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10 January 2008

The Darb el-Arbein - The Forty Days Road

The text in the was reprinted/or plagiarised from an undated article by Lorraine Chittock
The Forty Days Road: From Shadows in the Sand - Following the Forty Days Road.

Even in the late 1800s there are records of slaves being taken into Egypt by way of numerous camel caravan routes. The most treacherous of these was the Darb el-Arbein, the ‘Forty Days Road,’ so named because of the length of time it took to travel from Dar Fur province in western Sudan to Southern Egypt; although a good rider, with a strong camel and little in the way of provisions, could make the journey in as little as eighteen days. The caravans comprised as many as 5,000 camels and in 1782 one was recorded as having 24,000 camels. Because of the size of such caravans travel times were often up to three months, as the caravan had to be divided into several groups so as not to deplete water wells and pasture along the route.
Slaves that were taken on this route sometimes went in the blistering heat of summer, as winters in the desert are cold and losses to bronchitis meant monetary losses to traders. A slave who walked from Dar Fur to Egypt in the 1830s recalled, ‘We had not food enough to eat, and sometimes we had not drink at all, and our thirst was terrible; when we stopped, almost dying for want of water, they killed a camel, and gave us blood to drink. But the camels themselves could not get on, and then they were killed, and we had their flesh for meat and their blood for water.’
At that time, trade did not flow in a northerly direction and stop. On reaching Cairo, some three-quarters of the camels were sold for meat and as pack animals, but the remainder returned south with good that were desirable in Sudan and the surrounding region; European-made paper, balsam oil, textiles, metals, beads, whalebone, scents, dyes and small amounts of military supplies.
Caravan leaders who took on the role of keeping the sometimes massive number of people and camels organized on these expeditions were given the title khabir, or ‘expert.’[...]
Upon reaching Kharga Oasis after the arduous trek through the Libyan desert, long ceremonial gowns were given to the khabirs as a token of respect. After resting for almost a week the caravan would continue on. By that time messengers had been sent north to Assiut to announce the caravan’s forthcoming arrival so that merchants might assemble to buy the goods. What was not purchased was carried past Kirdasa, within sight of the Giza pyramids, and then to Cairo, where there was a large market below the citadel for the buying and selling of slaves and items from Black Africa and Persia.
By the late 1800s, however, the British— whose interest in the region increased markedly with the opening of the Suez canal in 1869—began measures to deem the slave trade illegal (The Anglo-Egyptian Convention for the suppression of the slave trade, for example, was signed in 1877). Slowly but inevitably, the number of slaves travelling the Forty Days Road diminished.

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