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The Great Desert
A satellite image of the Sahara by NASA World Wind.
Countries Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Sudan, Tunisia
Highest point Emi Koussi 11,204 ft (3,415 m)
 - coordinates
Lowest point Qattara Depression −436 ft (−133 m)
 - coordinates
Length 4,800 km (2,983 mi), E/W
Width 1,800 km (1,118 mi), N/S
Area 9,400,000 km2 (3,629,360 sq mi)
Biome Desert
This video over the Sahara and the Middle East was taken by the crew of Expedition 29 on board the International Space Station.
Tadrart Acacus desert in western Libya, part of the Sahara.
The top image shows the Safsaf Oasis on the surface of the Sahara. The bottom (using radar) is the rock layer underneath, revealing black channels cut by the meandering of an ancient river that once fed the oasis.

The Sahara (Arabic: الصحراء الكبرى‎, aṣ-ṣaḥrāʾ al-kubrā , 'the Greatest Desert') is the largest hot desert and third largest desert after Antarctica and the Arctic.[1] Its surface area of 9,400,000 square kilometres (3,600,000 sq mi)—including the Libyan Desert—is comparable to the respective land areas of China and the United States. The desert comprises much of the land found within North Africa, excluding the fertile coastal region situated against the Mediterranean Sea, the Atlas Mountains of the Mahgreb, and the Nile Valley of Egypt and Sudan. The Sahara stretches from the Red Sea in the east, girting the Mediterranean, to the Atlantic Ocean in the west, where the landscape gradually transitions to a coastal plain. To the south, it is delimited by the Sahel, a belt of semi-arid tropical savanna that comprises the northern region of central and western Sub-Saharan Africa.

Many of its sand dunes reach over 180 metres (590 ft) in height.[2] Its name is derived from the plural Arabic language word for desert (صحارى ṣaḥārā [3][4] ).[5][6]


  • Overview 1
  • Geography 2
  • Climate 3
    • Temperature 3.1
    • Precipitation 3.2
  • Ecoregions 4
  • Flora and fauna 5
  • History 6
    • Nubians 6.1
    • Egyptians 6.2
    • Phoenicians 6.3
    • Greeks 6.4
    • Urban civilization 6.5
    • Berbers 6.6
    • Islamic expansion 6.7
    • Ottoman Turkish era 6.8
    • European colonialism 6.9
    • Breakup of the empires and afterwards 6.10
  • People and languages 7
  • See also 8
  • References 9
  • Bibliography 10
  • External links 11


The Sahara is bounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the west, the Atlas Mountains and the Mediterranean to the north, the Red Sea to the east, and the Sudan and the valley of the Niger River to the south. The Sahara is divided into the regions of western Sahara, the central Ahaggar Mountains, the Tibesti Mountains, the Aïr Mountains (a region of desert mountains and high plateaus), the Ténéré desert, and the Libyan Desert (the most arid region). The highest peak in the Sahara is Emi Koussi (3,415 metres (11,204 ft)) in the Tibesti Mountains in northern Chad.

The Sahara is the largest desert on the African continent. The southern border of the Sahara is marked by a band of semiarid savanna called the Sahel, south of which lies Southern Sudan and the Congo River Basin. Most of the Sahara consists of rocky hamada; ergs (large areas covered with sand dunes) form only a minor part.

People lived on the edge of the desert thousands of years ago[7] since the last ice age. The Sahara was then a much wetter place than it is today. Over 30,000 petroglyphs of river animals such as crocodiles[8] survive, with half found in the Tassili n'Ajjer in southeast Algeria. Fossils of dinosaurs, including Afrovenator, Jobaria and Ouranosaurus, have also been found here. The modern Sahara, though, is not lush in vegetation, except in the Nile Valley, at a few oases, and in the northern highlands, where Mediterranean plants such as the olive tree are found to grow. It was long believed that the region had been this way since about 1600 BCE, after shifts in the Earth's axis increased temperatures and decreased precipitation.[9] However, this theory has recently been called into dispute, when samples taken from several 7 million year old sand deposits led scientists to reconsider the timeline for desertification. [10]

The people of the Sahara are of various origins. Among them the Amaziɣ including the Turūq, various Arabized Amaziɣ groups such as the Hassaniya-speaking Sahrawis, whose populations include the Znaga a tribe whose name is a remnant of the pre-historic Zenaga language. Other major people include the Toubou, Nubians, Zaghawa, Kanuri, Hausa, Songhai, and Fula/Fulani (French: Peul; Fula: Fulɓe). Important cities located in the Sahara include Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania; Tamanrasset, Ouargla, Béchar, Hassi Messaoud, Ghardaïa, and El Oued in Algeria; Timbuktu in Mali; Agadez in Niger; Ghat in Libya; and Faya-Largeau in Chad.

The Sahara was originally occupied by the Amaziɣ people whose name for the region was "Tinariwen", meaning deserts, a reference to the fact that they differentiated between the different ecoregions of the desert (i.e. erg, oasis, xeric shrublands etc.)


A geographical map of Africa, showing the ecological break that defines the Saharan area.
An oasis in the Ahaggar Mountains. Oases support some life forms in extremely arid deserts.
An intense Saharan dust storm sent a massive dust plume northwestward over the Atlantic Ocean on 2 March 2003
Rocky mountains naturally sculpted by the wind

The Sahara covers large parts of Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Western Sahara, Sudan and Tunisia, extends over 9 million square kilometres (3,500,000 sq mi) and it covers about 14 of the African continent. If all areas with a mean annual precipitation of less than 250 mm were included, the Sahara would be over 11 million square kilometres (4,200,000 sq mi) in area. It is one of three distinct physiographic provinces of the African massive physiographic division.

The desert landforms of the Sahara are shaped by wind or by extremely rare rainfall and include sand dunes and dune fields or sand seas (erg), stone plateaus (hamada), gravel plains (reg), dry valleys (wadi), dry lakes (oued) and salt flats (shatt or chott).[11] Unusual landforms include the Richat Structure in Mauritania.

Several deeply dissected mountains and mountain ranges, many volcanic, rise from the desert, including the Aïr Mountains, Ahaggar Mountains, Saharan Atlas, Tibesti Mountains, Adrar des Iforas, and the Red Sea hills. The highest peak in the Sahara is Emi Koussi, a shield volcano in the Tibesti range of northern Chad.

Most of the rivers and streams in the Sahara are seasonal or intermittent, the chief exception being the Nile River, which crosses the desert from its origins in central Africa to empty into the Mediterranean. Underground aquifers sometimes reach the surface, forming oases, including the Bahariya, Ghardaïa, Timimoun, Kufra, and Siwa.

The central part of the Sahara is hyperarid, with little, to no vegetation. The northern and southern reaches of the desert, along with the highlands, have areas of sparse grassland and desert shrub, with trees and taller shrubs in wadis where moisture collects. In the central, hyperarid part, there are many subdivisions of the great desert such as the Tanezrouft, the Ténéré, the Libyan Desert, the Eastern Desert, the Nubian Desert and others. These absolute desert regions are characterized by their extreme aridity, and some years can pass without any rainfall.

To the north, the Sahara skirts the Mediterranean Sea in Egypt and portions of Libya, but in Cyrenaica and the Maghreb, the Sahara borders the Mediterranean forest, woodland, and scrub ecoregions of northern Africa, all of which have a Mediterranean climate characterized by hot summers and cool and rainy winters. According to the botanical criteria of Frank White[12] and geographer Robert Capot-Rey,[13][14] the northern limit of the Sahara corresponds to the northern limit of date palm cultivation and the southern limit of the range of esparto, a grass typical of the Mediterranean climate portion of the Maghreb and Iberia. The northern limit also corresponds to the 100 mm (3.9 in) isohyet of annual precipitation.[15]

To the south, the Sahara is bounded by the Sahel, a belt of dry tropical savanna with a summer rainy season that extends across Africa from east to west. The southern limit of the Sahara is indicated botanically by the southern limit of Cornulaca monacantha (a drought-tolerant member of the Chenopodiaceae), or northern limit of Cenchrus biflorus, a grass typical of the Sahel.[13][14] According to climatic criteria, the southern limit of the Sahara corresponds to the 150 mm (5.9 in) isohyet of annual precipitation (this is a long-term average, since precipitation varies annually).[15]


The Sahara is the world's largest low-latitude hot desert. The area is located in the horse latitudes under the subtropical ridge, a significant belt of semi-permanent subtropical warm-core high pressure where the air from upper levels of the troposphere tends to sink towards the ground. The strong descending airflow causes a warming and a drying effect in the upper troposphere. The sinking air prevents it from rising and therefore prevents the adiabatic cooling, which makes cloud formation extremely difficult to nearly impossible.[16]

The permanent dissolution of clouds allows unhindered light and thermal radiation. The stability of the atmosphere above the desert prevents any convective overturning, thus making rainfall virtually non-existent. As a consequence, the weather tends to be sunny, dry and stable with a minimal risk of rainfall. Subsiding, diverging, dry air masses associated with subtropical high pressure systems are extremely unfavorable for the development of convectional showers. The subtropical ridge is the major element that explains the hot desert climate (Köppen climate classification BWh) of this vast region. The lowering of air is the strongest and the most effective over the eastern part of the Great Desert, in the Libyan Desert which is the sunniest, the driest and the most nearly rainless place on the planet rivaling the Atacama Desert, lying in Chile and Peru.

The rainfall inhibition and the dissipation of cloud cover are the most accentuated over the eastern part than the western one, especially because these areas are even less affected by rain-bearing low pressure systems. The prevailing air mass lying above the Sahara is the continental tropical one (cT) which is extremely hot and dry. Hot, dry air masses primarily form over the North-African desert from the major heating of the vast continental land area and it affects the whole desert during a very long part of the year. Because of the extreme heating of the desert landmass, a thermal low is usually noticed near the surface, being the strongest and the most developed during the summertime. The Sahara High represents the eastern continental extension of the Azores High, centered over the North Atlantic Ocean. The subsidence of the Sahara High nearly reaches the ground during the coolest part of the year while it limits to the upper troposphere during the hottest periods.
The effects of local surface low pressure are extremely limited because upper-level subsidence still continues to block any form of air ascent. In addition to be protected against rain-bearing weather systems by the atmospheric circulation itself, the desert is made even drier by his geographical configuration and location. Indeed, the extreme aridity of the Sahara can't be only explained by the subtropical high pressure. The Atlas Mountains, found in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia also help to enhance the aridity of the northern part of the desert. These major mountain ranges act like a barrier causing a strong rain shadow effect in the leeward side by dropping much of the humidity brought by atmospheric disturbances along the polar front which affects the surrounding Mediterranean climates.

Condensation occurs in the windward side producing some cloudiness and rainfall while the leeward side stays sunny and dry due to the evaporation process. The leeward side is obviously the desert. This prevents the unstable weather systems to penetrate further in the interior and to affect these arid regions. That's why we can notice a huge and quick decrease in rainfall between the adjacent Mediterranean climates and the desert climate of the Sahara.
The major source of rain in the Sahara is the equatorial low which is a continuous belt of equatorial low pressure systems which bring the brief, short and irregular rainy season to the Sahel and the southern Sahara. The Sahara doesn't lack precipitation because of a lack of moisture, but due to the lack of a precipitation-generating mechanism. Rainfall in this giant desert has to overcome the physical and atmospheric barriers that normally prevent the production of precipitation. The harsh climate of the Sahara is mainly characterized by extremely low, unreliable, highly erratic rainfall, extremely high sunshine duration values, very high temperatures year-round, negligible rates of relative humidity, a large diurnal temperature variation and extremely high rates of potential evaporation which are the highest recorded worldwide.[17]


The sky is usually clear above the desert and the sunshine duration is extremely high everywhere in the Sahara. Most of the desert enjoys more than 3,600 h of bright sunshine annually or over 82% of the time and a wide area in the eastern part experiences in excess of 4,000 h of bright sunshine a year or over 91% of the time and the highest values are very close to the theoretical maximum value. A value of 4,300 h or 98% of the time would be recorded in Upper Egypt (Aswan, Luxor) and in the Nubian Desert (Wadi Halfa).[18] The annual average direct solar irradiation is around 2,800 kWh/(m² year) in the Great Desert. The Sahara has a huge potential for solar energy production. The constantly high position of the sun, the extremely low relative humidity, the lack of vegetation and rainfall make the Great Desert the hottest continuously large area worldwide and certainly the hottest place on Earth during summertime in some spots. The average high temperature exceeds 38 °C (100.4 °F) - 40 °C (104 °F) during the hottest month nearly everywhere in the desert except at very high mountainous areas. The highest officially recorded average high temperature throughout the bone dry land soars around 47 °C (116.6 °F) in July in a remote desert town in the Algerian Desert called Bou Bernous with an elevation of 378 meters above sea level.[18] It's the world's highest recorded average high temperature and only Death Valley, California rivals it.[19] Other hot spots in Algeria such as Adrar, Timimoun, In Salah, Ouallene, Aoulef, Reggane with an elevation between 200 and 400 meters above sea level get slightly lower summer average highs around 46 °C (114.8 °F) during the hottest months of the year. Salah, well known in Algeria for its extreme heat, has respective averages high temperatures of 43.8 °C (110.8 °F), 46.4 °C (115.5 °F), 45.5 (113.9 °F) and 41.9 °C (107.4 °F) in June, July, August and September. In fact, there are even hotter spots in the Sahara but they are located in extremely remote areas, especially in the Azalai, lying in northern Mali. The major part of the desert experiences around 3 – 5 months when the average high strictly exceeds 40 °C (104 °F). The southern central part of the desert experiences up to 6 – 7 months when the average high temperature strictly exceeds 40 °C (104 °F) which shows the constancy and the length of the really hot season in the Sahara. Some examples of this are Bilma, Niger and Faya-Largeau, Chad. The annual average daily temperature exceeds 20 °C (68 °F) everywhere and can approach 30 °C (86 °F) in the hottest regions year-round. However, most of the desert has a value in excess of 25 °C (77 °F). The sand and ground temperatures are even more extreme. During daytime, the sand temperature is extremely high as it can easily reach 80 °C (176 °F) or more.[20] A sand temperature of 83.5 °C (182.3 °F) has been recorded in Port Sudan.[20] Ground temperatures of 72 °C (161.6 °F) have been recorded in the Adrar of Mauritania and a value of 75 °C (167 °F) has been measured in Borkou, northern Chad.[20] Due to lack of cloud cover and very low humidity, the desert usually features high diurnal temperature variations between days and nights. However, it's a myth that the nights are cold after extremely hot days in the Sahara. The average diurnal temperature range is typically between 13 °C (55.4 °F) and 20 °C (68 °F). The lowest values are found along the coastal regions due to high humidity and are often even lower than 10 °C (50 °F), while the highest values are found in inland desert areas where the humidity is the lowest, mainly in the southern Sahara. Still, it's true that winter nights can be cold as it can drop to the freezing point and even below, especially in high-elevation areas.


The average annual rainfall ranges from very low in the northern and southern fringes of the desert to nearly non-existent over the central and the eastern part. The thin northern fringe of the desert receives more winter cloudiness and rainfall due to the arrival of low pressure systems over the Mediterranean Sea along the polar front, although very attenuated by the rain shadow effects of the mountains and the annual average rainfall ranges from 100 mm (3,93 in) to 250 mm (9,84 in). For example, Biskra, Algeria and Ouarzazate, Morocco are found in this zone. The southern fringe of the desert along the border with the Sahel receives summer cloudiness and rainfall due to the arrival of the Intertropical Convergence Zone from the south and the annual average rainfall ranges from 100 mm (3,93 in) to 250 mm (9,84 in). For example, Timbuktu, Mali and Agadez, Niger are found in this zone. The vast central hyper-arid core of the desert is virtually never affected by northerly or southerly atmospheric disturbances and permanently remains under the influence of the strongest anticyclonic weather regime and the annual average rainfall can drop to less than 1 mm (0.04 in). In fact, most of the Sahara receives less than 20 mm (0.79 in). Of the 9,000,000 km² of desert land in the Sahara, an area of about 2,800,000 km² (about 31% of the total area) receives an annual average rainfall amount of 10 mm (0.39 in) or less, while some 1,500,000 km² (about 17% of the total area) receive an average of 5 mm or less.[21] The annual average rainfall is virtually zero over a wide area of some 1,000,000 km² in the eastern Sahara comprising deserts of Libya, Egypt and Sudan (Tazirbu, Kufra, Dakhla, Kharga, Farafra, Siwa, Asyut, Sohag, Luxor, Aswan, Abu Simbel, Wadi Halfa) where the long-term mean approximates 0.5 mm per year.[21] The rainfall is very unreliable and erratic in the Sahara as it may vary considerably year by year. In full contrast to the negligible annual rainfall amounts, the annual rates of potential evaporation are extraordinarily high, roughly ranging from 2,500 mm/year to more than 6,000 mm/year in the whole desert.[22] Nowhere else on Earth has air been found as dry and evaporative as in the Sahara region. With such an evaporative power, the Sahara can only be desiccated and dried out further more and the moisture deficit is tremendous.


The major topographic features of the Saharan region.

The Sahara comprises several distinct ecoregions, and with their variations in temperature, rainfall, elevation, and soil, they harbor distinct communities of plants and animals.

The Atlantic coastal desert is a narrow strip along the Atlantic coast, where fog generated offshore by the cool Canary Current provides sufficient moisture to sustain a variety of lichens, succulents, and shrubs. It covers 39,900 square kilometers (15,400 sq mi) in the south of Morocco and Mauritania.[23]

The North Saharan steppe and woodlands is along the northern desert, next to the Mediterranean forests, woodlands, and scrub ecoregions of the northern Maghreb and Cyrenaica. Winter rains sustain shrublands and dry woodlands that form a transition between the Mediterranean climate regions to the north and the hyper-arid Sahara proper to the south. It covers 1,675,300 square kilometers (646,800 sq mi) in Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco,and Tunisia.[24]

The Sahara Desert ecoregion covers the hyper-arid central portion of the Sahara where rainfall is minimal and sporadic. Vegetation is rare, and this ecoregion consists mostly of sand dunes (erg, chech, raoui), stone plateaus (hamadas), gravel plains (reg), dry valleys (wadis), and salt flats. It covers 4,639,900 square km (1,791,500 square miles) of Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Sudan.[11]

The South Saharan steppe and woodlands ecoregion is a narrow band running east and west between the hyper-arid Sahara and the Sahel savannas to the south. Movements of the equatorial Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) bring summer rains during July and August which average 100 to 200 mm (3.9 to 7.9 in) but vary greatly from year to year. These rains sustain summer pastures of grasses and herbs, with dry woodlands and shrublands along seasonal watercourses. This ecoregion covers 1,101,700 km2 (425,400 mi2) in Algeria, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Sudan.[25]

In the West Saharan montane xeric woodlands, several volcanic highlands provide a cooler, moister environment that supports Saharo-Mediterranean woodlands and shrublands. The ecoregion covers 258,100 km2 (99,700 mi2), mostly in the Tassili n'Ajjer of Algeria, with smaller enclaves in the Aïr of Niger, the Dhar Adrar of Mauritania, and the Adrar des Iforas of Mali and Algeria.[26]

The Tibesti-Jebel Uweinat montane xeric woodlands ecoregion consists of the Tibesti and Jebel Uweinat highlands. Higher and more regular rainfall and cooler temperatures support woodlands and shrublands of palms, acacias, myrtle, oleander, tamarix, and several rare and endemic plants. The ecoregion covers 82,200 km2 (31,700 mi2) in the Tibesti of Chad and Libya, and Jebel Uweinat on the border of Egypt, Libya, and Sudan.[27]

The Saharan halophytics is an area of seasonally flooded saline depressions which is home to halophytic (salt-adapted) plant communities. The Saharan halophytics cover 54,000 km2 (20,800 mi2), including the Qattara and Siwa depressions in northern Egypt, the Tunisian salt lakes of central Tunisia, Chott Melghir in Algeria, and smaller areas of Algeria, Mauritania, and The southern part of Morocco.[28]

The Tanezrouft is one of the harshest regions on Earth as well as one of the hottest and driest parts of the Sahara, with no vegetation and very little life. It is along the borders of Algeria, Niger and Mali, west of the Hoggar mountains.

Flora and fauna

The flora of the Sahara is highly diversified based on the bio-geographical characteristics of this vast desert. Floristically, the Sahara has three zones based on the amount of rainfall received – the Northern (Mediterranean), Central and Southern Zones. There are two transitional zones – the Mediterranean-Sahara transition and the Sahel transition zone.[29]

The Saharan flora comprises around 2800 species of vascular plants. Approximately a quarter of these are endemic. About half of these species are common to the flora of the Arabian deserts.[30]

The central Sahara is estimated to include five hundred species of plants, which is extremely low considering the huge extent of the area. Plants such as acacia trees, palms, succulents, spiny shrubs, and grasses have adapted to the arid conditions, by growing lower to avoid water loss by strong winds, by storing water in their thick stems to use it in dry periods, by having long roots that travel horizontally to reach the maximum area of water and to find any surface moisture and by having small thick leaves or needles to prevent water loss by evapo-transpiration. Plant leaves may dry out totally and then recover.

Camels in the Guelta d'Archei, in north-eastern Chad.

Several species of fox live in the Sahara, including the fennec fox, pale fox and Rüppell's fox. The addax, a large white antelope, can go nearly a year in the desert without drinking. The dorcas gazelle is a north African gazelle that can also go for a long time without water. Other notable gazelles include the Rhim gazelle and dama gazelle.

The Saharan cheetah (northwest African cheetah) lives in Algeria, Togo, Niger, Mali, Benin, and Burkina Faso. There remain fewer than 250 mature cheetahs, which are very cautious, fleeing any human presence. The cheetah avoids the sun from April to October, seeking the shelter of shrubs such as balanites and acacias. They are unusually pale.[31][32] The other cheetah subspecies (northeast African cheetah) lives in Chad, Sudan and the eastern region of Niger. However, it is currently extinct in the wild of Egypt and Libya. They are approximately 2,000 mature individuals left in the wild.

An Idehan Ubari oasis lake, with native grasses and Date palms.

Other animals include the monitor lizards, hyrax, sand vipers, and small populations of African wild dog,[33] in perhaps only 14 countries[34] and red-necked ostrich. There exist other animals in the Sahara (birds in particular) such as African silverbill and black-faced firefinch, among others. There are also small desert crocodiles in Mauritania and the Ennedi Plateau of Chad.[35]

The deathstalker scorpion can be 10 cm (3.9 in) long. Its venom contains large amounts of agitoxin and scyllatoxin and is very dangerous; however, a sting from this scorpion rarely kills a healthy adult. The Saharan silver ant is unique in that due to the extreme high temperatures of their habitat and the threat of predators, the ants are active outside their nest for only about ten minutes per day.[36]

Dromedary camels and goats are the domesticated animals most commonly found in the Sahara. Because of its qualities of endurance and speed, the dromedary is the favourite animal used by nomads.

Human activities are more likely to affect the habitat in areas of permanent water (oases) or where water comes close to the surface. Here, the local pressure on natural resources can be intense. The remaining populations of large mammals have been greatly reduced by hunting for food and recreation. In recent years development projects have started in the deserts of Algeria and Tunisia using irrigated water pumped from underground aquifers. These schemes often lead to soil degradation and salinization.

From Hacettepe University; Researchers (Yücekutlu,N. et al., 2011) have reported that Saharan soil may have bio-available iron and also some essential macro and micro nutrient elements suitable for use as fertilizer for growing wheat.[37]



Beni Isguen, a holy city surrounded by thick walls in the Algerian Sahara.

During the Neolithic Era, before the onset of desertification, around 9500 BCE the central Sudan had been a rich environment supporting a large population ranging across what is now barren desert, like the Wadi el-Qa'ab. By the 5th millennium BCE, the people who inhabited what is now called Nubia, were full participants in the "agricultural revolution", living a settled lifestyle with domesticated plants and animals. Saharan rock art of cattle and herdsmen suggests the presence of a cattle cult like those found in Sudan and other pastoral societies in Africa today.[38] Megaliths found at Nabta Playa are overt examples of probably the world's first known archaeoastronomy devices, predating Stonehenge by some 2,000 years.[39] This complexity, as observed at Nabta Playa, and as expressed by different levels of authority within the society there, likely formed the basis for the structure of both the Neolithic society at Nabta and the Old Kingdom of Egypt.[40]


By 6000 BCE Al Fayyum in the 6th millennium BCE, with food activities centering on fishing, hunting and food-gathering. Stone arrowheads, knives and scrapers from the era are commonly found.[41] Burial items included pottery, jewelry, farming and hunting equipment, and assorted foods including dried meat and fruit. Burial in desert environments appears to enhance Egyptian preservation rites, and dead were buried facing due west.[42]

By 3400 BCE, the Sahara was as dry as it is today, due to reduced precipitation and higher temperatures resulting from a shift in the Earth's orbit.[9] As a result of this aridification, it became a largely impenetrable barrier to humans, with the remaining settlements mainly being concentrated around the numerous oases that dot the landscape. Little trade or commerce is known to have passed through the interior in subsequent periods, the only major exception being the Nile Valley. The Nile, however, was impassable at several cataracts, making trade and contact by boat difficult.


The people of Phoenicia, who flourished from 1200–800 BCE, created a confederation of kingdoms across the entire Sahara to Egypt. They generally settled along the Mediterranean coast, as well as the Sahara, among the people of Ancient Libya, who were the ancestors of people who speak Berber languages in North Africa and the Sahara today, including the Tuareg of the central Sahara.

Azalai salt caravan. The French reported that the 1906 caravan numbered 20,000 camels.

The Phoenician alphabet seems to have been adopted by the ancient Libyans of north Africa, and Tifinagh is still used today by Berber-speaking Tuareg camel herders of the central Sahara.

Sometime between 633 BCE and 530 BCE, Hanno the Navigator either established or reinforced Phoenician colonies in Western Sahara, but all ancient remains have vanished with virtually no trace.


By 500 BCE, Greeks arrived in the desert. Greek traders spread along the eastern coast of the desert, establishing trading colonies along the Red Sea. The Carthaginians explored the Atlantic coast of the desert, but the turbulence of the waters and the lack of markets caused a lack of presence further south than modern Morocco. Centralized states thus surrounded the desert on the north and east; it remained outside the control of these states. Raids from the nomadic Berber people of the desert were a constant concern of those living on the edge of the desert.

Urban civilization

Market on the main square of Ghardaïa (1971).

An urban civilization, the Garamantes, arose around 500 BCE in the heart of the Sahara, in a valley that is now called the Wadi al-Ajal in Fezzan, Libya.[43] The Garamantes achieved this development by digging tunnels far into the mountains flanking the valley to tap fossil water and bring it to their fields. The Garamantes grew populous and strong, conquering their neighbors and capturing many slaves (which were put to work extending the tunnels). The ancient Greeks and the Romans knew of the Garamantes and regarded them as uncivilized nomads. However, they traded with the Garamantes, and a Roman bath has been found in the Garamantes capital of Garama. Archaeologists have found eight major towns and many other important settlements in the Garamantes territory. The Garamantes civilization eventually collapsed after they had depleted available water in the aquifers and could no longer sustain the effort to extend the tunnels further into the mountains.[44]


Zawiya at the entrance of Taghirt, Algeria

The Berber people occupied (and still occupy) much of the Sahara. The Garamantes Berbers built a prosperous empire in the heart of the desert.[45] The Tuareg nomads continue, to the present day, to inhabit and move across wide Sahara surfaces.

Islamic expansion

The Byzantine Empire ruled the northern shores of the Sahara from the 5th to the 7th century. After the Muslim conquest of Arabia (Arabian peninsula) the Muslim conquest of North Africa began in the mid 7th to early 8th centuries, Islamic influence expanded rapidly on the Sahara. By the end of 641 all of Egypt was in Muslim hands. The trade across the desert intensified. A significant slave trade crossed the desert. It has been estimated that from the 10th to the 19th century some 6,000 to 7,000 slaves were transported north each year.[46]

The Tuareg once controlled the central Sahara and its trade.

This trade through Sahara persisted for several centuries until the development in Europe of the caravel allowed ships, first from Portugal and soon from all of Western Europe, to sail around the desert and gather the resources from the source in Guinea. The Sahara was rapidly marginalized.

Ottoman Turkish era

In the 16th century the northern fringe of the Sahara, such as coastal regencies in present-day Algeria and Tunisia, as well as some parts of present-day Libya, together with the semi-autonomous kingdom of Egypt, were occupied by the Ottoman Empire. From 1517 Egypt was a valued part of the Ottoman Empire, ownership of which provided the Ottomans with control over the Nile Valley, the east Mediterranean and North Africa. The benefit of the Ottoman Empire was the freedom of movement for citizens and goods. Trade exploited the Ottoman land routes to handle the spices, gold and silk from the East, manufactures from Europe, and the slave and gold traffic from Africa. Arabic continued as the local language and Islamic culture was much reinforced. The Sahel and southern Sahara regions were home to several independent states or to roaming Tuareg clans.

European colonialism

European colonialism in the Sahara began in the 19th century. France conquered the regency of Algiers from the Ottomans in 1830, and French rule spread south from Algeria and eastwards from Senegal into the upper Niger to include present-day Algeria, Chad, Mali then French Sudan including Timbuktu, Mauritania, Morocco (1912), Niger, and Tunisia (1881). By the beginning of the twentieth century, the trans-Saharan trade had clearly declined because goods were moved through more modern and efficient means, such as airplanes, rather than across the desert.[47]

The French Colonial Empire was the dominant presence in the Sahara. It established regular air links from Toulouse (HQ of famed Aéropostale), to Oran and over the Hoggar to Timbuktu and West to Bamako and Dakar, as well as trans-Sahara bus services run by La Companie Transsaharienne (est. 1927).[48] A remarkable film shot by famous aviator Captain René Wauthier documents the first crossing by a large truck convoy from Algiers to Tchad, across the Sahara.[49]

Egypt, under Muhammad Ali and his successors, conquered Nubia in 1820–22, founded Khartoum in 1823, and conquered Darfur in 1874. Egypt, including the Sudan, became a British protectorate in 1882. Egypt and Britain lost control of the Sudan from 1882 to 1898 as a result of the Mahdist War. After its capture by British troops in 1898, the Sudan became an Anglo-Egyptian condominium.

Vicariate Apostolic of Sahara.

Breakup of the empires and afterwards

A natural rock arch in south western Libya.
The Sahara today.

Egypt became independent of Britain in 1936, although the Anglo-Egyptian treaty of 1936 allowed Britain to keep troops in Egypt and to maintain the British-Egyptian condominium in the Sudan. British military forces were withdrawn in 1954.

Most of the Saharan states achieved independence after World War II: Libya in 1951, Morocco, Sudan, and Tunisia in 1956, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger in 1960, and Algeria in 1962. Spain withdrew from Western Sahara in 1975, and it was partitioned between Mauritania and Morocco. Mauritania withdrew in 1979, and Morocco continues to hold the territory.

In the post-World War II era, several mines and communities have developed to utilize the desert's natural resources. These include large deposits of oil and natural gas in Algeria and Libya and large deposits of phosphates in Morocco and Western Sahara.

A number of Trans-African highways have been proposed across the Sahara, including the Cairo–Dakar Highway along the Atlantic coast, the Trans-Sahara Highway from Algiers on the Mediterranean to Kano in Nigeria, the Tripoli – Cape Town Highway from Tripoli in Libya to N'Djamena in Chad, and the Cairo – Cape Town Highway which follows the Nile. Each of these highways is partially complete, with significant gaps and unpaved sections.

People and languages

A 19th-century engraving of an Arab slave-trading caravan transporting black African slaves across the Sahara.

Third and Fourth republics, which engendered artificial political divisions within a hitherto isolated and porous region.[51] Diplomacy with local clients was primarily conducted in Arabic, which was the traditional language of bureaucratic affairs. Mediation of disputes and inter-agency communication was served by interpreters contracted by the French government, who, according to Keenan, "documented a space of intercultural mediation," contributing much to preserving indigenous cultural identities in the region.[52]

See also


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