The Sahara Desert


Figure 1.--The Sahara was a formidable barrier between the Mediterranean world to the north and Equatorial Africa to the south. Except for the Nile Valley as the Sahara developed it cut the two areas. Only with the imtroduction of the camel (about 200 AD) did Saharan trade caravans become possible. Here we see camel tender in Libya. we think in the 1950s. Like many images in the Arab world, this samne image could have been taken 1,000 years ago.

The Sahara (الصحراء الكبرى‎, Aṣ-Ṣaḥrā´ al-Kubrā), the Great Desert in Arabic, is the world's largest hot desert, covering about a third of the African contient. It is the best known desert because it is so close to Europe. The legendary Sahara is not, however, the dryest. That acolade goes to South America's Atacama Desert. The Sahara is one of the hottest places on Earth with temperatures reaching 136° F (57.7° C), but it can get quite cold at night. The Sahara covers most of North Africa and creates a formidable barrier between the Arab-Berber peoples of North Africa and the Black African peoples to the south. The Sahara began to form about 4000 BC, and began driving much of the population of this formerly verdent area into the Nile Valley. Desertification is believed to be the result of shifts in the Earth's axis which increased temperatures and decreased precipitation. As a result of the climate chnge, the well watered savannah changed into the dry and very hot sandy desert know today. The same phenomenon affected the Fertile Cressent. The transition was not gradual, but occurred in two specific and abrupt episodes. The first milder event (about 4000 BC) and a second, brutal, event (about 2000 BC). [Claussen] Satellite imagery has enabled geologists to study the Sahara as never before. And one of their findings is that the Sahara is constantly changing. The Sahara regularly shrinks and expands. The Sahara's southern edge expanded into the Sahel, a dry band that separates the desert from the southern, but some reports suggest that some of these areas are green and well-watered again. The Sahara receives less than 3 inches of rain annually and some areas receive almost no rain. Some areas of the Sahara do not get any measurable rain for years at a time. There are oases in the Sahara, but cammel caravans may have to travel for days to reach one. Only these oases and camels allow traders to cross the Sahara. Crossing the desert was a major problem for traders, including slave traders, until the introduction of the camel. Archaeologists working in northern Canada have found fossils of 4 million old camels that were much larger then ones of today. It is believed that it is here that they originated and then moved to Asia across the northern land bridge. Millions of years ago the north was a bit warmer then now. The same shift of the Earth's axis that turned much of North Africa to desert also turned the far north to an icecap.

Largest Hot Desert

The Sahara (الصحراء الكبرى‎, Aṣ-Ṣaḥrā´ al-Kubrā), the Great Desert in Arabic, is the world's largest hot desert, covering about a third of the African contient. It is the best known desert because it is so close to Europe. The legendary Sahara is not, however, the dryest. That acolade goes to South America's Atacama Desert. The Sahara is one of the hottest places on Earth with temperatures reaching 136° F (57.7° C), but it can get quite cold at night.

Precipitation

The Sahara receives less than 3 inches of rain annually and some areas receive almost no rain. Some areas of the Sahara do not get any measurable rain for years at a time.

Natural Barrier

The Sahara covers most of North Africa and creates a formidable barrier between the Arab-Berber peoples of North Africa and the Black African peoples to the south.

Geological History

The Sahara began to form about 4000 BC, and began driving much of the population of this formerly verdent area into the Nile Valley. Desertification is believed to be the result of shifts in the Earth's axis which increased temperatures and decreased precipitation. As a result of the climate chnge, the well watered savannah changed into the dry and very hot sandy desert know today. The same phenomenon affected the Fertile Cressent. The transition was not gradual, but occurred in two specific and abrupt episodes. The first milder event (about 4000 BC) and a second, brutal, event (about 2000 BC). [Claussen] Satellite imagery has enabled geologists to study the Sahara as never before. And one of their findings is that the Sahara is constantly changing. The Sahara regularly shrinks and expands.

The Sahel

The Sahara's southern edge expanded into the Sahel, a dry band that separates the desert from the southern, but some reports suggest that some of these areas are green and well-watered again.

Oases

An oasis is an isolated area where water appears to support vegetation surromded by desert. Oases are formed by underground rivers or aquifers where water can reach the surface even in vast desert areas. This is done by natural pressure or by man made wells. Substrata of impermeable rock can trap large volumes of water and retain it in vast pockets. Other structures like long faulting subsurface ridges or volcanic dikes water can collect water which percolate to the surface. Before the arrival of man, desert oasis were found by migrating birds who through their dropping deposit seeds allowing natural vegetation to develop. Sometimes there is only enough water to to sustain a small well. In other cases a small area of land can be irrigated to support a limited population. The location of these oases has been of vital importance for trade across the Sahara and other desert areas. Before the appearance of the camel, oasis were not common enough or close enough to allow trade to flow. As a result, the primary conduit for Sub-Saharan trade to reach Europe and the Middle East was the Nile. There are oases in the Sahara, but before the cammel caravans could not reach the scattered oasis, caravans had to travel for days to reach the scattered oasis. This changed with the introduction of the camel. The camel gave traders the capability of crossing vast tracts of desert by connecting the widely dispersed Sahran oasis. It is no accident that the great sub-Saharan African empires began to form after the camel made possible the development of trans-Sharan trade routes centerd around the desert oasis. Caravans must transit the Sahara via the oases so that neededsupplies of water and food can be replenished. Camels can travel long distances without water, but they need water like any animal. And of course humnan exhaust the awter carried by camels. Thus control of a desert oasis meant control of trade routes which was of vast econimic and political importance.

The Camel

Crossing the desert was a major problem for traders, including slave traders, until the introduction of the camel. Archaeologists working in northern Canada have found fossils of 4 million old camels that were much larger then ones of today. It is believed that it is here that they originated and then moved to Asia across the northern land bridge. Millions of years ago the north was a bit warmer then now. The same shift of the Earth's axis that turned much of North Africa to desert also turned the far north to an icecap. The Camel first appeared in North America. From North America they spread west across the Bearing Sea land bridge to East Asia and south into South America. The South Amerian caneloids became llamas and their more exotic related species, alpacas, and vicuñas. It is the western migration that developed into modern camels. The camels in East Asia gradually spread further west to Central Asia and Iran and Arabia. (and also south to South America where they became llamas and vicunas and alpacas). The camels in North Americawent extincr, probably during the Ice Age. They survived in Asia and were eventually brought to North Africa as domesticated animal. It was people in Central Asia who first domesticate camels. Camels had the ability to carry goods over long distances with little water. They proved very useful in crossing the Gobi Desert of Central Asia and it was here that they were first domesticated. This occured long after other livestock animals (cows, sheep, and pigs) were domsticated. Archeologists believe that this occurred about the same time horses from Central Asia were domesticated (3000 BC). Camels are not as tame as the earlier domesticated livestock animals. Camels were introduced to North Africa by Arab traders gradually moving west.

Saharan History

The Sahara is a big black hole in most histories who focus on the fascinating civilizations nort of the Sahara. In fact a great deal of facinating history has taken place not only north of the Sahara, but both in and south of the Sahara. Thus it is interesting to discuss the history of the region with a focus on the Sahara. We do not yet fully understand the history, especially the early history, but we have begun to build a history of the Sahara. Interestingly, developments in the Sahara have begun to appear in the media. The first such major issue was the Sudanese Arab genocide of African peoples in Darfur. This freceived much more coverage than the longer term assault on the largely Christian African people of people of souther Sudan which eventually led to independence. Thaen there wasan Islamist assult on oil workers in southern Algeria (2013) and the related Islamist effort to seize cointrol of Mali. And then the French intervention in the Central African Republic where an Islamist rebel force seize control of a largely Christian nation. All this taking place in a Saharan amd Zahelian region racked by expanding disertification as well as increasing mineral finds.

Pre-history

The population of northern Africa in what is now the sahara was a much beter watered savana area. The neolithic population of northern Africa was of European origins. We do not yet understand the migratory dynamics. Afican peoples migrated out ogf Africa, but for some reason did not populate northern Africa. Perhaps readers better informed about pre-history will be able to explain the dynamics here. The desertification of the Sahara subsequently separated Africa on a ethnic basis. The north was populated by people of Eyropean origins and the southern sun-Saharan Africa by various African peoples. The Sahra created a barrier to both ciongact and mixing.

Egyptians

The poplation of North Africa before the desetification of the Sahara was largely European in origin. Thus when dertifucation drove the people of the western Sahara into the Nile Valley, an ethnic difference developed between the upper and Lower Nile. Large areas of modern Egypt were occupied an suppoted a substantial population of hunter gathers and nomadic heardes. On source suggess that pre-dynastic Egyptians before desertification were herding cattle and had begun to establish permanent settlements and constructing buildings (6th millenium BC). They were farming cereals using grains they had debeloped. Animal hearding included cattle, goats, pigs and sheep. tools included arrowheads, knives and scrapers. Metal tools had begun to replace stone implements. Indusry included tanning animal skins, pottery, and weaving. Food activities also included fishing, hunting and food-gathering. Many eraly buial sites have been found. Burial in desert environments probably led to th Egyptian obsession with mumifucatiin and the after life. These people as the Sahara began to form moved toward theNile Valley and its lige giving water. The Sahara was well formed (3400 BC). Falling precipitation and higher temperatures all were a part of Egptian life by this time. It developed impenetrable barrier to humans, with only scattered settlements around the oases. Without camels, there was little trade among desert communities. The Sahara had one invaluable beneft to Egypt. By creating a barier, the Sahara became a secure shield behind which Egyptian civilization could develop, a shield that the related civilizatiin in Mesopotamia did not share. The Nile was impassable at several cataracts. This made secuity betwwn uppera nd lower Egyot.trade and contact difficult between Upper and Lower Egypt.

Nubians

The Nubians were African people of what is now the Sudan. They first appear to history during the late-Neolithic Era before the onset of Sharan desertification and the rise of Egypt to the north (about 9500 BC). The central Sudan at that time was still a well-watered lush land supporting a substantial population of primarily hunter gathers. The same area today is a barren desert. These people at desertification began, moved toward the Nile, a depebdable, constant soure of water. They paticipated in the agriculture revolution occurring in Egypt to the north and Mesopotamia to the east (5th millennium BC). They began to leave a settled lifestyle, farming and tending domesticated animals. There is also evidence of a cattle cult based on hearding such as can be found in the Sudan and neigb=hboring regiins today, such as that of the Dinka peoople. This can be seen in rock art found by acheologists depicting cattle and herdsmen. Other archeologists have found megaliths at Nabta Playa, perhaps the world's oldest archaeoastronomy devices. They predate Stonehenge by some 2,000 years.

Phoenicians

The Phoenicians were a maritime people who traded all over the Mediterannean. The Phoenicans trading operations included inclusing the coast of North Africa (1200-800 BC). They created a confederation of kingdoms across the entire Sahara to Egypt and the Levant. The Biblical Cananites are believes to be the Phonecians. They mostly settled along the coast. They were among the people of Ancient Libya, the ancestors of the Berber people. Phoencian influences acn be found in Berber languages, including the Tuareg now deep in the Sahara. The Phoenician alphabet appears to have been adopted by the ancient Libyans and evolved into Tifinagh-- the Berber script. The Tuareg us it and it is taught in Moroccan schoos. Carthage developed as a Phoencian colony. The Cartheginian navigator Hanno reports Phoenician/Carthefinian colonies in Western Sahara, but they have not yet been found by archeologuists. The Carthaginians are known to have explored the Atlantic coast of the Sahara. The turbulence of the waters and the lack of esablished marketsmeant that there was no sustained presence south of modern Morocco.

Greeks

The Greeks were another trading people of the Meiterranean. The Greeks are known to have begin trading along the eastern coast of North Afric aanf the Levant. They established trading colonies across the Siani into the Red Sea.

The Garamantes

Thus in th ancient world, centralized states surrounded the Sahara in the north and east. The Sahara itself and the people in it remained outside the control of these centralized ancient states. Raids from the nomadic Berber people in the Sahara were a problem for the ancient people living a trading on the edge of the desert. An urban civilization actually developed in the Sahara. This occurred in a a valley where agriculture was possible--the Wadi al-Ajal located at what is now Fezzan, Libya. The people are the Garamantes. They tunneld into the mountains surrounding the valley to tap fossil water for their fields (500 BC). The Garamantes developed a strong state and population of somesize. They conquered neighboring people and turned many intomslaves used in the tunneling. The ancient Greeks and the Romans knew of the Garamantes, butbsaw them as nothing more than uncivilized nomads. There sems to hav been a substantkialm degree of contact because archeologists have found and a Roman bath in the capital of Garama. So far eight major towns and other important Garamantes settlements have been found. The Garamantes civilization eventually collapsed as they depleted the ancient aquifers. Presumably the people merged into the wider nimadic Berber population.

The Berbers

The Berbers are the nomadic people most associated with the Sahara. The Garamantes were a Berber people who developed a sedebtarybcivikization. The Tuareg are today the best known Berber nomads in the Sahara.

The Romans

The Romans dominated North Africa for several centuries after conquering first Carthage in the Punic Wars (264-146 BC) and then Egypt (1st century BC). North African provinces were a major source of Grain for the Republic and Empire. Theyhad to contend with Berber raids from the sahar. As far as we know, the Romans never advamnced deep into the desert. Trade was limited until camels were introduced. We note African products in Rime, inclising ivory, gold and slaves. We suspect that mich of this commerce was conducted up and down the Nile. African slaves in Rome were referred to as Nubians. It is, however, during the late-Roman era that centalized empires began to develop in West Africa ns the Sahel. Amd trade routes across the Sahara begin to be btter developed, made possible by camel cravans. The Roman governed North Africa until these provinces wre seized bt the Vandals (439). This essentially spelled the end of Rome because without Norh Afrivcan grain, the large Roman population could not be sustained.

The Byzantines

With the split of the Roman Empire the asten Empire recibed Egypt. After the fall of the Western Empire, the Byzantines under Justinian reconquered much of the rst of the Roman North african privinces by defeating the Vandals. They thus ruled the area (5th-7th centuries AD). Like the Romans before them, they did not venture into the Sahara. Trade routes across the Sahara were bybthis time wll establishe, but have found little information on trade with the Byzantines.

African Empires

For the first time, cetralized states began to appear south of the Sahara. This essentially surrojndedctheSahara with crntralized states of varying strength which desired trade. The Ethiopina kingdom in the east first appeared (3rd century BC). The firsr African empire south of the Shara was the Ghanian Empire in West Africa (4th century AD). They would be followed by several important African empires. A factor here was the devdeloping trans-Sahran trade which helped finace centralized sates, the Kanem-Bornu, the Kongo, Mali, Songhay, and others.

The Arabs

The Arab conquest and Islamization of North Africa occurred (7th-8th centuries). Once established in North Africa, Arabic and Islamic influence extended south into the Sahara. By the end of 641 all of Egypt was in Arab hands. The trade across the desert intensified. The Africam empirs of the Sahel, especially the Ghana Empire and later the Mali Empire, gaind wealth and power by exporting gold, salt, ivory, slaves and other commoduties to North Africa. The Arab emirates along the Mediterranean sent artisan goods and horses south. Salt was mined in the Sahra itself. As this trade developed, the scattered Sahran oasis became trading centers were conquered by the expanding African empires, at least those on the edge of the desert. The Trans-Saharan slave trade developed a major institution. Detailed records do not exist, And vitually nothing is known about the trad in the first millenium. but sone 6,000-7,000 slaves are believed to have been driven north with the caravans annual. The Tuareg at times controlled the central Sahara and its trade an became deeply ssociated with the slave trade. The trans Sahran trade routes dominated African trade with Europe until until the development of maritime technology (especially the the caravel) and navigattional exploration first from Portugal allowed ships to reach West Africa. This undermined the economic foundatiin of the African empires. The Saharan trade routes was marginalized. And with the discivery of the New World, the slave trade shited west.

Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire invaded Europe (13th century), eventually seizing Constaninole and destriying Byzantium. The Ottomans seized the Levant and Egypt (16th century). This brought the Ottomans for a time to the fringe of the Sahara. Egypt in particular was a valuable province of the Ottoman Empire, with the Nile Valley and butressing the Ottoman position in the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa. This greatly facilitated trade for both the North african emoratres and trabss0pSahran trade. Goods and people could freely travel within the Empire. The Ottoman also dominated trade routes to the East for spice, gold and silk. Manufactures from Europe and the slave and gold traffic from Africa were all woven into a economic network that was the foundatiin of Ottoman power. Arabic continued as the local language in North Africa. ghe Ottomas reinforced Islamic culture. The Sahel and southern Sahara regions with the decline of the great empires were dominate by smaller independent states or to roaming Tuareg clans. The Ottoman Empire was, however, undercut by sea power. The Portuguese rounding the Cape of Good Hope challenged what was omc an Arab lake. Arab/Ottoman Empire was btoken at Diu (1509). This ended the Arab/Ottoman monoply with trade from the East. The Ottomans established influence with the North African emirates, although actual controlled varied. They were posed to control the Mediterranean until stoped by the Spanish at Lepanto (1571).

European colonization

The Europeans for an extendd period suffered from Arab piracy, especially in the Meiteranean, but also at times extending beyond it. Seizing and enslaving or ransoming Europeans was a major objective and source of revenue for the Barbary pirates. For a time the Europeans found it cost effectivev to pay ransom. The new American Reoublic was the first to challenge the barbary emirates in two Barbary wars. Only after the Napoleonic Wat=rs did the Europeans challeng te Barbary pirates. France conquered the Algiers Emirate losely connected to the Ottoman Empire (1830). France at the time was also expanding it colonial influence along the Atlantic coast. French influence and rule extended south from Algeria and east from Senegal into the upper Niger and eventually the Sahara. France eventually controlled all of the western and centralmSahara, broken only by Bitish influence in the Sudan and Egypt. France gaine cintrol of Tunisia (1881), but did not seize Morocco until much later (1912), primarily because of German objections. Frane controled the Sahara through Chad, Mali (French Sudan including Timbuktu), Mauritania, and Niger, By this time, however, the the trans-Saharan trade was no longer of economic importance, tradevbdeing conducted by marritime trade. Egypt achueved independence under Muhammad Ali. He and his successors conquered Nubia (1820–22) as France was colonizuing North Africa. Rge Egyotians founded Khartoum at the confluebne of the White and Blue Nile (1823). They conquered Darfur (1874). Th British concened about the Suez Canal made Egypt with its Sudan provinces a protectorate (1882). The British used their position to finally end the slave trade in ast Africa. This was resisted by the Afrabs and in the Mahdist Revolt. Egypt and Britain as a result lost control of the Sudan (1882 -98). The British and Egyptians regained contro (1898). Sudan became an Anglo-Egyptian condominium. While France and Britain dominated theSahara. There were other ciuntries involved. Spain seized the Western Sahara (1874). Vontrol over Rio del Oro was largely niminal as Tuareg influence ibnfluence was paramont. Italy sized waht is now Libya from the Ottoman Emppire with opnlu nominal esustanve (1912). The Ottomans were more concerned about the prepation for war of the Balkan states. Pope Pius IX desiring to promote Christianity in the sahran region appointed a delegate Apostolic of the Sahara and the Sudan (1868). This was subsequently converted yo the Vicariate Apostolic of Sahara.

Decolonization

Britain granted independence to Egypt (1936). The Anglo-Egyptian Treaty granting indepencencde allowed Britain to keep troops in Egypt, primarily to protect the vital Suez Canal. the British-Egyptian condominium in the Sudan was also continued. The British mainatined a military presence in Egypt in part because of the rise of the NAZIs in Europe and the steady move toward war. German diplomacy attempted to cultivate the Arabs because of anti-British anf French feeling as well as anti-Semitism. The Westen Desert (west of Suez) became a biterly fought battlefield of World War II. The British funally withdrew military forces (1954). Most of the Saharan states achieved independence after World War II as the British and French unrveled their empires: Libya (1951); Morocco, Sudan, and Tunisia (1956); Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger (1960). This was a largely peaceful pocess except in Algerai awhere a bloodu colonial war was fought by thevFrech. Spain resisted decolonizatiin the longest. It withdrew from Western Sahara (1975). It was partitioned between Mauritania and Morocco. Mauritania withdrew because of resisance from the local population (1979). Morocco seized the territory. The Sahara was generally considered a vast area of only minor economic impprtance. With decilonizatiin, important mineral deposu have been found, primarily oil and natural gas (Algeria and Libya). Phosphates have been found in Morocco and Western Sahara.

Sourcs

Fage, J.D. A History of Africa (Routledge, 4th edition, 2001).







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Created: 7:24 AM 3/6/2013
Last updated: 7:46 AM 1/3/2014