Monday, March 05, 2007


In her book “Tripoli the Mysterious’, Mrs. Mabel Loomis Todd wrote that, ‘For many years Tripoli had almost a monopoly of the caravan trade. The city is the Mediterranean Mecca for long lines of camels streaming in from depths of desert spaces, bringing ivory and gold dust, ostrich feathers and gums, wax and tanned leather, sometimes mats and henna, and using three or four months or longer for their deliberate progress. Returning probably before the year is out, .....and, carrying in exchange Manchester prints, tea and sugar, …. etc”

For centuries Tripoli was the principal accessible route to the Kingdoms of Africa in Kanem,, Bornu and Bagirmi –Southeast and east of lake Chad, and north of Nigeria. The route that carried hundreds of caravans went through Ghadaames, Mizda, and the clustered oases of Fezzan.

Caravans going to Ouaddai from Benghazi took the rout of Jdabia, Oujila, Jialo, and Kufra oasis and then the long march to Ouaddai, then to the Sudan and the land of Fur (Darfur). While explorers traveled the Tripoli route easily, Benghazi-Ouaddai route was more perilous under the exclusive control of the Libyan tribes that guarded it very jealously. Kufra Oasis is probably the most isolated oasis of the entire Sahara, and the Kufra region is probably the most inaccessible region on the planet. Up to the end of the nineteenth century only two explorers arrived to Kufra, the first is the German Explorer Gerard Rohlfs in 1878-79, the second is the Arab Tunisian explorer Mohamed Ben Otman Al Hashaishi الشيخ محمد بن عثمان الحشائشى in 1896. The second European who arrived to Kufra -against his own will- was The French staff sergeant Laurent Lapierre commander of Logis in Chad who was imprisoned by Sanusi fighters in March 1916 and kept prisoner in Kufra until he was freed in April 1916.

But to think that there was a British lady, who attempted to discover Kufra in December 1920, accompanied by an Egyptian, nine gens d’armes, a female servant, three Bedouins and some camel men may sound really strange. However, Rosita Forbes really traveled this route wearing a dress of a Libyan lady and under the name of Khadija, as we see below from excerpts from “The journey is its own reward - By Cassandra Vivian”……

"Ahmed Hassanein was still a young clerk in the Ministry of the Interior when he met Rosita; his destiny as one of the most powerful men in Egypt was yet to come. It was Hassanein's dream to visit Kufra, a remote oasis in the Libyan desert and it wasn't long before his dream became Rosita's dream too.
It was left to Rosita to make arrangements for their desert journey. While flying between Italy and Egypt and gathering provisions, she learned Arabic, mastered the sextant and theodolite (to aid in desert navigation) and learned how to move, talk and act like a veiled woman. She called in all the chips her privileged position commanded and acquired a letter from the Emir Faisel addressed to Sayed Idris, head of the Sanusi tribe who controlled the oasis. She was not foolish enough to imagine her feminine wiles won her such a trophy. She sums up her victory:

"They liked Hassanein Bey, but they admired and believed in Britain. They wanted us to secure them from Italy. If a British alliance was impossible, they hoped for an Egyptian one."

That hope was Rosita's ticket to Kufra, but she was sure to cover all her bases. Ever the diplomat, she also secured a letter from Lord Rennell to the Italian governor of Cyrenaica, in Libya.
And so, Rosita Forbes and Ahmed Hassanein headed for Libya in the winter of 1920. As far as they knew, Kufra was a cluster of oases deep in the Libyan desert whose people were highly antagonistic toward strangers. There was no guarantee that the protection of the Sanusi would do them any good. The only European who had been to Kufra before them was the German explorer Gerhard Rohlfs in 1878-79 and he had a hard time of it. Reading Rohlfs might have made the journey easier for Rosita and her companion, for he had given the African Society the exact location of Kufra. However -- as was frequently the case between nations -- the British Royal Geographical Society (RGS) disputed the German explorer's claim. Rosita put her trust in the RGS. It almost cost her her life.
Kufra lay halfway between the Mediterranean and Waidai, on the last great caravan route from sub-Saharan Africa. From the Atlantic to the Nile, this trail was the last mystery of the old desert caravan routes. For over a century it was the Sanusi trade route. They had conquered Kufra, having wrested it from the "unbelievers" (the Kufara) and had moved their religious centre from Jaghbub Oasis to Kufra because of its strategic suitability. The oasis was carefully guarded, especially from Europeans, who had either taken control of, or destroyed, other famous desert routes.
By 1920, the Italians controlled Libya, but Rosita and Hassanein nevertheless had to go to the Sanusi leader Sayed Idris for permission to penetrate his desert trail. He granted it, but other Sanusi leaders were not so eager and it became increasingly clear that the journey might not happen at all. So Rosita and Ahmed stole away in the dead of night.
The journey was hell on earth. The two endured smothering sandstorms, passed by villages that turned them away, and were forced to walk for 16 and 17-hour stretches because their camels were sick. If the terrain was not inhospitable enough, they were fearful of their own caravan leaders. They were certain that one, Abdallah, was planning to murder them -- so sure, in fact, that they even considered doing away with him first.
At one point they were without water for ten days and their girbas (goatskins) were completely dry. "When we could hardly see or speak and were dragging our feet automatically across the sand, leaving blood or pus behind us, we came to a depression full of bones," Rosita wrote. "It was a ghastly place." Abdallah finally recognised the site as Al-Atash, which means "the thirst" -- whole caravans had lost themselves and died here, he said. "I lay down. My throat was parched and so stiff that I could not swallow ... Next morning, there was a damp mist. It saved our lives, for it relaxed our swollen throats and kept us from the last madness of thirst."
The worst was not over. They were robbed, imprisoned at Hawari and found an entire caravan dead in the dunes. In January, after nearly a month of travel, they arrived at Kufra, where they stayed for ten days in the small oasis and barely recuperated from their trek before heading back for Egypt.

Rosita wrote about the journey in her book The Secret of the Sahara: Kufara, which she dedicated to her travelling companion Ahmed Hassanein, and she was recognised with a fellowship from the Royal Geographical Society.”


1 comment:

Anglo-Libyan said...

another excellent part of our history, thank you