“Sojourners in the Desert . . . Glad of Each Delay”:
Meditations on the Drylands
III. Deserts Take Few Prisoners
“. . . we saw the break-up of the enemy . . . [they escaped] into what they thought was empty land beyond. However, in the empty land was Auda; and in that night of his last battle the old man killed and lulled, plundered and captured, till dawn showed him the end. There passed the Fourth [Turkish] Army . . .” — T. E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom
Sometimes, wanderers don’t come back from the wilderness. Deserts might be home to the noble eagle and awesome canyon, but they are also the dominion of the crow. This essay has so far skirted the fact that deserts are death-traps. Desert monsters — giant sandworms, black holes, and “Great Devourers” — are symbolic creatures that represent a real threat: The desert is often a place of no return. It swallows men, and occasionally entire armies, without a trace. Deserts are the graveyards of imperial fantasies, as much as they are the birthplaces of imperial religions. Many times in history have seen foolish, ill-prepared, or just unlucky people disappear from the face of the earth; their last known location: the “Blasted Lands.” It is a powerful, recurring motif: a guard at a frontier outpost squints against the Sun. Is that — no, must be a trick of the desert light. But little by little, a lone figure materializes against the hills. The lookout’s eyes were true. He shouts an alert to his senior officers, and soon a small group has gathered to watch this phantom’s approach. When he finally arrives at the steps of the gate, the stranger is barely holding himself upright on buckling knees. Onlookers rush to intercept him. Before collapsing entirely, he croaks out a parched whisper — all that remains of his voice — to answer the question in their astonished eyes: “I am the remnants of an army.”
After Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo, the British bugbear of foreign policy switched from France to Russia. While gallivanting in the Orient, Napoleon had made a strange bedfellow out of Tipu (“Tiger”) Sultan — the cruel ruler of Mysore who detested the British and wanted the East India Company out of the Subcontinent. In a letter of reply to Tipu, the French General wrote:
You have already been informed of my arrival on the borders of the Red Sea with an innumerable and invincible army, full of the desire of delivering you from the Iron Yoke of England. I eagerly embrace this opportunity of testifying to you the desire I have [of being kept apprised] as to your political situation. I would even wish you could send some intelligent person [i.e., spy] to Suez or Cairo . . . with whom I may confer. May the Almighty increase your power and destroy your enemies.
The British had waged a number of military actions against the Mysorean ruler, who had long been a thorn in their side. But up until British interception of this damning communiqué, they had played nice with Tipu. No longer. By the end of 1799, the “Tiger of Mysore” had been killed in the fourth and final Anglo-Mysore war. Following the pacification of other Indian potentates, Napoleon’s abandonment of the Orient, and then the latter’s permanent exile, British India seemed safe at last from any foreign plots.
The Behemoth of Eurasia, ever a restless and worrisome presence, had begun to make overtures to Central Asian rulers, particularly in Afghanistan; and Afghanistan, if readers recall their geography, sat directly northwest of British India. Its tribes also controlled access to one of the few overland routes into India: the Khyber Pass. “Painful as it is to reflect,” a British imperial official wrote in 1817, we must recognize “that a war for the restoration of the balance of power [i.e., the Napoleonic Wars] . . . ended in the overthrow of all balance.” Tsar Alexander I, having sent Napoleon’s armies packing across Europe, now saw himself and his empire as the savior of the West. With perhaps a bit of projection, the writer despaired, “Must the fiat of Alexander be the law of the universe? Is Russia, like Rome under the image of Milo the wrestler, to be looking round in vain for an antagonist?” In order to secure the region and to check any bright ideas that Russia may have entertained, the British marched into Afghanistan in 1839 and installed themselves at Kandahar and Kabul. They ousted the emir of Afghanistan, Dost Muhammed Khan, and installed an emir they considered more amenable to British interests. The pieces were set, and the “Great Game” had begun.
Only to go quickly wrong. The territory of Afghanistan has arid and semi-arid climates with forbidding topography: hot deserts under an excruciating Sun, frigid mountain passes of primitive rock, and stark, goat-herding hills. Indeed, in the words of one Briton, the place consisted of vast stretches of “foodless deserts and inaccessible hills.” Mountain and hill people, as I’ve argued before, tend to be tribal, effective in guerilla tactics, and violently suspicious of outsiders; while desert people, as I’ve argued in this essay, tend to be fanatics. The Afghans were both. Assassins gradually picked off the competent British commanders, leaving General William Elphinstone — an elderly veteran of Waterloo — in charge. He was well past his prime. By the beginning 1842, circumstances necessitated a British retreat from Kabul. About 700 white soldiers, nearly 4,000 native Indian sepoys, and 12,000 native camp followers left the city, planning to head south through the treacherous Hindu Kush in the dead of winter.
Among the few white civilian women in this caravan, Lady Florentia Sale, the wife of British officer Roger Henry Sale, wrote an eyewitness account of what happened next. As the “rear-guard” left their military billets on the morning of January 6, “they were immediately fired upon from the cantonments filled with Afghans.” The “servants” abandoned their loads and fled, resulting in the loss of the lion’s share of provisions and ammunition “at one fell swoop . . . the whole road was covered with men, women, and children, lying down in the snow to die.” But the nightmare had only begun. Lady Sale saved a book that someone had tossed aside in his haste to escape, titled Campbell’s Poems. She happened to open to a page with a verse that continued to “[haunt] her day and night”:
Few, few shall part where many meet,
The snow shall be their winding-sheet;
And every turf beneath their feet
Shall be a soldier’s sepulchre.
As much as Afghan muskets and knives, the Afghan “turf” was the army’s bitter enemy.
The march continued deeper into the “Khoord Kabul Pass.” The company was “heavily fired upon” at every turn and stopping point. Lady Sale was fortunate to have gotten “only one ball in [her] arm.” Many murderous Afghan raids into camp happened under the cover of darkness; sub-zero temperatures and few blankets or tents made bivouacs a special hell. After several terrible nights, the surviving British negotiated with Afghan leader Mohammed Akbar Khan, arranging for the “safety” of white wives and their officer husbands. Some dozen European women, Lady Sale among them, 20 children, and 8 officers “rode away under [Afghan] escort” as hostages to the man most believed to be responsible for the slaughter. They were the lucky ones.
“On the morning of the 10th,” the main body of the army continued their march “over the Huft Kotal towards Tezeen” on scant food and water. Mobs of desperate camp followers had already fallen on the livestock accompanying them, torn them to pieces, then eaten the chunks of flesh raw. The company was culled to a fraction of its original strength. “So terrible had been the effects of the cold and exposure upon the Native Troops that they were unable to resist the attacks of the Enemy, who pressed on [their] flanks.” Frostbitten fingers could not even load, much less fire muskets. The disorganized rabble “were [constantly harried] in . . . narrow gorge[s], and the pass was soon choked with the . . . dying.” Afghans, “in ever-increasing numbers, posted themselves on the heights and opened a terrible fire.” Some more daring bands of tribesmen, “thirst[ing] for blood . . . were determined to extirpate the infidels,” personally. They spilled from the cliffs and into the surging melée, cutting the panicking crowd to pieces with their long knives.
When the remainder of Her Majesty’s 44 Foot (a white regiment that was almost alone in maintaining any discipline) reached the Jagdalak Pass, they found it barricaded with sharp thickets of Afghan “tumbleweed” — deliberately rolled there for the purpose of making any passage virtually impossible and British entrapment even more desperate. Less than 50 of them managed to claw their way with bleeding fingers through the thorn-brush and to the other side at a place called Gandamak. There, Afghans called for their surrender with promises of clemency — only to be met by an answering, “Not bloody likely!” With two rounds of ammunition left per man, but plenty of courage in reserve, the 44 formed a defensive square and held out until all were overwhelmed and killed — all, that is, except for Dr. William Brydon, army surgeon.
On January 13, 1842, a week after the company’s 17,000 souls had departed Kabul, Brydon appeared as a ghost on the plateau of Jalalabad, missing part of his skull and riding a spent horse — the remnants of an army. For several nights following, the British company that received him lit beacons and sounded bugles from the walls of their frontier fort in hopes of guiding other survivors to safety. None but the windswept plains saw or heard them.
But, readers may protest, was it really the wilderness that killed Elphinstone’s army? I have yet another story of catastrophe, far older than the British Empire or even the religion of Islam, and in this story, not one survivor in an army of 50,000 lived to tell of his experience. According to Herodotus, the Persian King Cambyses II had vowed as a small child to invade Egypt, perhaps to avenge an insult suffered by his mother. More likely, the weakened North African power was too prestigious and geographically enticing for the ambitious King to pass up the chance to pick it, like a ripe date plum. So, with a force whose numbers surpassed those that Napoleon would command thousands of years later, Cambyses led his own army into Egypt in 525 BC.
After initial victories he moved from Memphis to Sais, where the Persian King “entered the palace of Amasis, and straightway commanded that the body of the” dead Pharaoh Psamtik III “should be brought forth from the sepulchre.” When the attendants did as he asked, Cambyses ordered them to “scourge the body, and . . . heap upon it all manner of insults.” Having been embalmed in the usual Egyptian manner, however, “the body refused to come apart.” Cambyses’ attendants “grew weary of their work; whereupon [he] bade them take the corpse and burn it.” This, Herodotus wrote gravely, “was truly an impious command to give.” Any Persian soldier watching the proceedings would have shuddered with religious dread.
Cambyses continued on to Thebes, where “he detached from his main body some fifty thousand men, and sent them against the Ammonians with orders to carry the people into captivity, and burn the oracle of Jupiter.” He then ventured south toward Ethiopia with the rest of the force. The men sent to attack the Ammonians began with guides, and could be “traced as far as the city Oasis,” otherwise known in the Greek tongue as “the island of the blessed,” and a place seven days’ distance from Thebes. “Thus far the army [was] known to have made its way,” Herodotus wrote — but after that, “nothing [was] to be heard of them.” Their intended victims related their fate as follows:
That the Persians . . . had reached about half way between [Oasis] and themselves when, as they were at their midday meal, a wind arose from the south, strong and deadly, bringing with it vast columns of whirling sand, which entirely covered up the troops and caused them to wholly disappear.
The Dust Bowl has nearly passed from the fleeting window of living memory. At first it might seem implausible that a mere sandstorm could wipe out an army numbering in the tens of thousands, all without a trace. But there is nothing merely about a powerful sandstorm — the true monsters of the desert. During the 1930s, over-cultivation and exacerbating weather conditions turned the interior of the United States into a desert. Huge dust storms, gathering more debris and momentum as they barreled across the plains, buried everything in their path. Wheat farmer Lawrence Svobida of Kansas kept a journal during that time, and his descriptions of these catastrophic events was chilling. At first, one would see “a cloud . . . approaching from a distance of many miles.” It would have the “banked appearance of a cumulus cloud, but it [would look] black,” not white, hanging low and hugging the earth. “Instead of being slow to change its form” like a normal storm cloud, it would appear “to be rolling on itself from the crest downward.” As it neared, the landscape was “progressively blotted out. Birds [would fly] in terror before [it], and only those that [were] strong of wing” stood a chance of escaping it. As for the smaller birds, they would fly until they fell to the ground in “exhaustion,” sharing “the fate of the thousands of jack rabbits [that would] perish from suffocation.”
Now, imagine a monstrous sandstorm that the far hotter and “dustier” Sahara might conjure with its hurricane of oven winds and torrents of sand that filled the desert: a scorching trap of whirling movement, then the heavy stuckness of concrete. Herodotus’ story remained unverified until recently, when two Italians looking for meteorites unearthed a “natural shelter” against the elements located near the Saharan town of Siwa — and piles of ancient, bleached bones bearing Achmaenid jewelry. Close by they discovered a similar, larger mass grave with countless “white bones,” but disturbed by grave robbers. Locals had for many years spoken of human remains that strong storms covered and recovered in sheets of earth. These may be the only clues we will find in the mystery of Cambyses’ vanished invasion. It is no great mystery, however, that so many might have perished in such a short time and in such a desolate — yet violent — corner of the planet. “Thus . . . did it fare with this army” of multitudes, yet not so multitudinous — yea, as nothing — beside desert grains unnumbered.
The Desert Leaves an Impression
I didn’t heroically run a Dust Bowl farm, lead an Oriental invasion, Arab Revolt, or an interstellar mission of mercy during my “dry spell”; I just got a diploma. But I did imbibe enough of the heady western wine, in place of water, for the desert to leave a lasting, but not unpleasant hangover. Was it love? Perhaps not, but I still think of it, particularly on bland days in my more temperate home, and find myself sometimes wishing that the weather was less polite. Rage! Knock over the bicyclist (not nice, I know)! Bar the way, and slam the doors! Blaze the days, and freeze the nights! When it does rain, pour!
My errand was modest next to that of Napoleon, Dr. Brydon, Lady Sale, Cambyses, or Paul Atreides. Yet, as each of them once perceived, there is for me the lingering sense that I left something behind. Next to the desert’s absolutes, almost everything else — oneself, especially — seems unfinished. When the Revolt ended and the old Ottoman Empire folded, Lawrence requested of his superiors that he finally have “leave to go away” — away from the desert. It would be “easier,” he convinced them, to impose “the New Law . . . if [his] spur were absent . . .[and] In the end,” the politicians “agreed; . . . at once [he] knew how much [he] was sorry.” No, I haven’t seen the face of Ozymandias, but the desert has still ruined me.
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 Auda Abu-Tayeh was the leader of a Bedouin tribe during the Arab Revolt (1916-1917) against the Ottoman Empire.
 Jasanoff, 163-164.
 Robert Wilson, “A Sketch of the Military and Political Power of Russia” in The First Anglo-Afghan Wars: A Reader, Antoinette Burton, ed. (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2014), 23.
 R. D. Osborn, “India and Afghanistan (1879)” in The First Anglo-Afghan Wars: A Reader, 164.
 Lady Florentia Wynch Sale, A Journal of the Disasters in Afghanistan, 1841-2 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1843), 45.
 Mohammed Akbar Khan was the son of Dost Mohammed Khan (the ousted Emir, who was being held by the British in India). He claimed that he had no control over his Afghan tribesmen, and was thus unable to stop the massacres. According to reports by captured British officers, as he rode among the carnage Akbar Khan shouted at his people in Persian — a language known to some British — to stop the bloodshed, while exhorting them in their native tongue to continue killing anyone they laid hands on. It is likely that he offered the white families “escort” so that he could use them as bargaining chips when it came to negotiating his father’s release.
 Lady Sale, 52.
 G. A. Henry, “To Herat and Cabul: A Story of the First Afghan War (1902)” in The First Anglo-Afghan Wars: A Reader, 66, 67.
 Ibid., 186.
 “Black Sunday Storm, Personal Accounts of Black Sunday,” Wiki Creative Commons.
 Herodotus, 187.
 Lawrence, 683.
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