EGYPT’S BLACK DESERT, Modern Day: Ibrahim al-Safar squinted at the approaching brown line that covered the horizon. The dust storm was still miles away, but it was approaching fast, and that meant trouble. His battered Toyota truck was the only concession to modernity in his life. He still wore the traditional robes of his Bedouin ancestors, prayed five times a day towards Mecca, and worked as a shepherd, like his father and grandfather before him – although he also worked as a digger when the foreign archeologists were hiring. The great oasis at Kharga was originally his home, but he had been driven from it several years before during the tumult and confusion that Westerners, in a fit of unbridled and largely unjustified optimism, had called the “Arab Spring.” Ibrahim had no love for Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s former dictator, but the longtime American ally had kept Egypt at peace with her neighbors and kept some of the more fanatical elements of Islam from disturbing the lives of everyday citizens for three decades. Like most of his people, Ibrahim hated the Israelis and resented the Americans, but at the same time, he had enjoyed the peace and stability Mubarak brought to the desert land, and didn’t realize how good the average Bedouin had it until those times were gone.
During the months after mobs of angry citizens had forced Mubarak from office, Ibrahim had watched in dismay as Egypt descended into chaos. The more radical elements of the Muslim Brotherhood had seized control of every level of government, unleashing an orgy of persecution against Egypt’s non-Muslim population and a wave of destruction at many of its historical monuments. One radical cleric had even proposed destroying the Sphinx and the Great Pyramids at Giza as relics of a pagan culture. Safar shook his head at that memory. While he was a deeply religious Muslim, he was also a proud Egyptian, and the knowledge that his country had created an advanced civilization at a time when the rest of the world was languishing in the Stone Age was a source of great pride to him. How could anyone want to destroy the proudest relics of the greatest civilization of the ancient world?
Now the Army had taken control of the government, and Muhammad Morsi, the Brotherhood’s chosen President of Egypt, was in prison awaiting trial on various corruption charges. But the radicals had fled into the desert, laying waste to peaceful villages that had endured without significant change since the Muslim conquest of Egypt thirteen centuries before - villages like the one that Ibrahim called home. Wadi-al-Duresh was a small town just south of the larger Kharga community, and the radicals had occupied it two years before. As soon as they seized control from the village elders, they had descended like a pack of jackals on the small group of Coptic Christians that had shared the community with Bedouins for as long as anyone could remember. The men were taken out and shot, the women raped and then divided among the jihadists as trophies, and their homes burned to the ground. As Muslims, Ibrahim’s family had been spared the worst of the slaughter, but his wife had been forced to clean and do laundry for the terrorists, and his only unmarried daughter had been taken from the family at gunpoint and forced to wed one of the group’s clerics. Ibrahim had only seen her once or twice since.
Six months later, the army had come in and driven the radicals out, but the jihadists had simply fled into the desert, where they still lurked in ancient caves and tiny oases, living as bandits and highway robbers. The poor shepherds and day laborers who populated the region didn’t have much to steal, but that didn’t stop the Islamists from taking whatever they could lay their hands on. The worst group, led by a fanatical cleric named Muhammad al-Shavadi, had pledged their loyalty to the Islamic State. They were not just thieves but murderers as well, mainly targeting the handful of remaining Copts and Sufis, but also any Muslim family who cooperated too closely with the government for their taste. No wonder, Ibrahim thought, that so many Westerners thought that all Muslims were terrorists. A religion that could spawn such fanaticism was certainly capable of great evil. And yet . . . there is one God and Muhammad is His prophet, he reminded himself. Despite the horrible acts of his co-religionists, Ibrahim remained convinced that Islam was the answer. He was not sure; however, that jihad was the way. Perhaps it had been in Muhammad’s time, but that was fourteen centuries ago. Surely there was another path that could lead Islam into the modern world - but he was a simple shepherd and part-time digger. Such matters were beyond his ken.
He had left Wadi-al-Duresh that morning looking for his brother’s camel. He hoped the beast had simply wandered into the desert, but he feared that one of Shavadi’s men had stolen it. He had followed its tracks for miles west of the village, into the scorching Black Desert that stretched before him now, over two hundred miles wide. He knew of no shelter for the beast in the direction it was heading, but he supposed it was possible that there was a cave or spring in the rough range of sandstone hills that protruded from the dunes a few miles in front of him. It was said that camels could smell water many miles away if they were downwind.
Now he saw that there was no way to get to the hills before the sandstorm arrived. He knew that it was possible for a vehicle to be completely buried in the shifting dunes, and had no intention of becoming a find for a future archeologist. He wheeled about and gunned the Toyota’s engine, already rehearsing the explanations he would give his brother when he got back to the village. The sandstorm was closing fast, he saw in the rearview mirror. It looked like a bad one, too, covering the whole horizon like a brown scar, growing taller by the minute. The dunes and rocks flew beneath him as he headed for home.
Suddenly the Toyota bucked wildly and shuddered, the wheel twisting in his hands. He braked to a stop and got out, dreading what he would see. Sure enough, the right front tire was shredded – one of the jagged desert rocks had done it in. He had a spare tire and a jack, but the storm was coming on too fast now. He mouthed a silent prayer to Allah, asking for guidance. Should he stay in the vehicle, or look for shelter? The winds were already picking up, blowing the sand along the ground in swirling patterns. He scanned the desert on either side of the road, looking for a place that might be preferable to the cab of his truck. Something was protruding from the side of a dune about a hundred yards away. Was it a stone wall? He was far distant from the Nile, but there had been many more oases in the desert once, and ancient structures dotted the sands. Could it be a house or building of some sort? Eyeing the rapidly approaching brown line on the horizon, he grabbed a flashlight and ran for it.
It was indeed a sandstone wall, over two meters of its height exposed, its bricks scoured smooth by centuries of desert erosion. The roof was also of stone, and surprisingly, it appeared to be intact. Visibility was declining by the minute as the volume of sand in the air increased, but when he rounded the corner he saw that there was an ancient doorway of dried wood, standing partly open. He wriggled through, and then kicked enough of the sand away so he could get the door to close. He looked for something to reinforce it with, and then saw an ancient wooden table nearby. He pushed it against the door, knocking over a small pottery bowl of some sort, and paused a moment. That should keep the worst of the sand out, he thought. In fact, although the building had apparently been buried in the dune for centuries, there were only a few inches of sand on its floor. Whoever built the place knew a thing or two about keeping the desert at bay. But what sort of building was it?
Ibrahim scanned the back walls with his flashlight. The building was about ten meters wide and maybe twice that in depth. There were shelves lining the walls, and each shelf had multiple niches carved into it. The taller niches held pottery jars, each about half a meter high, many with lids still attached. The smaller niches held scrolls and books – dozens of scrolls, two or three to a niche, some partly unrolled, others still tied with coarse twine. It was a library, he realized - a library that had stood here, undisturbed, in the desert for centuries. He wondered how old it was, and looked for something that might give him a clue.
He spotted a row of wooden cots against the far wall, and walked over to them. In one was a mummified human body, tattered garments still clinging to it. It was clutching a roll of papyrus in one hand, and next to it on the floor a glass inkwell was protruding from the sand. He had worked on enough digs as a day laborer to know that the papyrus would crumble if he tried to unroll it, but there was something else sticking out of the sand beside the cot. He brushed the sand away from it, confirming his suspicions. It was a small drawstring bag, made of leather that was as stiff as wood. But the mouth of the bag was open, and when he poured it out into his hand, several coins fell out along with the sand that had filled it. He studied them in the beam of his flashlight. He could not read the inscriptions on them, but he recognized the language. It was Latin, and the faces on the coins all wore laurel wreaths. This library had been here since the days of ancient Rome!
Safar smiled. There was enough here to keep a team of archeologists busy for years, he thought, and he had discovered it. Allah willing, if he survived the storm, this discovery would make him a rich man.