Byron Khun de Prorok, 2001
Byron Khun the What? I’d never heard of this guy in the annals of Saharan exploration, and a suspicion with some exaggerated and surely fabricated descriptions got me to search through my library and on the web.
Turns out he was an American with a Polish title who dedicated his early life to the exploration of ‘mysteries of the ancient world’, following an life-changing encounter with Shackleton as a youth. Prorok’s African expeditions in the 1920s and early 30s (notably ancient Carthage) became the subject of several books which Narrative Press also publish, as well as a series of popular lecture tours, films and articles back home.
Mysterious is clearly written for a market hungry for more ancient treasures following Howard Carter’s sensational discovery of Tutankamun’s tomb in 1922. It starts off by reminding us how deadly the Sahara is in any number of ways, followed by an over-the-top description of the cave-dwellers of Matmata where the hyperbole starts to froth.
He then sets off south for the Hoggar, no mean feat in 1925 but nevertheless embellishing the landscape and events to Victorian literary levels. By chance he learns of the location of Queen Tin Hinan’s tomb – the legendary ancestral mother figure of the Tuareg (that’s Tuareg, not Taureg, as is irritatingly repeated in the no less lurid back cover blurb).
What follows can only be described as the looting of an ancient and deeply significant burial site, rather than an archaeological excavation, for Prorok’s motivation errs distinctly towards gold, emeralds and glory in the Carteresque mold. (Interestingly Narrative have published a parallel account of the excavation by one Alonzo Pond, which the blurb says differs greatly from Prorok).
With Tin Hinan crated up, we’re then treated to more impressions of the gruelling desert and a fruitless rummage around Siwa whose natives appear even more degraded than Matmatan troglodytes. Several near disasters, ambushes and discoveries occur in between. Note they are always ‘near disasters…’. A deadly and very rare lizard that attacks him one night but luckily is blasted to mincemeat by a shotgun: sadly no remains for the esteemed taxidermy dept. They go off to find a legendary ‘Temple of Doom’ out in the sands, can’t find it but “we know it’s there”. But what you can’t take away is that Prorok was out there and doing it and in 1926 was indeed the first to ransack Tin Hinan’s tomb at Abalessa, even if his partner Maurice Reygasse may have been the more archaeological of the two (Reygasse went on to work with EF Gautier in the 1930s).
Strange then that Prorok (unlike his contemporary, Richard Halliburton) seems so little known despite his abundant energy for exploration, publicity and self-promotion. According to Lonely Planet: Algeria our man was no less than “…one of the most intrepid Saharan travellers of the 20th century”. He may have been more toff (in name at least) with a romantic imagination than a trained archaeologist, but his knowledge of the great European Saharan explorers’ is more than skin deep. The odd mistake is acceptable and some lurid theories are of their time, while the embellishment of adventurous exploits is nothing new of course. The mystery here is as much Prorok as the enigmatic Sahara.