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
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,
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