Image Source: Kickstarter.
For today, see a trailer for a film currently raising production funds on Kickstarter, Zerzura, a 'Sahara Acid Western.' Zerzura (زرزورة) was a legendary oasis city in the Sahara Desert west of the Nile, located in Egypt or Libya. In the 20th century, real searches for this mythical centre focussed on the northern Gilf Kebir and inspired the 1992 novel and 1996 film The English Patient. Some oases were indeed discovered, but these efforts folded into Second World War espionage and British special ops work in North Africa. You can read about that here and here.
Image Source: Tribe Expeditions.
Zerzura is a place of Bedouin myth, supposedly guarded by djinn or 'black giants,' who may have been the Toubou people. Zerzura was also mentioned in the mystic 15th century Arabic manuscript, Kitab al Kanuz, a medieval manual for Egyptian treasure hunters. In the 1960s, the story received a bizarre new treatment from unconfirmed sources, although Wiki's summary suggests that the 1960s' account below embroiders upon the records of the medieval scribes of an emir in Benghazi, Libya. Ask Why:
Several Websites claim that the ruby ring was inherited by Libya's King Idris (1889-1983). Perhaps in 1969 it fell to Muammar Gaddafi (1942-2011). Given that there are no obvious modern sources on this ring, it is likely that the ring and the city from which it came are legends, begging for further exploitation. For example, the tale of lost crusaders taking up residence in the Middle East is popular with today's New Age spiritualists; the myth feeds the Millennial folkloric obsession with pre-Islamic Middle Eastern religions. Some New Age theorists project the story back thousands of years to ancient and classical times, and claim that Atlantean, proto-Irish or proto-Celtic northmen, possibly Druids, traveled to Egypt and influenced its old dynasties. Some Masonic speculations claim that the Druids and ancient Egyptians shared the same beliefs and rituals. These variants should be considered as 20th and early 21st century branches of folklore. The Zerzura story inspired a German-Austrian-Swiss video game in 2012, the Lost Chronicles of Zerzura."In 1969, Emile Schurmacher, a journalist interested in mysteries, explained that the Muslim legend of Zerzura was that, began with a caravan in 1481 AD, wending its way across the desert from the Nile to the oases of Kharga and Darkhla when it was engulfed by an unusually severe sandstorm. Instead of blowing out in a couple of days, this storm lasted over a week and by the time it settled, the caravan, humans and camels, had died of suffocation. Only one man, a camel driver called Hamid Keila shook himself from the shelter of his dead camel and looked upon a plain of sand with just a few bulges and oddments of fabric emerging from beneath it. The caravan had been obliterated.We know this because months later Hamid Keila turned up in poor shape in Benghazi on the Mediterranean and was able to tell an astonishing tale which was recorded by the Emir’s scribes.The camel driver had climbed the escarpment to get a view of the desert and see whether any oases were accessible. The sandstorm had changed the familiar landmarks and he recognised nothing. He struggled along the scarp hoping that he would get his bearings. Lacking water he was becoming delerious when he was found by a group of men the like of whom he had never seen before. They were tall, fair-haired and blue-eyed. What is more, they carried straight swords not scimitars.Quizzed by the Emir, the camel driver related his story confidently enough but he always seemed uneasy and rather shifty. The strange men came from a city in the desert called Zerzura where they took the half-dead Keila and treated him with kindness. The citadel was well watered with springs, and vines and palms sprouted. Access was by a wadi that ran between two mountains and from it a road proceeded into the gates of the city, which was walled. Above the gate was a carved bird of unusual appearance and the houses within were white in the sun. Water was plentiful and pools and springs were used by slim light-skinned women and their children for washing and bathing, and the dwellings were richly furnished.The people of Zerzura, or El Suri, spoke Arabic but with many peculiar words that the camel driver could not understand until they were carefully explained. The strange people were evidently not Muslim because the women were unveiled and Hamid Keila saw no mosque and heard no muzzein. The Emir asked the camel driver how he came to be in Benghazi and again looking uncomfortable he said he escaped one moonless night when he had regained his strength, and after a difficult journey north had arrived in the city. The Emir was puzzled and wondered why it was necessary to escape unless he was being held a prisoner. The camel driver was shifty and could not explain why his story was inconsistent, his rescuers having been declared to be kind. The Emir ordered his guards to search the unfortunate man and they discovered in his robes a huge flawless ruby set in a gold ring.Asked how he had obtained the stone, the camel driver could not answer and the Emir judged that he had stolen it from people who, although apparently infidels, had shown him great kindness. The Emir ordered the unfortunate man to be taken into the desert again and to have his hands cut off. And so he was.The ring and ruby came into the possession of King Idris of Libya and has been examined by several experts who vouch for its immense value. More important, they declare it to be of European workmanship of about the twelfth century, a date 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. Some parties of crusaders did get lost on the way out to the Holy Land or back from it."
The producers of this 2017 film, Zerzura, correctly describe their work as ethnofiction, an improvised ethnographic docufiction, which blends docudramas with fable:
See all my posts on Lost Cities."Zerzura is a feature length film shot in the Sahara desert. Mixing folktales and documentary, the film follows a young man from in Niger who leaves home in search of an enchanted oasis. His journey leads him into a surreal vision of the Sahara, crossing paths with djinn, bandits, gold seekers, and migrants. A folktale transposed onto an acid western, the film is a collaborative fiction, written and developed with a Tuareg cast, and shot in and around Agadez, Niger.Over the past decades, Agadez has reestablished itself as a hub of movement across the desert. Migrants throughout the continent stop here on their perilous trek North, bound for mythic cities in Europe. Tales of gold in the desert abound, and men sell their houses for gold detectors. Young Tuareg leave home to seek their fortune in the fractured Libyan state. As people leave, stories return, becoming folklore, apocryphal and wildly exaggerated versions of truth.In the style of 'ethnofiction' proposed by Jean Rouch, Zerzura is a window into Saharan dreams and imagination, a folktale about the universal drive to search for something that we know is likely false and unwavering faith in the face of realism. In an American-Tuareg production, a script written and developed collaboratively and largely improvised performances, the film plays with mutual exoticism to create a trans-cultural fiction. Zerzura asks 'what we are looking for in the desert, and what do we meet in these empty places?'"