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The Extraordinary History of the World's Largest Desert
By Marq de Villers Walker & Company
Copyright © 2003 Marq de Villers
All right reserved.
In a Geographer's Eye
FROM SPACE, the Sahara is a brilliant band of caramel and beige, stretching from the dried-blood-red cliffs of Mauritania on the Atlantic Ocean to the bleached bone of Egypt's Eastern Desert hard by the Red Sea. In the north, it laps up against the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, which the ancients thought held up the firmament itself; to the south it extends to the Sahel, the southern fringes of the desert on a line somewhere from the Niger River to Lake Chad, before it shades off into the Bilad-as-Sudan, the Land of the Blacks, and then into the savanna grasslands that in turn yield to the tropical forests. Apart from the polar caps, this is the most reflective piece of a planet otherwise made largely of softer blues and greens: an immense harsh glare, 3,320,000 square miles of aridity, stark and dangerous. If you traveled across the United States from Boston to San Diego, you still wouldn't have crossed the Sahara; if you started from Paris you'd be at the Urals, deep into Russia, long before you ran out of Sahara. Even from north to south, its shortest dimension, you'd travel for a thousand miles before you left its grip. In the Tanezrouft of southern Algeria, and in the other great sand seas of the samecountry, wells with potable water can be 400 miles apart-from Los Angeles to San Francisco, from Paris across the Alps to Milan, with not a single drop.
What a satellite can see is the big picture, the most obvious features of the desert, though even those are not without their surprises: the great dune fields called ergs, which can stretch for hundreds of miles; the skein of wadis, watercourses and drainage basins that once were; the mountains and massifs with their exotic names-Adrar des Iforhas, Tassili n'Ajjer, Ahaggar, Aor, Tibesti, and Ennedi, mountains that seem to have boiled out of the earth, great wounds, each more than 400 miles across. By contrast, in the northeast near the Egyptian border with Libya is the sunken bowl called the Qattara Depression, the deepest point of the Sahara, 436 feet below sea level, about 7,000 square miles of salt flats, dried-up marshes, and sand.
In closer focus the Sahara is so much more than trackless wastes, unseeable horizons, endless sand dunes, waterlessness, and mirages. Mountains are folded within the mountains, stripped by erosional forces into grotesque castles. Salt flats and smaller depressions were once lakes and are rich in relics of the stone age: pottery shards, tools, broken weapons, fish hooks. Gravel plains, grim and forbidding, are made of black stones. Petrified trees mark where forests used to stand. Secretive caves can be found in the massifs, shelter from the burning sun. And if you know where to look, there is more water than one might think: oases, swamps, artesian hot springs bubbling to the surface, and, in the Aor and Ahaggar Mountains, a rare waterfall. Scattered here and there are "inselbergs," eroded pillars from a mountain's remnant bin, massive in size. You can climb some of these pillars, a thousand feet, fifteen hundred, but from their barren summits nothing can be seen but a tableau of jagged cliffs and tumbling scarps, stretching on forever.
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THE SIMPLEST WAY to grasp the Saharan geography is to think of the desert in clusters of countries. Thus to the west, along the Atlantic coast, are Mauritania and Western Sahara (still sometimes called Spanish Sahara, for its status is disputed though the Spaniards are long gone-Morocco, provocatively, has been known to refer to it as "the western province"). Mauritania slides into Mali across an arbitrary straight-line border in the middle of a sea of sand, but Mali is best thought of as part of the southern, or Sahelian, cluster of countries. Counting from the west, these are Mali, Niger, and Chad. To the north of these, along the Atlantic and Mediterranean littoral, are, again from the west, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. The Saharan heartland is where these northern countries shade into those to their south. The southern frontier of, say, Algeria and the northern one of Niger are the most remote and unchanged of Saharan landscapes. This is where the desert nomads, the Tuareg, the Moors, the Chaamba, and others, found a refuge after the Arab invasions of the seventh century, and it is where many of them still live: Tamanrasset, in Algeria, is often referred to as "the Tuareg capital." Finally, Egypt and Sudan complete the roster of modern Saharan countries. Egypt is ancient, venerable, and complicated enough to be a "cluster" of one, yet has long had its history tangled up with the territory that is now Sudan.
Many of these countries are, qua countries with national governments and seats in the United Nations, relatively new. Their modern frontiers are products of the colonial era, when most of Africa was carved into zones of influence by the imperial powers. But they are, nonetheless, ancient in their essence, with a long, occasionally glorious but oft-times melancholy history.
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THIS HISTORY is better known along the northern Sahara, where the most venerable of the kingdoms was that of the Pharaohs in Egypt, stretching southward along the Nile and into the larger oases of the Saharan hinterlands. After some three thousand years of continuous rule, the by then creaking edifice of the god-kings was overrun by the Persians in the fourth century B.C., and subsequently by the Macedonians, the Romans, and then-after the birth of Islam-by the Arabs. The rest of the north African littoral, the ancestral home of the Berber people-the modern countries of Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco-was invaded by a similar succession of armed colonizers, the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Romans again, and then the Vandals, who arrived in the fourth century, followed by the Byzantines. The Arabs, from their new base in Egypt, swept across the coast in the seventh and again in the eleventh centuries, causing havoc among the settled populations and driving many of them into the deep desert.
The early history of the southern Sahara is less well known. Sometime in the first centuries of the present era-even speculative dates are hard to come by-in what are now the modern countries of Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Chad, indigenous kingdoms began to coalesce. What is known is that by the time the first Arab proselytizers of Islam crossed the desert, early in the eighth century, these kingdoms-some of them great enough to be styled empires and most of them virtually unknown in the West until recent times-were already well established. The earliest of these was Old Ghana, a trading culture founded on rich alluvial goldfields, and its contemporary and neighbor, Tekrur, followed in turn by Mali, the greatest empire of ancient Africa, and then by Songhai. Farther to the east, around Lake Chad, a kingdom formed around 900 that lasted a thousand years before it was broken up by the French colonialists: This was Kanem-Bornu, a great trading empire of the Middle Ages, well known to the merchants of Europe and the Levant.
In the time of the European Middle Ages, out of the swirling, restless politics of the Sahara, born of the fractiousness between the northern and southern Saharan powers, there emerged the militarized quasi-religious movements that came to be called the Almoravids and later the Almohads, Islamic tribal confederacies based in Morocco. They were born in bloodshed and chaos, but these were the same confederacies that governed Moorish Spain for several centuries, and left behind some of mankind's most perfect architectural monuments.
By the sixteenth century, the great empires of the southern Sahara had decayed, falling victim to internal decadence, or invasion, or jihad, disintegrating into small tribal kingdoms or sultanates of little consequence except to themselves. In the north, the caliphates and sultanates also fell into decay in their time, and for several centuries North Africa was the squabbling ground for a mess of empires and cultures-the Ottoman Turks, the Holy Romans, the Sicilians, the Spanish and Portuguese. In the sixteenth century Spain and Turkey fought a series of inconclusive wars there. In 1578, at the Battle of the Three Kings, Abd'al-Malik, the ruling sultan (and a poet of note), defeated a coalition of Portuguese forces and dissident Moroccans under a dethroned sultan, al-Mutawakkil, which led to a substantial decline in Portuguese influence in North Africa (and ended the dream of another crusade). In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Barbary pirates, operating largely from Algiers, made commercial shipping in the Mediterranean almost impossible. The Americans, who were trying to build up their trade with Europe, reacted angrily. In 1803 George Washington made war against the beys. In one episode in 1805, American marines marched across the desert from Egypt into Tripolitania, giving rise to the famous line in the Marine anthem, "From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli."
From 1830, when the French overran Algeria, most of the Sahara was a European protectorate, a nice imperial euphemism, though formal occupation often came later. In 1881 the French occupied what is now Tunisia, and in 1911 the Italians expelled the Turkish government from Libya. The process was completed by the Franco-Spanish occupation of Morocco, which followed the signing of the Treaty of Fez in 1912. In the central and southern desert, the colonial powers-mostly France-simply moved into the power vacuum left by the decay of the old empires; much of their attention was devoted not to governance but to an attempt to subjugate the unruly nomads of the desert, whose politics were still fractious and quarrelsome almost a millennium after these people were driven into the desert by the invading Arabs.
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The MOST WESTERLY CLUSTER of modern countries, Mauritania and Western Sahara, were neglected in the colonial era. Mauritania had been scooped up by the French in 1814, but they barely imposed themselves on the Moorish sultans of the Mauritanian desert until well into the twentieth century. The French rarely ventured into the northern interior, or even to what is now the capital, Nouakchott, and seem barely to have missed the country when it was granted independence in 1961. Western Sahara, for its part, was disputed territory, although the disputes were not very energetic-it apparently had nothing anyone wanted, and it was mostly useful as a base for garrisons controlling the trans-Saharan trade. Spain acquired the land in the so-called Scramble for Africa in the nineteenth century, but did little with it; when they departed, it briefly became a French protectorate but after Morocco's independence both Morocco and Mauritania laid claim to the land, their desire no doubt fueled by the discovery of a huge phosphate deposit at a place called Bu Craa. These assertions were vigorously disputed by the liberationist fighters of the Polisario Front, which (with Algeria's covert backing) waged a guerrilla campaign against the Moroccan as well as Mauritanian authorities for almost two decades, a "war" that in theory was over with the signing of a cease-fire in 1991, though by most measures the ensuing peace has not yet begun.
Of the cluster along the northern Sahara-Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya-Morocco is perhaps the best-known. This is partly for historical reasons-it was from Morocco, after all, that the Muslim invasion of Europe was launched, leading to the magnificent Andalusian civilization that bequeathed to posterity such monuments as the Alhambra in Granada. (The expulsion from Spain of the Islamic forces is still remembered as "the Andalusian tragedy" by zealots such as the terrorist Osama bin Laden.) The current king, Hassan, is the latest in an Arab dynasty, the Alawites, who have been at least nominally in charge since the seventeenth century, claiming descent directly from the Prophet himself, through his grandson, Al-Hassan bin Ali. The Treaty of Fez gave Morocco to France, though it took another twenty years for them to subdue the Berbers in the High Atlas Mountains and in the Rif, who waged typically ferocious battles against French units until well into the 1930s.
Algeria was until the middle of the nineteenth century at least nominally a province of the Ottoman Turkish Empire, and the beys or pashas were appointed by and responsible to the sultan in Constantinople. But Ottoman control was tenuous at best, and the pirates who used its ports paid little attention to edicts from the east. The French arrived in earnest in 1830, when they attacked Algiers in response to some fancied slight against a French consul-he apparently had his face slapped with a fan. The Algerian interior was for decades a military occupation zone, kept in check by mehari commandos (native troops mounted on swift camels) and the hard-bitten toughs of the Foreign Legion. In 1912 many of the Tuareg nomads of Algeria joined in the Senussi revolt, an Islamic revivalist crusade of Sufi origins whose intentions were to drive the Christians into the sea and free the land from their moral pollution. Nevertheless, France came to consider Algeria an integral part of metropolitan France, and governed it accordingly.
For most of the Islamic period, Tunisia was called Ifriqiyah, from the Roman word for Africa, and for centuries its politics had been bent on mediating between opposing bullying forces, the long-declining but still powerful Ottomans, and Europe resurgent. It was "independent," but only because neither of the two foreign powers was powerful enough to move in on the other, until the latter part of the nineteenth century. In 1881 the French sent in an army, ostensibly to control raids into neighboring French Algeria, and two years later the bey signed a convention acknowledging French "protection."
At the start of the nineteenth century, the territory now called Libya had been in the hands of quasi-independent rulers for several hundred years, most latterly the Karamnli dynasty, and had prospered by giving refuge to the Barbary pirates. In 1835 the Ottoman Turks sent a fleet to assert a rather more direct control. Still, all they managed was to dominate the coastal strip; in the interior, administration was in the hands of their surrogates, the Senussi movement, whose goal in Libya, as elsewhere along the northern littoral, was to restore the purity of society as they imagined it had been at the time of the Prophet. In 1911, though, Libyan self-rule was abruptly ended when the country was brutally invaded by the Italians. Under their tyrannical regime the Libyan population fell by 50 percent, through either extermination or forced exile. What there was of fertile land was expropriated and handed over to Sicilian peasants imported for the purpose.
Excerpted from Sahara by Marq de Villers Copyright © 2003 by Marq de Villers. Excerpted by permission.
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