April 30, 2021

Z is for Zerzura

         (My A-Z Blog Challenge theme this year is Mythical and Imaginary Places.)
        For the final location in the A to Z Challenge we’ll stay in the desert and join the search for the mysterious lost oasis of Zerzura.  Zerzura comes from Arabic lore of the Great Sand Sea, one of the driest and least populated regions of the Sahara, where even to this day few people explore.  It straddles the area from Libya to Egypt, and is a vast expanse of sand dunes with few oases.  Tales of this region have abounded in Arabic lore for centuries, and Zerzura is first mentioned in an Egyptian document from the mid-thirteenth century.  The first detailed description comes from the fifteenth century Book of Treasure (Kitab al-Kanuz).  With a title like this, you know you’re going to have a fabulous story.  It is unclear whether any copies of this book currently exist, but it was apparently a collection of stories, spells, and incantations listing over 400 sites in Egypt where one could find hidden treasure.  One of those sites was Zerzura.
        Five days west of any track, the wanderer might find a road that follows a long wadi, or ravine.  At the end of the road is a city white as a dove, on whose gate is carved a bird.  You will find in the beak of this sculpted bird a key, and if you take the key you can enter the city.  The buildings all are white and beautiful, with springs and pools and an abundance of vines and palm trees, but the king and queen of this city are deep in an enchanted sleep.  You are advised not to go near them, but to take the treasure and leave.  However, there is also some mention of black giants guarding the city, so you may also want to watch out for them.
        The first that Europeans heard of Zerzura was in 1835, and was based on a report from an Arab who claimed to have found Zerzura while looking for a lost camel.  He said he had found an oasis with ruins, but I’m not sure the ruins prove that an enchanted king and queen couldn’t still be there, sleeping their magical sleep as their city falls ever farther into decay.  At any rate, it was not until the dawn of the twentieth century that exploration of the area took off.  A number of expeditions by both Egyptians and Europeans began explorations of 
the Libyan Desert (which stretches from the middle of Libya to the banks of the Nile in Egypt).  Automobiles and finally airplanes slowly began to make greater and greater expeditions possible, and a number of oases and other new features were discovered, as well as great advances in the scientific study of sand dunes — but nothing was discovered that could be identified as Zerzura.  And so we end the A to Z Challenge as we began it: with an ancient lost city of great treasure and splendor, that has disappeared into the unknown.
        I would love to have some medieval Arabic illustrations of Zerzura, but all I can find are modern digital works.  The first one has influences of Petra, while the second looks more Egyptian, and also shows the carved bird over the gate.  This one comes from an adventure puzzle game for the computer.  Next is a city with minarets and domes, and the final picture looks almost futuristic with its skyscrapers more than 25 stories tall.  Only the first two illustrations are really intended to depict Zerzura.  The other two are simply billed as fantasy desert cities.  I think this would be a fun one to try to illustrate myself, and I’d definitely take a little inspiration from Petra just because Petra is so cool, but also from some of the amazing desert ruins found in Egypt, Iran, and other areas.
        As a concluding place for this year’s theme, Zerzura echoes a number of the motifs we’ve seen throughout the previous 25 mythical and imaginary places: the lost or hidden city (Atlantis, El Dorado, Kitezh, Shangri-La), the city of incredible luxury, power, or beauty now fallen to naught (Atlantis, Babel, Eden, Xanadu), the city wherein the intrepid explorer can help himself to oodles of loot (El Dorado, Luilekkerland, Northrend, Santa’s Workshop?), the enchantment and presence of magic beyond our mundane lives (Camelot, Faerie, Middle-Earth, Neverwinter, Oz), the oasis in the midst of inhospitable territory (Isles, Shangri-La)…  What I like best about the story of Zerzura, however, is the mystery: we’re given so many intriguing and beautiful details, but no explanation about any of them.  In fact, the ancient stories of this place don’t seem to draw any lessons or conclusion at all, which is actually quite unusual.  But it won’t stop me from offering you
        The MORAL of Zerzura:  Sometimes mystery is its own reward.
              OR:  Lost camels may be the number one indicator of lost cities.
        So, what would you carve over the gate of your enchanted kingdom?

[Pictures: Zerzura, digital art by Prospero0404, 2020 (Image from Deviant Art);
Screenshot from "Lost Chronicles of Zerzura" by Viva Media, 2012 (Image from Adventure Gamers);
Desert City, digital art by J.J. Peabody, 2015 (Image from Deviant Art);
City in the desert, digital art by Mark Tarrisse, (Image from Mark Tarrisse).]


JadeLi said...

Over the gate: P'eng's Kingdom: Receptivity is Key

Anne, I've immensely enjoyed reading your A2Z series this year. You put a lot of work into these and it's appreciated by this reader.

“Z” Tull:

JadeLi said...

p.s. Info on P'eng:

Deborah Weber said...

I've quite enjoyed your series Anne, and Zerzura is definitely a lost place I'd love to find. I don't think there's any point using modern equipment, I'm certain magical camels are the best way to go. Thanks for leading us on such delightful imaginings. You've helped make April a genuine treasure.

Trudy said...

"... giants guarding the city, so you may also want to watch out for them." Advise taken! hahaha

Even though the last two images aren't Zerzura, I'm glad you included them... they are intriguing.

Congratulations on completing the A to Z Challenge!

Frédérique said...

Lost cities are much more mysterious if they remain lost 😄 I love the detail about the bird (and the giants too!)
Well done with the challenge!

Lisa said...

I have not heard of this one. The first illustration reminds me of Gandalf and the Fellowship trying to figure out how to get into the dwarf door!
Thank you for all the fun A to Z posts!

Olga Godim said...

Love the Egyptian-themed illustration of the gates!
I'd carve a dragon on the gates of my imaginary city. Or a cat.
Congrats on reaching the end of this April road.

Gail M Baugniet - Author said...

Love the story of the enchanted city. With black giant guards present, however, I would not venture to approach. I enjoyed reading about all your mythical and imaginary places. Congratulations on completing the AtoZChallenge for 2021, Anne. We made it!

Weekends in Maine said...

Lost cities hold such an allure. I don't think I'd be good at exploring a dessert city or destination though. I've always lived close to water and can't imagine navigating the dessert. . Weekends In Maine

A Tarkabarka Hölgy said...

I have an hour-long storytelling show about the legend of Zerzura, interwoven with the story of the Almásy expedition that claims to have found it. They did find a hidden and hard to approach oasis (no city), by following the flight of birds :)
(Almásy László is the Hungarian explorer The English Patient was based on)

This was a great theme! I enjoyed all your posts, and also learned a lot :) I'm glad you joined us again for A to Z!

The Multicolored Diary

Linda Gardiner said...

Great month of posts! Well done. So much research. I bet you've been on some deep dives in the process. I've learned a lot. Glad you were along for the ride this year.

PT Dilloway said...

Congrats on finishing the challenge. That's some neat stuff.

Steph W. said...

Very fascinating! I cannot wait to catch up on your other letters. I'm glad I have time to go back now. Well done on finishing!

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JazzFeathers said...

Great post and great challenge, Anne!
I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Congratulations on concluding the challenge!

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Jade, thanks for the link to P'eng - that's a new one for me!

Deborah, I think you're right about the magical camels. Now, how can I get hold of some of them?

Lisa, the Gates of Moria connection is interesting, because I think in both cases the way to get in is obvious - but only once you know it.

Olga, a dragon would certainly be one of my top options, too.

Zalka, wow, I'd love to hear your whole presentation! But I don't think Almásy found the right place.

Thanks to everyone for coming by and commenting!

Timothy S. Brannan said...

Congratulations on completing the A to Z challenge. You had a wonderful theme this year.

Tim Brannan, The Other Side

Andrea said...

I'm so sorry I didn't find your posts before, such an interesting theme, I've bookmarked to come back :)

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