Justin Marozzi on Ahmed Hassanein Bey, The Lost Oases

Desert Wisdom

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I first came across Ahmed Hassanein Bey when bumping across the Libyan Sahara by camel with a friend. This was long before Kindles and iPads helped the bibliophile traveller lighten his load. Between us we had a slightly hodgepodge library consisting of a Koran, a New Testament (a Christmas present from my mother, inscribed with Deuteronomy 2:7: ‘The Lord your God has blessed you in all the work of your hands. He has watched over your journey through this vast desert’), some Oscar Wilde short stories, P. G. Wodehouse, Trollope, the complete works of Shakespeare, a volume of poetry, Homer’s Odyssey and an Arabic language book. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom and Hassanein Bey’s The Lost Oases completed the collection to be borne across the desert by our diminutive caravan of five camels: Asfar, Gobber, The Big White, Bobbles and Lebead.

Thank goodness for The Lost Oases. It tells the story of a truly epic journey of 2,200 miles by camel from the tiny Egyptian port of Sollum on the shores of the Mediterranean to Al Obeid in what was, in 1923, Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. As leader of this remarkable seven-month expedition, which discovered the ‘lost’ oases of Jebel Arkenu and Jebel Ouenat, Hassanein Bey was awarded the Founder’s Medal by the Royal Geographical Society in 1924. The director of the Desert Survey of Egypt hailed it as ‘an almost unique achievement in the annals of geographic exploration’.

Hassanein Bey is the perfect guide to the Sahara, whether for an armchair enthusiast or desert traveller. Born in 1899, he was the son of the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Egypt’s equivalent of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and grandson of the last Admiral of the Egyptian fleet. Educated at the University of Cairo and at Oxford, where he won a fencing Blue, he served as Arab Secretary to the British Commanding Officer in Cairo during the First World War. Later he became an adviser to King Fuad and tutor t

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About the contributor

Justin Marozzi is the author of South from Barbary: Along the Slave Routes of the Libyan Sahara. He is writing a history of Baghdad but would rather be back in the desert.

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