Results of Winter 2006/7 - Expeditions
-a solution to the Clayton ring problem (continued)

A. Acknowledgments & abstract (in separate file)
B. Expedition to The Sudan
1. Situation at the outset
2. A solution to the Clayton ring problem (continued)
2.1 Rainfall as parameter for determining the age of Handal, life span of the seeds and consequences for the donkey caravans in antiquity
2.2 My experiments in Obak
2.21 Pita bread baking
2.22 Implications for the Clayton roasting process
2.23 Preliminary testing
2.24 Clayton roasting process - 1st trial (residual embers not employed)
2.25 Clayton roasting process - 2nd trial (residual embers employed)
2.26 Third (successful) Clayton roasting trial (employment of residual embers carefully controlled)
2.27 Gotran production in Okliss
2.28 Inquiries in Omdurman
2.29 Epilogue
C. Discovery of the Kufra Trail (in separate file)
D. Discovery of the "Lost Ochre Quarries of Kings Cheops and Djedefre"(in separate file)
E. Discovery of late Neolithic rock art - roots of early hieroglyphic writing (in separate file)
F: Black Valley Clayton (BVC) – the youngest Clayton found so far (in separate file)

B. Expedition to The Sudan
1. Situation at the outset

Between 12/26/06 and 2/1/07 I embarked on another journey into the eastern mountains of the Sudan. According to original plans, the excursion would have dealt only casually with the Handal pip issue, however, unexpectedly, this became its primary concern.

The journey was sponsored by S.K., a well known German writer. S.K.´s intention was to acquaint herself with family life of the Bisharin Bedouin. My “Sudanese caravan” had been chosen as a vehicle to approach these people in a more intimate way. But would there be enough “desert dwellers” left to be visited? As monsoonal rainfall had been rapidly decreasing since the 1950´s, huge parts of the eastern mountain area of the Sudan are, obviously, on the verge of turning from a savannah/steppe like habitat into a hyper arid zone. Misty skies day in day out, the air laden with dust even when there is no wind, trees dying, wells falling dry, wild life retreating, areas formerly cultivated for decades, turning into bone dry expanses of cracked soil… Does such a scenario not remind the spectator of the climate change that, thousands of years ago, brought life (and human existence) in the Western Desert of Egypt to an end? During the famine of 1984-86 most Bedouin fled from the region and became “drought refugees” settling at the fringes of (or amidst) towns and villages of the Sudanese Nile Valley or along the shores of the Red Sea. Years after their flight, they are still dwelling in miserable tents (picture 1) – no drinking water, no sewage systems, no medical care; a forgotten populace, for which neither government nor the international aid industry seem to care.

picture 1
: Tents of famine refugees in Atbara

In Middle Kingdom times, during the reign of Ammenemes III. (1.853 – 1.806 BC) similar, if not worse environmental conditions prevailed. During a period of drought, five members of the Medjay-people (the ancestors of the modern Beja-tribes) came in rags to “the Great House of the Pharaoh” telling that “the desert is dying of hunger”. They found neither work nor asylum and in cold response, were dismissed to their arid homeland that same day. The plight of these nomads appears in the Semnah Despatches, a series of reports exchanged between officers stationed on Egypt’s southern frontier and Thebes. (Smither, P. C.: The Semnah Despatches. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 31/1945, pp. 3-8)

The worries of meeting only insufficient numbers of Bedouin families in the mountains ended in smoke on the day of my arrival in Khartoum. S.K. phoned and cancelled the camel trip. From one moment to the next I found myself without a project. Should I, at all, try to get my caravan ready?

On my 2004/5-expedition into the Eastern Sudan I had taken plenty of photographs, copies of which I had pledged to hand over to the Bedouin. I felt obliged to keep my promise. On 12/28/06 I took the bus to Abidiya, a village north of Berber.

Abidiya is the entrepot for the trucks on the desert road from Bir Shalatein (South-eastern Egypt) to the Sudanese Nile Valley. Next to the large custom station, where all vehicles have to report upon arrival from Egypt (see pictures 2+3), there is a quite sizable, shanty town-like market (Souk el Abidiya Djamarik). While strolling the souk´s dirty lanes in search for a member of the Ali Rasseij family (see results of expedition 2004/5), to whom I could hand the photographs over, I, all of the sudden, noticed a Clayton ring and two

picture 2
: Abidiya customs station                 picture 3: Trucks at Abidiya customs station

Clayton disks hanging from the ceiling of one of the shacks. Asking what the objects were good for, a man replied: “Protection against the evil eye.” He claimed to have obtained the items from a truck driver, who had found them somewhere on the Abidiya-Shalatein road. I wanted to photograph shop and artefacts. The moment I got out my camera, problems started. Soon I found myself in the claws of the police. An officer pointing to a text passage of my photography license (“Slum areas, beggars and other defaming subjects are not to be photographed.”) reminded me that snapshots within the Berber district proper are forbidden and said, “You may take pictures of the mountains and of the Bedouin there” – an official invitation to resume preparations for a desert tour? Surprisingly, the man had no objections against the purchase of the Clayton. So, under the watchful eyes of the authorities, I traded it in for a pocket size version of the Koran. The bargain enabled me to design a meaningful expedition program in a rush.

2. A solution to the Clayton ring problem (continued)

On 1/4/2007 Karar, my Bishari friend, myself and three camels (Robdan, Amur and Elei; see picture 4) left Atbara with provisions for 6 weeks. Because of the Islamic Eid al-Adha (greater Bairam) the outlook for replenishing supplies at the wells of Okliss was bleak. “Nobody will be around for at least three weeks”, Karar had explained. Therefore our caravan was loaded up to its limits.

picture 4
: Toni, Karar, Robdan, Amur and Elei at the Nile Hotel, Atbara before departure

The aim of the expedition was

  1. to find Bedouin, who were willing to answer questions concerning the (other than medical) use of colocynths
  2. to eyewitness the production of Gotran (see results of expedition 2004/5 –remark on rock marharkas) and
  3. to perform an archaeological experiment: using a Clayton ring as a Handal pip roaster (as suggested in results of winter 2005/6 – expeditions, chapter B.4.f) and to evaluate the results.

When discussing the matter with Karar upon my return from Abidiya, my friend had been sceptical. “You will perish, if you consume Habb Handal (colocynth pips)”, he said. Then he entertained me with the story of Issadin, an alcoholic from Ed Damer, who had moved to Kassala some years ago. According to hearsay, Issadin, in a fit of megalomania, had grabbed into a basket brimming with Handal pips. Placing himself in front of a herbs-shop on a market in Kassala, he bragged about his ability to bite the bitter pills in bulk. Although passers-by tried to prevent him from doing so, a hand full of the kernels ended up in his stomach. Soon after, Issadin was convulsed with pain. He started puking and got the runs. People carried him to a doctor. Despite emergency treatment the man passed away 12 hours later.

(Orfila, Allgemeine Toxologie 1830, vol. 1, p. 564, reports a similar case. A scavenger, infected with gonorrhoea, who tried to treat the disease by consuming 90 gr. of colocynth pips, suffered from vomiting, acute pain in the epigastria, copious defecations, impaired vision, delirium and vertigo. Another (medical literature) source reports of hyperaemia in the brain, delirium and occasional collapses. A further source diagnoses sanguineous diarrhoea, abscesses, bursting of the intestines, peritonitis and conations. (cited from Yet another source states that a high intake of colocynthis leads to severe irritations and inflammations of the intestines and, finally, to death. Fordyce reports the case of a woman who had sipped an infusion of Handal pulp, hence she suffered colics for 30 years. (cited from
I learned about all these after-effects when I had returned to Germany. See chapter 2.29)

Issadin´s fate, narrated by townsfolk not accustomed to a desert environment and, most certainly, excessively overstating the danger of this poisonous plant, contrasts sharply with the story of Bukara, related by Hassanein Bey. (see results of winter 2005/6, chapter B.4.d.; A.M. Hassanein Bey: The lost Oasis. Cairo, New York 2006, pp.207-209)  Bukara obviously being a man who, since his childhood, had lived from hand to mouth; a Bedouin, that is to say, accustomed to the barest minimum – to the almost nothing that an arid environment contributes to a man’s survival.

Which of the two stories was closer to reality? Although I had lost Cambyses, one of my camels, in winter 1986/87 after the beast had scoffed down half a Handal at Bir Abu Minqar (see my Letzter Beduine, pp. 352,353), I was determined to perform the roasting and to taste its results. If Bukara had survived 12 days of (untreated?) Handal pip consumption (see A.M. Hassanein Bey, op. cit., p. 209), why then should roasted ones do me any harm?

Karar said he would assist in the experiments as much as possible but, otherwise, restrict himself to the position of a spectator. “You better perform your tests next to a hospital”, he recommended. All the same, my friend remaining alert on the subject, released the following information:

a.)   “Desert adapted” goats and donkeys do feed on green as well as on dry Handal.
b.)   According to Bisharin oral tradition, the mountain dwellers of the past had consumed Handal flour by mixing three parts of it with one part of millet flour in times of scarcity of food. Small residues of poison had not bothered them, as their stomachs were accustomed to such nourishment since early childhood. “This was about 400 years ago”, said Karar, in answer to my question, when such practise was common (the 400 years serving as a standing phrase for “long time ago”. By the way, the ancient Egyptian word for Colocynth was believed to be “djaret”, a reading which has been questioned recently. see Nunn, J.F.: Ancient Egyptian medicine. London 2003, pp. 153, 162).

On our way to Obak Karar collected Handal with some difficulty. In the vicinity of the big expanse of colocynths seen two years ago (Handal field A; see results of winter 2005/6 expeditions, picture 32) the rain of last summer had caused the decomposition of the old (dry) Handal, their seeds falling out and sprouting, so that, since then, new colocynth plants had grown and matured. Their fruits, green-yellow striped Handal (picture 5), are not suitable for food processing. However, in between the green plants, as well as at other locations (Handal fields B) Karar managed to gather a few dry ones. (picture 6)

picture 5
: green Handal                                                       picture 6: dry Handal

Quite a few of the green fruits were nibbled (see pictures 7 + 8), a condition which Karar attributed to sheep grazing, the tracks of the animals being visible all around.

pictures 7 + 8
: Handal nibbled by sheep

Karar put the dry Handal into a plastic sack, battering on it with his stick, thereby breaking the peels and releasing the pips. Then, by winnowing, he sifted peel- and pulp particles from the kernels. Before we arrived in Obak my friend had obtained about 1½ kg of pips (derived from 35 Handal).

Although Karar positioned himself with care, the dust released by battering and winnowing caused severe problems to his eyes. I stayed away from the threshing floor. Nevertheless I noticed an intensely bitter taste on my lips. Most certainly, the dust originated from crushing the dry pulp.

Before the first summer monsoon rain had fallen on 7/22/06 the desert region northeast of Atbara had suffered 6 years of drought. Intermittent rainfall continued until September 5/06. Concerning the amount of rain (rain rate – accumulation in mm) the NRL Monterey Satellite Photos ( give only a rough (and, sometimes, wrong) estimate. Anyhow, the rain had moistened the ground to such an extent that, here and there, deeply sunk footprints of camels were still visible (picture 9). In Wadi Abu Salam the precipitation allowed for the planting of millet. We crossed millet cultivations (plants up to 3 m high), which stretched up to the horizon (picture 10). In Ed Damer a down-pour had washed away Karar´s mud brick kitchen room. Thanks to a donation made by German friends and acquaintances of mine his kitchen could be rebuilt.

picture 9: sunk footprints of camels               picture 10: millet cultivation in wadi Abu Salam

Despite of the rainfall we found only scarce vegetation, mainly consisting of Eilab (on flat expanses), a Gizzu grass, and (in the drainage channels) Handal, wild Mulukhiya, Tabbes- and Gurera grass, as well as Urarib, a mushroom species and a single Oschera (Calotropis procera)

2.1 Rainfall as parameter for determining the age of Handal, life span of the seeds and consequences for the donkey caravans in antiquity

As rainfall destroys stocks of old (dry) Handal, precipitation can be used as a reference for determining their age.

a.)   The dry Handal, which Karar had collected in the vicinity of Handal field A, was about 5 months old. It is no contradiction that the green and dry fruits we found there, were coexisting next to each other. Handal seeds, Karar explained, will sprout during the rainy season (July-September). Later, at the end of the following March, almost all of the green Handal will be dried by sun and hot winds, waiting to be “destroyed” by water during the next monsoonal rain period – if, inshallah, it will rain at all. Depending on location and composition of the ground (micro-topographical & geomorphologic conditions) some patches of a colocynth field will remain relatively dry during rain, while others receive plenty of water (the latter retaining the moisture for a longer period of time). For this reason the heat, in more elevated parts of a field, will dry the fruits out faster. In any case, precipitation will decompose both dry and green fruits, the latter by moulding and rotting. Therefore it would be a mistake to qualify the green fruits of a specific plot of land as “young” and the dry ones as “old”.

b.)  The monsoonal rainfall of 2006 that had blessed the area between Atbara and Obak, was of intermittent character and did not moisten the entire expanse. Our caravan traversed stretches of land, where not a single raindrop had fallen. Handal fields B were situated in such terrains. According to Karar these patches of dry Handal were leftovers of the rainfall of 2000 and, therefore, six years old. (It was amazing to learn that even after years Karar remembered each rainfall by the day and, sometimes, even by the hour.)

c.)   The fact that green and dry Handal coexist does illustrate that the donkey drivers of a distant past were able to pick Handal for human consumption out of a “green” colocynth field and, later, repeating the procedure, collecting newly matured (dry) fruits when returning to the area (This may be the reason, why the Claytons were deposited.); in other words: the donkey drivers harvested (in the same place) successively. Occasional fruit picking would continue until a Handal field was exhausted or destroyed by a downpour. (While donkey drivers were selecting dry Handal for their own use, the beasts of burden would feed on green Handal to quench their thirst. Scoffing down the bitter fruits the donkeys would not need to be watered at all.)

d.)  Colocynths are considered to be plants of the steppe. When envisaging the role of humans in a desert environment of antiquity it is important to know, how long colocynth seeds remain fertile. Karar had not personally experienced a period of drought lasting longer than 3 years. From his uncle, who has been dwelling in the area of Obak, and from other residents of Obak he learned that in the region between Atbara and Obak drought had prevailed between 2000 and 2006. My friend (and, later, others) estimated that Handal seeds would stay active for approx. 10 years. When rain would fail to fall for a longer than 10 year period, the area concerned would be void of colocynths thereafter, as, according to Karar, “…the seeds would turn into dust.” (According to Thomas Künne, graduate agricultural engineer and former associate at the Institute of Agrology and Microbiology of the University of Halle, Germany, colocynth seeds as well as quite a number of “weed” seeds do not require very particular germination conditions and may easily survive a period of 15 years or longer in dormancy. After such a period the seeds will still possess full germination capacity. Referring to German domestic weeds, this expert stated that, depending on limiting factors such as humidity, aeration and soil embedding, orach (atriplex), goosefoot (chenopodium), dog’s millet, meadow foxtail (alopecurus pratensis) and bromegrass would germinate even after a dormancy of 100 years. “The ability of certain weed seeds to remain in a dormant state is by far longer than commonly expected”, Thomas Künne finally remarked. Pers. com., Ochelmitz 6/8/2007)

e.)   Consequences for the Western Desert of Egypt in Antiquity
Scenario A: Hyper arid conditions ; no natural cover in desert areas during 6th dynasty
Donkey drivers would collect and bag Handal pips before embarking on a desert journey; for instance at Biar Jaqub, at Dakhla Oasis or at Bir Abu Minqar (At the latter two locations colocynths are growing today. At Dakhla Oasis Ascherson had seen the fruits in winter 1874; G. Rohlfs: Drei Monate in der Libyschen Wüste. Bonn 1983, p. 239) Carrying the poisonous nutriment along may have required that fuel (if it was not donkey dung) to convert the pips into edible matter, had also to be found. My experiment had to give a rough estimate of the amount of fuel (firewood, camel- or donkey dung?) needed for roasting the pips. (If the latter, as in the case of the Tibu-Resade, who prepare Abra for their alimentation on long journeys (Hardy Böckli, pers. com.; see also chapters 2.23 + 2.29, ad 3) had not already been roasted in advance – before hitting the road.) If, in antiquity, such fuel had mainly consisted of plant- & forest species, such natural cover definitely would have needed precipitation to grow. If the fuel had consisted of donkey dung, the caravans of the ancients could be pictured as bodies of autonomous fuel producers as long as the beasts of burden had enough forage to turn “fuel” out. However, the existence of forage in the desert (by no means could it have been carried from Dakhla all the way to the Gilf Kebir) implies, once again, rainfall.

Scenario B: Hyper aridity contested. Colocynths still ubiquitous in the Western Desert of Egypt during 6th dynasty.
Most of the many Claytons I have noticed during the last 25 years, have been deposited in or at the fringes of shallow dips (however small) or in dune alleys (sand dunes are known for their high water retaining capacity). On the Kufra Trail (TK; see chapter C below), in particular, we have seen two Clayton sites, one on a flat expanse next to a group of tall hills, which area, covered with playa, most certainly would have turned into fertile ground after sufficient rainfall. The other one was found at the fringes of a depression situated in the lee of a sizable hill, the catchment area of the lowland measuring approx. 8 sqkm. Why were such locations (the first one offering not the slightest protection against wind) preferred by the ancients? Simply because they yielded food and feed for their caravans after downpours. (When en route with their camels the Kel Timia of the Air Mountains select their bivouacs according to grazing conditions. Herdsmen are accustomed to spend the night without a windbreak or any other protection. see G. Spittler. Hirtenarbeit. Die Welt der Kamelhirten und Ziegenhirtinnen von Timia. Köln 1998, pp. 124, 162)

2.2 My experiments in Obak

On 1/9/07 we arrived in Obak. Since the bustling activities experienced on my previous visit two years ago, the place appeared to me as if it had, in the meantime, been abandoned. Later we discovered three fresh donkey tracks and a man’s footprints near the main well (all other wells had fallen dry.), but we saw nobody. In search for the man we came across a course of churned up sand, which led us to an acacia shrub. There I saw the animal causing the enigmatic traces: a tortoise. (picture 11) The beast measured 65cm in lengths. “Durka Halub”, Karar exclaimed, the Beja word for tortoise. My friend had seen many of them, but this was by far the largest. Not a soul anywhere. For a while Obak and its scanty vegetation appeared to me as the planet’s most deserted clime (Although the wells are situated in a plain, their environs recalled a visit to Gebel Uweinat, the mountain at the border triangle of Egypt, Sudan and Libya, whereto I had walked in 1982 with three camels (Hassan, Atma and Cambyses; see my Letzter Beduine, pp. 292-312). At a rock face in Karkur Talh I had seen pictograms, which bear some resemblance to tortoises.)

picture 11 a tortoise in Obak

2.21 Pita bread baking

Not until Karar made ready for baking pita bred, did a human figure approach our camp. It was a young shepherd, Achmed Muhamed Sherif by name, about 14 years old, illiterate but of sound mind. Despite his age he was already conditioned by sa´ud, the Sudanese chewing tobacco (a blend of tobacco chips and atrun). “There is nothing else to do here. Sa´ud is my only comfort”, the boy explained.

Because of the forthcoming tests I watched the bread baking procedure more thoroughly than usual. Making a pita bread in the wilderness requires five steps:
a.)Starting a fire on flat sand.
b.)  While the firewood is resolving into embers (and the ground in the lee of the fire, by and by, blackens) Karar mixes dough using flour, salt and water. After pounding it well, the dough is formed into a flat cake.
c.) The embers are moved gently away from the fireplace
(picture 12) and the round flat dough cake is placed on the hot patch of blackened sand.
d.)  Some of the heated sand (which, along with the embers, had been moved aside) is used to cover the cake. (picture 13) “To protect it from getting burned”, Karar explained. Then the embers are distributed on top. (picture 14)
Using his stick to remove embers and hot, blackened sand half an hour later, Karar lifts the loaf from the “hearth”. Pita bread and the ground beneath it are still very hot. (I did not manage to hold on to the loaf with bare hands longer than a second.)

picture 12
: Bread baking - showing the embers away from the fire place       picture 13: covering the cake with heated sand

picture 14
:.Bread baking – placing the embers on top of the layer of heated sand

Soon after, Karar broke the loaf, dropped chunks of it into a bowl and over these, he poured goat milk, which Achmed had fetched. Our lunch was ready.

2.22 Implications for the Clayton roasting process
a.)   As shown, the ground beneath the fire was heated up substantially. Thus, the Clayton ought to be put on the hot ground and not on top of a patch of embers. Such modus operandi would easily avoid carbonising of the pips situated in the lower part of a Clayton (as the heated ground is not as hot as the embers. In unison, its heat is sustained for a long period of time and therefore cooks the pips slowly without burning them.) This, most certainly, would be in agreement with procedures in antiquity, as at sites where Claytons have been found in a position of use, so far, no remains of charcoal were recovered (exception: The Farafra Clayton camp) beneath them. (Because of exposure to erosive effects over thousands of years it is most unlikely that any organic food processing remains will be detected below Claytons left behind in the open field by their owners, nor will there be remains of fire places left in the vicinity of such sites.)
b.)  After the Clayton has been put on the heated patch, it would be filled with Handal pips and then closed with the “lid” (perforated disk).
c.)   In case of need hot sand as well as the vestiges of the fire (ashes and embers) could be piled up around the Clayton to increase heat.
d.)  When the roasting is done, these accumulations would be removed and the Clayton dislodged. 

2.23 Preliminary testing

Before embarking upon the archaeological experiments (roasting Handal pips in a Clayton) it deemed best to perform preliminary testing on a small scale. An aluminium pan belonging to our kitchen equipment was filled with a layer of sand and, after placing 20 pips on it, was set on the embers. 10 minutes later (the sand being “red-hot”) one of the pips burst with a gentle bang and jumped out of the pan. (Five minutes before, this kernel had been pushed slightly into the hot sand.) After another 10 minutes the reverse side of the pips had turned black. (pictures 15-17)

picture 15
: base material for our tests – untreated Handal pips     picture 16: Handal pips after 10 minutes of heath exposure

picture 17
: Handal pips after 20 minutes of heath exposure  picture 18: results after 25 minutes of roasting compared with untreated pips

Did such “discharge” (the substance causing the blackening) consist of Gotran (the tarry substance extracted from colocynths by intensive heat – see below)? The sand itself was not contaminated by it. Another 5 minutes later I picked up the kernels (picture 18) with tweezers. When tasting one of them, it came as no surprise that it was void of a bitter taste. (There developed, however, a slight aftertaste when the kernels were exposed to my mouth’s salvia for a while.) No gotran “flavour” was noticed.

Repeating the test until the floor of the aluminium pan melted (picture 19), it was found that the discolouration of the heat treated pips correlates with the intensity of the bitter taste (and, most probably, with the kernel’s content of poisonous constituents), thus revealing:
-         ochre yellow: intensely bitter
-         brownish: fairly bitter
-         slightly blackened on one side: tolerably bitter
-          blackened but not burnt: void of bitterness

picture 19 melted floor of our aluminium pan     picture 20: boiling a few roasted Handal pips in water


-         Roasting alone is capable of getting rid of the Handal seed’s intense bitterness.

-         Heat of a fire, therefore, might be the agent promoting pyrolysis of the pip’s poisonous properties.

-         Discolouration of the pips can be used as a simple indicator for determining a successful pyrolysis. One only has to lift the Clayton’s “lid” and check.

-         In defiance of all horror stories circulating among townsfolk and Bedouin: refining the pips and turning them into edible matter had worked (on small scale) without a drop of water.

-         One might consume roasted Handal pips (as I did) without getting the runs or provoking other health hazards.

-         By using a Clayton for converting a poisonous substance (Handal pips) into edible matter an alternative to the “Central Saharan method” of purifying colocynth seeds (by boiling & rinsing the kernels several times before grinding and, then, boiling the flower again – see results of winter 2005/6 expeditions, postscript) has come to light. It seems more probable now that, to the ancients, the Claytons had been the adequate “kitchen utensil” for preparing the daily diet in an inhospitable environment.  

In my experiments the pips had been lying on top of a heated layer of sand. What would be the result, if the kernels were surrounded by heat from all sides in a Clayton?

Achmed had watched my trials . He met me with disbelief, when he saw me chewing and swallowing some of the roasted kernels. Urging him to test himself the boy was surprised that the substance had lost its bitterness. He soon hurried away to tell his father who, after a short while, paid a visit to our camp.

Muhamed Nur Sherif, a man in his 70s, knew of the “Central Saharan-mode” mentioned above, but was ignorant of Abra, a dish consisting of Handal pip flour, crushed locusts or dates, which had been offered to Hassanein Bey in 1923 at a Goran camp at the foot of Gebel Uweinat (see A.M. Hassanein Bey, op.cit., pp.202, 206). Evoking the past Muhamed Nur claimed (as Karar had before) that the Bejas occasionally included Handal seeds into their diet. “The human Handal pip consumption ceased 700 years ago”, he remarked, “nowadays only donkeys, sheep and goats feed on them. The wadis east of Obak are full of colocynths after rain.” Referring to the production of Gotran he commented: “1.5 – 2 kg of pips yield a rottle of Gotran.”

The distant noise of a truck came closer. “Gold hunters”, Muhamed Nur said. He jumped on his feet and walked away. Since the precious metal had been discovered in April of last year, a considerable part of Obak´s male population had traded in animal herding for a search for gold.

Later, Achmed and his brother Ibrahim approached our camp with their goats. I had offered a reward for being permitted to watch and photograph the animals feeding on Handal, which they did without hesitation. (pictures 21 + 22)

picture 21
: Obak – goats feeding on green Handal                            picture 22: green Handal after the feed

We boiled a few of the roasted Handal pips left from the experiments. This caused only a slight change of the boiling water’s colour (picture 20); the resulting liquid itself did not taste bitter nor was the pip’s flavour improved.

With the knowledge acquired so far, Karar and I felt ready to perform our archaeological experiments.

2.24 Clayton roasting process - 1nd trial (residual embers not employed) 

We started testing on 1/14/07. The sequence which then began, of preparing a fire place, filling the Clayton and roasting the pips, required one hour and five minutes. Here a “condensed” p.r.t. copy from my diary:

9.30 a.m.: Karar has finished preparing a fireplace in the slipstream of a small acacia bush. While the fire is burning, my friend sorts out peel fragments that had survived the winnowing. (pictures 15 + 23)
10.01 a.m.: The fire has burned down. Ashes and embers are brushed aside. Karar tests the ground’s heat by slightly pressing his fingertips on it. “Isai el aish – as hot as (necessary) for pita bread baking”, he says. The Clayton is put on the heated patch and filled with Handal pips (picture 24); then closed with the “lid”. (picture 25)
10.28 a.m.: When tasting a light brownish coloured pip, I found it still to be intensely bitter.
Karar is throwing a few grey coloured pips into the pile of embers (which is not at all employed in the roasting). They soon “explode” jumping up and (all but one) falling back into the embers, where they carbonise emitting biting smoke. The one dropping beyond the embers is digestible; it has lost its bitter taste.
10.35 a.m.: The ground at the base of the Clayton has cooled off. We shove the utensil on to a sheet of leather (picture 26) and take off the “lid”. While the pips in the upper section of the Clayton had not received a fair amount of heat (and, therefore, have not lost their bitterness) the ones having been in contact with the hot ground, have turned black.

picture 23: 1st Clayton roasting test – sorting out peel fragments         picture 24: filling the Clayton

picture 25: 1st Clayton roasting test – state of affairs in the course of the roasting.
picture 26
: 1st Clayton roasting test - shoving the utensil on a leather sheet

Obviously, the experiment has failed.

2.25 Clayton roasting process - 2nd trial (residual embers employed) 

As a result of the first test it has become clear, that the pip’s exposure to heat has to be increased and distributed more evenly throughout the Clayton’s interior. Therefore, residual embers (which had not been employed in the 1st test) would have to be piled around the Clayton, so that all the pips would turn into a light blackish colour. Karar had built a larger fire. After the wood turned to embers (1/2 hour) it is brushed aside (0.25 p.m.; picture 27), and the Clayton is set on top of the “hot spot”. (Because of the limited amount of pips the Clayton is only semi filled.)

0.30 p.m.: The embers are piled up around the Clayton. (picture 28) Karar figures that the earthenware will break into pieces. Being confident in the ancient potter’s technology as well as in my vision of the Clayton’s use in antiquity, I placate him saying: “Claytons did not shatter in the past. Why should they do nowadays?”

picture 27: 2nd Clayton roasting test - brushing aside the embers   picture 28: humping embers around the Clayton

0.33 p.m.: From the Clayton’s inside slight bursts are to be heard in a quarter second rhythm - sounding like gun fire in the far distance.
0.35 p.m.: The bursting continues and smoke originating from its core soars above the Clayton. (picture 29) Prying to inquire the state of affairs Karar lifts the “lid” and stirs the pips with a small branch. (picture 30) “Shuf Carlo, lejn – isej moija. – Have a look, Carlo, wettish – like water”, he says. The pips are “sweating”.

picture 29
: 2nd Clayton roasting test – smoke soaring  picture 30: stirring the pips

0.40 p.m.: The pips are dampish to the core. (picture 31) Smoke is continuously rising. The pip’s volume has contracted, the heat being so intense that Karar assumes Gotran being produced.
0.46 p.m.: While Karar is agitating with the stick, four pips burst and jump out of the open Clayton. It continues to crackle. Karar closes the Clayton putting the “lid” on.
0.55 p.m.: Tasting a pip which is not carbonised, I notice only slight residual bitterness.
0.58 p.m.: Decision is made to slow down the roasting process by taking the embers away. Despite of the reduction of heat the bursting inside the Clayton continues (as if the process has turned into an exothermic “chain reaction”), as well as the smouldering (picture 32); the ground beneath and around the Clayton still being very hot.

picture 31
: 2nd Clayton roasting test – dampish pips         picture 32: after the embers has been removed smouldering continues

1.05 p.m.: 1.05 p.m.: Ending the roasting as most of the kernels are blackened. (picture 33)
1.08 p.m.: The Clayton has been removed from the hot patch with the help of the leather sheet. On the ground (at the place of its former position) a 1 – 1½ cm thick cake of a black substance emerges. (picture 34) Does such a feature not invite comparison to the on-site findings at the Farafra Clayton camp, where an accumulation of charcoal-rich sediment, into which Claytons had been embedded, was found? (see results of Winter 2005/6 – expeditions, pictures 33-37)

picture 33
: 2nd Clayton roasting test – ending the trial, blackened Handal pips
picture 34
black cake beneath the Clayton

1.10 p.m.: Emptying the Clayton we find that almost all the pips have turned completely black. (picture 35) Are they inedible? They are not bitter any more but reveal a Gotran tang.

picture 35
: 2nd Clayton roasting test – almost completely blackened pips as a result
picture 36
: lucent black coating on the interior surface of the Clayton

(When boiling these pips for 10 minutes, the water is turning slightly brownish and the pot’s inner surface builds up a scum (dark brown film above the water line). The boiled pips do not taste bitter but scorched. It is hard to imagine that a patable dish could be derived from them.

The brownish water reminded me of a 33 days trek from En Nahud/Northern Kordofan to Aswan/Egypt, in which 1.200 camels, 41 drivers and I took part in January/February 1983. All along on this march we were exposed to the Gotran taste of our drinking & cooking water, as our girbas had been freshly impregnated with the tarry substance before embarking on the journey. My companions obviously had accepted the Gotran taste as a constituent of their daily life in the caravan and did not waste a word on what discomforted me from beginning to end. If a caravan crossing the desert in 1983 had accepted the Gotran flavour, the donkey drivers in Predynastic and Old Kingdom times certainly would have accommodated themselves as well with the disadvantageous effects of the substance.)

Conclusions: Too much heat, which caused the pips to release Gotran, was applied. It was learned that heat should be increased only up to a critical limit, that is to say: to the extent that the kernels do not start “sweating” and/or bursting.

There is an upper limit for heat input during the Clayton roasting process. If the heat is too intense, the pips will not be roasted but a “Gotran process” will be initiated. In the latter case the pips deteriorate and are not suitable for human consumption.

Investigating the interior surface of the Clayton after the experiment had failed, I noticed – in parts – a (slightly lucent) black coating. (picture 36) This outcome bears astonishing resemblance with one of the Farafra Claytons. In results of winter 2005/6 – expeditions, chapter B.4.e., I had attributed the black colour to a thin coat of charcoal. However, this coat could not be wiped off. Would, therefore, the Farafra Clayton Camp exemplify a (extremely rare) case, where the roasting of Handal pips got out of control in ancient times? Pending further inquiries into the matter, the blackened Farafra Clayton may serve as a first attempt to confirm my assumption that, once upon a time, an undertaking to produce edible food from a poisonous substance with the help of a Clayton, went out of control. Anyhow, although our Clayton had been exposed to extreme heat, it exhibited no fissures. (The absence of heat fissures had been Kuper´s main argument for rejecting the use of Claytons in close connection with cooking, roasting, or any other process involving a fire.)

Occupied with the tests, Karar could not look after our camels as attentively as usual. So, one time, when we lifted up our eyes from the testing ground, we saw Amur picking up a green Handal and biting into it. My friend rushed to the beast at once, forced him to sit down and to open his mouth. Then he poked with his walking stick between the beast’s jaws. Finally, Karar managed to remove the fruit from behind the camel’s molars, almost from its throat; a treatment he had practised frequently on the Kassala - Bir Shalatein road. Recalling the times, when he had been a caravan leader, Karar explained, “On each trek we lost one or two camels out of 150, because of the beasts´ incautious eating habits and greed that makes some of them swallow anything edible.”

2.26 Third (successful) Clayton roasting trial (employment of residual embers carefully controlled) 

We left Obak the following day to meet Hamed Mad Achmed, a citizen of Okliss, to whom we had talked a few days before. Hamed had promised to collect 15 kg of Handal pips and to demonstrate the production of Gotran nearby his home.

On our way to the wells of Okliss we passed by a patch of Urarib (arab.: Gesch umm alebena; see picture 37) surrounded by acacia shrub, where we stopped for grazing. Pointing to tiny stubbles of sugar cane in between the Urarib, Karar said that the last plants of this species had been cultivated 18 years ago.

Around midday our beast’s heads, all of the sudden, shifted north. Soon after a man in mud-coloured rags, barefooted, carrying a hand-made rope, approached our camp; his name: Isa Hassan Nasrei, Karar´s cousin. “Howa kais gemal – he is searching for (his) camels“, Karar explained. Isa had found three of them so far. Assuming most of the missing animals had gone astray 30 km from here, he pointed to the south. Would bandits not have run off with them?”, I asked, but such a bleak outlook did not seem to bother the man very much.

Before continuing his search Isa squatted and when food was served, lay down on the dusty soil, almost on his belly, the legs drawn to the body, the latter propped by his right upper arm, while using the right hand to grab food from a deep aluminium bowl, which Karar had put next to his head. In such an artistic manner he filled himself with chunks of bread, onions and cheese. When satiated he, still lying on his belly, licked his fingers and the palm of the hand; after that, he pushed his dagger into the sheath. Then he jumped on his feet and disappeared.

“We might as well stay here over night”, Karar said and suggested to conduct another Handal pip roasting test, during which, according to the conclusions drawn from the second trial, we would take more care of controlling the Clayton’s exposure to heat. Here is a condensed version of my notes taken during the test:

3.14-3.19 p.m.: After Karar had collected dry wood, built a fire and brushed the embers aside, heated sand is piled around the Clayton, which had been placed on the “hot spot” before.
3.24 p.m.: Tiny clouds of smoke are rising from the Clayton, which is (because of limited probing material) only half filled. A fingertip-test reveals fairly high temperatures within the granulate. Karar begins to stir the pips occasionally using a branch.
3.31 p.m.: A few pips have turned black. They have lost their bitter taste, while safran coloured ones are still intensely bitter.
3.33 p.m.: To compensate a drop in temperature, residual embers are piled on top of the heated sand surrounding the Clayton. (picture 38)

picture 37
: our camels grazing on a patch of Urarib 
picture 38
: 3rd Clayton roasting test – residual embers humped on top of heated sand

3.43 p.m.: Testing a yellow-brown pip and exposing it to salvia, it is found that a bitter taste develops after a minute has passed.
3.49 p.m.: Biting a dark yellow-brown pip to pieces, reveals that such pips are almost void of bitterness.
3.57 p.m.: Most of the kernels are still of yellow colour. They are bitter tasting. To produce additional embers for the roasting process, Karar builds a second fire.
4.02 p.m.: Taste testing: A greyish-brown pip is found to be almost void of bitterness.
4.25. p.m.: Temperature has been substantially increased, but kept below the limits, above which a Gotran process would start. A brown pip reveals no bitterness any more. “Lasim bunni”- (all pips) have to turn brownish”, Karar reasons. From such outcome we still seem to be far away.
4.45 p.m.: A third fire is built to produce more embers.
5.00 p.m.: >Karar removes part of the cinders and distributes fresh embers around the Clayton. The utensil’s inner temperature increases remarkably.
5.17 p.m.: >Testing a pip, Karar judges, “murr, lakin rer getir – it has changed (its taste) a lot, although it is still bitter.” We entertain ourselves with speculations that, despite the remaining piquancy, the pips could be refined by now and, therefore, could have lost their poisonous ingredients.
5.20 p.m.: A fourth fire to produce fresh embers is built. (picture 39)
5.28 p.m.: Hot embers are distributed around the Clayton.
6.05 p.m.: A considerable amount of pips are still only slightly coloured. Some of them taste bitter, others don’t. (A brownish pip is almost void of bitterness)
6.28 p.m.: Sunset-light. We entrust the roasting process to the remaining heat and to the passing of time.

Next morning at the testing ground:

7.05 a.m.: Testing a pip belonging to the top layer of the subject material, I notice only scarce vestiges of bitterness. The pips in the middle and in the lower parts of the Clayton are totally void of it. Although the roasting has consumed a lot of fuel as well as plenty of time, the third trial has produced acceptable results.
7.10 a.m.: After removing cold ashes piled around the Clayton, we pushed the leather sheet underneath (almost without loss of pips) and emptied the Clayton. The ground beneath the Clayton is void of a black cake. (picture 40)

picture 39
: 3rd Clayton roasting test – building a 4th fire         picture 40: after the test; no black cake beneath the Clayton

We did not prepare a meal from the roasted granulate. Swallowing quite a number of the kernels caused neither diarrhoea nor any other health problems. For a much wanted pharmacological analysis I bagged all of the roasted pips and took them to Europe.

2.27 Gotran production in Okliss

In the late afternoon of 1/16/07 we arrived at the fringes of Okliss and set up our camp half a mile west of a cluster of hemispherical tents. Next morning, bleating goats and the chopping of fire wood were the only noises interrupting the silence which, like any other day, unfolds over the flat, wooded expanse that has been the home of about 250 people. Although we saw a few female figures moving between the tents and heard a voice, nobody approached us. Later, when heading for the wells (situated in ¾ of an hour’s distance), after passing by a few skeletons of empty log huts we met a lean man, about 65 years old, carrying a plastic ibrika full of holes and leading a white camel with a thin cord; Karar Muhamed Maschet by name, a pious fellow who had known my friend’s father, and to whom we inquired about Hamed Mad Achmed. Soon after unloading our animals in sighting distance of the wells, the latter (see picture 41) and another man appeared. Hamed handed over a sack of colocynth kernels, which he had collected north of Okliss, the work of three days. Eager to join others for a hunt for gold, he declined to fulfil his promise given in Obak and to execute the production of Gotran (for which I had settled to pay 6.000 Dinars) pledging to do the job in about a fortnight. We did not want to postpone the task. Karar urged the men to sit down and to discuss the matter. (picture 42) Appealing to traditional values of the Bisharin and threatening to carry the case to Okliss´ council of Elders, my friend finally managed to change Hamed´s mind and to dissipate newly arisen objections against me photographing the Bedouin at work.

picture 41
: Hamed Mad Achmed                      picture 42: discussing the Gotran issue

Soon after, three men occupied themselves with the production of Gotran, the tarry substance extracted from colocynth seeds by heat of a fire.

Karar Muhamed, who, for decades, had been roaming the eastern mountains of the Sudan up to wadi Alaqi in the north and, almost, up to Kassala in the south in search for forage, had fetched a “Gotran jar” from his tent. He filled it with Handal seeds up to the rim, whilst Muhamed Ali dug two holes into the bone-dry native soil (picture 43), connecting both with a tunnel (30 cm below the surface) of about an elbow in length. The jar was closed with a palm-bark sieve, which bent acacia sticks kept in position. (pictures 44-46) Turning the vessel upside down, Hamed Mad Achmed positioned its neck in the smaller of the two hollows. (picture 47) A metal sheet was placed between the holes. Then the men smeared a layer of clay on the jar’s surface, hereby completely plugging up the blank space between the jar’s neck and the native soil as well as between the former and the metal. (picture 48) Our Gotran production apparatus was ready.

Referring to their life as herdsmen which, frequently, had kept them quite a distance away from Okliss the men said that, in a mountainous region, they would have preferred to build a Gotran furnace the way as shown in Results of winter 2004/5 – expeditions.

picture 43
: building a Gotran oven                                                    picture 44: preparing a palm-bark sieve

picture 45
: preparing a fixture for the sieve                                 picture 46: stopper after Gotran extraction

picture 47
: upside down position of the Gotran jar         picture 48: smearing clay onto the jar and plugging openings

It took some time to collect fuel. Here a condensed p.r.t. copy of the Gotran extraction from my diary:

2.25 pm.: Putting the first load of firewood around the base of the Gotran jar and starting a fire (picture 49)
2.50 pm.: Hamed is grabbing the axe to cut more acacia branches. Meanwhile Muhamed adds camel dung as additional fuel to the fire. (picture 50)

picture 49
: fetching fuel for the Gotran production                            picture 50: camel dung added as fuel

3 pm.: After prayer more dead wood is fetched from nearby shrubs.
3.26 pm.: A fourth load of fuel is needed to keep the process going. (picture 51) So far, no Gotran is dripping into the can set below the mouth of the jar.
I am startled by the excessive input of firewood. But the men say “ma getier - not a lot (has been used so far)”, adding that in case of scarcity of fuel the procedure would need between 4 - 5 hours. A strong fire, on the other hand, would yield results within 3 hours.
3.30 pm.: Hamed has arrived carrying a fifth load of (,this time, green) acacia branches. Four minutes later, biting smoke begins to rise from the hollow, into which the can for collecting the tarry substance has been placed. (picture 52) Obviously, the Gotran process has started. From now on the men are keeping a close watch on the can. (picture 53) But not a single drop of tar emerges.
3.42 pm.: Another two loads of fuel are needed. Karar Muhamed claims that the Gotran jar’s volume is 6 litres. Such a capacity would yield between ½ and ¾ of a litre of Gotran.
4 pm.: A further two loads of branches are carried to the testing ground.

4.20 pm.: Gotran is beginning to drop slowly into the can.

4.20 pm.: Gotran is beginning to drop slowly into the can.
4.50 pm.: The men fan out to collect additional fuel; repeating their search at 5.10 pm.
5.55 pm.: Based on wishful thinking, Hamed claims that the can is half filled by now. (picture 54)

picture 51: fetching more fuel for the Gotran production            picture 52: general view of the Gotran production site

picture 53: waiting for Gotran output                       picture 54: preliminary result

5.55 pm.: The men insist that more Gotran could be extracted over night, if a modest fire is kept going. Remaining branches are placed on top of the jar. The fire is left to tend itself, and everybody heads home, promising to check final results the next day.

Next morning at the testing ground: Despite of yesterday’s predictions, the amount of Gotran has not increased significantly over night, although a considerable part of the embers encircling the jar are still hot. Muhamed Ali, trying to explain the meagre result, points to the cracked layer of clay encasing the Gotran vessel proper. (picture 55) According to his judgement the imperfect clay sealing at the bottom of the jar had caused Gotran smoke to penetrate through the embers, a process which hindered the bulk of the tarry substance from dripping into the can. And Karar Muhamed assisted: “If smoke is escaping the “wrong way”, it desiccates the Handal pips and reduces the yield. A correct sealing of the jar is the crucial point.” Does such a “naïve” interpretation point to a chemical reaction, which would function properly only in a controlled atmosphere, in which an access of air, to a large extent, is prevented?

Later, Karar Muhamed emptied the jar. The Handal pip residues (picture 56) resembled the ones of the 2nd Clayton roasting process. (see chapter 2.25, picture 35) While cleaning the vessel with a stick, he pointed out that the slightly lucent black coating of its interior would be preserved for years, and Hamed remarked that, according to his own observations, such layers do look like new even a decade later. “Such coating would diminish or disintegrate over time only by rain or by rinsing the vessel in water”, he explained. Is it, therefore, not inconceivable that the chemical compounds of the black coating of one of the Farafra Claytons, which has survived a period of approx. 4000 years, has remained inert; without, since then, undergoing any major chemical transformations?

picture 55: Gotran jar & sealing after the process                 picture 56: Handal pip residues

After bottling the tarry substance (picture 57), which I had intended to take along as a souvenir, I involved the men in a discussion about fuel options to substitute fire wood needed for Gotran production as well as for the Clayton roasting process. My interlocutors insisted on what they had said before: “Only wood and camel dung are producing enough heat to initiate the process and then to sustain it. While the camel dung’s energy will be sufficient for about ten minutes, cattle dung will render heat for only 3 minutes. Dry Tabbes grass and its roots (picture 58) are in common use for starting a fire only. Their calorific value is not even high enough for preparing tea.” The men considered donkey-, goat- or sheep dung straight out as unsuitable.” If the above statements were correct, cattle dung (apart from wood) could have been a fuel variety, which the ancients had used on the Kufra Trail. (see chapter C)

picture 57: bottling of Gotran                                                  picture 58: a dry Tabbes grass root for sparking a fire

But what about donkey dung? Notwithstanding the dissenting opinion of the Okliss Bedouin and in spite of the low calorific value of donkey dung, I believe that in an environment where resources are so scare, it would have been unlikely for donkey caravans of antiquity, from pre to post Old Kingdom times, to make no use of their asses´ excrement.

After my return from the Sudan, Jean-Loic Le Quellec (ethnologist and expert for African rock art) informed me about a method used by the Tibu to extract Gotran from Handal seeds, a process which has been described by Charles Le Coeur. (Charles Le Coeur, Dictionnaire ethnogaphique Teda. Paris 1950, p. 130, picture 59) ”The handal seeds (possibly together with wet bones and date stones) are put in a pottery jar called a goe (1). This goe is covered with palm fibres (called fur) (2). Then this pot is overturned over a smaller one (3) covered by a plaque (4) with a hole in the middle, and the whole thing is put in a pit (depth: ca. 1.5m). This installation is covered with a layer of clay, then by camel (or donkey) dung (5) burning slowly all night long.

It is obvious”, Jean-Loic Le Quellec concludes, “that, for people using such a device (called komse), it would have been very easy to invent the Clayton ring  system (or vice versa).(Jean-Loic Le Quellec, e-mail of 2/1/2007)

picture 59: the “komse device” for producing Gotran
(from Charles Le Coeur, Dictionnaire Ethnographique Teda, Paris 1950, p. 130)

Hamed Mad Achmed and his two comrades were in a hurry. There was no time to employ donkey dung as fuel in another test. Karar, as well, had made it clear that the use of asses´ excrements would, straightway, pave the way for complete failure. However, if the “komse device” presented above, had worked in the Tibesti, it also should function in eastern mountains of the Sudan. Why then did the men value donkey dung as an input altogether alien to their method of producing Gotran? The answer might be found in Bisharin history. Their ancestors had lived in a relatively species-rich environment, a plenty that made these Bedouin unaware of and, in consequence, reluctant to try alternative fuels. Where there had been huge expanses of agricultural land and of wooded areas, hence no scarcity of fire wood nor of camel dung, there was, obviously, no need to try another fuel, of which an even greater lot would have been needed to make up for its inferior quality.

There is, however, one advantage when using donkey dung as fuel for converting poisonous Handal pips into edible matter with the help of Claytons: because of the low calorific value of the asses´ excrements the roasting process would, most certainly, not get out of control and switch over to a “Gotran process”. Sure, the comparatively low but steady temperatures would require the entire night for the procedure, but this would be the aim. Whether or not a Clayton “in action” was covered completely by donkey dung similar to the “komse device”, thus being left almost without human supervision, cannot be said at the moment. Nevertheless, the following is evident without further inquiry: donkey dung was almost ubiquitous on ancient caravan roads. Its universal application could give a clue how the heat control problem in Claytons (similar to the one we had encountered in our 2nd trial; see chapter 2.25) was solved by the ancients. 

Before Hamed and Ali rushed off to the gold fields, Karar, offering another reward, persuaded them to let me watch their donkeys feeding on Handal. There were only dry fruits available, which Hamed offered to his animals (picture 60). It did not take long before they began biting into the bitter fruits. (picture 62) When Ali´s donkeys had their turn the same happened. (picture 63) After the meal, which would have killed a dozen camels, Hamed picked up the remains. What was left became prey of a mother goat and her two young ones (picture 61), the lambkins being only 10 days old.

picture 60: Hamed offering dry Handal to his donkeys           picture 61: goats feeding on remains of dry Handal

pictures 62+63: donkeys feeding on dry Handal

As a result of discussions with Karar, Muhamed Nur Sherif and others (as well as, partly, of my own observations) the following scheme revealing the intervals for watering livestock evolves:

Goats:  - Nile valley goats: every day

- Oasis goats: 2 – 4 days depending on the water content of the forage.

(This corresponds well with Spittler´s observations made in the Air Mountains, where herdswomen of the Kel Timia Tuareg water their goats every second day in summer and every fourth day in winter time. See G. Spittler, Hirtenarbeit. op. cit., pp. 296, 297, 342)

- desert adapted goats: 1 week, if they are browsing on green plants.

Sheep:   As long as they are grazing on green Handal, sheep may linger for an indefinite period of time in the desert without getting thirsty.

Donkeys: Desert adapted donkeys feeding on green Handal do not need to be watered.

Cattle:    Desert adapted cattle: every second day in summer, every fourth day in winter.

Finally, raising the issue of forage, Karar Muhamed Maschet, Ali Muhamed and Hamed Mad Achmed pointed out that

a.) because of lack of sufficient rain and, consequently, of scanty meadows cattle herding in Obak and its surroundings had ceased a hundred years ago. From oral tradition the men knew however, that such “oasis cattle” had despised Handal consumption. Due to the same reasons, Okliss´ cattle husbandry was suspended in the 1950s. Okliss´ cattle had not lived on Handal either. (According to Spittler cattle and sheep tend to have a preference for grazing in grassland whilst camels and goats favour woodland. G. Spittler, op. cit., p. 112)

b.) desert adapted cattle would not subsist on Handal. (Nevertheless, Hardy Böckli found a citation stating that buffaloes feed on colocynths without coming to harm. See, op.cit. Could such practise hold true for cattle also?)

c.) in case of scarcity of forage desert adapted goats and sheep feed on green as well as on dry Handal. So do donkeys.

d.) according to rumours gazelles sometimes feed on Handal. But none of the men had witnessed it.

e.) in periods of drought, when forage in the vicinity of Okliss is scarce, Karar Muhamed used to mount his camel and to collect Handal at distant places, fetching it in sacks for his donkeys and for his flock of goats (consisting of 15-20 beasts on average). Flocks of goats numbering 100 and more animals were driven to the Handal fields proper.

At dawn of the next day we heard an engine of a truck warming up. “Bedford, a mile away, the lorry of the gold hunters. About 30 people. Hamed and Ali are among them”, Karar said. To me, it amounted to a miracle that, for the last 48 hours, the majority of the passengers had waited for our men.

Without Karar´s endeavours I would not have succeeded in performing our case-studies and experiments, which, altogether, have led to a much clearer idea concerning the use of Claytons in connection with the employment of Handal pips. That the items had been used for man’s survival in a harsh desert-steppe environment seems to be certain now. The remaining problems must be clarified by laboratory tests.

We left Obak on 1/19/07. Heading towards Atbara we crossed a stretch of colocynths (at noon of the third day), where a flock of 250 sheep was grazing. (picture 64) In between the poisonous twined plants some wild mulukhiya (picture 65) and patches of Urarib emerged. While our camels were feeding on the latter, the sheep preferred Handal only. (pictures 66+67) I asked Muhamed Ali, the shepherd, where the well was, from which he draws water, and after how many days his animals would be in need of it. “At present they do not get thirsty, because the green Handal provides enough moisture”, he said. For some time after the rainfalls water had been available in a nearby Hafir (artificial pool). After the pond had dried up, Muhamed Ali would only rarely mount a donkey and fetch water for his own consumption at the railway station of El Hudi, half a day’s riding distance to the south. He, who had been away from his home (at Berber) since June of last year, mainly consumes sheep milk for food and drink.

Translating the shepherd’s words into a scenario that may have existed as late as four or five thousand years ago, I saw in my mind’s eye (a few) flocks of sheep and, occasionally, small bands of cattle roaming the Libyan Desert and traversing it after episodes of wide-spread torrential rainfalls. Is it, therefore, conceivable that the caravans of antiquity crossing the empty void, would have, at times, met a flock of sheep or goats, from which they had obtained milk? Abd el-Asis, an old man from Farafra oasis, had told me years ago that during the “harb italian” (Italy’s conquest of Libya’s south) in 1930/31 whole families with their camels, donkeys and flocks of goats had escaped from the Kufra region. Some of them, not seeking preliminary refuge at Gebel Uweinat, had marched directly to Farafra. The fugitives had brought along so many goats that green fodder became scarce in the oasis. At my request, Omer Ali Hafis of Guschna had led me to a place, where he exposed an old thick, whitish-grey layer of goat dung that was covered by sand, asserting “Here the goats from Kufra were kept”. (see my Letzter Beduine, p. 308). What I pictured mentally, when listening to Muhamed Ali and whilst letting my eyes travel over the empty land, might not at all be a mere pipe dream.

A flock of cranes crossed the sky. Three clusters in wedge shaped formation. Karar remarked that the birds commute between Nile valley and the pastures in the desert created by the rain. Later in the year, the birds would head north passing by Halaib, Muhammad Qol and Bir Shalatein, locations where many of them would be shot down.

picture 64: meeting a flock of sheep on a Handal field                                                           picture 65: Mulukhiya

pictures 66 + 67: sheep feeding on green Handal - close ups

When we reached the outskirts of Atbara on 1/24/07, Karar dismounted Elei, whom he had ridden on the last leg of our return route. Karar had been weak for two days. Later, we learned that all but one member of his family, suffering from severe malaria attacks, had to be treated in hospital. While leading our small caravan through the eastern districts of the city, a car stopped. Toni’s face emerged under the window arch on the driver’s side. Baby cries echoed from the car’s interior. But there was no nursling. Toni had acquired a CD welcoming Martena, a baby girl, to whom his wife had given birth three days ago. I paid for malaria treatment. The day after Karar´s folks were released from the clinic, I left Atbara for Khartoum.

2.28 Inquiries in Omdurman

Before embarking for a solo expedition into the Western Desert of Egypt, I paid visits to herbs shops in Omdurman. Inquiring about the use of colocynths at a branch-establishment of Ataret ed Temaa (herbs trade chain), Tarik Ismael, a sales clerk, said that until one hundred years ago Handal pips were widely consumed in western Sudan. Although Tarik had never tried colocynth seeds himself, he knew of the “Central Saharan method” for purifying the poisonous granulate. “It takes a whole day to extract the kernel’s bitterness, boiling and rinsing them in water several times. One has to be patient as the pips have to dry; then flour can be made from them. That’s what I heard”, he explained. He knew nothing of a process to refine Handal pips by roasting only. At another herbs shop the owner, Muhamed Achmed Ansari, focussing on the medical use of colocynths, opened a flask of cold-pressed colocynth oil (Handal pips contain 12-16%, Handal pulp of 4.25% of viscous oil. see, op.cit.), claiming that it is a remedy against skin problems and a purgative. The odourless substance had no bitter taste.

On 2/2/2007 I flew back to Cairo.

2.29 Epilogue

In May 2007 Hardy Böckli proof-read the first chapter of this report and recommended a few literature sources concerning the use of colocynth and related subjects:

1.) Charles Le Coeur. Mission au Tibesti. Carnets de route 1933-1934. Paris 1969

2.) Gerd Spittler. Handeln in einer Hungerkrise. Tuaregnomaden und die große Dürre von 1984. Opladen 1989



Here a fragmentary synopsis of features establishing  a relationship to issues discussed in this chapter:

ad 1) p 91-92: A Tibu method of food-preparation concerning Handal pips consists of seven steps: (a) soaking the pips in ash-water, (b) drying them on a mat, (c) placing the granulate on a slab and pounding it with a stone to get rid of the peels, (d) boiling the intermediate in ash-water for three hours, (e) and rinsing it, (f) then repeating step (b) and, finally, (g) grinding the pips to flour by means of a mortar.
ad 2) p. 168: In the Air Mountains dry Handal is used as a basic component for a dish (called tabarghewud) during times of famine. Adding milk, goat cheese or the brine of the latter neutralizes its bitter taste.
p. 140: Dry goat cheese stays durable for months.
p. 170: Shepherdesses always refer to goat milk when discussing the importance of wild plants for preparing (edible) “famine food”.
p. 173: Shepherdesses possess basic knowledge of Air’s flora. Watching which plants their goats neglect and which ones they prefer, provides a first indication of what could be used for human consumption.
ad 3) Buffaloes and ostriches feed on colocynths without harm. (If the pips were excreted undigested, the animals might have contributed to the colocynth’s geographical extension in Saharan antiquity. Hardy Böckli, pers. com.)

The Tibu Resade convert Handal pips into edible matter by depriving the kernels of their bitterness and adding ground dates. Such mixture constitutes a valuable and convenient dish on journeys.

An oil is extracted from the seeds for use in lamps Sheep, goats, jackals, and rats eat colocynth apples readily, and with no bad effects.

In India, Gypsy castes cut away the kernel of the seed after freeing this from the seed-skin by a slight roasting. (cited from Drury, Heber. The useful plants of India. 2nd edition. London 1873)

ad 4) Boiled or roasted Handal pips constitute a basic aliment for North Africa’s indigenous populace.

Brief account on Gotran production (as shown in chapter 2.27)


To be continued

Following main chapters embedded in separate documents.

Berlin and Sehlis 6/22/2007