The lost oasis.
City of Acacias.
The city white as a dove.
To thirteenth century Arabs: the oasis of little birds.
Where is this magical place, haven to birds, acacia trees, and water?
Somewhere, in the middle of the desert.
A place by the name of Zerzura is first documented in a mid-13th century by the amir (or veritable prince) Osman al-Nabulsi, who served as the regional administrator of the Fayyum. For the next two hundred years, there is veritably no mention of its existence until it suddenly reappears in the Kitab al Kanuz, or The Book of Hidden Pearls, a 13th century treasure hunting manual, which describes it as "a place full of gold and treasures in the heart of the desert, guarded by a white bird." To enter, the book recommends to "take with your hand the key in the beak of the bird, then open the door of the city. Enter, and there you will find great riches...." However, it further attests, "Only a brave man can enter the secret village, where in the palace he will find a sleeping queen, to be awakened with a kiss."
As reliable as some of those prospects sound, they were corroborated only in the 15th century from the tale of a man named Hamid Keila. He explained to the Emir of Benghazi how he became lost in a fierce sandstorm after he set off from Dahkla. When his caravan and companions all died in the tempest, he was left to starve and die, which he would have done, had it not been for the curious blond-haired blue-eyed strangers who rescued him. The people, who obviously weren't Muslim since the women didn't wear veils, showed him great kindness, ultimately restoring him back to health. Keila described the place as being an all white city by an oasis. Hwever, when the Emir inquired as to why Keila left the people and how he did so, his answers weren't straightforward. An examination yielded a beautiful ruby in a gold ring among his possessions. The king denounced him as a thief, sentencing the removal of his hands, but Keila's story remained. The Emir led a search party to locate the mysterious oasis village, but to no avail.
On a side note, King Idris of Libya inherited the ring. It was determined to be of 12th century European workmanship. Speculation has been given as to whether "that could link the ring and the apparently Teutonic Arabs with the crusades and the possibility that knights who had got lost in the desert had gone native and survived in their remote idyll."
After the 15th century, tales of Zerzura didn't resurface and circulate until 1907 when the “Kitab al Kanuz” was translated into French by the curator of the Egyptian Museum, Maspero, refueling exploration. The most famous searchers were the 1930s' "Zerzura Club," a group composed by Harry Bagnold, including Patrick Clayton, William Kennedy-Shaw, and Hungarian Count László Almásy (the inspiration for the novel The English Patient) .
Clayton led the last expidition through the Great Sand Sea in 1933, though members of the Zerzura Club are reported to have returned for small endeavors until WWII.
In Arabic, the word zerzura describes a place inhabited by starlings or other small birds. However, I prefer the probably fictional explanation of the name given in Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient:
"There was a time when mapmakers named the places they traveled through with the names of lovers rather than their own. Someone seen bathing in a desert caravan, holding up muslin with one arm in front of her. Some old Arab poet's woman, whose white-dove shoulders made him describe an oasis with her name."
So what is Zerzura really?
I think it is most aptly described by Harry Bagnold in Libyan Sands - Travel in a Dead World:
I like to think of Zerzura in that light, as an idea for which we have no apt word in English, meaning something waiting to be discovered in some out-of-the-way place, difficult to access, if one is enterprising enough to go out and look; an indefinite thing, taking different shapes in the minds of different individuals according to their interest and wishes. For the Arab it may be an oasis or hidden treasure; for European it may be a new archaeological site, some find of scientific importance, a new plant or mineral; or just an expectancy of finding anything that is not yet known.
Or for the less scientifically minded it may be still more vague; an excuse for the childish craving so many grown-ups harbour secretly to break away from civilisation, to face the elements at close quarters as did our savages, ancestor, returning temporarily to their life of primitive simplicity and physical vigour; being short of water, to be obliged to go unwashed; having no kit to live in rags, and sleep in the open without a bed.