First mentioned in 1246 as an abandoned village in the desert beyond the Fayoum, the “Lost Oasis” of Zerzura reappeared as a fabulous city in the fifteenth-century Arabic treasure-hunters’ Book of Hidden Pearls. Its setting was described as three valleys endowed with springs, palm trees, birds and animals, where robbers would find a city “white like a pigeon”, with a bird carved on its gate. Inside were riches, and a king and queen asleep in their castle. “Do not approach them, but take the treasure”, the book advised.

After the nineteenth-century Egyptologist John Wilkinson learnt of the story, the search for Zerzura obsessed European explorers. As successive desert surveys dashed hopes of finding it anywhere within reach of the known oases, attention turned to the far south, where Jebel Uwaynat and the Gilf Kebir had recently been discovered by Hassanein Bey and Prince Kemal el-Din.

In February 1932 Almássy and Lord Robert Clayton launched the Zerzura Expedition (the first to combine cars with light aircraft). Almássy was away visiting Kufra Oasis when Clayton and his observer Penderel flew in their Gypsy Moth biplane over the northern Gilf, sighting “an acacia-dotted wadi”. After Almássy’s return they made further flights and spotted two such wadis, which they planned to explore by car the following spring. But fate intervened in their plans, for Clayton died of polio on a visit to England, swiftly followed by the expedition’s sponsor, Prince Kemal el-Din, leaving Almássy to seek new sponsors and Clayton’s widow to continue her husband’s quest independently.

It was a Tebu caravan guide who told Almássy of the existence of a third valley. When asked if he knew of Zerzura, he replied: “Oh, those silly Arab people, they do not know anything, they call these three wadis in the Gilf, Zerzura, but we local people know their real names.” Almássy was certain that he had identified the lost oasis at last.

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