There is a certain magic about travel across the deserts of Egypt that has captivated readers for thousands of years. The lush strip of greenery of the Nile's banks winds its way northward, cobra-like, through an austere, bleached landscape, till it fans out into the Nile delta, becoming the head of the snake: all else is trackless desert. This book deals with travel writing about the Western Desert, merging with the Sahara, and the Eastern Desert, a mineral-rich zone between the Nile and Red Sea. It gives us choice descriptive nuggets from a wide range of travelers, from the Greek historian Herodotus to Abbasid geographer Zakariya Al-Qazwini to modern travel writer William Dalrymple. Included are the expected luminaries, such as Sir Richard F. Burton, Edward Lane, Richard Lepsius, John Lloyd Stephens, Giovanni Belzoni and Isabella Bird. Also featured are lesser-known but quite articulate travelers, from such fields as surveying, geology, archaeology, natural history and the like. The book describes the experience of desert life and the particulars of the Western and Eastern Deserts. It captures the flavor of the adventure, from journey preparations to the trek itself, encounters with camels, desert nights, wildlife and the Bedouin tribes. It also includes descriptions of the return to "civilization," a time of mixed feelings of relief and melancholy. The desert is not an easy place but it is good for the soul.
(A version of this review appeared in the Sep/Oct 2012 issue of Saudi Aramco World.)