Book Review: Mysteries of the Libyan Desert

Mysteries of the Libyan Desert
W.J. Harding-King

Originally published in 1925 it is now published as a facsimile edition by Darf Publishers (2003).

The inclusion of the word “mysteries” in the title implies that the contents will be littered with colourful prose highlighting the romance of desert travel, but this is far from the case. Harding-King writes in a modern prose style and although he carries the reader along with him, what he conveys is not a voyage of romance but one of serious enquiry and investigation.

His accounts are rich in detail about both the people he meets and hires, and the places he visits. He begins his travel into the desert from the southern oases – Kharga, Dakhleh and Farafra. The residents are a mixture of fellahin (farmers), bedawin (nomadic Bedouin) and various officials and professionals from the Nile. In these somewhat remote areas the administration was run by officials sent to the oases usually as a punishment for transgressions in Nile-side towns. As a European Hardking-King was something of a curiosity, particularly in Farafra, and received varying degrees of welcome as he sought accommodation, looked for camels for his caravan, and hired for each expedition a desert guide, a translator, a cook, and camel leaders. He introduces the reader to the complex religious beliefs, political ambitions, secrecy and traditions of the Sanussi sect who had zawiya (monasteries) on the edge of the Egyptian dessert in order to make converts of local people. At the time the Sanussi were powerful with national-scale political hopes, and were a force to be reckoned with. They were strongly opposed to European investigations in the desert between Egypt and Libya and caused various problems for Harding-King.

The descriptions of the desert and of the practicalities and risks of travel by camel caravan are excellent. Travel over large distances was often accomplished during the night in order to avoid the heat, and the description of this mesmeric experience alone is exceptional. The journey to map of the desert included numerous surprises involving both the nature of the desert itself and expectations raised by previous visitors.

This is the earliest reference I have seen so far to the “lost oasis” of Zerzura which became such a passionate topic of interest for Egyptian based Europeans between the wars. It was one of the subjects in the many treasure-hunting books beloved of Egyptians at the time. Harding-King was ambivalent about these books. He dismissed their value for locating treasure but was open minded about their potential a guides to old roads and unrecorded oases. The stories, however, of the activities of his men in Farafra digging down into archaeological sites to find the promised treasure, collecting coins and throwing mummies haphazardly to one side are quite simply hair raising!

Life in the oases could clearly be dull over long periods but Harding-King rarely faced tedium. These towns and villages, lying between Egypt and the Sanussi, were frontier places of extortion, sabotage, petty disputes, fanaticism, intrigues, espionage and a never-ending change of key personnel in administrative and professional roles. Harding-King gives several accounts of his own personal experiences of such cases, demonstrating how close to disaster he occasionally came due to the machinations of the Sanussi rather than to the threats and risks imposed by desert travel.

Harding-King’s references to the various characteristics of “natives” may stick in the gullets of some but he is considerably more open-minded by comparison with some of his contemporaries and his occasionally irritable observations are clearly drawn from experience, not blind prejudice.

Harding-King finishes his book with a summary of the results of his expedition, a long chapter on his observations about customs, superstitions and magic (truly riveting stuff), another on natural history (an excellent reference even today) and a set of very useful appendices.

– The geography and winds of the Libyan Deserts
– Insects collected in the Libyan Desert (using Latin nomenclature)
– Rock inscriptions from the Libyan Desert (marks rather than “art”)

100 years later things have of course changed. Harding-King predicted in his preface that cars, “only recently invented”, would eventually become efficient enough to cross the desert, but he regarded this prospect with regret. He called them “prosaic mechanical aids” and observed that “speculation is so full of fascination, that it seems almost a pity that those problems should ever be solved.” Harding-King was headed for Uweinat but never got that far. I’ve been there several times, heading out from Dakhleh as he did, but in vast Toyota Landcruisers armed with GPS and satellite phones. A different world indeed in some ways. But at the same time there is much that hasn’t changed and is still perfectly recognizable in Harding-King’s text. Villages and buildings, cultivated fields and even the people living in the oases are all familiar, and the desert is just as Harding-King described. Many of the customs and traditions remain, and the wildlife that he describes still occupies the desert areas. The archaeological monuments are now protected and the Sanussi have returned to Libya, but so much else remains the same.

There are three good maps, two of which fold out, and there are some good black and white photographs which were taking by Harding-King showing people and places, with explanatory captions.

An index completes the book. Some of the original adverts for other books in the same series are also printed in the book, and some of them are simply mind boggling. It really was an age of exploration but it was also an era where colonialism carried with it some ideas which are simply unacceptable to most modern western minds.

This is a super book, well written, involving and a good resource for both the oases and the desert.

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