In Ancient Egypt, it was believed that there were two parts to the Underworld: Duat and Aaru. Duat was a place of judgment, designed to test the souls of the recently deceased. It was described as being similar to the physical world that the Egyptians knew, with rivers and fields and caves, though lakes of fire and trees of turquoise are mentioned too. Most gods lived here, though so did dangerous and hideous spirits that tried to block the path of the dead. The final trial came from Anubis when he placed the deceased’s heart on scales and weighed them against the feather of justice; those that balanced progressed with Osiris to the eternal paradise of Aaru, while the rest were devoured by a demon. The Egyptians also believed Duat to be where the Sun God, Ra, spent the hours of darkness, battling the evil serpent Apep and making the journey back from west to east in time for sunrise.
In the lands that surround the River Nile, Egypt, there are old tales of a mysterious city called Zerzura. It was said to be one of the Sahara Desert’s many oasis settlements, lying deep in a valley between two mountains somewhere west of the Nile, though it remains uncertain if this was in Egypt or neighbouring Libya. Zerzura was described as having luxurious buildings and bastion walls as white as doves, earning it the epithet “Oasis of Little Birds”. Arabic texts dating as far back as the 15th century mention the city was full of treasures, and had a sleeping king and queen, but were quite specific about it not being a place where Islam was worshipped, contrary to its geographical location.
Details of Zerzura’s inhabitants differ in varying sources. Some say its gates were guarded by black giants who prevent anyone from entering or leaving, while the most famous historical account refers to the denizens as “the Suri”, a hospitable race of fair-haired and blue-eyed people, who carried swords rather than traditional Arabic weapons. Conjecture has suggested the former may relate to nomadic African tribes from the Southern Sahara, while the latter could be European Crusaders who settled after becoming lost in the desert. Nevertheless, despite dozens of expeditions being launched as late as the early 20th century, Zerzura has never been found. The question remains whether the ruins have been buried by centuries of Saharan sandstorms, or if it never existed in the first place.