The Sahara, a cultural history
Reviewed by Anthony Sattin

The Sahara, a cultural history, Eamonn Gearon (Signal, 264pp, £12)

The Sahara is the largest and most important desert on our planet, with a greater surface area than the United States and a population hardly bigger than Brooklyn. It is also the most important desert for ASTENE members for no other wilderness has attracted so many extraordinary travellers.

The name is Arabic. Sahra is the generic word for all deserts. But this one, being the largest and most magnificent, is simply, diva-like, The Desert. It stretches, at its most generous description, from the banks of the Nile to the shores of the Atlantic, from the Mediterranean to the Niger River and the walls of the much looked-for Timbuktu. As with the continent in which it lies, the name does not serve well as a catch-all. The various people who live in and on the fringes of the Sahara do not recognize much common history or cause. As Gearon shows so eloquently, this has not stopped outsiders from grouping them together.

The pre-history of the desert serves as a model for the loss of Eden, lost not because of an apple but because of an ancient global warming. Once the bed of the great primordial ocean of Thetys, the receding waters left a rich, animal-packed savannah that, for a long time, was a happy hunting ground for homo sapiens. When rain became ever more scarce and the savannah dried up, it was the annual miracle of the Nile and Niger rivers, strips of water cutting through the rainless sands, that provided humans with a means of survival. In the north-west corner, in what is now Egypt, they took what the Greek historian Herodotus called ‘the gift of the Nile’ and learned to make the most of it, organizing themselves along the length of the lower river, dividing the land among themselves, ready for sowing and harvest. In the process, they advanced – and perhaps even created – civilization as we know it.

Gearon has an eye for the more colourful aspects of the early Sahara. He tracks the ‘whale fossils’ of Wadi al-Hitan in Egypt’s Western Desert, one of the stranger stories of the ancient ocean, a creature that came out of the waters, learned to walk on land and then decided to head back to the deep, their fossilized skeletons testimony to the fact that this was a terminal mistake in a warming world. He also charts the development and spread of extraordinary rock art across North Africa, recording a time when the desert was grazing land for elephants, giraffes and others animals.

The book is planned to follow a chronology, pre-history to ancient Egypt to the advent of Christianity, the coming of the Arabs and the spread of Islam, and then onto the riches of the medieval Sahara, the time of writers such as Ibn Khaldun and the Tangerine Ibn Battuta. This is one of the desert’s most interesting periods, when Timbuktu became a centre of learning, when the great Hajj caravans crossed the desert each year bringing treasures such as ivory and spices, and gold to the markets of Cairo. Most famous of these was the caravan of 1324 when the Malian King Musa I was among the faithful and brought so much gold to Cairo that the price was depressed for up to a generation. And then come the European travellers.

Gearon’s style is anecdotal. His stories follow one another at times without apparent thread, making some chapters more sourcebook than narrative – a valuable sourcebook, given the extent of Gearon’s knowledge. The stories of the early European desert travellers, the likes of Frederick Hornemann and Heinrich Bath, flow more freely. But this reader found them overly condensed and, as with some of the chapters on European writers and artists, was left longing for more analysis of why they were there and what the desert inspired in them. Another book perhaps. For now we have this one, a useful overview of the history of a wilderness.

Anthony Sattin