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SAHARA by Marq de Villiers


A Natural History

by Marq de Villiers & Sheila Hirtle

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2002
ISBN: 0-8027-1372-6
Publisher: Walker

A fully versed and admiring portrait of the Sahara, by travel-writer de Villiers (Water, 2000, etc.) and Hirtle (with de Villiers, Into Africa, not reviewed).

The authors explain that the Great Emptiness really isn’t empty: not only is it full of sand and wind and stone, but it’s also “full of creatures frequently deadly, full of refugees in secretive mountain fastnesses, full of traders and traffickers and travelers and trickery.” The writers break down their exploration of the region in two: place and people. As a place, they write in an evocative geography, the Sahara is three million square miles of ergs, regs, and inselbergs; of dunes that hop, that are blood red, that can run for 40 miles and climb 1,000 feet; is home to blind fish and crocodiles, vipers, kraits, and adders, lizards and gazelles, and maybe djinns; boasts mountains that are both sanctuaries and weather-makers; and has water, lots of ancient water buried deep. There’s also a fair share of humans and their histories, from Neolithic rock painters through the Garamanites, Berbers and Beni Hilal, the Fulani theocracies, Moor, Chaamba, Tuareg, and Tubu. And there are their towns, cities, and empires—Agadez, Timbuktu, Kano, the kingdoms of Old Ghana, Mali, Kanem-Bornu—and the caravan routes that linked them all to the interior, where salt, gold, and slaves were plucked and transported. De Villiers and Hirtle are careful to preserve the poetry of the desert—both the indigenous representations and the narratives provided by early Arab and European travelers—while at the same time making the place real for those to whom it is mostly a land of pure image: a sandy waste, a barren waterless sea.

A thoughtful history of, and popular guide to, the great African desert. (Maps, photos throughout)