Photojournal Banner

Page 55


This is a set of 21 of the Touareg Cross of Agadez, at the Smithsonian Museum of African Art's current show: "The Art of Being Tuareg."

The Touareg (the "blue men of the Sahara") are nomads of the central Sahara, and are the original pre-Arab inhabitants of North Africa. (See, for example, the deep Algerian Sahara scenes in Michelangelo Antonioni's film The Passenger (1975).) The Cross of Agadez is probably derived from the Egyptian Ankh - or symbol of life (Paul Richard/Washington Post).

The Touareg are also intriguing in having maintained an alphabet Tifinar, related to ancient Libyan.

Artist: Ousamane Saidi (Niger). The crosses are in silver and represent the 21 Touareg regions of Niger.

I call this photo, taken in November 2007:

"Cross of Agadez."

(Dec. 27/07) Recent excavations in southwestern Libya have uncovered the remains of one of several ancient cities that have Tifinar inscribed ruins. The Romans knew this as the Garamantes civilization, and had contact with it as evidenced by Roman baths in the city of Garama. Links to ancient Egypt are suggested by burial pyramids in the Meroe (or Nubian) style.

(June 18/08) Also see [in southeastern Algeria] : "The search for the Tassili Frescoes: The rock paintings of the Sahara," by Henri Lhote (1959). Translated from the French by Alan Houghton Brodrick.

"... The Tassili n'Ajjer (that is the Tassili of the Ajjers) lies to the north-east of the Hoggar and to the east touches on the Fezzan. It is a sandstone plateau, difficult of access, and it forms the base or platform from which rise a considerable number of small, secondary massifs all heavily eroded. Through them you can make your way by means of narrow corridors overhung by cliffs, and of pillared areas that remind you of deserted cities. Today all this region is empty of life and an oppressive silence reigns. Once upon a time, however, the passages were streets lined with "houses" since most of the cliffs are eroded at their bases and hollowed out sufficiently to provide natural homes for the early inhabitants of the region. These peoples, have, it is true, long since disappeared, but they left hundreds of paintings on walls of their former dwellings.

... In fact what we saw amoung the maze of the Tassili rocks goes beyond the bounds of imagination. We copied hundreds upon hundreds of painted walls on which were depicted human and animal figures in their thousands. Some of the figures stood alone, others formed complex groupings. Sometimes the scenes were clear enough and related to everyday life or to the spiritual and religious existence of the different peoples which followed on, one after the other, in sites that are now deserted save for a very few Tuareg who still haunt them. We were astounded by the diversity of styles and subjects and by the great number of overpaintings. Side by side with little figures, a very few inches high, we came across others of gigantic dimensions such as are unknown amoung prehistoric pictures elsewhere. Then again, there would be archers struggling for possession of flocks and herds, figures of warriors armed with clubs, of hunters chasing antelopes, of men in canoes hunting hippopotamus. There were dance scenes, representations of libations, and so forth.

In a word, we were confronted with the greatest museum of prehistoric art in the whole world. There were pictures of extra-ordinary aesthetic quality (e.g. the lifesize women at Jebbaren and Sefar) such as would not discredit the finest schools of art in any age.

Two main art-styles stand out from the mass of paintings. One is symbolic in character. It is more ancient and is apparently the work of Negro artists. The other is more recent. It is frankly naturalistic and in it influences from the valley of the Nile are discernible. However, one very important thing about these paintings is that they are in no way related either to those of the Franco-Cantabrian area of Europe, on the one hand, or to the paintings of southern Africa on the other. Moreover, if at one stage Egyptian (and also maybe Mycenaean) influence can be observed, the most archaic of the Tassili pictures belong to a school unknown up to now and one that apparently was of local origin. The pictures of this latter phase afford us the most ancient data that we have concerning Negro art. ..."

Henri Lhote, "The search for the Tassili Frescoes," (1959), Forward at 11-13.


This is a Touareg sword.

The Sahara is still a blank slate. Before the Arab/Islamic invasion, there is a long Roman occupation - Numidia (Algeria), Mauretania Caesariensis (Algeria), Mauretania Tingitana (Morocco), Africa (Tunisia), Tripolitania (Libya), Cyrenaica (Libya), and before Rome the Greek and Phoenician city-states, and before that ancient Egypt. My main insight from watching Antonioni is that this is black Africa. Like Sudan and Ethiopia this fact is usually glossed over. (Going back deeper in time, Egypt is black African too. Several years ago a New York police forensics expert (Frank Domingo) declared that the Sphinx has a black head.)

There is also a green Sahara. Not in the distant past, but today. The Sahara is still a blank slate ...

According to Paul Bowles, the expatriate American writer, the salient feature of the Algerian Sahara is what the colonial French called le bapteme de la solitude:

"Immediately when you arrive in the Sahara, for the first or the tenth time, you notice the stillness. An incredible, absolute stillness prevails outside the towns; and within, even in busy places like markets, there is a hushed quality in the air, as if the quiet was a conscious force which resenting the intrusion of sound, minimizes and disperses sound straight away. Then there is the sky, compared to which all other skies seem faint-hearted efforts. Solid and luminous, it is always the focal point of the landscape. At sunset, the precise, curved shadow of the earth rises into it swiftly from the horizon, cutting it into light section and dark section. When all daylight is gone, and the space is thick with stars, it is still of an intense and burning blue, darkest directly overhead and paling toward the earth, so that the night never really grows dark.

You leave the gate of the fort or the town behind, pass the camels lying outside, go up into the dunes, or out onto the hard, stony plain and stand awhile, alone. Presently, you will either shiver and hurry back inside the walls, or you will go on standing there and let something very peculiar happen to you, something that everyone who lives there has undergone and which the French call le bapteme de la solitude. It is a unique sensation, and it had nothing to do with loneliness, for loneliness presupposes memory. Here, in this wholly mineral landscape lighted by stars like flares, even memory disappears; nothing is left but your own breathing and the sound of your heart beating. A strange, and by no means pleasant, process of reintegration begins inside you, and you have the choice of fighting against it and insisting on remaining the person you have always been, or letting it take its course. For no one who has stayed in the Sahara for a while is quite the same as when he came. ... "

Paul Bowles, Baptism of Solitude (1963), - from the Paul Bowles reader Too Far From Home (1993)

The sword and sheath and adjacent wallet are owned by the Iris and Gerald Cantor Center for the Visual Arts, Stanford University. The sword and sheath are steel, leather and fabric. The wallet is leather, shell and coins.

I call this shot, also taken this November:

"Touareg Sword."

(June 3, 2015) Also see the Zerzura myth - a Saharan "Shangri-La". According to Wikipedia: " ...Zerzura was long rumored to have existed deep in the desert west of the Nile River in Egypt or Libya. In writings dating back to the 13th century, the authors spoke of a city which was "white as a dove" and called it "The Oasis of Little Birds". In the Kitab al Kanuz, Zerzura is said to be a city in the Sahara full of treasure with a sleeping king and queen. The city is guarded by black giants who keep anyone from going in and coming out. " Zerzura, Wikipedia.

Finding Zerzura was an obsession for early 20th century explorers of the Sahara. For example, although it does not come through in 1996 movie "The English Patient", one of Count Almasy's passions was finding the lost city of Zerzura: "... the fabled 'oasis of small birds', supposedly guarded by two djinns and inhabited by strange black men speaking an unknown tongue " The secret life of Laszlo Almasy: The real English Patient" by John Bierman (2004) at 47.

Almasy was the second son of an old Hungarian aristocratic family that did not have a title. In 1921 he was made a Count by the last Austro-Hungarian Emperor, Karl IV. However, under pressure from the victorious western powers in World War 1, Karl IV was forced into exile, and Almasy's title was not recognized by the new Hungarian government.

Almasy ended up in Egypt where he got caught up in the Saharan adventures of Prince Kemal el Din of Egypt. Until the beginning of the 20th century, the Libyan Desert - the Sahara between Libya and Egypt where Zerzura is rumored to exist, was a blank on the map. Prince Kemal's passion for finding Zerzura resulted in some of the first accurate maps of this portion of the Sahara.

According to "Searching for Zerzura" by Robert Berg in the December 2002 issue of Saudi Aramco:

" ... Significant contributions to geographic knowledge resulted from Hassanein Bey's careful measurements. He fixed the positions of Arkenu and 'Uwaynat, previously known to the outside world only by rumor, and determined more accurate positions for a number of other locations. The map prepared by the Egypt Survey Department from his account of his journey gave the most accurate overview of the Libyan Desert of the time. Vast areas, however, remained blank. The Gilf Kebir, the Qattara Depression, the Selima Sand Sheet and most of the Great Sand Sea remained unknown.... Another Egyptian, Prince Kemal el Din, played a major role in filling those blanks. The grandson of Khedive Ismail, he brought an active mind, adventurous spirit and—importantly—deep pockets to the search for Zerzura. To help extend the speed and range of his expedition, he commissioned manufacture of a group of tracked vehicles from Citroën. Using these, he and Ball made several journeys together. In 1923 they headed west-southwest from Dakhla to further explore the extent of the Sand Sea and to look for a lost oasis that would link Dakhla with oases to the west. In 1924 they drove into the Sand Sea. In 1925 they were the first to reach Jabal 'Uwaynat from the Nile Valley, traveling via Bir Terfawi in the Selima Sand Sheet, where they found "absolutely nothing to be looked at...but the eternal smooth curving outlines of the sand repeating themselves with geometric regularity." In 1926 the prince was also the first to reach Jabal 'Uwaynat from the direction of Dakhla. In the process, he discovered the Gilf Kebir, a plateau the size of Switzerland, ringed by cliffs, between the Sand Sea and 'Uwaynat. ...Kemal el Din and Ball's journeys mapped large areas in the southern and western regions of the Egyptian portion of the Libyan Desert. Their clarification of the extent of the Sand Sea, and the prince's discovery of the Gilf Kebir, provided Egypt with a clear picture of this natural defensive barrier of huge dunes and sheer cliffs. Utilizing their findings, Ball produced a contour map of the Libyan Desert and also mapped the static water table beneath it. ...." Robert Berg, Saudi Aramco.

The "Cave of the Swimmers" in the English Patient is in the Gilf Kebir. According to Wikipedia:

" ... The Cave of Swimmers is a cave with ancient rock art in the mountainous Gilf Kebir plateau of the Libyan Desert section of the Sahara. It is located in the New Valley Governorate of southwest Egypt, near the border with Libya. The cave and rock art was discovered in October 1933 by the Hungarian explorer László Almásy. It contains Neolithic pictographs (rock painting images) of people swimming. They are estimated to have been created 10,000 years ago during the time of the most recent Ice Age.

Almásy devoted a chapter to the cave in his 1934 book, The Unknown Sahara. In it he postulates that the swimming scenes are real depictions of life at the time of painting and that there had been a climate change from temperate to xeric desert since that time. This theory was so new at that time that his first editor added several footnotes, to make it clear that he did not share this opinion. In 2007, Eman Ghoneim discovered an ancient mega-lake (30,750 km²) buried beneath the sand of the Great Sahara in the Northern Darfur region, Sudan ... " Wikipedia


Almasy made two of the earliest expeditions to the Gilf. The first one was sponsored by a young and wealthy English baronet, Sir Robert Clayton East Clayton in 1932.

By coincidence, both Sir Robert and Prince Kemal died from sudden illness in Europe shortly after Almasy's first expedition to the Gilf.

According to Saudi Aramco: "... In 1932 an expedition including a young English baronet, Robert Clayton East-Clayton, Count Almásy, Colonel Pat Clayton of the Survey Department and Wing Commander H. W. G. J. Penderel made an aerial sighting of two green valleys in the Gilf Kebir. Was Zerzura found at last? Attempts to reach the valleys overland failed when gasoline ran short. At one point Penderel and Pat Clayton found themselves stranded. Undaunted, they "brewed a cup of tea from radiator water. Although the water was darker than the tea," Clayton related, "I have never tasted a drink nearly so good."

Their sighting created a sensation, and in early 1933, two separate expeditions returned to the Gilf Kebir. The first was that of Pat Clayton and Lady Dorothy Clayton, the widow of Sir Robert. Meeting at Kufra, they explored the western face of the Gilf Kebir and located the two green valleys, Wadi Hamra and Wadi Abd el Melik. A short time later, Almásy and Penderel explored the eastern face of the Gilf Kebir. They found a third green valley, Wadi Talh, as well as the Aqaba Pass, which cuts through the plateau from east to west. (During World War II Almásy used this passage to evade Allied patrols while smuggling the German spy "Rebecca" to the outskirts of Dhakla. Almásy's exploits were the chief inspiration for the novel The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje, and the 1996 Oscar-winning film of the same name.) ..." Robert Berg, Saudi Aramco


Recent Gilf el Kebir photos. Note the World War 2 ruins. According to Wikipedia: "... The plateau was the site for various British logistical operations during the Second World War, and due to the extremely dry conditions and lack of population, remains of this occupation are often found intact. A large airbase, including huge navigation arrows laid out in army petrol cans, can still be seen.

See, for example, remains of World War 2 RAF fighter.

It was also the site of the recent discovery of a bag which had been lost in the Second World War by a dispatch rider (Alec Ross) of the Long Range Desert Group, part of the British Army. This contained the rider's personal letters and photographs, and had been well preserved." Wikipedia


(June 7, 2015) These World War 2 remains could also be part of a southern Egyptian "phantom army". According to "The secret life of Laszlo Almasy" by John Bierman (2004) the British were aware, through code-breaking of the Nazi enigma encryption machine, that Almasy had been recruited by the German army in North Africa and was carrying out secret missions in the remote desert regions of the Gilf el Kebir. A 24 year old female British intelligence officer, Jean Howard, was concerned that Almasy might find out about the existence of this false army:

"... Almasy's name first came to her attention in the spring of 1942 when, as Miss Jean Alington, a linguist working in Hut Three at Bletchley Park, she noticed some Enigma intercepts relating to an "Almasy Commando" which had been heard by her superiors. At that time the clandestine activities of an obscure Hungarian desert expert attached to the Afrika Korps were not a matter of high priority to her superiors. There were, after all preoccupied with matters of far greater strategic import, not the least of these - so far as the desert war was concerned - being when Rommel might launch his next offensive. But Jean Alington felt a compelling urge to fine-focus on the information that was intermittently crossing her desk about a forthcoming Almasy Commando operation, code-named Salam.

'I had noticed that this Almasy Commando was to go through a part of North Africa [somewhere near the Quattara Depression, south of the British defensive line at El Alamein] where we had a false army - a signals unit, not tanks etcetera, but signals being sent out to look as though it was an entire army', she would recall.

So she asked her superiors for permission to search for more relevant Abwehr decodes so that she could keep an especially close watch on Almasy's movements. They gave her the go-ahead, but only grudgingly. 'All right,' they conceded, 'but do it in your own time.' ..."

"The secret life of Laszlo Almasy" (2004) at 168-169


(June 9, 2015) Whether or not Almasy found Zerzura, the central Sahara is probably overflowing with ancient African cities going back to the ice age (10,000 BC), when the desert was green.

And a few years ago, during a viewing of the IMAX movie "Blue Planet" at the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum, I was intrigued by what seemed to be too much light activity in the deep Libyan and Algerian Sahara.

There is a Youtube version of this movie, but the impression is not as clear as on the large screen IMAX. The night-lights clip from space is at 34:16 on "Blue Planet." (There is a strip of light where the Nile Valley is, but there are also 2 clusters of light to the left of the Nile that should not be there - this is deep Sahara.)


(June 10, 2015) Arab/Islamic version of the Zerzura myth - Kitab al Kanuz - from Wikipedia:

"... According to the historical writings from the scribes of an emir in Benghazi, Libya in 1481 [AD], a camel driver named Hamid Keila came to Benghazi in bad shape and recounted to the emir that he had been to the city of Zerzura. Apparently Hamid Keila and a caravan had been heading out from the Nile River to the oases of Dakhla (Darkhla/Dakhilah) and Kharga (Kharijah) and were caught in a vicious sandstorm that killed everyone except Keila who apparently survived under the shelter of his dead camel. After the storm passed, the man had emerged from the camel to find himself confused by the lay of the land because the storm changed all the familiar landmarks. It was when Keila was becoming delirious from having no water that a group of strange men found him. The men were said to be tall with fair hair and blue eyes, carrying straight swords instead of Arab scimitars, who then took the camel driver back to a city called Zerzura to tend to him. Zerzura was indeed described as a white city that was approachable through a wadi (valley) that ran between two mountains, and from the wadi was a road that lead to the gates of the city which had a carving of a strange bird above them. Within the city were white houses of inner luxury, palms, springs, and pools that were used by fair-skinned women and children for washing and bathing. Hamid Keila recounted that the Zerzurans, or "El Suri", treated him with kindness and spoke a strange form of Arabic that was difficult for him to understand but was carefully explained to him by the Suri, who apparently weren't Muslim because the women wore no veils and no mosques could be found in the city, nor did Hamid Keila hear any calls to prayer by a muezzin.

The camel driver told this story to the emir months after being in Zerzura, and the emir asked him how it was that he came to be in Benghazi at present. Hamid grew uncomfortable with the questioning and told him that he had escaped from Zerzura one night. The emir then asked why it was necessary to escape if the Suri treated him with kindness, and the camel driver had trouble explaining. The emir suspected something strange and had Keila searched by his guards, who found a precious ruby set in a gold ring hidden on the man. The emir then asked how he got the ring, but Keila couldn't say. Figuring he'd stolen it from the Suri, the emir had Keila taken out into the desert to have his hands cut off. The emir believed the man's story because he and his men later went out into the wasteland to find Zerzura, but never did, though it is possible that the emir did not look in the right area of the desert. ..." Zerzura, Wikipedia


(June 13, 2015) Almasy's other passion in the Sahara was the fate of the lost army of Cambyses, a 5th century BC Persian conqueror of Egypt:

"... Almost from the time of his arrival in Egypt, Almasy had been fascinated - a fascination that would grow into an obsession - by two desert legends: that of Zerzura, ... and that of the lost army of Cambyses, the fifth -century BC Persian conqueror of Egypt. ... According to legend, endorsed by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, Cambyses sent a fifty-thousand-man force to march 350 miles (560 km.) across the desert from Dakhla to occupy the northern Siwa Oasis, site of the temple of the oracle Jupiter Ammon, only to have the entire army engulfed and buried en route by a huge sandstorm. ..."

"The Secret Life of Lazslo Almasy" (2004), at 47.

The opportunity to continue the search for this lost Persian army was one of the reasons that Almasy gave for signing up with Rommel's army. It was also the subject of Almasy's incoherent babbling's on his deathbed in 1951. (After World War 2, Almasy was smuggled out of a Russian prison camp with the help of a bribe from Egyptian royal circles and British intelligence services.)

The connection of Zerzura to this lost Persian army is not clear, but it might explain the later Islamic legend of a colony of fair-skinned men and women in the middle of the Sahara.

In the Nazi milieu this would be the "Aryan" world.

In the historical milieu this would be the world of the Persian dynasty of ancient Egypt.



Page 55


© 2007 by Waweru Njenga. All rights reserved.

First posted: 11/29/2007



1 1