The Search for the Queen of the Sahara

How One Expedition Got More than it Bargained for in the Ancient Shifting Sands

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The history of the Sahara region of Africa has been buried under the shifting sands and ever-widening desert. A few thousand years ago it was home to populations of hunters and traders who left rock carvings of among other animals, giraffes, that no longer are found anywhere in the vast expanse. Around 3500 BC hunters were replaced by nomadic herdsmen able, obviously, to feed and water their animals in what is now parched, dry desert. Somewhere in their long history they erected standing stones, dolmens, and even a Stonehenge-like megalithic monument. These no­madic peoples were still around when Rome’s historian Pliny wrote about the white tribes of North Africa.

They are called the “people of the veil” as the men, fierce as they are, take to wearing blue garments topped with face-covering veils. Young men “take the veil” at age fifteen when they undergo Spartan-like military training. At night or during the day, eating or sleeping, the veil is never removed. Seeing the tall, silent, veiled Tuareg was some­what frightening to the Europeans. The men would also surprise the Europeans with their athletic ability and their prowess with the javelin. They had their own sort of Olympics that included broad jumping and wrestling. Even while wrestling they would wear the veil. If it was accidentally pulled off, the match would time-out so the participant could cover himself. Once they took the veil, even a blood brother could not look upon another’s face.

They were known for their endurance, a necessary quality for desert travel, and stories are told of Tuareg men who survived a desert crossing even after their camels didn’t. It is said they could make a six hundred mile journey with a bag of dates and a water skin.

Most surprising to nineteenth century European sensibilities was the position of women. They held great power and could divorce their husbands at will. Inheritance passed through the female line as “the stomach holds the child.” The women were more educated than the men and would teach the children the arts of reading and writing. Their script was written sometimes from left to right, other times right to left. Scholars claim to see the influence of Mediterranean peoples or Phoenicians, but there is no direct evidence. They were described as tall and elegant with delicate hands and wrists. As the Tuareg is a matrilineal society and ruled by queens, no man would dare harm a woman even in warfare between tribes. Europeans took for cowardice the tendency for outnumbered Tuareg tribes­men to flee and leave the women defenseless, until they understood it was assumed no harm would come to them.

Women take pride in their poetry and at social meetings called “Ahal” they find joy in reading their poems. These celebrations begin with the woman’s tents pitched in a circle. After recitation of poems and prose, stories of desert life, warfare that included women warriors and Homeric glories, the men are allowed to visit. It is one of the few op­portunities for men to meet with women; although women are free to make advances to men.

Tuareg queens were said to be in the service of a goddess known as Tanit or Libya. They also show great respect for their ancestors and will sleep on noble graves for guidance when facing important decisions. Scholars debate if their origin was from the East, possibly descendants of a Libyan-Semitic origin; from the north, Vandals or Cartha­ginians; while they themselves claim their Queen came from the west, somewhere in Morocco, possibly as far west as the Atlantic cities. In any case the Tuareg, men and women, ruled the hostile wilds of the Sahara, at one moment a dangerous threat with their daring early morning raids on caravans, while the next they are described as offering Eu­ropean adventurers tea.

Crossing the Sahara in the 19th century was as difficult as space flight. The desert had grown to three thousand miles long and one thousand miles wide. The Sahara had not given up its secrets until 1826 when an expedition to cross the Sahara and “discover” Timbuktu was made by a Major Alexander Gordon Laing. He left from Tripoli and ar­rived in his destination but lived only a few short days after entering that city. His was not the only expedition to end in disaster as a result of the elements or hostile desert inhabitants; but the allure of hidden cities, lost oases and tombs of queens protected by djinns (evil spirits), was tantalizing to European adventurers.

The invention of the automobile promised to provide passage in fewer days and the ability to outrun those who preyed on the caravans. Byron Khun, the Count Prorok, was the epitome of the dashing, romantic, somewhat self-important explorers. Born in 1896, in Mexico, he was the son of Leon S. Kuhn, a naturalized U.S. citizen. Raised by his uncle, a true count, he decided to take Byron as his first name (for the poet whom he claimed was a relation) and his uncle’s title.

In 1926 the count teamed up with Algerian officials and a Wisconsin college trustee to mount an expedition. They fitted out Renault automobiles with six wheels each to resist getting stuck in the sands. The lead car had twelve wheels, a ship on the desert sands. They carried gasoline and the necessary equipment to pull each other through the rough patches. They also carried “moving picture cameras,” scientific instruments, tents, guns, and pickaxes. Special­ly designed boxes for the treasures they expected to unearth were included. They were in search of the most impor­tant queen of the desert, Tin Hinan.

Said to be the queen mother who had united her people in the distant past, Tin Hinan was regarded as an Eve, a foundress, to the Tuareg and held in the highest esteem. Her name literally meant the “Nomadic woman” but her ti­tle conveyed the esteem of her people, she was Tamenokat, the Queen. Even today the Tuareg people call her the “Mother of us All.”

The trek started out with an easy pre-desert passage that allowed the vehicles to keep a 25 mph pace. It wouldn’t last. Leaving the Aures Mountains entering the sea of sand, their lead car, the twelve-wheeler, slid down an embank­ment into a river. The “Lucky Strike” as they had named the odd vehicle was stuck in the mud of the river. It would take thirty men to pull the vehicle to dryer earth. It would be one of many misadventures.

The Sahara is a desert but it is a misconception that the entire desert is sand. The majority is dry flat valley where the heat and scarcity of rain allow little to grow. The expedition was plagued more by a never ending series of flat tires than by drifting sands. When they reached Oued Tiramimin, the arid valley turned into a canyon as they drove through stretches of sharp rocks. Despite numerous stops they were able to average ten miles per hour. Remarkably, by following notes of a previous expedition, they were able to find water and at one spot, a vegetable garden.

The constant fluctuation of day and night temperatures was enough to crack the rocks, an event which would oc­cur at odd times, leading the Tuareg people to claim the Gorge d’Arak was haunted by djinns which made the loud sounds. The Count Prorok expedition witnessed this for themselves, as rocks sometimes even exploded.

L. Taylor Hansen described this region of the Ahaggar Mountains as once having been a huge sea. Her thesis is backed by petroglyphs of water animals on cliffs and the occasional crocodile surviving at a remote oasis over a thou­sand miles from Egypt’s Nile. She was told that there were once port cities in the land that is now desert, and she heard a story of a ship being found in the desert with the skeletons of oarsmen manacled to their posts. Archaeologist Henri Lhote was also quick to advance an equally speculative thesis on the strange drawings. “Did we discover Atlan­tis?” is a chapter title in his book, The Search of the Tassili Frescoes.

Author Frank Joseph in his book, Survivors of Atlantis, compares the white North African peoples with a handful of tribes from the Sahara to the Atlantic islands. The Attala, the Guanches of the Canary Islands, and the denizens of Atlantic coastal city Lixis, which Rome called the Eternal City, may have been the descendants of the island described as “legendary.”

After days of adventures straight out of an Indiana Jones movie, the expedition eventually reached Tamanrasset. Alternatively spelled as Tamen-Ra-Set, this is the Tuareg capital. The name (T)Amen-Ra-Set describes a sort of trilogy of Egyptian god names strengthening the case for a Libyan-Egypt connection with the northwest desert from an an­cient past.

From Tamanrasset, it was a thirty mile trek to an oasis named Abelessa, where they had finally arrived. Count Pro­rok claimed that a Tuareg storyteller had told him about Queen Tin Hinan and the location of her tomb. Nearly un­known to Europe Abelessa was believed to be a trading post on the route from the Mediterranean in Roman times. There are only a few clues that Rome penetrated this far south, and one is from the historian Pliny who described “Balsa” in North Africa, a place that has never been found. Pliny wrote on Balsa referring to the campaign of Corneli­us Balba and the Third Augusta Legion. Did the Romans reach Abelessa?

While there is no record that they did, the fortress-like structure may have been “inspired” by the Roman control of the Mediterranean. Abelessa represented the halfway mark for the trade from Tunis and the once-fabled city of Timbuktu. Roman forts doubled as customs stations where taxes or tolls were required of the caravans that passed through.

The fortress did bear some resemblance to the Roman forts built further north; though it is possible Roman-built forts used a style of construction already in use. Typically, construction was determined by the materials available. Abelessa was built with four foot thick basalt walls with only one entrance; this structure was obviously built to con­ceal and protect rather than as a sanctuary against hostilities.

Count Prorok described it more as a tomb than a fortress and compared it to the tombs of King Juba II and Cleo­patra Celene, two Berber monuments of Algeria which were not used as customs houses or defensive positions. They began removing stones which went slowly as they had only a small contingent of workers. One by one heavy stones were lifted and passed down a bucket brigade of workers. Many had carved writing and were put aside to be translat­ed. The greatest fear was that the neighboring Tuareg would see what they were up to and put an end to their work. Or worse.

Prorok described the internal arrangement of the rooms as, again, more of a temple than living quarters. Inside were eleven rooms. Each was cleared out over the first three days. After reaching a storeroom where grains and food­stuffs were preserved, they came to a large chamber. Work was forced to a halt on day four as a massive cloudburst flooded the area. They were concerned their camp could be washed away in the rare but dangerous Saharan rain storms.

When work finally resumed, they could enter the newly discovered chamber. It measured sixteen by twelve feet. The floor of this chamber was, unlike the other rooms, covered with monolithic slabs. With great difficulty these heavy stones were removed to expose a smaller chamber. It was the tomb of Tin Hinan.

Her skeleton, when first discovered, lay undisturbed with her hands still folded. Her body was protected in painted leather with traces of gold leaf. Underneath was a bed of dressed wood. On her right arm were seven silver bracelets, on her left seven bracelets of gold. Her necklace alone had over three hundred precious stones. Other jewelry includ­ing emeralds, amethysts and golden beads had been placed in baskets with amulets, votive offerings and an ancient goddess figurine. On two pieces of the jewelry were impressions of Roman coins from the early fourth century.

In all, forty eight cases of treasure and artifacts were put in the caravan of automobiles. With food in short supply and stories circulating of the treasure being taken, the Europeans made a beeline north. Today some of the most im­portant pieces are housed in the Bardo Museum in the city of Algiers. Byron himself made it home safely and spent his years on the lecture circuit.

The question of just who Tin Hinan was has never been satisfactorily resolved. Her tomb contained not only Ro­man coins but also artifacts that were considered prehistoric goddess figurines, more normally found in digs that were dated 3500 BC. Novelist Pierre Benoit based Atlantide on this mysterious woman of the Hoggar, claiming she was a descendant of Atlantis.

h went slowly as they had only a small contingent of workers. One by one heavy stones were lifted and passed down a bucket brigade of workers. Many had carved writing and were put aside to be translated. The greatest fear was that the neighboring Tuareg would see what they were up to and put an end to their work. Or worse.Prorok describe the internal arrangement of the rooms as, again, more of a temple than living quarters. Inside were eleven rooms. Each was cleared out over the first three days. Aft er reaching a storeroom where grains and foodstuffs were preserved, they came to a large chamber. Work was forced ­to a halt on day four as a massive cloudburst flooded the area. They were concerned their camp could be washed away in the rare but dangerous Saharan rain storms.When work finally resumed, they could enter the newly discovered cham er. It measured sixteen by twelve feet. The floor of this chamber was, unlike the other rooms, covered with monolith c slabs. With great difficulty these heavy stones were removed to expose a smaller chamber. It was the tomb of Tin H nan. Her skeleton, when first discovered, lay undisturbed with her hands still folded. Her body was protected in ainted leather with traces of gold leaf. Underneath was a bed of dressed wood. On her right arm were seven silver bracelets, on her left seven bracelets of gold. Her necklace alone had over three hundred precious stones. Othe­r jewelry including emeralds, amethysts and golden beads had been placed in baskets with amulets, votive offerings a­nd an ancient goddess figurine. On two pieces of the jewelry were impressions of Roman coins from the early fourth cen ury.In all, forty eight cases of treasure and artifacts were put in the caravan of automobiles. Wit h food in short supply and stories circulating of the treasure being taken, the Europeans made a beeline north. Tod y some of the most important pieces are housed in the Bardo Museum in the city of Algiers. Byron himself made t home safely and spent his years on the lecture circuit.The question of just who Tin Hinan was has never been satis actorily resolved. Her tomb contained not only Roman coins but also artifacts that were considered prehistoric goddess  figurines, more normally found in digs that were dated 3500 BC. Novelist Pierre Benoit based Atlantide on this mysterious woman of the Hoggar, claiming she was a descendant of Atlantis.

By Steven Sora

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