30 Mayıs 2018 Çarşamba

TNT History Archives: How I Crossed The Great Sahara Desert (1908)

Escape route: “For us the greatest pleasure was having 
come via a path that no European or any other traveler had 
ever taken before.  If one looks at the map, the normal route is 
the Murzuk-Katrun-Kavar road -  all convoys and travelers 
have always taken this route both coming and going.  But we
 followed a path that is sometimes parallel and sometimes 
broken and zig-zag, four to six or seven days distant from the
traditional route: Murzuk - Vadi-i Atabe  – İbn Zân – Rudet 
- Cibado – Anay- Kavar.” 

Their path continued to Bilma, Agadem, Yu, Maykoni, 
Yola, Lokoja, Gulf of Guinea – then via the ship ‘Akabre’ 
to Sierra Leone and to Liverpool via the Canary Islands.   
After that, travel by sea to Izmir, Turkey.

//Ed. Note: This is a summary of Sami Çölgeçen's Sahara
Desert transit, with friends and his 3-year-old son, in 1908.
Sami Bey had been in exile in Murzuk, Fizan, Libya, for
5 years at the 'behest' of Sultan Abdülhamid II, and managed
a harrowing escape across the desert, encountering bandits,
French and English occupiers in Niger and Nigeria, and
facing thirst and starvation a number of times, before
eventually reaching Liverpool and, from there, Turkey.
Thanks to regime change in Istanbul after 1908, Sami Bey
returned to Murzuk, but this time as its governor.  The
full story, with much greater detail, has been translated by
TNT and awaits publication.//

Across the Great Sahara Desert, Escaping Exile in Libya
(1908): Summary of Sami Bey’s desert crossing that was
published in Ahenk newspaper in Izmir on 17-18 September

In our Sunday edition:  we mentioned that Naval Officer
Sami Bey had visited our offices and we promised you 
that we would publish his bitter adventures, including 
crossing the great Sahara Desert and the cruelty he faced
under the old regime.  We now want to make good on our

This is what Sami Bey has to say:

                     Sami Çölgeçen in 1927

Previously, I was a naval first lieutenant.  In these past years 
when the entire nation, and especially Young Turks  like us, 
suffered under the previous regime, because of a slip of the 
tongue I was forced to accept duty in Haifa.   My job there was 
in the port authority.  After a period of time passed, a ship arrived 
at the port and I was summoned to board it.  There I was arrested 
and brought back to Istanbul.  I was held in solitary confinement
 in Taşkışla Prison for eighteen months and then sentenced to death
 for behavior and initiatives I was supposedly responsible for against
 the oppressive regime.  Subsequently, I was transferred to the Bâb-ı 
Zaptiye (Office of the Minister of Police) where I stayed for a while.
My undeserved sentence was changed to exile and it was decided I
would be sent to Fizan.

From Trablusgarp (Tripoli) to Fizan

At this point I was taken secretly and in chains to Mehterhane, 
where I and another prisoner named Hafız Mehmed Efendi were 
slapped in irons.  We were brought to the Sirkeci pier and held in 
chains in a dark warehouse for 36 days before being boarded on a 
ship headed for Libya.  On the way the ship stopped at Izmir but 
since we two prisoners were in chains in the ship’s hold we didn’t 
get to see this great and prosperous city.  Upon arrival at Trablusgarp
 (Tripoli) we were imprisoned for a few months and subsequently 
taken to Fizan by gendarmes over the course of 37 days.  In Fizan, I 
was put in a military prison but transferred to a civilian prison after I 
wrote a petition to the late, famous commander Receb Paşa.  In the 
company of a gendarme, I was able to occasionally go to the market 
and mix with the local people.  Eventually, I married a black woman 
and as a result I had two sons.  One of them is Yadigar, now three and
a half years-old,  who is with me now.  While I was in Fizan I  gained
enough trust to be able to work in the post office, municipality and to
set up a school. 


Let me give you some information about Fizan, which I considered
my second homeland.   Fizan is one of the four subdivisions of Tripoli
province and it stretches toward the south where a great part of it is in
 the Sahara Desert.  The main town of Fizan is a small place called 
Murzuk, which is not very pleasant.  There are more than 6,000 people 
living in Murzuk.  The town has a fortress, a number of barracks, a 
mosque and a market.  One enters through one of three gates: Bâbu’l-
Kebîr, Bâbu’n-Neccârî, and Bâbu’l Garîb. The people are all Moslems.
Dates are plentiful but meat, vegetables, sugar, coffee and other 
necessities are not.  The weather is extremely hot since the town lies
on the 26th degree of latitude.  The thermometer shows 45 degrees 
in the shade.  From here to the provincial capital of Tripoli the 
distance is about 236 hours.

Journey Across the Great Sahara

So even though I warmed to Murzuk and got used to it, life there 
became unbearable as I worried about the situation in my sacred 
homeland, prompting me to began to  consider escape.  I broached 
this subject with the other exiles there and they agreed.  The most
 important and difficult problem, though, was to be able to join up 
with our fellow freedom-lovers by means of this escape.  As we 
thought about this, our first job was to acquire weapons, which 
were both scarce and expensive in Murzuk.  

Nevertheless, we were able to obtain a Martini rifle and ammunition 
for each of us.  My nine friends were four Albanians named Şaban, 
Bekir, Selim and Arif, the former Mufti of Sinop Hacı Mehmed 
Tevfik, Lieutenant Rahmi of Çankırı, Mehmed Nuri Efendi of Bursa 
and Yorgi  and Nikola from Midilli Island.  After obtaining 
provisions, we mounted our camels and secretly set out from Murzuk
on the night of  15-16 February 1323 (1908).

We were finally free from Murzuk as we headed into the desert, 
together with three Tevarik tribesmen as guides.  After traveling for 
18 days we reached a place shown on old maps as Karamant, where 
we restocked our exhausted provisions.   We rode our camels 
increasingly hard, to the point where we made the normally 6–day 
trip to Orida in 72 hours. 


 Because our escape created quite a stir in Fizan, naturally a troop 
of gendarmes was mobilized to pursue and capture us.  Escape from 
Fizan required one to buck the odds of death.  In fact, a year before 
two Young Turks like us had set out on this same path but one was 
killed and the other captured alive by the pursuing troops.

 As Sami Bey related this to us, his voice trembled and the sadness
 was evident on his face.  When his eyes teared up ours did, as well.
 Sami was thinking about someone very much like himself who had
 suffered at the hands of the oppressive regime and been sent into 
exile at the end of the Earth.  How could we, too, not cry?!   

However, the troop that set out after us ultimately realized they 
could not negotiate the problems and difficulties of the route and 
were forced to return to Fizan. We were relieved of this pursuit but 
we nevertheless had to fight for our lives against the bandits of the 
Tibu tribe who fiercely attacked us.  And although we were able to 
save ourselves by fighting back with our guns, all of our camels died 
and Hafız Mehmed Efendi and Nikola were wounded.  We all had to
proceed on foot from this point, reaching Rode only with the 
greatest of difficulty.

 Tevarik (Taurig) and Tibu

Let me pause here to say that passing through these areas is 
extremely risky and dangerous because of the marauding tribes.  
The famous ones are the Tevârik (Tuarig) and Tibu tribes, which 
are subdivided into various other tribes. The valley that extends 
from the Sahra-yı Vüstâ (Fizan) governorate  to Lake Chad 
comprises the area where these tribes roam.   They speak the 
Namaşık language and are very brave and fierce fighters.  Armed 
with spears, swords, rifles and knives, they ride about on their 
swift camels, wearing either black or white shirts and covering 
their faces, with only their eyes visible.  The chiefs of the tribes 
rule jointly without ever resorting to violence and force among 
themselves.  All the tribesmen are Moslems but although İslam 
permits multiple marriages they disdain this as far as their own 
customs are concerned. Their income is derived from extracting 
a guide fee from the caravans that cross from Fizan to Gat in 30 
days,  and from plunder. Rode-Înâ, where we arrived next, is under 
French hegemony.  We wrote a letter to the French officer resident 
in Bilma but set out on mules before receiving his reply

                      Tevarik (Taurig) Homeland

Relations with the French

En route to Bilma, we were met by a French officer and 25 
troops at a place called Âişe-i Na’ma and they showed us great
 humaneness and respect.  The officer had a dinner for us and the 
next day, together with the French soldiers, we headed for Bilma 
on the same road on which the bandits had attacked us.   As we 
approached the town we were met by Commander Tulo and his 
comrades, who greeted us with deep respect and hospitality.  
Each one of us  was given a separate place, our needs met and a 
wonderful feast was arranged in our honor.  Myself and my lovely 
son Yadigar were given a room to ourselves in the barracks.  
A few days later, a detachment arrived and said they had not 
encountered the bandits.

During the 22 days we spent here the French showed us 
remarkable hospitality and I will always be thankful to them for it.
Provisions here were quite expensive since they always had to be 
brought in from afar.  One day a doctor and a lieutenant brought 
some military provisions and after that we set out again.  Together 
with 40 French troops and their families – the soldiers posted there 
always have their families with them! – and a few sick soldiers, our
convoy comprised 250 people and we all had camels to ride on.

 Difficulties of the Desert

On the third day of our journey we reached the Agadem oasis.  
Our provisions and water were exhausted so two of the guides set 
out to find sources.  But when they had not returned by evening we
were quite disappointed.  The entire convoy was in danger so we 
conferred with the French officers and decided that “if the guides 
don’t return by morning we will head south, based on the maps we 

In the morning there was still no sign of the guides so the convoy 
set out.  After traveling for 24 hours most in the group were exhausted 
and some were fainting along the road.  In fear of what else might 
happen, we had another meeting.  The decision this time was for us to
split up and take different routes, rather than all die on the same road.
However, no one had the courage to agree to such a plan and we 
ended up moving forward all together, come what may! The Sahara 
Desert is famous for such perils but for us, who were not at all used 
to the environs, the danger was amplified.

The Sahara Desert Weather

The time has come for me to tell you something about the nature 
and weather in the Sahara. The weather is extremely hot in the 
daytime, with the temperature hitting between 40 and 50 degrees.
Conversely, at night the temperature drops to two or three degrees
making it dramatically colder. 

The winds are fierce but not as fierce as some exaggerated 
accounts, to the effect that they could bury a convoy to death.   
There is, though, a seasonal wind called Sam that whips up sand 
storms and sometimes it dries out the water pumps, leaving travelers
bereft of water and doomed to thirst.

There are many waterless valleys throughout the Sahara that are
winding and depressed, indicating that they were once river-flowing 
valleys.  Many times travelers have been fooled by mirages into 
thinking that there is still water in these valleys.  There are, however,
 a few genuine oasis spots in the desert.  In short, this vast expanse of
 God’s Sahara is full of endless torments, painful conditions and vistas.

Flirting With Death by Thirst...

In order to describe our convoy’s battle with thirst I should explain 
that we even had to kill our camels and suck on their intestines to 
quench our thirsts and it is enough to say that we had to kill 35 
camels for this purpose.

One time, Rahmi Efendi’s camel miscarried and the fetus, called a 
boduk, was cut up so that all members of the convoy could have a 
piece of meat.  Everyone chewed on these pieces and with the 
resulting secretion tried to alleviate their thirst but my Yadigar 
could only swallow the meat with difficulty.  Some of the others 
put lead in their mouths but a beneficial effect from this was not 
apparent.  As the waterless situation continued we had to drink our
 own urine.

After enduring this life and death struggle for some distance, we 
reached a well and prostrated ourselves in thanks.   But by this time
our convoy had sustained many losses, with just 11 soldiers 
remaining out of 40.

The Chad Road to Bornu

Dr. Bostua and another sargeant headed back to round up those who
 had collapsed on the road.   We stayed there that night.  When they 
returned in the morning they said that three soldiers had died of thirst
 and another had gone mad.  Setting out from the well, we reached 
a village named Kukani by evening and the entire convoy reassembled 
there.  This place is near Lake Chad.  Eight more days of travel and we
arrived at the French headquarters at Yu.

From this point on we entered into the area of English hegemony.  We 
each obtained an ox because that is the animal they use here for riding.
When we reached Maykoni were greeted very respectfully by the 
English.  In fact, the Emir of Bornu, Ebu Bekir bin İbrahim, was there, 
as well.

Bornu and Its People

Allow me to give you some information about Bornu.  As you see on 
the map, Bornu comprises a vast region that is southwest of Lake Chad 
and its capital is Kuka.  The people of Bornu refer totheir leader as 
‘shaikh’ and to the governor as ‘sultan’.  All of the people are Moslems,
as are their leaders.

The people are very healthy.  There are about 100,000 irregular soldiers, 
many of whom are cavalry, and they still carry spears and swords.  They 
are essentially naked, except for a small covering over their private parts.
The emirs and sultans must wear large, white turbans. 

Their language is based on African tongues. An English missionary 
named Kule wrote a grammar book about it and a traveler named Bart 
compiled some dictionaries. There is some trade between Kuka and 
Tripoli via Murzuk.

From Maykoni we sent a telegram to the governor of Guinea and 
received this response: “Long Live the Young Turks! We are waiting 
to see you in Şireni and I am very pleased in this regard.  All officials
along your route of travel will be very respectful toward you and 
provide for all your needs.”

See, this great English governor named Fischer was rolling out the
red carpet  for us, who had risked life and limb for love of country 
and freedom.  Was this not evidence of the noble-heartedness of the
English people and their mature freedom? Consequently, we are
ever more inclined to have a deep sense of gratitude toward the 
English for this.

From the Gulf of Guinea to Liverpool and Turkey

In any event, after another 27 days on the road we reached Lokoca, 
located on the banks of the Niger River, where we stayed for one week.
From here we boarded one of the governor’s boats for the trip  to the 
Gulf of Guinea. After that we sailed to Sierra Leone on an English ferry.
Here we found the weekly newspaper Taymis (Times) and read about
the declaration of rights and freedom in our Ottoman country through 
the re-implementation of the constitution, which helped us to forget 
all the trials and tribulations we had endured.  

Right away we boarded the English passenger vessel Akabre, stopped 
by at the “Cezâyir-i Halidât”, as the Arabs call the Canary Islands, and 
reached Liverpool in 20 days, in the sixth month after having left 
Murzuk. In Liverpool, we met with the Ottoman consul Ahmed 
Guvilyam Bey.  We all wore clothes appropriate for our country and 
wrapped turbans on our heads.  

After a few days rest, we boarded a French vessel and headed for 
our free and happy homeland, finally reaching the famous city of 
Izmir.  //END//

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