world's largest desert.
The Sahara (in Arabic, desert) encompasses an area of 3.32 million square miles (8.6 million sq km), stretching across eleven countries and Western Sahara, and covering nearly the entire northern region of Africa from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea hills. Parts of the Sahara reach all the way north to the Mediterranean; to the south, it extends nearly 1,500 miles (2,400 km). The two countries with the highest percentage of desert are Libya (99 percent) and Egypt (98 percent). Fifteen percent of the Sahara consists of sand "seas"; the rest is a mixture of hammada (barren rocky plateaus), coarse gravel, two mountain chains in the central regions (with the highest point being 11,204 feet [3,417 m] at the peak of Emi Koussi in Chad), low lands, depressions (the lowest point being 436 feet [133 m] below sea level at the Qattara depression in western Egypt), oases, and transition zones.
The Nile and Niger are its only two permanent rivers. Transition zones receive between 5 and 10 inches (12.7 and 25.4 cm) of rain per year; most of the rest receives fewer than 5 inches (12.7 cm). Large portions of the area receive no rainfall for years at a time. Its climate is among the most inhospitable—the highest evaporation rates, highest temperatures, and lowest humidity (a life-threatening 2.5 percent) have all been registered there. Extreme wind velocities and massive drops in nighttime temperatures, sometimes to subfreezing level, are also a regular feature of the Sahara.
Desertification has slowly encroached upon previous transition zones, such as the sahel belt of vegetation covering fossil sand dunes that separate the Sahara from Equatorial Africa; some also occurs in Arab North African countries. The reasons for the Sahara's continuing expansion range from climatic changes to some direct human influence, such as overgrazing by sheep herds and wood gathering for fuel. The most important minerals found in the Sahara include petroleum and natural gas fields, uranium, phosphates, iron ore, and a long list of other metals.
The four main ethnic groups of the Sahara are all predominantly Berber in origin: the Arabo-Berbers in the north; the Moors (Maures), a mixture of Arab, Berber, and black African groups in the southwestern regions (encompassing parts of present-day Mauritania, Mali, and Western Sahara); the distinctive Twaregs, the most numerous of the four, of the south-central area; and the Tibu of the Tibesti area of Chad, who are also of Berber and black African mixture. Apart from livestock grazing, the old traditional economy included a profitable trade in gold and slaves from West Africa, salt from the desert, and cloth and other products from the Mediterranean coast. The camel, probably introduced in the second century b.c.e., was the backbone of trans-Saharan trade.
Before the prolonged droughts of the 1970s and 1980s, best estimates of the Sahara's population were approximately 2 million persons; about two-thirds were concentrated in oases; the rest engaged in seasonal movements and some were purely nomadic. In Arab North Africa, sedentarization had become almost complete, owing to the erosion of the pastoral economic base. Both "push" and "pull" factors were at work: desertification, which reduced livestock herds; displacement stemming from anti-colonial struggles; the exploitation of oil and gas fields, which provided employment; and the extension of governmental authority, resulting in increased enclosure of land for farming, as well as expanded health and education services.
Historically, the Sahara was a large barrier to aspiring conquerors—Egyptians, Romans, Carthaginians, and Arabs. Islam spread steadily, however, in part from the activities of Muslim traders and scholars. Explorers from Britain and France began to penetrate the Sahara in the early part of the nineteenth century. French conquests began in 1830. Political boundaries in the Sahara were defined only in the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. Much was left imprecise by the French, who ruled over most of the region, resulting in a number of border disputes after decolonization, including those between Morocco and Algeria over the Tindouf area, and Libya and Chad with regard to the Aozou strip.
see also aozou strip; berber; deserts; tindouf; twareg; western sahara.
Once a lush and fertile environment sustaining a diversified human population, fauna, and flora, the Sahara experienced an irreversible process of desertification from 3000 b.c.e. onward. Since then, two events significantly marked the history of the Sahara: the introduction of camels, sometime after the second century, and the spread of Islam, starting in the eight century. The adoption of camels, the "vessels of the desert," revolutionized the nature of transportation in endurance, volume, and efficiency. Adherence to Islam, its philosophy, and code of law, favored the development of successful commercial and scholarly networks connecting Muslims across the Sahara desert and beyond. In time, the majority of Saharans would become Muslim.
Although Islam arrived at least two centuries earlier, the Almoravid movement in the eleventh century was the first organized attempt at religious reform in the Sahara. To be sure, the Almoravids were interested in controlling a share of the gold trade as much as they were motivated to spread their Muslim faith. From then onward, trans-Saharan trade flourished. In the first half of the fourteenth century, the ostentatious pilgrimage to Mecca of the emperor of Mali, Kankan Mansa Musa, alerted the Muslim world to the gold riches of Western Africa, and consequently would attract many more Muslim visitors to Saharan towns such as Timbuktu and Gao.
By the seventeenth century, Saharan towns were well-established markets and centers of Islamic learning. The reputations of notable scholars of Timbuktu, Walata, and Shingiti extended all the way to North Africa and the Middle East. Saharan scholars regularly organized caravans to perform the pilgrimage. They built mosques, developed libraries, and established schools. One cannot underestimate the significance of trans-Saharan trade and the development of scholarly networks to the spread of Islamic knowledge and Arabic literacy in the region. Caravaners relied on their literacy skills for correspondence, accounting, accountability, and for drawing contractual agreements, all in accordance with Islamic law.
It is no coincidence, therefore, that scholars often performed as traders and vice versa in Saharan commercial centers such as Shingiti, Tishit, Walata, Timbuktu, and Ghadames. To uphold the law, traders relied upon the services of scholars of Islamic law or judges. Moreover, until European colonization, Saharan towns tended to be governed by Muslim scholars who performed as regional judges ruling on all matters, civil, commercial, or political. These sedentary scholarly communities maintained alliances with nomadic groups who provided protection services to both town dwellers and trans-Saharan travelers.
The late nineteenth century saw the end of the great camel caravan. European conquest redirected trade toward new centers of control located along the Atlantic coast and in key colonial outposts in the interior. Consequently, the Sahara became a contested terrain and home to pockets of resistance to French, and later Moroccan, overrule. Not surprisingly, Saharans presented the greatest challenge to European conquest. This was due to the shrewdness of Muslim leaders as much as the ruggedness of the terrain. It was not until the 1930s that the French could claim control over the whole region, connecting Morocco and Algeria to their West African colonies. Later, when the Spanish relinquished their Western Saharan colony in 1975, both Morocco and Mauritania fought the Saharan independence movement, or Polisario, for claims over the contested region. To date, the fate of the Western Sahara has not been sealed, as a UN referendum is repeatedly postponed.
An image of Saharan desert landscape appears in the volume two color insert.
Hunwick, John. Timbuktu and the Songhay Empire. Leiden: Brill, 1999.
Levtzion, Nehemia, and Pouwels, Randall. History of Islam inAfrica. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2000.
Levtzion, Nehemia, and Spaulding, Jay. Medieval West Africa:Views From Arab Scholars and Merchants. New York: Markus Wiener, 2003.
Webb, James L. A. Desert Frontier: Ecological and EconomicChange along the Western Sahel, 1600–1850. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995.
F. Ghislaine Lydon