Sunday, February 24, 2008

Book Review: The Hunt for Zerzura

The Spectator (review by Justin Marozzi)

The Hunt for Zerzura: The Lost Oasis and the Desert War, by Saul Kelly.

This review dates to 2002 but I've only just stumbled across it. It is less a review than a very short summary of the main themes covered by the book - only the last paragraph comments on the way in which the content is presented.

The hunt for Zerzura, mentioned for the first time by a 13th-century Syrian governor of the Faiyum, was an improbable quest for a place which, said Dr John Ball, the director of desert surveys of Egypt, probably had 'no more real existence than the philosopher's stone'. Desert explorers were not to be dissuaded, however, and the club, which met at the Royal Geographical Society every year and held its own dinner, grew to include pioneering figures such as Major Ralph Bagnold and the enigmatic Hungarian Count Laszlo Almasy. . . .

Kelly's history of the early exploration of the Libyan desert and the swashbuckling operations of Bagnold and Almasy during the war is a fascinating read, packed with detail. Deserts, war and espionage are a potent trio from a literary point of view, of course, and it is a pity the narrative is not always as gripping as the events it relates. A little more romance might have been in order.

The reviewer himself, Marozzi, wrote a book about the rather peculiar camel trek he made across Libya with a friend. If you're interested in desert travelogues his book, South from Barbary, is reviewed concisely but effectively by an customer.

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