Deep in the desert, west of the Nile River in Egypt, was a fabled city where priceless treasures spilled into the streets, under the reign of a sleeping king and queen. Welcome to Zerzura.
Click start to play today’s Spell It, where you can find the Zerzura ‘oasis’, and create more words with the letters provided.
Over the course of millennia, cultures around the world have been dreaming up stories of beguiling mythical lands, lost in time and enveloped in mystery. Zerzura, which in Arabic means a location populated by starlings or other small birds, traces its origins to a 13th century document by the emir Othman Al Nabulsi, and an anonymous 15th century Arabic treasure hunter’s guide, Kitab Al Kanuz (The Book of Hidden Pearls). From these documents, historians received quite a clear picture of this mythical land.
Imagine the shifting sands and unforgivable heat of the vast Sahara Desert. In this dry, difficult region, there was thought to be an oasis like no other – a shining, city that you could reach through a wadi between two mountains. The entrance to it comprised an intricately carved gate that depicted a striking bird, and it was guarded by giants. In Kitab Al Kanuz, the treasure hunter is advised 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…” Within 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 was the source of great debate in the pages of the UK-based Journal of the Royal Geographical Society. In 1930, one account in the journal, by British explorer W.J. Harding King described how he followed old trade routes in the region, reasoning that there would be watering points along its length. When he spotted a flight of small birds enter Dakhla (another nearby oasis) from the southwest, he hunted them down for food, and noticed they had freshly eaten olives in their stomachs. King became convinced he was close to the lost oasis of Zerzura – but even after searching an area of over 320km, he couldn’t find it.
Further explorations in the desert couldn’t unearth Zerzura, but it did result in the mapping of the barren vastness of the Libyan Desert, in the north-east of the Sahara. Excavators found the water table below it – something that has greatly benefited modern Egypt – and technical innovations helped create motorised desert vehicles.
One explorer, Ralph Bagnold, was responsible for some of the most important geological studies in the region, involving the understanding of dune movement and wind erosion. In 1977, when US 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. Then 81-year-old Bagnold had a unique understanding of Martian dunes, which were similar to those on Earth, thanks to his single-minded pursuit of Zerzura.