History – and, more often, mythology – is replete with tales of supposed “lost cities.” Whether it’s Atlantis, the City of the Caesars, or that tiny Irish version of Brazil that everyone insisted was real for a few centuries, there’s apparently just something irresistible about the idea of a once-great civilization now totally lost to the annals of time and fate. One such legendary metropolis is the oasis city of Zerzura – a place said to be nestled deep in the Sahara desert of Egypt or Libya, gleaming white and filled with ancient treasures guarded by a troop of giant soldiers.
At first glance, there seems to be something to this myth, too. Search for information on the city, and you’ll find references to the so-called Kitab al Kanuz, a book supposedly compiled back in the 15th century that describes Zerzura as “a white city, like a dove” found at the end of a valley of “palms and vines and flowing wells.”
“Follow the valley… to the City of Zerzura. You will find its gate closed,” the manuscript is said to record. “By the gate you will find a bird sculptured. Stretch up your hand to its beak and take from it a key. Open the gate with it and enter the city. You will find much wealth and the king and queen in their place sleeping the sleep of enchantment. Do not go near them. Take the treasure and that is all.”
Despite this supposed early mention, the first European account of the lost city comes from 1835 – and it’s something of a second-hand report. It came from John Gardner Wilkinson, an English traveler and writer now often called the “Father of British Egyptology”, who reported being told by “an Arab in search of a stray camel” – we repeat, it was 1835 at the time – that there was an oasis “abounding in palms, with springs, and some ruins of uncertain date” a few days west of the ancient Egyptian town of Farafra.
So far, so enticing – but there are a few problems with the legend. First of all, the Kitab al Kanuz, despite its supposedly venerable heritage, is not exactly the sort of source we ought to trust too hard just yet. It’s pretty much only known today as a kind of treasure map to Zerzura, and for good reason: the piece quoted above is more or less the only bit of it that exists.
We don’t have an original or even a copy of the Kitab al Kanuz; we don’t even have a named author – all we have is some guy’s word that he owned a version at some point. Even he was never really convinced by the manuscript: he presented it less as a lost relic of some legendary city and more as a semi-complete land survey by someone who, essentially, wasn’t that good at their job.
Secondly, “tales of secret desert locales found by searchers for stray camels were common,” wrote Robert Berg, an amateur researcher and consultant in the Middle East, back in 2002. While several explorers – some extremely well-funded and equipped – went out in search of the lost city over the ensuing decades, none were ever successful.
So was Zerzura ever anything more than a myth? While explorers from the early 20th century held out hope that it may really have existed, even they admitted it was unlikely. All the suspected locations for the city – and there were many, strewn across a wide area of the desert – came up empty, and the explorer W.J. Harding King eventually concluded that “it is doubtful whether any such place of this name exists.”
“’Zerzur’ is Arabic for a small bird, so ‘Zerzura’ would have some such meaning as ‘the place of small birds,’ and appears somewhat fantastic,” he wrote. “Zerzura seems to be a generic name applied to any undiscovered or traditional oasis.”
To put it another way, as explorer John Ball decided after devoting decades of his life to surveying the Sahara in search of the legendary city: “We must conclude that the ‘lost’ oasis of Zerzura has no more real existence than the philosopher’s stone.”