In 1930, when Egypt was under the military occupation of Great Britain, a group of mostly British officers, cartographers, and surveyors met in the Sudanese village of Wadi Halfa to share their exploits over some cold beer.
During the previous decade, a series of expeditions into the vast and forbidding Libyan Desert had found oases previously unexplored by Europeans, mapping them for the first time. Only the legendary Zerzura oasis remained unidentified. The gathered explorers agreed to form the Zerzura Club in honor of their quest for the elusive “oasis of the little birds,” from the Arabic zarzar, for starling or sparrow.
Zerzura was first mentioned as an abandoned village by a 13th-century provincial administrator. It next appears in the 15th-century Book of Hidden Pearls, which locates it in a wadi (a valley or gully) near the city of Wardabaha. The text suggests Zerzura is brimming with wealth and describes how a treasure hunter could make off with it. The Greek historian Herodotus in 450 B.C. mentions a white city full of treasures lost in the desert west of the Nile. Might Herodotus have been referring to Zerzura?
Instead of finding these fabled treasures, however, the Zerzura Club explorers would reveal marvels of another kind: thousands of Stone Age cave paintings in Gilf Kebir, in southwestern Egypt. It was evidence of a pastoral people who lived for 5,000 years in what was then a savannah-like region until 4000 B.C., when climate change transformed the land into desert.
Gilf Kebir had been identified before the Zerzura Club began its quest. Two Egyptian explorers had been combing the desert in search of other ancient and mystical sites. In 1923, the Oxford-educated Hassanein Bey, traveling into uncharted territory south of the Kufra oasis, had “rediscovered” Arkenu and Uweinat, two of the so-called “lost” oases.
In 1925, a wealthy Egyptian explorer Prince Kamalel-Din Hussein—who renounced his claim to the Egyptian throne as a protest against British occupation—first sighted and named Gilf Kebir, which means “Great Cliff ” or “Barrier.” Rising nearly a thousand feet, this sandstone plateau, together with the adjacent dunes of the Great Sand Sea, is roughly the size of Switzerland. It had been completely unexplored until then.
A year later, the prince would return to the site as a pioneer of motorized transport. Revolutionizing desert exploration, he commissioned a fleet of Citroën Kegresse half-track or “caterpillar” cars that made traversing Saharan sands much easier. Skirting its southern cliffs, he reached Gilf Kebir and mapped it.
Picking up the trail
Around the time the prince had named the plateau, another adventurer was becoming fascinated with the region and in its elusive oases. Born in Hungary in 1895, Laszlo Almásy came from a noble but untitled family with limited financial means. As a boy, he had a love for cars and planes as well as astrology, magic, and witchcraft. This taste for the esoteric and the pseudo-scientific would make him all the more captivated by the legends around Zerzura. After three years of boarding school in England, he fought in World War I as a pilot in the fledgling Austro-Hungarian air force.
His first contact with North Africa came in the mid-1920s, when Austria’s Steyr car company hired him to promote their vehicles in various desert journeys. Spellbound by desert experiences, he read everything written by members of the Zerzura Club, especially the exploits of the founding Major R.A. Bagnold, who had led expeditions using Ford Model A cars to search for Zerzura, but without success.
The English patient
In spring 1932, along with three British Club members (Robert and Pat Clayton and Hubert Penderel) Almásy set out to explore the northwest side of Gilf Kebir using a De Havill and Gypsy Moth for aerial reconnaissance, with three Ford Model A cars on the ground.
On one flight, a wadi “filled with trees” was seen, but it could not be located by car. Based on knowledge gleaned from locals, Almásy believed one of the wadis could be the fabled Zerzura. But with fuel supplies running dangerously low, he and his team decided to abandon the search.
Oasis of art
In 1933, on his next expedition, to the western side of Gilf Kebir, Almásy found a second wadi with acacia trees and patches of dry grass. He didn’t find anything resembling the “white city” of legend. Zerzura again seemed beyond reach, but then Almásy stumbled on something else.
At the end of the expedition, seeking shade in the heat, he and his party came across a series of interesting cave paintings. There were figures of animals and men painted black with red hair. On this occasion, he documented half a dozen caves.
In October Almásy organized a new expedition, now accompanied by Austrian writer Richard Bermann. Almásy was not the first to find cave paintings in the region, but this time he made a truly momentous find. Searching through dozens of painted caverns, a discovery “exceeded all our expectations ... Four caves painted with beautiful images of people who seemed to be swimming,” Bermann wrote.
Almásy named it the “Cave of the Swimmers,” and called the area Wadi Sura, or “Valley of Paintings.” The artworks convinced Almásy that the Sahara had not always been a desert, an inspired insight that sparked a scientific sensation.
Lakes and beasts
Since the discovery, archaeologists have been able to piece together the genesis of the paintings. They were created between 9,000 and 6,000 years ago, during the African humid period, an era in which the desert had retreated. Hunter-gatherers lived in a grassy landscape. Although Almásy’s hunch that the artists lived in a water-filled environment proved correct, modern researchers suggest the images depict not swimmers but something more symbolic: floating spirits, or even dreams recorded by the Stone Age dwellers of the region.
In 2007, research confirmed the presence of a large lake in the region. It seemed the walls of the nearby rock shelters were redecorated with forms of animals who lived there long ago. The most significant, the Cave of Beasts, was discovered in 2002 by archaeologists Massimo and Jacopo Foggini and Ahmed Mestikawi.
Painted around 7,000 years ago—a millennium before the region started to become arid—these images suggest the region surrounding Gilf Kebir supported a varied and rich ecosystem. The works of art offer tantalizing clues to the imagination and creativity of a people who lived at a time when the Sahara teemed with life.