnificent city constructed from gleaming white stone, abounding in untold treasures.
Within the city’s walls, a king and queen, referred to as “sleeping” in the manuscript, resided (possibly suggesting they found eternal rest within their tombs). The main entrance to the city was adorned with a remarkable carving of a bird clutching a key in its beak – a symbolic representation of Zerzura’s secrets.
The manuscript further alludes to the presence of colossal black giants who diligently guarded this grand entrance, adding an air of mystique and awe to the city’s fabled history.
Unfortunately, neither the author of the manuscript nor its exact date of creation is known. In general, it is a collection of stories about evil spirits that guard Egyptian treasures, and spells are described to help scare away these spirits in order to take possession of the treasures.
In the records of scribes from Benghazi, Libya, you can find a much more amazing story about how in 1481 a camel caravan was heading to the Dakhla oasis and was caught in a severe sandstorm.
Everyone died except for a drover named Hamid Keila. When the storm subsided and Keila looked around, he did not recognize the surrounding area, all the landmarks he knew were gone.
And then a group of strange men with blond hair and blue eyes appeared from somewhere. Instead of curved Arab scimitars, they had straight swords.
They took Keila to their city of Zerzura, where there were luxurious white houses, palm trees, ponds and pools in which fair-skinned women and children bathed. The inhabitants of the city, whom Keila called Zerzurans or El Suri, were kind to the drover, but he did not understand their strange language.
There were no mosques in the city and the women did not wear clothes that covered their faces, so Keila assumed they were not Muslims.
A few months later, Keila was in Benghazi and told the Emir about the mysterious city of Zerzura. When he asked him how Keila left the city, Keila hesitated with the answer, and then said that he had fled.
The Emir asked him why he had to run away if he was treated with kindness, but then Keila completely fell silent. Suspecting something was wrong, the Emir ordered a search of Keila, and a gold ring with a large ruby was found in his possession.
The Emir decided that Keila had stolen the ring and therefore fled the city. Under the threat of cutting off his hands for theft, the Emir ordered Keila to be taken out into the desert so that he would show where the city of Zerzura was located.
He could not show the exact direction and the Emir could not find the city. What happened to Keila is unknown.
According to rumors, in the following centuries, this golden ring was kept by the rulers of Libya, and then fell into the hands of Muammar Gaddafi. It is said that this ring was studied by many experts and they came to the conclusion that it was made by European masters in the 12th century.
Based on this, it was suggested that the strange blond people that Keila saw were the descendants of early European crusaders who got lost in the desert on their way to Jerusalem or returning back.
Either they found the city of Zerzura and settled there, or they built a new city on the site of the ruins.
In 1835, the English Egyptologist John Gardner Wilkinson wrote The Topography of Thebes and the General View of Egypt, which tells the story of an Arab who once accidentally discovered the ruins of the city of Zerzura.
“Zerzura is only two or three days’ journey west of Dakhla, beyond which is another wadi (valley), then another teeming with cattle, then Gebabo and Tazerbo, and beyond them is Wadi Rebina.
“Gebabo is inhabited by two tribes of blacks, the Simertain and ergesain. About five or six days’ journey west of the road from el Hez to Farafra is another oasis called Wadi Zerzura, replete with palm trees, springs, and a few ruins of uncertain date. Residents are black.”
According to this verbal description, it would seem that it would not be difficult to find Zerzura, but the first large-scale searches were launched only at the beginning of the 20th century.
The search for Zerzura began in 1909, when explorer William Joseph Harding King went to the Sahara region. Along the way, he heard many legends about cities lost in the desert, overgrown with palm trees and olive groves.
Once he opened up several carcasses of birds that had flown in from the southwest, where there were solid sands, and found olives in their stomachs. He was convinced that this showed that somewhere there really was an oasis unknown to anyone, but his campaign in that direction did not lead to anything.
Six years later, John Ball, director of Egyptian exploration, tried to find Zerzura. He found some clay pots 160 km from Dakhla, but no traces of the ruins of the lost city. The main breakthrough in the search for the legendary Zerzura occurred between 1932 and 1934.
A group of 4, including Ladislaus E. Almazi, Robert Clayton East Clayton, Hubert G. Penderel, and Patrick Clayton, re-read Wilkinson’s book and decided that previous Zerzura seekers had misinterpreted some of the directions.
They went on an expedition, deciding that now, having learned the real route, they would find the lost city. And after six days of travel, they actually reached three green valleys in the northwestern part of the Gilf-Kebir plateau, near the border with Libya.
Soon they found something that looked like the ruins of some stone building, on the wall of which Egyptian hieroglyphs were carved, among which the name of Pharaoh Djedefra from the 4th dynasty was mentioned.
Based on this find, historians have established a new time period for the Egyptians to stay in the western Sahara. However, it was not Zerzura again.
Until now, the location of this “treasure city” is not known to anyone. Researchers only assume that its ruins can be covered with sand in the area of the mentioned three green valleys Talh, Abd el Melik and Wadi Hamra.
Most of the attention is focused on the Hamra Valley, as it is known for its vegetation, acacia trees and rock paintings. Also, a rich river once flowed through it, and then the sands covered it, but the water still flows under the sands.