Travelogue Review - In Search of King Solomon's Mines by Tahir Shah
In Search of King Solomon's Mines
by Tahir Shah, 2002, 240pp
TLDR: 4 our of 5 for great travel adventure, though the lines of truth are probably blurred.
In Search of King Solomon's Mines is an account (partly invented?) of the author's journey into Ethiopia to investigate the legendary source of gold. Although it seems on the surface to be a search for the gold itself (and does include several trips to real and rumoured gold mines) it's really a book that traces the attempts of past explorers to find the gold.
The most notable of these was Frank Hayter, who travelled from England to Ethiopia for the first time in 1924 on a mission to bring back 100 Abyssinian baboons for the London Zoo, for which he was cursed by an Ethiopian monk. According to Shah:
"In the years that followed, Hayter returned time and again to Ethiopia. He was bewitched by the country. Travelling to the most distant outposts, he struggled to earn a living. He worked as a rat-catcher, a rare-butterfly hunter, a muleteer, and as a debt-collector, but it was as a gold prospector that he made his name."
If you're like me, you're already picturing playing a Warhammer Fantasy hack in Ethiopia with Shah as game-master.
It's in the company of Hayter and other explorers (like Richard Burton of Arabian Nights fame and the Polish explorer Byron de Prorok) that we travel all over Ethiopia, visiting Addis Ababa, Harar, Lega Dembi, Lalibela, Mekele, the Danakil Desert, Axum, Gondar, and the mythical mountain of Tullu Wallel.
On his travels, Shah introduces us (rather cynically, in my view) to local culture and character. He's accompanied by his faithful (in the Christian sense) guide, Samson, and sometimes also by the driver of the Emperor's jeep, Bahru the Somalian. Their trials and tribulations are interesting, but must, I think, be taken with a grain of salt. For all the interesting stuff Shaw give us, I find his accounts suspect. While I'm sure most of its truthful, some of it (and especially his framing story - the reason for the quest) feel a little forced, as if partly invented to create a good story. I don't mind this, exactly - Shah himself in the book refers to himself as someone prone to exaggeration - I prefer it when the line between fake and real is either more obvious... or less.
The real value in a book like this is exposure to interesting characters and traditions. I've yoinked a great many NPCs, situations, and cultural quirks from travelogues just like this one and plunked them wholesale into my fantasy settings. What I might get from this book, for example, are the hyaena men of Harar, who must feed the wild hyaenas nightly to prevent them from eating the town's children.
Then there's Byron de Prorok's account of The Mad Sultan Ghogoli, who kept legions of children enslaved. "The despot forced them to work in the mines where they were guarded by brutal warders, who wielded hippopotamus-hide whips. The sultan was rumoured to be a hundred years old, and to have a thousand wives. Anyone who crossed him was strung up on a tree by the thumbs until he fell away from them. Ghogoli was more than a little reminiscent of Rider Haggard's own antagonist, Gogool" [from his book King Solomon's Mines, which although set in South Africa is heavily informed by many of the same travels in Ethiopia as Shah].
And then there are characters. For example, Shah tells us: "In a cafe on a back street in the ancient town of Axum I met a man who told me he was a god. I have spent time with deities in human form in India - the subcontinent has hundreds of them - but this is the first time I'd met a godman in Africa. His name was Michael and he was a former Rastafarian from Liverpool. His skin was the colour of dark apricots, pocked with mosquito bites..."
Shah has many books, and I'd encourage you to check them out for his unique perspective. He's of Royal Afghani descent and his father was the Sufi writer, Idries Shah (who also wrote travelogues, as well as spiritual books). Tahir was raised in London with visits to relatives in India, and now lives in Casablanca.