Of all the trade routes between North Africa and the tropical south, the Forty Days Road (Darb al-Arba’in) was the one most involved in slavery – the only business profitable enough to justify the risks and rigours of the thousand-mile journey. The slaves, purchased at the Dongola slave market or kidnapped by the fierce desert tribes, were assembled at Kobbé, a town (no longer existing) 60km northwest of El-Fasher, the capital of Sudan’s Darfur Province, once an independent kingdom.
After a few days’ march from Kobbé, the slaves were unchained from their yokes, for there was no way to escape. With no permanent water source until Bir Natrun, 530km away, they could only survive on the ox skins of water that burdened the camels. While human losses were erased by the sands, the road gained definition from its Bactrian casualties; a 1946 survey of northwestern Sudan noted “a track about one mile wide marked with white camel bones”.
Egyptian customs posts taxed caravans arriving in Kharga Oasis, the last stage before their ultimate destination, Assyut. As the caravans approached, small boys were hidden in empty water skins to evade tax, but officials would beat them to thwart this ploy. Traffic along the Forty Days Road ended in 1884, after the rise of the Dervish Empire in Sudan closed the border; by the time it reopened, slavery had been prohibited in Egypt. Today, a new form of human trafficking is flourishing in the far southern Darb al-Arba’in Desert: smuggling refugees from Darfur, Somalia and Eritrea into Libya, via the remotest region of Egypt.