Sahara: A Natural History

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In the parched and seemingly lifeless heart of the Sahara desert, earthworms find enough moisture to survive. Four major mountain ranges interrupt the flow of dunes and gravel plains, and at certain times waterfalls cascade from their peaks. Even the sand amazes: massive dunes can appear almost overnight, and be gone just as quickly. We think we know the Sahara, the largest and most austere desert on Earth—yet it is full of surprises, as Marq de Villiers reveals in his brilliant and evocative biography of the ...

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In the parched and seemingly lifeless heart of the Sahara desert, four major mountain ranges interrupt the flow of dunes and gravel plains, and at certain times waterfalls cascade ... from their peaks. Even the sand amazes: Massive dunes can appear almost overnight, and be gone just as quickly. We think we know the Sahara, the largest and most austere desert on Earth - yet it is full of surprises, as the authors reveal in this brilliant and evocative biography of the land and its people. "If you traveled across the United States from Boston to San Diego, you still wouldn't have crossed the Sahara," the write, painting a vivid picture of this most extraordinary place. They chart the genesis and course of Atlantic hurricanes, many of which are born in the Tibesi mountains of northern Chad, showing that the Sahara, which has a strong influence of weather patterns the world over, is much closer than it seems. They describe the massive aquifers that lie beneath the desert, some filled with water that predates the appearance of humankind on Earth. They marvel at jagged mountains and at ancient cave paintings deep in the desert that reveal the Sahara was a verdant grassland 10,000 years ago; what's more, this cycle has been repeated several times, and may well repeat again. 326 pages with index, bibliography and notes. Photographs throughout. 6" x 9 1/4 Read more Show Less

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2002 Hard cover Illustrated. New in new dust jacket. Book and dust jacket are in MINT condition. Glued binding. Paper over boards. With dust jacket. 326 p. Contains: ... Illustrations. Audience: General/trade. Read more Show Less

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Overview

In the parched and seemingly lifeless heart of the Sahara desert, earthworms find enough moisture to survive. Four major mountain ranges interrupt the flow of dunes and gravel plains, and at certain times waterfalls cascade from their peaks. Even the sand amazes: massive dunes can appear almost overnight, and be gone just as quickly. We think we know the Sahara, the largest and most austere desert on Earth—yet it is full of surprises, as Marq de Villiers reveals in his brilliant and evocative biography of the land and its people.

“If you traveled across the United States from Boston to San Diego, you still wouldn’t have crossed the Sahara,” writes de Villiers, painting a vivid picture of this most extraordinary place. He charts the course of Atlantic hurricanes, many of which are born in the Tibesti Mountains of northern Chad, and offers a fascinating disquisition on the physics of windblown sand and the formation of dunes. He chronicles the formation of the massive aquifers that lie beneath the desert, some filled with water that pre-dates the appearance of modern man on Earth. He marvels at the jagged mountains and at ancient cave paintings deep in the desert, which reveal that the Sahara was a verdant grassland 10,000 years ago—a cycle that has been repeated several times.

Woven through de Villiers’s story is a chronicle of the desert’s nations and people: the Berbers and Arabs of the north; its black African south, whose ancestors peopled the greatest empires of Old Africa; and the extraordinary nomads—the Moors, the Tuareg (the famous “blue men”), and the Tubu—who call the desert home today. Illuminated by the eloquent written testimonies of past travelers, Sahara is a glittering geographic tour conveying the majesty, mystery, and abundance of life in what the outside world thinks of as the Great Emptiness.

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Editorial Reviews

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The Barnes & Noble Review
Marc de Villiers, the award-winning author of Water, takes to the sands with coauthor Sheila Hirtle. Rescuing the great Sahara Desert from its image as an uninhabitable wasteland, this vivid history turns that daunting, bewitching expanse into a fertile ground filled with gushing springs, brightly hued mountains, petrified forests, and a range of cleverly adapted species -- not to mention the now-faded wonders of the great cities Timbuktu and Agadez.

De Villiers and Hirtle spice their text with observations gleaned from their journeys across the great desert, from Egypt to Mauritania. They refer throughout to the accounts of early European wanderers, showing how life among the Tuareg nomads (known as the "blue men" for their richly colored robes) of the deep desert has changed little in a century. Interesting side journeys lead into subjects ranging from the geology of sand dunes to the routes of salt caravans to legends of the djinns, evil spirits of the desert. While much of this is fascinating, the authors risk losing readers at times, as names and places appear, vanish, and recur. Ultimately, however, the lively portrait here reminds us not to view the arid land through the filter of our own dependence on water. Sahara shows how great cultures have long called this desert home. They are familiar with its twists and turns, its beauties and terrors, and their tolerance for its extremes has evolved not by defying the place but by accepting it. Jonathan Cook

Publishers Weekly
After navigating the physical and political properties of the world's oceans, lakes, rivers and aquifers in his last book, Water, Canadian journalist de Villiers is back on (very) dry land in this new volume but his writing is every bit as fertile. Co-written with Hirtle (with whom he also wrote Into Africa), the book is part travel memoir, part history lesson and part archeological dig, bringing to life the stark landscape of the earth's largest desert. The first half describes how sand dunes take shape so suddenly and travel, wavelike, so quickly; why stands of petrified forests developed; and how relatively mild shifts in the earth's ecosystem and weather patterns transformed the once-verdant grasslands of a mere 10 centuries ago into today's austere environment. The book's second half discusses the ebb and flow of great cities and civilizations along both the northern (Berber and Arab) and southern (black African) edges of the desert, as well as the Moor, Tuareg and Tubu nomads who roamed between them. It also details trade patterns and tribal groupings that have existed over many centuries and takes the reader on a contemporary camel-powered salt-trade caravan. Though this book doesn't have the political urgency or current-events hook of Water, the authors' evocative blend of reportage and concise historical overview makes it a fine read for both armchair travelers and those interested in natural history. (Sept.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
South African-born de Villiers (Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource) and Hirtle (his coauthor on Into Africa: A Journey Through the Ancient Empires) offer a thoroughgoing account of the world's largest desert. They include a complex history (both natural and human), as well as a look at the complicated ethnology and present-day life of the various tribes (Tauregs, Berbers, Moors, and Tubu) that have adapted to this incredibly harsh climate. On occasion, the authors tend toward the overly dramatic ("mountains as black as a sinner's heart"), and the organization seems a bit complex and convoluted, but chapters on the Sahara's natural history and modern conditions as well as a fascinating account of a caravan crossing the desert make this a worthy purchase for larger academic and natural history collections. Tim Markus, Evergreen State Coll. Lib., Olympia, WA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A fully versed and admiring portrait of the Sahara, by travel-writer de Villiers (Water, 2000, etc.) and Hirtle (with de Villiers, Into Africa, not reviewed). The authors explain that the Great Emptiness really isn’t empty: not only is it full of sand and wind and stone, but it’s also "full of creatures frequently deadly, full of refugees in secretive mountain fastnesses, full of traders and traffickers and travelers and trickery." The writers break down their exploration of the region in two: place and people. As a place, they write in an evocative geography, the Sahara is three million square miles of ergs, regs, and inselbergs; of dunes that hop, that are blood red, that can run for 40 miles and climb 1,000 feet; is home to blind fish and crocodiles, vipers, kraits, and adders, lizards and gazelles, and maybe djinns; boasts mountains that are both sanctuaries and weather-makers; and has water, lots of ancient water buried deep. There’s also a fair share of humans and their histories, from Neolithic rock painters through the Garamanites, Berbers and Beni Hilal, the Fulani theocracies, Moor, Chaamba, Tuareg, and Tubu. And there are their towns, cities, and empires—Agadez, Timbuktu, Kano, the kingdoms of Old Ghana, Mali, Kanem-Bornu—and the caravan routes that linked them all to the interior, where salt, gold, and slaves were plucked and transported. De Villiers and Hirtle are careful to preserve the poetry of the desert—both the indigenous representations and the narratives provided by early Arab and European travelers—while at the same time making the place real for those to whom it is mostly a land of pure image: a sandy waste, a barren waterless sea. A thoughtful history of, andpopular guide to, the great African desert. (Maps, photos throughout)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802713728
  • Publisher: Walker & Company
  • Publication date: 9/28/2002
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.04 (w) x 9.38 (h) x 1.21 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Sahara

A Natural History


By Marq de Villiers and Sheila Hirtle

Walker & Company

Copyright © 2002 Jacobus Communications Corp..
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0-8027-1372-6


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 same country, wells with potable water can be 400 miles apart—from Los Angeles to SanFrancisco, 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, Aïr, 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 Aïr 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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

In the southern Sahara, in what are now Mali, Niger, and Chad, the remnants of the old empires were from the sixteenth century nominally under the suzerainty of a series of regional sultanates and tribal chieftains, but for practical purposes the Tuareg and Tubu nomads of the deep desert were ungoverned and ungovernable. The ancient trading towns of Mali, Niger, and Chad were decaying, their populations static or shrinking. In the colonial era, under France, Chad was so isolated and of such fundamental unimportance that nearly half of all civil service positions were empty at any given time. Indeed, French officials were often assigned there as a punishment.

(Continues...)


Excerpted from Sahara by Marq de Villiers and Sheila Hirtle. Copyright © 2002 by Jacobus Communications Corp.. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: The Idea of the Desert 1
Part 1 The Place Itself
Chapter 1 In a Geographer's Eye 9
Chapter 2 From the Distant Past 38
Chapter 3 The Sand Seas 55
Chapter 4 The Winds 76
Chapter 5 The Surprising Matter of Water 90
Chapter 6 The Massifs 126
Chapter 7 The Tenacity of Life 142
Part 2 And the People Who Live There
Chapter 8 First Peoples 159
Chapter 9 Empires of the Sun 172
Chapter 10 Route Maps 203
Chapter 11 White Gold, Yellow Gold, Black Gold 223
Chapter 12 Adepts of the Uttermost Desert 238
Chapter 13 Life on the Road 264
Epilogue: The Sahara as Home 289
Notes 293
Bibliography 305
Index 311
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