I was privileged to meet Eamonn Gearon while he was launching his book in Cairo. An Arabist and camel expert, for the last 20 years, Gearon has lived, worked and traveled across the Sahara which he describes as “one of the most starkly beautiful places on earth’’ that “has long captured the imagination of those who have come into contact with it, from the earliest inhabitants to contemporary tourists”. Yet the Sahara remains a place whose name is familiar to all but known to few. “This is no encyclopedia” says Gearon about “The Sahara — A Cultural History”, “but it is at least hoped that it will be of service in guiding readers through the literal and imaginary landscapes of the Sahara, in history, cultures and a portion of the creative work it has inspired”.
The Sahara covers an area approximately the size of the United States, including Alaska and Hawaii; the sand dunes, incidentally only make up 15 percent of the total surface of the Sahara but that alone is equivalent to the whole of France, Germany and Spain. This huge desert consists, in fact, mainly of barren plains of coarse gravel, rocky plateaus and wadis. However, millions of years ago, these rugged and inhospitable areas were rainforests, grasslands, marshes and the mountainous ranges of Tibesti and Ennedi in Chad and Air in Niger were covered with a great variety of trees. And even before that, a large part of the Sahara remained underneath the Tethys Sea teeming with marine life. This explains why Wadi Al-Hiran, the Valley of the Whales, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, located a hundred miles southwest of Cairo, contains one of the most important collections of fossils of early whales.
The Sahara is also rich in Rock art both carvings, (petroglyphs) and paintings (pictographs). The evocative and atmospheric film, “The English Patient”, popularized the awesome red and ochre paintings in the Cave of Swimmers located in the Gilf Kebir, a vast rocky plateau close to the Libyan and Sudanese border. But these prehistoric masterpieces are under continuous threat of being damaged and even stolen. However, steps are being taken to increase the awareness of the problem and an increasing number of sites are being awarded UNESCO World Heritage status.
As for the Saharan towns, “a number” says Gearon, “have locations that are among the most dramatic, wild, and beautiful on Earth. This is the case with the picturesque town of Ghadames in Libya which is now a World Heritage site thanks to its ingenious, dark and cool passageways which give the illusion that the town is underground.
A number of tourists are increasingly drawn to the inhospitable and isolated Saharan habitat that is nevertheless changing. The author remarks humorously how modern travelers bemoan the use of electricity in the traditional Saharan oasis while they are themselves in the internet café.
Contrary to Chatwin who wrote “The inhabitants of Timbuctoo are Arabs, Berbers, Songhoi, Mossi, Toucouleur, Bambara, Bela, Malinke, Fulani, Moors and Touaregs. Later came the English, French, Germans, the Russians and then the Chinese. Many other will come and go, and Timbuctoo will remain the same.” The Sahara is, in reality, fast changing. Who would have thought a century ago, about the possibilities of producing alternative energy in the desert? Certainly not the European nations who divided up Africa between themselves at the Conference of Berlin in 1886! In one of the funniest moments in the book, Gearon shares with us, a humorous exchange between the British prime minister, Lord Salisbury and the governor-general of Algeria, Jules Cambon. As France by 1890 controlled most of the Sahara, Lord Salisbury, feigning a supreme disinterest, described the land as nothing more than “light soil in which the Gallic cock can scratch”. Jules Cambon, then replied with great enthusiasm, “Very well, we will scratch in this sand. We will lay railway-lines, we will put up telegraph-poles, we will make the artesian water-tables gush to the surface, and in the oasis we will hear the Gallic cock crowing his most melodious and happiest fanfare from the rooftops of the Kasbah”.
The Sahara has inspired many poets and writers. Many incidentally, had never even traveled there, but this was not the case with Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the most famous pioneer of trans-Saharan flight also known for writing “The Little Prince”, a delightful fable for children and adults which features his crash and near-death experience in the Sahara. “The Little Prince”, translated into 180 languages, has sold more than 80 million copies worldwide; it is the best-selling French language book of all times.
But none other than Paul Bowles expresses the true feeling of the place. “For no one who has stayed in the Sahara for a while is the same as when he came in” he says, “Here, in this wholly mineral landscape lighted by stars like flares… nothing is left but your own breathing and the sound of your heart beating… no other surroundings can provide the supremely satisfying sensation of existing in the midst of something that is absolute”.
A welcome addition to the beautiful series, “Landscapes of the Imagination”, Eamon Gearon’s cultural history of the Sahara is a wonderful tribute to the largest desert on earth.
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