By Donkey Train to Kufra? -- How Mr Meri Went West. (Special Section)

By Kuper, Rudolph | Antiquity, December 2001 | Go to article overview
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By Donkey Train to Kufra? -- How Mr Meri Went West. (Special Section)


Kuper, Rudolph, Antiquity


In 1990, about 30 km southwest of Dakhla oasis, the most remote settlement in Egypt's Western Desert, a hieroglyphic rock inscription was discovered that turned out to be the first clear evidence of an Ancient Egyptian presence so far into the Sahara (Burkard 1997). The short text states that a higher official named Meri went out to meet (?) oasis dwellers. Details of translation, interpretation and palaeographic dating of the text are a matter of discussion among Egyptologists, but it clearly seems to be of Old or Early Middle Kingdom origin. The home of the `oasis dwellers' can reasonably be inferred as lying further west or southwest. However, the nearest places with permanent water in these directions are the Kufra Oasis in Libya and the wells of Djebel Uweinat, which lie, respectively, some 600 km and 500 km away. How was it possible to master such distances under the then already prevailing hyperarid conditions by the only available means of transportation, a train of donkeys that have to drink at least every three days?

This question leads back to a discussion raised in the 1930s with regard to Abu Ballas, a small conical hill 500 km west of the Nile. Among thousands of similar hills, this one is singled out by having a name, derived from the collection of over 100 large jars (FIGURE 1) found at its foot during a geological survey in 1918 (Ball 1927). (1) Against many other speculations about its origin, the major part of the dump can be dated to the Old Kingdom, a view that is supported by two rock engravings on the hill (Rhotert 1952: Taf.XXXVI).

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

The notion that this isolated Pharaonic evidence more than 200 km southwest of Dakhla oasis represents a donkey-caravan station along a route bound west towards Kufra was first raised by the Hungarian desert explorer Lazlo Almasy (2) (Almasy 1939). He proposed the next relay station for water lay 200 km further on in some valleys of the western Gill Kebir plateau, where he believed he had discovered the `lost oasis' of Zerzura. From there, Kufra could be reached after another 200 km. Almasy's speculations and ideas have received fresh interest following the discovery of the Meri inscription and related evidence from Dakhla, where French excavations at Ayn Asil have recovered a number of clay tablets. One of these records a complaint that `the pottery intended to prepare the way' for the governor had not yet arrived at its destination (Posener-Krieger 1992). From its context, it seems clear that the pots were to serve to transport provisions for a longer desert journey.

New discoveries made in the desert southwest of Dakhla by Dr. Carlo Bergmann add to the story. Between March 1999 and March 2000, Bergmann, a dedicated desert explorer who travels using camels, discovered nearly 30 staging-posts arranged like a string of pearls along a 350-km long trail from Dakhla as far as the cliffs of the Gilf Kebir. They clearly mark an ancient road into the interior of the continent whose end, however, is yet unknown.

These staging posts differ in size, structure (FIGURE 2) and amount of pottery that ranges from more than a hundred pieces to a single well-preserved amphora (FIGURE 3).

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