Al-Ahram Weekly Online   26 February - 3 March 2004
Issue No. 679
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Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (535)

Desert dividends

In a novel attempt to increase sales, Al-Ahram funded an expedition to the Western Desert in 1934. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* traces the trek

Yunan Labib Rizk

Click to view caption
Sobhi meeting President Sadat. Left is former Press Syndicate Chairman Salah Galal. Right, Prince Mohamed Abdel-Moneim

In their end of year examination in Arabic, fourth-year students at Damanhour Secondary School were given the following essay question: "Earlier this year, Al-Ahram sent an exploratory team to Egypt's Western Desert. How did this benefit the newspaper? The members of the mission? The nation?"

When news of this reached Al-Ahram, it rejoiced at what it saw as a sign that school curricula were being updated with the intention of accustoming students to keep up with contemporary social and scientific developments through the daily press. "When, one day, they venture forth into the fray of life, they will be equipped with the general knowledge of many of its diverse aspects," it remarked.

Eventually, the newspaper also published the results, giving special mention to Murad Helmi Boutros, "who came out at the head of his class in this exam, receiving 13 out of a possible 15 points". In recognition of this, Al-Ahram awarded Boutros a free full year's subscription to the newspaper. It then published the exam paper that scored so highly.

The Al-Ahram Western Desert mission, Boutros wrote, was "a brilliant idea, a noble act and a model of philanthropic benefit to be emulated and expanded upon... Al-Ahram selected a team of its best, most intelligent members and equipped them with the geographical tools and devices that would assist them in exploring and discovering the vast and diverse spaces of the desert."

In sponsoring this venture, the newspaper sought to "promote its popularity and distribution among the diverse classes of the nation". The payoff, moreover, would be immediate. "As people flocked to buy the newspaper in order to keep up with the news of the expedition and follow the discoveries of the explorers, the newspaper and its owners would reap abundant fruit from its increased sales, for the consequent income would enable them to expand their distribution around the world."

Meanwhile, the members of the expedition would become the object of popular praise and adulation. "The public will raise them to the highest levels of fame and glory, and lift them to a place unparalleled in the hearts of the people."

As for the nation, such expeditions and the knowledge of distant lands they bring "augment the people's scientific and intellectual culture and refine the minds of the young and expand their realms of awareness". In addition, "with the knowledge of the land, seas and deserts that surround our cherished country, we are better able to fortify our borders and ports and familiarise ourselves with diverse routes and passages, thus preventing any attack from taking us by surprise."

Clearly, Murad Boutros was one of the many avid readers who followed the story of "The Al-Ahram expeditionary mission in the Libyan Desert". Beginning on 19 April 1934, the series lasted nearly a month, ending on 16 May. The author was Hassan Sobhi, who the management apparently felt possessed the necessary qualifications to both take part in the mission and write its reports. One of the credentials that would have attracted management was that Sobhi was an expert on Ancient Egyptian history, as readers would have been able to discern through his frequent references to his colleagues in the Egyptian museum, since one of the purposes of the mission was to search for Ancient Egyptian antiquities in the vast desert. Another, of course, was his writing skills, in particular, his ability to bring to life the scenes and experiences his team encountered and, thereby, hold readers' attention for a month.

Sobhi notes that most of his fellow team members were aristocrats, either Egyptian or foreign, with a passion for the desert. Head of the mission was Prince Mohamed Abdel- Moneim, not the first royal to have led such an undertaking, having been preceded by Prince Kemaleddin Hussein. Sobhi accorded a full instalment to Abdel-Moneim whom he described as "a prince in heart, thought, deed, word and even in the way he issues orders". He then recounted numerous incidents during the trip that substantiated this claim.

The mission also included two barons and a count. Baron Von Pfieffer was in his fifties, "tall, slender and cool, like all Germanic peoples of the north. He is fluent in German, French and English. Although he holds Swiss nationality, he has lived in Egypt for 20 years." The second baron, Von Eich, had lived in Egypt for three years. "Such is his love for our country that he cannot bring himself to leave it." Count Dalmachi, from Hungary, was a another polyglot, with his range of languages even extending to Berber. "He worships the desert and devotes all his energies and everything he possesses to it."

Lower down in the social order was a journalist, Segnor Da Donni, "writer for L'Oriente and correspondent for Il Popolo d'Italia, Mussolini's foremost newspaper". Finally, there was the expedition's artist, Herr Hiller, Swiss and another long-term expatriate in Egypt.

Assiout, "the capital of Upper Egypt", was chosen as the starting point for the Al-Ahram expedition because it was the end of the Darb Al-Arbaeen, the route that camel drivers took from Sudan. Sobhi writes, "To tell the truth, I feel aggrieved for the capital of Upper Egypt. We convey our sorrow over its stagnancy to His Highness the Prince of Upper Egypt (a title given to Crown Prince Farouq) in the hope that he will turn his attention to the centre of his princedom and transform it into a destination for scientific explorers who seek a complete library to assist them in their research, and for tourists who would wish for a hotel that provides reasonable comfort and enjoyment. In addition to being the capital of Upper Egypt, Assiout occupies a central position on the map of scientific exploration and antiquity sites which draw thousands of tourists but could draw thousands more if the city possessed adequate means of accommodation."

The Al-Ahram mission set off from Assiout at the crack of dawn on Tuesday, 6 March 1934. As they took their first steps down the Darb Al-Arbaeen, Hassan Sobhi attempts to acquaint his readers with that desert route. There were several possible reasons why the Darb Al-Arbaeen (Forty Trail) was so named, he said. Many attribute it to the fact that it took camel caravans an average of 40 days to traverse the route from Al-Fasher, the capital of Darfour in Sudan, to Assiout. As the trail was 2,000 kilometres long, the caravans would have to travel at about 50 kilometres per day. It was also possible that its name derived from the Bedouin word for "a track on which 40 camels can move in a single row". On the other hand, it had been suggested that it was stalking grounds of the famous "gang of 40 thieves" that preyed on passing caravans. Although farfetched, the latter possibility appealed most to Sobhi who probably felt that it was the one that would most tantalise his readers.

Unlike the camel drivers coming up from Sudan, the Al- Ahram mission's ships of the desert were five powerful Fords, which Count Dalmachi wryly dubbed four of them "Insha' Allah" (God willing), "Lissa" (not yet), "Yimkin" (maybe) and "Maalesh" (never mind). Sobhi preferred to refer to them as their "steamships of the desert".

Sobhi had a difficult first night roughing it out in the desert. He had not expected it to be so cold at night and he had never experienced a sleeping bag before. "At least a prison cell has the advantage that you can shift your position and lie on your back sometimes or roll over on your side. In that bag I could do nothing. It was only at the crack of dawn that I succeeded at releasing myself from that painful prison in which I had spent one of the worst nights in my life. I then put on every piece of clothing I had and covered myself with every blanket I could find in the tent in the hope of repelling such lethal cold, the likes of which I had never felt."

The five cars struck out into the broad expanse of desert, navigating only by the compass affixed in the car of the head of the mission. After some time, the count suddenly cried out that he had spotted the alam, the Bedouin word for a pile of stones or some other sign to mark the trail. They had found the Darb Al-Arbaeen again, after having strayed off the path for several hours. They pressed on until they reached a vast depression in the midst of the desert in which were located the Kharga Oases. "We began our descent on the rugged decline, swerving left and right, until we came across some rundown buildings. Our guide told us that these had been used to detain political prisoners in the days of the nationalist movement."

On Wednesday 7 March the explorers reached a paved road. "Soon afterwards, we saw mud-packed reed fences enclosing fields on either side of the road, then houses which gradually grew more numerous and closely packed. Eventually, we came across a sign post at the head of a street leading off the road we had been travelling on. It said: 'Ahmed Shafiq Pasha Street'. We had reached our first port in the heart of the desert: the Kharga Oases."

Sobhi's first impression of their "first port in the heart of the desert" was that it was paradise on earth. "There is virtually no crime. The people have no need for something called 'the law'. They live the good and peaceful life of nature. No one transcends his bounds. No one trespasses the rights of others... The natural springs are shaded by the fronds of palms laden with fruit. All flourishes effortlessly, for water runs copiously without need for waterwheels or other such devices."

His rhapsodising ceased, however, when he saw how the people actually lived. "Caves, or rather tombs or, better yet, burrows are what those poor, unfortunate people dwell in. Burrows made of mud which they have to crawl into, not walk into or even crouch to enter. Burrows to shelter them from the scorching heat of the day. They resemble those filthy clay ovens but they do not keep out the bitter chill of the night. There are those closer to an icebox into which the sun never penetrates. They are filled with filth, composed of sand mixed with dung and the remains of diverse insects."

The next stop was "Paris". Sobhi jested that he had hoped this oasis town would bear something of a resemblance to its French namesake but it turned out to be "a few dozen palms around a handful of springs and a few dozen mud houses". "This is Paris?" he asked. In his rush to see this town, he had sped ahead of his team members. "The first people I met were the rulers of Paris. They had all come out to meet a lone car coming into their remote and isolated oasis. 'It's an automobile!' they whispered in stunned bewilderment. I greeted the ruling party, which consisted of three: a master sergeant, a conscript and a village elder. The triumvirate greeted me warmly even before they knew who I was. When they found out, they bent over backwards to perform their public duties. The senior soldier escorted me on a tour of the roads and byways of Paris. At one point we ended up at the oasis's major spring, Ramah. There, at the edge of the spring, I beheld a scene I had never seen before. It was perhaps the one small thing that betokened that the oasis had preserved an element of its Parisianness. There at the edge of the spring were five graceful young women, in red and white dresses, filling their pails with the waters from the spring."

After Paris and Maks, another oasis town, the expedition struck off to the southwest where the desert would reveal itself as "a flirtatious temptress". They were now passing through the dunes on their way to Jabal Al-Uweinat. Sobhi is enraptured. "That sylph, with the blush on her cheeks, the alluring smile and the two prominent dunes with their gentle crescent-like curves, beckoned those in awe of her height and breadth. Between those two dunes, life was glorious. It was as though we possessed a vast and prosperous kingdom. And this bountiful splendour enticed us to alight and spend the night in the embrace of this enticing nymph, Her Majesty the Desert."

There were no customs controls as the mission crossed the border with Sudan on their way to Jabal Al-Uweinat. Reaching its foothill, the Al-Ahram correspondent peered up at "a dark mountain, its flanks sloping up to a rounded peak, which bulged to one side". The guide referred to the mountain as the "slave's head".

At this difficult stage in the journey, Sobhi paused to reflect on the desolate scenery. What most struck him were the "yellowed, withering, desiccated trees clumped here and there around the springs and in the dried riverbeds". One could not help but to reflect on the smaller trees. "Rarely exceeding three metres in height, their trunks appear lean and frail and their leaves are prohibitively thorny. They are called talh trees and are a form of acacia."

Although there were no signs of human habitation in the vicinity, not long ago the area had been on the nomadic routes of the Tibisti tribes from the southwest and the Jaraan tribes from the southeast, "which would settle temporarily to let their camels and goats graze until the rains came and forced them to move on to other pastures". It was these transient tribes that had given names to the various grazing grounds, riverbeds, trees and animals in the area.

Evidently, the mission stayed longer than usual in Jabal Al-Uweinat, for Al- Ahram correspondent devoted more than one episode of his travelogue to that area. Of particular interest to him was the nearly extinct widan, which he called the "sheep's terror". He was delighted that Count Dalmachi succeeded in capturing one, the photograph of which Sobhi attached to that day's report.

Henceforth, however, the Al-Ahram correspondent would devote his articles to the scientific aspect of the mission. The first report of this nature appeared in the 16th instalment of his series which occupied the entire seventh page of Al-Ahram of 4 May 1934. The article carried the headlines: "First results of the Al-Ahram Libyan desert mission: Discovery of the theological cradle of the Pharaohs. A new opinion on sculpture. The land of Unq. New scientific evidence of the origins of the Ancient Egyptians."

Sobhi opens this instalment with a playful apology for having kept readers in the dark about the scientific results of the mission for so long. He writes, "Readers are angry and perplexed. They have been avidly keeping track of every step the scientific mission has been taking in the Libyan Desert, eager to learn what it has unearthed. Every day they had expected to read of a breathtakingly beautiful and wondrous discovery, as though those splendours lining the caves of Mount Uweinat had been just waiting for us to come in order to say, 'Take us away!.'"

Donning his Egyptologist hat, the Al- Ahram correspondent related to readers his certainty that the area he and his fellow explorers had visited was "the cradle of Ancient Egyptian theology". He writes, "Today, the religious worship that great hidden power, whose essence and location elude the mind of man, and which is God Almighty. Five thousand years ago, mankind could only grasp that great hidden power in abstract concepts. People thus worshipped the sun, the moon, truth, duty and fertility." Assured of the profuse waters of the Nile, Ancient Egyptians did not worship their river. However, in the areas away from the Nile Valley, where water was scarce, they did worship natural springs, evidence of which the explorers detected in the wall paintings in the caves, the scenes of which were depicted in the four colours used 5,000 years ago: red, yellow, black and white.

Sobhi observed that Egyptologists had long believed that Egyptian art had been revolutionised in the era of Akhnaton under the influence of the Pharaoh's Babylonian mother who had introduced the Babylonian style. As evidence, they pointed to the fuller and rounder forms in Egyptian sculpture. However, after having seen the cave paintings in Jabal Al-Uweinat, Sobhi comes to an entirely different conclusion: "This art, which was characterised by the elongation of the limbs, the protuberant stomach and the unnaturally oversized chest and buttocks, is a purely Egyptian art the original images of which can be seen on the walls of the Uweinat caves."

The "new scientific evidence of the origins of the Ancient Egyptians" suggested to Sobhi that Ancient Egyptians originally came from Uweinat. In support of his contention, he cited the discovery by scientists of the resemblance between the crania of Ancient Egyptians and inhabitants of the Libyan desert, the resemblance between the religious beliefs of the natives, as depicted in the Uweinat cave drawings, and those of the Ancient Egyptians and, as he had already pointed out, the fact that the forms of Ancient Egyptian sculpture could be traced to these cave drawings. In addition, he noted that the Ancient Egyptians had depicted all the animals that could be found in the Uweinat region on their pots, weapons and monuments. Also significant was the fact that the present-day inhabitants of that region still refer to it with its Ancient Egyptian name, Unq, which they had modified to Ang.

As the Uweinat region stood at the juncture of the Egyptian, Sudanese and Libyan borders, Hassan Sobhi felt compelled to address this geopolitical reality, as touchy as it was at the time. Egypt's southern border ran along the 22 degree latitude, placing a portion of the upper third of the region in Egyptian territory, and Egypt's eastern border with Libya coincided with the 25 degree longitude. "There is, thus, no dispute over the boundaries of that portion of Uweinat that falls squarely in Egyptian territory and this portion amounts to a quarter of the entire Uweinat region." The problem, however, was between the colonial powers, Britain and Italy. "Britain wants Italy to recognise that the 22 parallel also constitutes the southern border of Cyrenaica. Italy, on the other hand, is bent on extending its colonialism in that area and, therefore, refuses to recognise that line. Indeed, heedless of Britain's approval or condemnation, it has already penetrated southwards and set up a military post at Ain Duwa which is located to the west of Uweinat at the 21 degree 45' latitude." Sobhi had the good fortune to visit the British and Italian camps that were facing one another across the border. The former was, not surprisingly, complete with club house and grounds complete with tennis court. The latter, to which he was introduced by his Italian journalist colleague, Segnor Da Donni, was more to his liking given the lure of abundant spaghetti, to be washed down with a refreshing glassful of Chianti as tango music played in the background.

"Homeward bound: The oasis paradise" announced the last of Sobhi's instalments, appearing on 16 May. When the expedition team reached Kharga, again, instead of camping out they stayed in the government resthouse that had been constructed by the Railway Authority. He relates, "The authority placed the management of this establishment in the charge of a local resident, Mustafa Omar, a paragon of integrity, cleanliness and competence. I am proud to register my praise for the great effort he has devoted to making those four meagre rooms into a hotel fit for princes. Ever vigilant and ready to serve, no sooner had we arrived in that modest establishment that concerns the Railway Authority as little as the conditions of the oases do, than he showered us with his attention. After having been showed to our rooms and after having rid ourselves of the dust of the journey, we discovered that the man had prepared for us the most delicious dinner consisting of fresh vegetables, freshly plucked fruit and turkey." The sumptuous repast made for a fully deserved happy ending to this arduous, yet beneficial journey.

* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.

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