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The Forty Day Road

From Shadows in the Sand— Following the Forty Days Road

Elongated shadow of legs—one hundred camels, four hundred legs, slowly crossing and uncrossing each other’s shadows in the sand, swaying across the ever-changing ripples created by the unceasing north wind. A shimmering mirage of pattern upon pattern, a criss-cross image of icing on a cake, ripples of water on a lake. From the dawn of civilisation, the great trade routes across the Indian Ocean carried goods between Africa, southern Asia and the Far East. Along the east coast of Africa a string of ports, many established by Arab traders as they extended their influence south a millennium ago, funnelled goods into and out of the continent. Inland, camels became the bearers of spices, silks, gum, ivory, ostrich feathers and other prized goods. Humans too, were bought and sold; slaves from the area ended up in Egypt, Persia and Europe. Even in the late 1800s there are records of slaves being taken into Egypt by way of numerous camel caravan routes. The most treacherous of these was the Darb el- Arbein, the ‘Forty Days Road,’ so named because of the length of time it took to travel from Dar Fur province in western Sudan to Southern Egypt; although a good rider, with a strong camel and little in the way of provisions, could make the journey in as little as eighteen days. The caravans comprised as many as 5,000 camels and in 1782 one was recorded as having 24,000 camels. Because of the size of such caravans travel times were often up to three months, as the caravan had to be divided into several groups so as not to deplete water wells and pasture along the route. Slaves that were taken on this route sometimes went in the blistering heat of summer, as winters in the desert are cold and losses to bronchitis meant monetary losses to traders. A slave who walked from Dar Fur to Egypt in the 1830s recalled, “We had not food enough to eat, and sometimes we had not drink at all, and our thirst was terrible; when we stopped, almost dying for want of water, they killed a camel, and gave us blood to drink. But the camels themselves could not get on, and then they were killed, and we had their flesh for meat and their blood for water.”
From Shadows in the Sand— Following the Forty Days Road By
Lorraine Chittock.

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