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09 January 2008

Riding the Forty Days' Road

Written by Angela Stephens
Photographed by Lorraine Chittock

As we approach the Egyptian border, we are 20 days' ride from our starting point west of Omdurman, across the Nile from Sudan's capital, Khartoum. We're bound for the place all camel herds go from Western Sudan, the camel market in Daraw, north of Aswan, Egypt, a journey of 1250 kilometers (775 miles). From there, the camels will be loaded onto trucks and shipped to Cairo, home of the largest camel market in the Middle East. [...]

The journey from Omdurman to Daraw takes approximately 30 days, yet herders still refer to this route as Darb al-Arba'in, the Forty Days' Road. The historic Forty Days' Road connected the el-Fasher area of Sudan with Assiut in Egypt, via the Selima and Kharga Oases. This was the path followed by the great ancient camel caravans of old, a trade route dating back at least 700 years.

Unlike the historic route, the route of contemporary camel caravans hugs the Nile, sticking close to the main source of water as much as possible. In areas where they cannot travel along the Nile, herders rely on wells, so the khabir, the trail boss, must have perfect knowledge of well sites. Although herders today may begin their journey in el-Fasher, el-Obeid, el-Nahud or—most likely—in Omdurman, as we did, all still refer to any of these several routes to Egypt as Darb al-Arba'in.

The ancient caravans were like armies crossing the desert, their numbers far greater than anything seen today and their route more difficult, for, according to Sudanese historian Yusuf Fadl Hasan, they avoided the trail along the Nile for fear of robbery and official extortion. Ibn Khaldun, the 14th-century historian, recorded caravans of 12,000 camels on the Forty Days' Road. Then, too, caravans moved in both directions, as Sudan exported ivory, ebony, gold, ostrich feathers, cowry shells and slaves to Egypt, and received in return textiles, metals and firearms. Since trains and trucks now carry the vast majority of trade, it is the pack animal of the past that has become is the commodity today. Camel traffic goes in only one direction now: from the breeding grounds in Sudan to the farms and butcher shops of Egypt.
Records from Sudan's Ministry of Animal Resources show that the first official export of camels to Egypt took place in 1904, when 10 animals were sent north. Today, Sudan officially exports some 50,000 camels to Egypt annually, but the border between the two countries is long and difficult to monitor, and thus the real numbers are generally agreed to be higher. In recent years, camels have comprised as much as half of Sudan's exports to Egypt, resulting in a post at the Sudanese embassy in Cairo for an envoy specialized in camel commerce.

For their work, herders earn the equivalent of $300 per journey; as the leader, the khabir earns double that. The round trip keeps the men away from their villages for three months or more at a time. Many spend their wages in Cairo to purchase housewares, fabrics and clothing that they can sell in Sudan after they return home by ship via Suez and Port Sudan.

Today's herds usually comprise 100 camels led by five men. Sometimes a trader gathers enough camels to make up a herd of 200, like ours.

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