Crossing the Sahara in the 14th century

Crossing the Sahara in the 14th century

I have been fascinated with early stories of people trying to climb mountains, have early adventures through vast foreign lands, or cross the great unknown and deserted barrens.

Yet no stretch of land is so isolated, bare, and desolate as the Sahara desert. It’s hard for us to imagine the realities of traveling during the early centuries of modern civilization, but fortunately we have some documents from those periods. Some of which have been summarized and collected in a book called ‘The Golden Rhinoceros: Histories of the African Middle Ages‘, by Francois-Xavier Fauvelle.

First off, there were your guides. You had to travel in groups for safety from bandits and injury. Guides at the journey’s port cities had to be purchased to lead you across the desert. Deserts they knew fairly well because when not guiding, they might be the very raiders that would kill you on a different trip. They were often a shady lot that had little patience for the unprepared.

While today’s travelers complain about $4 bottles of water at the airport, the water situation was different for earlier Saharan travelers:

Then there was the problem of water. It would be even better to say the problem of thirst, your constant companion during the crossing. All travelers, all geographers say the same thing: the water is sometimes “fetid and lethal” and, Yaqut al-Hamawi humorously reckons, “has none of the qualities of water other than being liquid.” Such a beverage inevitably generates intestinal pains that make life difficult and sour the memory of the trans-Saharan experience. In good years, when there had been plenty of rain, water filled the rocky gullies, and people could drink and do laundry. In bad years, the burning wind dried out the water in the goatskins; consequently, a camel’s throat had to be cut and its stomach removed. The water it contained was drawn off into a sump and drunk with a straw. In the worst-case scenario, one could kill an addax antelope and follow a similar procedure to extract greenish water from its entrails.

We complain about uncomfortable airline seats for 8 hours while crossing the ocean at 30,000ft. Earlier travelers endured countless days/weeks of far worse inconveniences.

And then there were the small, but numerous and in the end obnoxious, daily inconveniences: the omnipresent fleas, which you would try to drive away by wearing cords soaked in mercury around your neck; the numerous flies everywhere there was a rotting carcass (i.e., precisely around the wells and the camps); and the snakes.

And then there was the ever present danger of dozing off, lack of attention during a stop, or just getting turning around in the maze of dunes to realizing you were separated and probably lost in the desert to die.

The caravan tempers these harsh conditions with strict discipline; it diminishes them through distractions. You will put distance between yourself and the column only at your own risk, the Berber leader must have said. Those who paid for the crossing would amuse themselves hunting addax, letting their dogs run free, and riding a bit ahead of the caravan to let their horses graze and to enjoy the invigorating wait. But the games, the intemperance of the city-dwellers, could cost them dearly. Even though caravans could be made up of hundreds, sometimes even thousands, of camels, one could quickly lose sight of them behind a curtain of dunes. A few centuries later, on the same stretch of desert, but from the opposite direction, a caravan of pilgrims lost two of its members in a row and yet noticed only a day and a night after they disappeared. Nobody dared go back to look for them for fear of being lost themselves. The author of the story concludes philosophically: “But our conscience was clear because we had warned them of the risks they were running by not abiding by the rules of the caravan.”

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