John Tyman's
Cultures in Context Series


 1.1  Landforms : 001- 020
 1.2  Climate : 021- 048
 1.3  Plant and Animal Life : 049-063

 2.1  The Prehistoric Era : 064-069
 2.2  Indigenous Peoples : 070-082
 2.3  Egypt in the Time of  the Pharaohs : 083-096
 2.4  Greek and Roman Settlements :  097-113
 2.5  The Arab Empire : 114-117
 2.6  The Colonial Era and Beyond : 118-126

 3.1  The Religion of the Pharaohs  : 127-164
 3.2  Judaism and Christianity : 165-195 
 3.3  Islam : 196-230

 4.1  Introduction and Overview : 231-238
 4.2  Nomadism : 239-247
 4.3  Camels : 248-262
 4.4  Foodstuffs and Diets : 263-270
 4.5  Shelter and Hospitality : 271-282
 4.6  Clothing : 283-298
 4.7  Crop Farming : 299-302
 4.8  Case Study : The Tuareg : 303-348

 5.1  Housing : 349-368
 5.2  Irrigation : 369-377
 5.3  Cropping : 378-395
 5.4  Related Issues : 396-401
 5.5  Case Study : Siwa : 402-441

 6.1  Homes and Streets : 442-456
 6.2  Markets and Marketing : 457-484
 6.3  Land Transport and Changing Urban Functions : 485-508

 7.1  Ain Khudra and Tourism : 509-548
 7.2  The Banks of the Nile : 549-603
  7.3  Future Challenges : Rural and Urban : 604-635



1.1 Landforms

001. The Sahara is the world's largest desert, extending 4,000 kms from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea, and from the Mediterranean Sea southwards to merge with the tropical savannas of West Africa. With an area of almost 10 million square kilometres it covers almost a third of the African continent!

002. This region has not always been arid. In places the surface of today’s desert is littered with fossils, which demonstrate that at different stages in geological time the area was covered by sea. (Fossil bed near Bir Wahed in the Libyan Sand Sea)

003. Its initial desiccation was caused by changes in atmospheric circulation in late Cainozoic time (roughly 3 million years ago), and by plate tectonics -- notably the movement of the northern portion of the African plate from wet equatorial latitudes into the dry tropics. (Part of the Erg d’Admer near Djanet)

004. Its progressive desiccation thereafter was caused in part by prehistoric peoples who contributed to the destruction of the local plant cover. It is a process that continues to this day because of overgrazing and the ploughing of lands ill-suited to cultivation. So the desert continues to grow in size. (Cave painting of prehistoric herding in the Tassili-n-Ajjer)

005. The word "Sahara" is derived from the Arabic word sahra, which indicates an "empty area" or "wilderness". It is one of the most hostile environments on earth, where all life -- plant, animal and human -- must adapt if it is to survive. (The Erg d’Admer near Djanet)

006. There are deserts in Australia, too, but nowhere where you could you climb on to the roof of a 4WD, look around you and see no vegetation at all. In the Sahara, though, you can drive for days and not see a single plant! (South of In Amenas)

007. When they think of the Sahara most people imagine an ocean of large sand dunes. However, sand seas (or ergs) cover only a sixth of its area. The sand itself is driven by the wind and can assume several different forms. (Grand Erg Occidental near El Golea)

008. Barchans like this form where there is plenty of sand and winds that blow consistently from one direction. In plan they are crescent shaped, with arms pointing downwind in the direction of their advance. (Libyan Sand Sea near Bir Wahed)

009. They have a steep leeward slip face and a gentler windward slope. Some appear to be stationary but others are definitely moving. At In Salah they are advancing by almost half a metre annually. (Libyan Sand Sea near Bir Wahed)

010. Where there is less sand it may be scraped into long narrow dune ridges parallel to the direction of the prevailing wind. They are known as “seif” dunes, after the Arabic word for a “sword”. (Grand Erg Occidental near El Golea)

011. Pyramid or star-shaped dunes are characteristic of areas where winds change direction with the season; and they can be hundreds of metres in height. (South of In Amenas)

012. Invasion by moving dunes threatens many agricultural areas. The commonest technique used to stem their advance is to build fences from the branches of date palms pushed into the ground. It works for a while, but they will be over-run eventually and a new battle line will be drawn closer to the settlement. (Oasis in Grand Erg Oriental near El Oued ringed by fences)

013. However, the greater bulk of the Sahara is occupied not by sand dunes but by featureless plains covered in small stones, from which the sand has been blown away. Surfaces like these are termed reg in the Western Sahara and serir in the east. (North of In Amenas)

014. Since none of the intermittent streams that flow here after rain actually leave the region, the Sahara is covered by the waste products of weathering and erosion. Across flat areas the wind develops its full force, and moves pebbles as well as sand, sorting them according to size. (Edge of Hoggar massif near Ideles)

015. The plateau north of In Salah is named appropriately, in the language of the local Tuareg, “Tademait,” meaning “naked as the palm of a hand” -- for you won’t see a blade of grass here for hundreds of kilometres. (Plateau du Tademait)

016. In places, too, the surface of the reg may be covered by a desert varnish of iron and manganese oxides, brought to the surface by capillary action and deposited following the evaporation of soil moisture. (Tassili-n-Ajjer)

017. Elsewhere you will find wind-scoured rocky plateaux -- hammada -- flattened by the work of water in times past, and polished later by wind abrasion.  (Near Arak; between In Salah and Tamanrasset)

018. And the centre of the desert is actually mountainous. In southern Algeria the Ahaggar Mountains, also known as the Hoggar, rise to heights in excess of 3,000 metres. (The Assekrem highlands of the Hoggar)

019. The surface of the mountainous heart of the Sahara is dissected by dry river channels (wadis), for the streams which drain these slopes flow only intermittently, after rain. (Tassili-n-Ajjer between Illizi and Serouenout)

020. You sometimes find pools of water even in the Sahara, but they do not last long. There are no perennial streams here, for obvious reasons. The Nile only flows year-round because it is nourished by well-watered lands to the south, far beyond the boundaries of the desert. (Hoggar Massif south of Ideles)

1.2 Climate 

021. The Sahara is actually the western end of a zone of extreme aridity which extends from the Atlantic to beyond the Red Sea to include the deserts of Arabia, the coastal deserts of Iran and Pakistan, and the Sind Desert in India.

022. It is a zone characterized year-round by high pressures and descending air masses -- which are warmed adiabatically by the compression caused by the increase in pressure as air descends. Their relative humidity is reduced in the process, so hot dry “tropical continental” air masses are dominant here for most of the year.

023. The bareness of the land is, of course, a reflection of its climate -- which is characterized by extreme aridity, high temperatures and violent winds. The average annual rainfall will almost everywhere total less than one hundred millimeters, and many places average only 3 or 4 days with rain annually.  In some areas it has not rained for years! (Erg Occidental near El Golea)

024. The strong winds of the Sahara raise both dust and sand grains and drastically reduce visibility. Particles of dust can be carried to great heights and produce brilliant sunsets: but sand grains remain within a metre or two of the surface, forming a moving carpet that is a health hazard. (Sunset at Assekrem)

025. The number of days with sandstorms varies from year to year and from place to place. In Salah averages 55 days with sandstorms per year, but some places get a lot more. (Start of sandstorm at In Salah)

026. Dust and sand particles driven by strong winds will penetrate your clothing, your luggage and your tent; but they can also have direct and harmful impacts of your skin, eyes, and respiratory system -- which explains (in part) the facial coverings worn by those who travel here. (In the market at Tozeur)

027. Sandstorms almost always occur during the day, because there is little wind during the night. The still air then, and the low humidity, is reflected in clear skies and spectacular moonrises. (Moonrise near In Salah)

028. And because the atmosphere high above deserts is usually free of cloud, it does not filter out damaging ultraviolet rays to the same degree as in a humid environment. With little or no cloud year-round, solar radiation is both prolonged and intense. (Midday radiation near Ain Khudra in the Sinai)

029. Many places register more than 10 hours of sunshine per day. Tamanrasset averages 3686 hours per year. In addition bare land surfaces in deserts reflect more of the sun’s rays, so that protection from solar radiation is essential. (My guide near Ain Khudra in the Sinai))

030. The fine, hot and dry weather of the central Sahara is broken from time to time by atmospheric disturbances from either the north or the south. The southern fringe gets most of its rain in summer (between July and September), when more is lost by evaporation. (Remains of roadside pool south of Illizi)

031. The Sahara’s northern fringe displays a Mediterranean rhythm, with rain in winter (between October and February). This is welcomed by nomads as well as cultivators, but it can disrupt transportation. After a storm the wet heavy sand sticks to the tyres of motor vehicles. (Flooded road north of Tozeur in southern Tunisia)

032. The rainfall is unreliable as well as low. It comes in sudden storms at irregular intervals. One year no rain at all may fall: then, without warning, there will be a violent downpour which will destroy the camps of those foolish enough to camp in dry river beds and also cut roads ... which justifies expensive causeways across normally dry channels. (Dry riverbed at Biskra)

033. Over-grazing reduces the beneficial effects of rain, because, instead of percolating downwards, most of the water runs off the bare surface of the ground ... reducing the agricultural value of the moisture and increasing its destructive power. (Herding near El Oued)

034. The building materials used in the construction of houses in the Sahara are also susceptible to storm damage. In light of the prevailing aridity, most are built of clay and will be damaged by heavy rain. At Siwa, on the eastern edge of the Libyan Desert, houses which had stood for 600 years were destroyed when it rained for 3 days in 1926! (The Shali section of Siwa)

035. Tamanrasset received 160mm of rain one year but only 6mm a year or two later. In many places significant showers may well occur only once every 10 years. And the variability of the rainfall is paralleled by a limited number of rainy days. In Salah averages 17mm a year, with only 5 days receiving a measurable amount of precipitation. Cairo (shown here) averages 29mm annually, with 7 rainy days. (The al-Urman gardens in Cairo in winter ... its wet season)

036. The climatic consideration of greatest biological and cultural significance, therefore, is not the annual total rainfall but the average length of the period between storms of sufficient magnitude for some of the water to remain long enough in favoured localities for seeds to germinate, grow into mature plants, and re-seed themselves. On such plants nomadic animals, and indirectly their owners, depend for food. (Pool of rainwater dammed by road in the Tassili-n-Ajjer)

037. Low lying areas of fine-textured and impermeable soils may fill with water following rain, but such lakes are typically less than a meter in depth and soon evaporate, to produce glistening salt lakes or playas. (Near Touggourt)

038. In places, oases lying below sea level (the result in part of eolian defoliation) are fed by relatively fresh groundwater, which supports areas of cultivation. But they are saline around their margins, where water flow is insufficient to maintain an adequate movement of water downwards through the soil. (On the outskirts of Siwa)

039. In addition to being one of the driest places on earth, the Sahara is also one of the hottest, with average annual mean temperatures exceeding 30 degrees Celsius. Clothing is loose to allow air to circulate and evaporate perspiration. (Women in El Oued)

040. The hottest months in central and northern areas are June, July and August. Relative humidities below 20% are normal then and sometimes drop to 5%. To be free of dehydration under these conditions a person needs between 8 and 15 litres of water each day. (Cafe in Tozeur)

041. But the Sahara is also notorious for wide annual ranges in temperature. Shade temperatures in the 50s are common in summer but at the very same place it may freeze in winter. (Winter clothing at Kairouan in December)

042. Also, throughout the year, with clear skies, temperatures drop off rapidly after sunset and the nights are cool; so tourists warm themselves around campfires in winter. Most places in the Sahara will experience temperatures below zero at least once a year, and daily ranges in excess of 35 degrees are common. (Below zero temperatures at Fort Serouenout on Christmas Day)

043. Because of such wide ranges in temperature between summer and winter and between day and night, what matters most to plants regarding temperature is not the mean but the incidence of high temperatures likely to cause heat damage and low temperatures which may also impact on plant growth. (Sun-scorched plant near Tozeur)

044. Since there is little if any shade, official temperature readings taken in shaded instrument enclosures are less representative of the actual conditions experienced during the heat of the day than they might be elsewhere. Similarly, due to the paucity of both vegetation and soil moisture, soil temperatures will be higher also. In summer the temperature of the sand may reach 70 degrees Celsius -- so it is best not to go barefoot then!  (At Ain Khudra in winter))

045. The walls of houses can be just as hot, and temperatures inside may exceed 40 degrees. So walls are usually thick, with few windows, and many people spend the night in the open on their rooftops. [See frames 350-354] The white and pink walls of houses in Ghardaia are made of sand, clay and gypsum to reflect at least some of the sun’s heat rays. (Ghardaia)

046. Temperatures are moderated slightly by altitude ... especially daily maxima, both mean and extreme. The annual precipitation is also likely to be higher in mountain areas. North of the Sahara the Atlas Mountains are covered by snow in winter but all the streams that flow south from there are intermittent. (Atlas Mountains north of Biskra)

047. Assekrem in the central Sahara averages164 mm of precipitation per year. Snow may fall here in winter, and waterholes freeze over. The vegetation of damper sections is different here also, and includes Mediterranean species like the olive and the fig, together with stunted cypresses and myrtles. Assekrem was for 11 years the home of the famous French writer and hermit Father Charles de Foucauld, murdered nearby at Tamanrasset in 1916. (Assekrem Mountains of the Hoggar)

048. The climatic implication of which tourists are reminded most forcefully, though, is that with so little rain and such dry air, nothing decays here and the use of toilet paper is actively discouraged ... since it can blow around for decades. (Garbage outside Illizi)

1.3 Plant and Animal Life

049. With high temperatures and strong winds, cloudless skies and low humidities, the little rain that does fall is quickly evaporated. Everything and everyone is threatened by dehydration. So the key to survival here -- the survival of plants, animals and human beings -- is the ability to obtain enough water, and to avoid losing it. The diversity of plant and animal species is inevitably limited, but they display a wide range of strategies for survival. (Wild melons on the Hoggar Massif)

050. Much of the central Sahara averages less than 20 mm annually. Most perennial plants simply cannot survive under these conditions. Such areas can only support annuals. These spring up after heavy rain, when the desert will briefly be green: but they will flower and seed quickly, wilt and die -- living on as seed lying dormant in the soil. (Plant in seed in the Tassili-n-Ajjer)

051. Some plants have thorns instead of leaves, offering a smaller surface area from which water can be evaporated. Others store the water that falls in the occasional thunderstorm. The Sahara lacks the cacti of American deserts, but it has comparable succulent species. And plants in shaded locations can survive on less moisture. (Flowering plant at foot of narrow steep-sided wadi in the Sinai)

052. Many annuals are able to adjust their size to reflect the amount of water available. When there is ample rainfall they flourish, but when the rains during which they germinated are followed by a long period without rain such plants adopt a dwarf form with fewer and smaller leaves, and produce fewer flowers and fruits. They also produce these in a shorter period of time than comparable species growing under wetter conditions. (After rain in the Tassili-n-Ajjer)

053. Though the surfaces of most desert soils are dry year-round (save for days following the occasional rains) there is often a damp layer within the soil profile and also water in the crevices of underlying rocks. Together they are capable of supporting a few perennials, though these may need to adapt to a high salt content. In the heat of the day, though, many plants will wilt, so that the surfaces of their leaves are no longer at right angles to the sun. (Stressed perennial near Ain Khudra in the Sinai)

054. Trees and shrubs are rare, found only where their roots can reach ground water, as in wadis occupied briefly by intermittent streams following rain. (Floor of wadi in the Hoggar after rain)

055. The tamarisk, or “salt cedar”, is the commonest species of tree found in the Sahara. It is evergreen and typically between 5 and 15 metres in height. Its presence is an indication that there is ground water to be found here at a depth of between 5 and 15 metres. (Tamarisk bluff near Ideles)

056. Falling water-tables threaten the survival of localized tree-covered bluffs like this, however, as do travelers hacking off branches, it being one of the few sources of firewood in the desert. (Near Ideles)

057. Acacias, too, are deeply rooted. In contrast the roots of succulents typically extend for only 3-4 cm beneath the surface so they can make the most of every shower even when the rain does not sink very far into the ground. (South of Illizi)

058. Most plants also collect water from a wide area and so are spaced far apart. Only in an oasis will you find areas of continuous plant cover: everywhere else plants are widely scattered. (North of In Amenas)

059. Animals display a similar range of adjustments -- to regulate their body temperature and/or conserve moisture. Some sleep underground throughout the hot summer (much as some species hibernate in cold climates). Others only come out at night, so that by day the only signs of their presence are the tracks they leave in the sand. (North of El Oued)

060. The existence of animals is also revealed by their dung ... which is drier (and their urine more concentrated) than it would be in a humid environment ... and by their remains when they die. (Horn of gazelle north of Ghardaia)

061. Most desert mammals are light in colour: this means not only that their skin absorbs less heat, but also that they are less obvious to predators -- in an environment where there is little protective cover. Those that do move around during the day -- gazelles, camels, donkeys etc. -- usually move to shady spots in mid-morning and rest there till late in the afternoon. (Riding camels at Ain Khudra in the Sinai)

062. The reproduction of animal species is also influenced by the climate. Most gazelles here calve about a month after the onset of the rains, when plenty of grazing is available. Camels have a pronounced rutting season at the time of the rains and a pregnancy lasting twelve months. (Young camel courtesy

063. The fertility of jerboas and voles declines during dry weather and their population levels drop off accordingly: also no rodents here sweat. And lizards run between patches of shade with their body held high to reduce the rate at which heat is absorbed from the surface: and when they reach the shade they flop down to allow their body to lose heat by contact with the cooler ground. (Long-eared jerboa courtesy


2.1 The Prehistoric Era

064. Beds of shells bear witness to the fact that at various times in the past large parts of the Sahara were under water. In recent geological time the Sahara has in fact experienced a succession of climate cycles each lasting about 100,000 years. The first 90,000 years of each cycle was marked by increasing aridity, cold and wind ... followed by a rapid but short lived return to milder and wetter conditions. (Shell-rich strata near Bir Wahed in Libyan Sand Sea)

065. The last such dry cycle ended 12,000 years ago, and for the next 6,000 years the Sahara was a land of lakes and flowing rivers (as it had been previously following the droughts). The rock paintings of the people who lived then around the Tassili massif show how their way of life changed in response to these changes in climatic conditions. (Site of the “Tassili Frescoes”)

066. “Tassili n’Ajjer” in the language of the Tuareg means “Plateau of the Rivers” and 8,000 years ago the Neolithic people who lived there hunted giraffes and antelopes and other animals characteristic of the tropical savanna that covered the land then. (Hunters equipped with bows and arrows)

067. Some 2000 years later they switched from hunting to pastoralism and, practicing transhumance, grazed immense herds of cattle -- which were clearly not zebu, as they had no humps. The colours used in these paintings were produced using earth ochres containing oxides of iron; also goat’s milk, and the rubbery sap of certain acacias. (Herding cattle)

068. The most recent pictures are between 2000 and 3000 years old and show camels, but after that the people here disappeared in the face of increasing aridity and military conquest. (Camel)

069. And elephants, lions, ostriches and crocodiles disappeared in the years that followed -- due at least in part to the expansion of the desert as a result of overgrazing by domestic animals, the felling of trees for fuel, and small-scale but poor agricultural practices that ruined the soil. (Elephant)

2.2 Indigenous Peoples

070. During recorded history, which has been a time of diminishing rainfall, the greater bulk of the Sahara has been occupied by pastoral nomads. Originally most of these were Berbers, who ranged over vast areas in search of fodder for their camels, sheep and goats; and traded their milk, meat and hides for the crops of the oases that existed then (notably for fruit and cereals). Some of them also owned cropland, which was worked for them by slaves. (Berber herders inspecting stock in the market at Kairouan)

071. In the 7th and 11th centuries, however, when the Arabs swept across North Africa, the Berbers lost their best croplands and pastures and were either banished to the mountain ranges of the north or pushed further south into the desert. (Berber farmstead north of Biskra; in winter)

072. Those Berbers who live in the mountains today graze livestock ... practicing transhumance (or vertical nomadism) moving up and down slopes according to the season. (Berber farmstead and pastures near Constantine)

073. They usually combine herding with cultivation ... on terraced hillsides where water is available for irrigation, and/or taking advantage as here of winter rain. (Field near Constantine)

074. Those living further south, with less rain, water their gardens by hand, and graze livestock in semi-desert conditions. (South of Kairouan)

075. Cropping here is confined to winter, which is the rainy season in Mediterranean regions. The fields are bigger today but the techniques used have changed very little. (South of Kairouan)

076. Because of intermarriage it is no longer possible to distinguish between Arabs and Berbers on the basis of physical characteristics: instead it is the Berber language (spoken by some but by no means all) that separates the two; and sometimes their clothing. (At the market in Kairouan)

077. The Tuareg are a sub-set of the Berbers and now occupy much of the central Sahara and the Sahel to the south. Before the arrival of the Europeans most Tuareg were nomadic herders ... of camels, sheep and goats ... trading animal products for dates and millet. (Tuareg herders near Tamanrasset)

078.They were raiders and traders also, and also crisscrossed the Sahara bringing gold, ivory and slaves from West Africa; and carrying salt and Arab and European trade goods in the opposite direction. Many of the traders married slaves. (Tuareg children of West African ancestry)

079. Persons of Arab origin now occupy the greater bulk of the Sahara. The first wave of Arab invaders to spread their religion and language across the region arrived in the 7th century, but they were followed by further all-conquering waves of migrants. (Arab family in Sinai)

080. Today Arabs can be found in small and large communities throughout the length and breadth of the Sahara. Many intermarried with Berber tribes: and their descendants became the ethnic cement which bound Saharan people together, in town and country, across nomadic pasture lands and in intensively farmed oases. (Bedouin children at Ain Khudra)

081. The homogenization of Egypt’s cultural mosaic was furthered in recent times following the constriction of the Aswan High Dam and the creation of Lake Nasser. This flooded the homes and farms of thousands of Nubians who had previously lived alongside the river south of Aswan ... in the Sudan as well as Egypt. Many of these were re-settled in the 1960s in villages adjacent to Aswan -- which had long been Egypt’s gateway to Nubia. (Nubian village near Aswan)

082. Many others were settled on new agricultural lands close to Kom Ombo in an area referred to these days as “New Nubia”... which could now be irrigated. Nubia (or “Kush”) was a Christian kingdom for a thousand years but the last such kingdom collapsed in 1504, and with the influx of Arabs from the north most Nubians converted to Islam. They retain some elements of their culture ... architectural styles, music, and language (in part) ... and are darker skinned than most of their Arab neighbours. (Irrigated farmland at Kom Ombo)

2.3 Egypt in the Time of the Pharaohs

083. Egypt was settled in early Neolithic times (the “New Stone Age”), some 10,000 years ago, by groups that were descendants of nomadic tribes, who withdrew to the Nile valley as their savanna lands grew progressively drier. Egypt was, and is, the gift of the Nile, though it’s entire valley represents only 4% of the country’s total area. (Nile with traditional feluccas below Kom Ombo)

084. Rising in humid equatorial regions south of the desert, the Nile carried nutrient-rich silt as well as water, and it built a great delta into the dry gulf created by the shrinking of the Mediterranean Sea (which at one time extended inland of the present site of Cairo). (Fine-textured silts above Kom Ombo)

085. At the time of its original settlement the valley of the Nile was subject seasonally to uncontrolled and destructive flooding. It was bordered by marshlands of reeds and papyrus: and the need to drain and clear these marshy thickets and control flooding, forced the former nomads to adopt a more settled way of life. (Marshlands alongside Nile below Kom Ombo)

086. Land was leveled where necessary to prepare it for cultivation, drainage and irrigation channels were excavated (and realigned later as required), and the area was divided into irrigation basins surrounded by dykes. When the flood came, gaps were cut in the dykes to admit water and closed later, when the entire basin had been watered sufficiently. Twenty days or so later the water would have subsided, the soil could be worked and seed sown. (Irrigation basins today near Kom Ombo)

087. The yearly round of activity was in theory divided into three seasons of equal length -- Ahket, the flood season, from June 15th to October 15th; Peret, the growing season, from October 15th to February 15th; and Shemu, the season of harvest and drought, from February 15th to June 15th. (Riverbank worked today using traditional hoe on island near Edfu)

088. During the flood season little could be done. Villages on levees stood out as islands above the drowned countryside. They could only communicate with one another by boat, and spent much their time fishing or making handicrafts. (Fishing in wetlands below Kom Ombo)

089. People then lived at the mercy of the river. If there was insufficient water they were threatened by famine: if there was too much water both fields and levees could be destroyed. (Flooded area below Edfu)

090. To ensure the people’s survival and the kingdom’s prosperity, the pharaohs entrusted the management of food production to viziers. They were “to keep a watch over all that must be done”.... to direct the flow and use of water, to maintain registers of landholdings and taxes paid, to supervise the harvest and fill the granaries. Even today, though the river has been dammed, fluctuations in the flow of the river are obvious from the rocks. (Elephantine Island at Aswan)

091. Nilometers were marked out along the banks as means of determining the likelihood of a good harvest. They indicated the river’s height and were significant for both farm output and taxation. If the river level was high it meant that there would be enough flooding to ensure a good harvest. And a good harvest meant that both farmers and merchants could afford to pay higher taxes!  (Flight of steps defining water level in nilometer in the temple at Edfu)

092. In the nilometer near Aswan a series of steps and an accompanying scale of heights rise from the water’s edge to a temple honouring the god of inundation. It was established here first more than 3000 years ago, during the “New Kingdom”, but it was rebuilt by the Romans. The river’s height here was measured in cubits. A cubit was the length of a man’s forearm from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger: 18 cubits or less warned of famine, 24 cubits promised abundance, and more than 27 cubits threatened disaster. (Nilometer on Elephantine Island opposite Aswan)

093. With the water’s retreat, the soft black silts that remained were worked with wooden ploughs drawn by long-horned cattle (according to tomb paintings), and seed was broadcast from baskets. (Painting in temple at Deir el-Medina, near Luxor) courtesy

094. The grain was reaped using saw-toothed sickles, threshed in the farmyard under the feet of oxen, and winnowed to separate the grain from the chaff. In addition to wheat they grew grapes for wine, and harvested wild barley and millet. (Painting at Deir el-Medina of husband reaping and wife gleaning)

095. They also gathered papyrus from the banks of the river, and used it in making not only paper and brushes for writing, but also ropes, sandals and boats. To make paper they split the inner pith of the plant into thin strips, arranged these at right angles to the previous layer, hammered them together to form a single sheet, and dried this under pressure. (Papyrus on riverbank at Edfu)

096. The productiveness of Egyptian farming then is obvious from Jewish scriptures. Abraham took his family there to escape drought in his own land, and his grandson’s family did the same thing later, when Joseph was given charge of grain production. And farmlands of the Nile valley were irrigated in this way for 5000 years at least ... under a succession of Egyptian pharaohs; Persian, Greek, Roman and Arab conquerors, and British administrators. (Between Kom Ombo and Edfu)

2.4 Greek and Roman Settlements

097. For two hundred years from 524 BCE onwards Egypt formed part of the Persian Empire, and when the Greeks replaced the Persians in 332 BCE, Alexander the Great was considered a liberator. During his conquest of Egypt he managed somehow to cross the desert west of the delta to reach the oracle of the god Ammon at Siwa -- supposedly led there by two ravens after he was lost in a sandstorm and had run out of water. (View from ruins of city of Aghurmi, home of the oracle, near Siwa)

098. Here he was proclaimed divine, the son of Amon, the true pharaoh, and “master of the universe”. In 331 BCE he founded the city of Alexandria, which remained Egypt’s capital for almost a thousand years, till the Muslim conquest in 641 CE. (Restored section of building that housed the oracle of Ammon)

099. After Alexander’s death in 332 BCE Greek control over Egypt was maintained by Ptolemy 1st who declared himself pharaoh of Egypt in 305 BCE, with his capital in Alexandria. Pharaohs prior to Alexander and Ptolemy had ruled from Memphis. (“Ptolemy’s Column” at Alexandria)
100. Considering themselves to be rightful successors to the Pharaohs, Ptolemy’s descendants followed their example in marrying siblings, and they participated in Egyptian religious life, building great temples like that at Edfu to win support. Their kingdom ended with the death of Cleopatra VI and the Roman conquest in 30 BC. (In courtyard of the temple of Horus at Edfu)
101. Unlike the Greeks, the Romans did not settle in Egypt in large numbers, and though they introduced their emperor cult, they maintained Egypt’s religion and customs. They suppressed both Christians and Jews -- at least until Christianity was adopted as the official religion of their empire. Their main concern in North Africa was to ensure the safe delivery of grain to Rome. (Roman sarcophagus at the museum in Alexandria)
102. Though few Romans settled in Egypt, they did occupy a large area further west, along the Mediterranean coast, following their defeat of the Phoenicians at Carthage in 146 BCE. Their colonization was limited to the northern margins of the present desert, though they did actually cross the Sahara (the first Europeans to do so), reaching the banks of the Niger in the first century CE. (Tabarka, west of Tunis: one of the Phoenician ports captured by the Romans)
103. In Tunisia, and on the coast of modern-day Libya, the Romans built towns and cities and distributed farmlands among would-be settlers from Italy, including many soldiers opting for early retirement. (Remains of Roman settlement at Timgad, south of Constantine)

104. North Africa became the granary of the Empire, producing vast quantities of cereals for export to Rome, together with beans, figs, dates, olive oil and wine grapes: and great aqueducts were built to carry water to their fields. (Roman aqueduct north of Kairouan)

105. The area which was cultivated then it what is now Tunisia was almost twice what it is today, much arable land having been lost through the expansion of the Sahara due to desertification ... due not only to increasing aridity but also poor land use practices; including the cultivation of marginal lands and the exhaustion of existing fields, as well as overgrazing. (Farmland near Timgad today)

106. Rome’s African provinces were among the wealthiest in their empire, and the prosperity of agriculture then is obvious from their buildings. The amphitheatre at Djem (in the east of Tunisia, near Sousse) rivals the Coliseum in Rome and could seat 35,000 spectators. The amphitheatre at Timgad was very much smaller, and seated only 3,500. (Timgad)

107. Timgad is an example of a Roman military colony created ex nihilo by the Emperor Trajan in the year100. The streets were paved with large rectangular limestone slabs ... though even these were worn in time by the wheels of Roman chariots. (Timgad)

108. The productivity of agriculture then, and the wealth it generated, is obvious today from structures that remain. There are houses decorated with sumptuous mosaics and beautiful statuary. (Timgad)

109. And the scale of public buildings in Timgad is also impressive. There were 14 baths and a host of public conveniences ... of a standard that would not be matched for hundreds of years thereafter! (Timgad)

110. Buildings, constructed entirely of stone, were also restored regularly during the course of the Empire -- the Trajan Arch in the middle of the 2nd century, the Eastern gate in 146, and the Western gate under Marcus-Aurelius. (Timgad)

111. Carved headstones over Roman graves also offer clues to their wealth.
This family’s prosperity seems to have derived from wool as well as wheat. (Timgad)

112. And the quality of the food they ate is revealed in the bases of their headstones like this one -- suggesting a varied diet that included fish as well as breads, fruit, and olives; plus, of course, plenty of wine. (Timgad)

113. The area was overrun by Germanic Vandals from Europe in the 5th century CE. It was recovered in the 6th century, but lost again in 698 when Muslim armies ended Roman (and Christian) rule in North Africa. Timgad was abandoned and soon buried under sand, to be discovered and excavated in 1881. (Timgad: seating in the amphitheatre today)

2.5 The Arab Empire

114. From the seventh century onwards the Sahara was progressively brought under Arab influence, as the armies of Islam pushed westwards. Their invasion culminated in the 11th century in the occupation of large areas by Arab Bedouin who, in Libya especially, put an end to most arable and orchard farming and replaced it with the nomadic pastoralism with which they were familiar. (Bedouin at Ain Khudra in the Sinai)

115. Thereafter for a thousand years North Africa was administered from a succession of distant political centres -- Medina, Damascus, Bagdad or Istanbul. Egypt then was simply a province of the Arab empire; and its wealth was plundered by the Sultan’s representatives. Its irrigation system was neglected and agriculture ruined in places. (Narrow strip of irrigable land below Aswan)

116. At the beginning of the 19th century, Egypt experienced a revival under Mehemet Ali, a Turkish officer who was proclaimed Pasha of Egypt after he’d forced the withdrawal of the British forces that had just defeated the French sent there by Napoleon to cut Britain’s lines of communication with India. He built dams and irrigation canals, reorganized land holdings, and exported food to Europe. He built a powerful army, occupied both Mecca and Medina, annexed Syria and the Sudan, attacked Istanbul and almost destroyed the Ottoman Empire. (Portrait of Mehemet Ali in 1840 courtesy

117. His successor Ismail inaugurated the Suez Canal in 1869, and a host of expensive public works thereafter. On the verge of bankruptcy he was forced to sell his shares to Britain (at a very low price!): and from 1876 onwards his finances were audited by Britain and France. When officers in the army of his successor revolted, chanting “Egypt for the Egyptians”, they were quickly defeated by the British, who built new dams and canals to extend the area of arable land and turn Egypt into vast cotton field for the mills of Manchester. (Opening of Suez Canal by Empress Eugenie in 1869 courtesy

2.6 The Colonial Era and Beyond

118. In common with the rest of Africa, the countries into which the Sahara is now divided were colonies of European Imperial powers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Tunisia, which was made a French protectorate in 1881, did not gain its independence till 1956. Libya, like Tunisia, had originally been part of the Turkish Empire but was ceded to Italy in 1912. Like Tunisia also, it was fought over during the Second World War. It was under British military occupation till1951. (Fortress at former Turkish port of Tabarka in Tunisia)

119. Egypt ‘s position was similar in part, in that it too owed allegiance to Turkey, but it was different in that while British troops occupied the country in 1882 (to safeguard the Suez Canal) it was not officially declared a British protectorate till 1914. It was designated an independent kingdom in 1922, but a British presence was maintained till 1954. (British troops suppress rebellion of Ahmed Orabi in 1882: courtesy

120. The total area administered by Britain and Italy was small compared with that controlled by France. The French occupied the coast of Algeria (and Tunisia) in the 1840s and the oases to the south in the 1880s ... with the help of the Foreign Legion (immortalized in stories of “Beau Geste” and such like). Algeria gained its independence in 1962 after a long and bloody civil war. (Fort Serouenout west of Djanet)

121. Morocco, to the west, was a French protectorate between 1912 and 1956, save for the coastal strip opposite Gibraltar, which was controlled by Spain during the same period. The largest colony in Africa, however, was French West Africa, which covered what we now know as Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Chad; all of which gained independence in 1960 (together with much of West Africa). (French Foreign Legionnaires in Morocco in 1920 : courtesy German Federal Archives at,_Marokko,_Fremdenlegion%C3%A4re.jpg)

122. During the Second World War the conflict between the European powers raged over North Africa also. Italy was allied with Germany and the British and the French struggled to maintain a foothold here. The Allied victory in the second battle fought at El Alamein in October 1942 turned the tide in Britain’s favor and ended the German threat to Egypt and the Suez canal. (Deployment of forces on the eve of the battle : courtesy Noclador at

123. At El Alamein the Allied Army under Montgomery suffered 2,350 men killed and the Axis (German and Italian) forces commanded by Rommel lost 2,120.The Axis army withdrew progressively westwards and the battles that were fought as they did so disrupted the political status quo and foreshadowed the end of the colonial era.(General Montgomery watches the advance, November 1942 : courtesy the Imperial War Museum at

124. In the wave of nationalism which followed the World War, Britain, France, and Spain were forced to surrender control over their colonies. (Italy had lost Libya during the war.) Several of these independence movements, though grounded in democratic principles, were subsequently replaced by dictatorships. In the “Arab Spring” of 2012 a succession of street protests (and in Libya’s case civil war) sought to reverse this trend -- with varying degrees of success. (Celebrations in Cairo on the overthrow of President Mubarak, in February 2011: courtesy

125. The other development of both cultural and political significance has been the discovery and development of the vast oil and gas reserves of the Sahara. The first well to produce oil was at Hassi-Messaoud (south of Ouargla) in 1956, after years of exploration and trial drilling. During the exploration phase roads were built across the Sahara, plus airfields for the planes used in aerial surveying. And shallower wells were sunk to provide water for the use in the drilling process. (Libyan oil refinery at Ras Lanuf courtesy

126. OIl production has impacted on traditional lifestyles, offering employment and wealth and a range of amenities previously unknown. This has resulted in increased urban development and the growth of satellite tented communities on the margins of established settlements. (Part of tented community on the outskirts of Touggourt)


3.1 Religion of the Pharaohs

127. The original inhabitants of the Sahara would have been animists. In common with indigenous societies worldwide, who also depended on their environment for survival, people here lived in awe and/or fear of nature. Each tribe had its own God -- an animal or a tree perhaps -- and they continued this devotion after their move to the Nile valley. The different communities that dotted the river’s banks worshipped different gods at different (and rival) shrines. (Alabaster statue of a baboon god from about 3000BCE: courtesy Keith Schengli-Roberts at

128. As a result ancient Egypt was a land of polytheism, with a multiplicity of gods and goddesses, mostly visualized in animal form. In other words particular animals were believed to house the soul of particular gods. The names given to different gods, and their place in the hierarchy evolved thereafter -- according to the ascendancy and power of particular priestly cults and the preferences of the pharaoh. Khephri was the god of scarab beetles and an aspect of Ra the sun god. (Stone scarab at Karnak)

129. In addition, over time, each god also acquired a wife (or husband), a child, and/or a new identity. As a result it is impossible to establish a precise hierarchy of deities, though most cosmographies place Ra (or Re) at the top (otherwise known as Aten). Amon (or Amun) began life as the local god of Thebes, but later became god of both war and fertility, and eventually absorbed the attributes of the sun god to become Amon-Re. He is portrayed with a head surmounted by a sun disk, riding in a golden ship across the sky during the day and through the underworld at night. (

130. Nut, goddess of the sky, swallowed the sun each evening and gave birth to it each morning. She was the mother of Osiris who, because he was miraculously restored following his murder, symbolized eternal life. In this drawing Nut supports the sky with the help of Shu (god of wind and air) assisted by two lesser deities, while the earth god Seth reclines beneath them. (From the Greenfield Papyrus Book of the Dead, courtesy the British Museum at,_Nut,_Shu.jpg)

131. Isis was the goddess of love, magic and motherhood. Her headdress is a throne (“isis” means “throne”) and as the personification of the throne she was an important representative of the pharaoh’s power.(Painting from the tomb of Seti I in the Valley of the Kings, at

132. Isis is also honored as the protector of her brother Osiris (to whom she was married) and as the mother of Horus, god of the sky and war (whose emblem was the falcon). In this painting, from the tomb of Horemheb in the Valley of the Kings, Osiris is seated. Anubis stands between her and Horus. (Courtesy A. Parrot at

133. But there were many other gods symbolized by creatures from the animal world ...the lion, ibis, goat, cobra, crocodile, cow, hyena, scorpion, and vulture; plus the black jackal no one could escape -- symbol of Anubis god of judgment and patron of embalmers. Here he compares the heart of the scribe Hunefer with the weight of a feather. On the right, Thoth, scribe of the gods (with the head of an ibis) records the result. If the heart is lighter than the feather, Hunefer will be allowed to enjoy the pleasures of the after-life -- banquets, music, hunting and fishing. Otherwise he will be eaten by Ammit the Devourer, who has the mouth of a crocodile and the body of a lion and a hippo. In the next panel, showing the scene after the weighing, a triumphant Hunefer, having passed the test, is presented by falcon-headed Horus to the shrine of the green-skinned Osiris, god of the underworld and the dead, accompanied by Isis and Nephthys. The 14 gods of Egypt are shown seated above, in the role of judges. (Courtesy the British Museum at

134. Images of the Gods are displayed in the many temples that were built during the 3000 years during which Egypt was ruled by pharaohs. The temple at Edfu is the best preserved, having been built later than the rest, and been buried under sand for hundreds of years. It was built on the site of a much older temple and finished in 57 BCE by Ptolemy Xll, father of Cleopatra. It was dedicated to the falcon god Horus, shown here wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt.

135. Temples were built on sites that were considered sacred, so when later pharaohs built new temples (to demonstrate their piety and win favour with the god who resided there) they used existing temple sites, either replacing the original structure or rebuilding sections of it. The buildings at Karnak, for example, are the product of 2000 years of reconstruction, and represent an amalgam of styles as each pharaoh tried to eclipse the architectural achievement of his predecessor. During the reign of Ramses ll close to 80,000 workers were employed here. (Colonnade with papyrus closed bud capitals in the great court of the Amun temple at Karnak)

136. Egyptian temples were believed to be the residence of the god who lived there. It was not a place of assembly like a church or cathedral: and only those who had been properly initiated could enter it. Most temples were approached by a paved processional way, often bordered by sphinxes and formal gardens. (The approach to the first pylon at Karnak)

137. Karnak was for hundreds of years the most important place of worship in Egypt. Spread over 25 hectares the complex comprises three separate temple enclosures, but the chiefest of these was that dedicated to the god Amun. His symbol was the ram; hence the avenue of sphinxes with rams heads. Karnak lay close to Thebes (today’s Luxor) which was Egypt’s capital for hundreds of years: and the powers of the high priest of Amun rivaled, and sometimes exceeded, those of the pharaoh.

138. Entrance to most temples was gained by a monumental gateway (or “pylon”) frequently flanked by obelisks with gold-covered pinnacles to catch the first rays of the morning sun and transmit its life-giving powers into the temple. The pylon at Edfu (shown here) is 36 metres high, and is the second biggest in Egypt. That at Karnak is the largest.

139. The pylon at Edfu is decorated with colossal reliefs showing Ptolemy XII offering captives in sacrifice to the gods Horus and Hathor.

140. Beyond huge cedar doors lay a covered colonnade, then a “hypostyle” hall filled with stone columns symbolic of the reeds in the marshes that surrounded the mound of creation. This led through a vestibule to the sanctuary (representing the mound of creation) in which a statue of the god stood in a sealed tabernacle. (Hypostyle halls at Kom Ombo)

141. The inner walls and columns were often carved or painted ... with images or hieroglyphs honouring either the god who resided there or the pharaoh who had the temple built. The pharaohs believed that their authority was divine and that they were actually incarnations of their god, whose symbol/sign became theirs. Some even added the god’s name to their own. Devotees of the sun god, for example, incorporated the epithet “Son of Ra.” (Interior columns at Karnak)

142. The form of the capitals of each column was also significant. It usually represented a plant, but which plant depended on whether the temple was built in Upper or Lower Egypt, and when. That on the left shows a palm ... which was neutral ... but the other one is a significant composite, with a lotus blossom on top of bundled papyrus stalks. Papyrus symbolized Lower Egypt and Lotus the Upper kingdom. (Edfu)

143. The temple at Kom Ombo is divided symmetrically into two equal and balanced halves since it was shared between two gods -- Haroeris (alias Horus) and Sobek (the local crocodile-headed god). It is also famous for its bas-reliefs, especially that described as “ a collection of surgical instruments” though they could also be artifacts used in temple ceremonies. (Bas-relief at Kom Ombo)

144. Other panels portrayed the rituals performed here. To ensure that the god’s spirit did not leave, it was waited upon daily. The priests served there in place of the pharaoh and were divided into teams, each of which served the cult for a month. (Bas-relief at Kom Ombo)

145. Rites were performed several times a day, and involved bathing, anointing, clothing and decorating the god’s image, followed by the offering of bread, meat, fruit and drink ... which were later consumed by the attendants. The god was then undressed, purified, and anointed. The priest would close the doors of the tabernacle, set his seal upon it, and withdraw backwards. Here the father of Ramses II, pharaoh Seti I, in his temple at Abydos, performs rituals before the god Amun whose crown is made of feathers. (

146. At Edfu they have a barque (or a reproduction of the same) ... a wooden carriage in which the statue of their god (in their case Horus) would have been taken out of the temple during festivals.

147. The pharaohs and their subjects believed in an after-life, and that the soul of the dead dwelt near its body. Graves were equipped accordingly -- with food, tools, toiletries etc. In this painting the priest touches the facemask of the mummy with a series of implements, symbolically unstopping the mouth, eyes, ears and nostrils so the corpse can regain its faculties. (

148. Since the continued association of the spirit with the body required the preservation of the body itself, it was not only mummified but buried in the desert far from damp and decay. More than 60 tombs, most of them of pharaohs, have thus far been discovered in the Valley of the Kings.

149. Excavations continue, however, and more tombs are bound to be discovered in time. Queens were buried separately, in a valley of their own, which houses the remains of 80 queens and their offspring. (Excavation in progress)

150. The magnificence of royal tombs was meant to match the god-like status of the monarch. The pyramids of the Giza plateau are the best known, but 70 other pyramids have been identified. One advantage of burial in a pyramid instead of an underground grave was that it pointed to the sky. Those at Giza were built almost 5,000 years ago and are the only one of the “Seven Wonders of the Ancient World” still standing ... though they have been pillaged over time, and only one of the pyramids here (that of Khafre) retains any part of its original external casing.

151. They were built to house the remains of Khufu (Cheops), his son Khafre (Chephren), and his grandson Menkaure (Mycerinus). Khufu’s, on the left, is actually the biggest, and since it lay north of the others was the first tomb to catch the rays of the rising sun. Khafre’s pyramid was almost as big. His son’s (on the right) was much smaller.

152. Their construction was a massive undertaking. The pyramid of Cheops, for example, comprises 2.3 million limestone blocks each weighing about 2.5 tons: and, having no giant cranes in those days, they were dragged into position up an earth ramp using rollers. The guards here give an idea of the size of the blocks.

153. The Sphinx of Gaza stands near by, close to Khafre’s funerary temple. The head of the Sphinx is said to be a portrait of Khafre himself, but no one knows for sure: and in Arabic the statue is labelled “ Father of Terror”. It has suffered from weathering over the years and various attempts have been made to restore it ...  with limited success.

154. The Greeks named it the “Sphinx” because in their minds it resembled their mythological winged monster with a woman’s head and a lion’s body who thought up riddles and killed those unable to answer them.

155. In addition to cult temples devoted to the worship of gods, funerary (or mortuary) temples were built to house the spirits of individual pharaohs and perpetuate their worship after death. It was essential that the statues they contained should be accurate representations of the original, in order that the departed spirit of the dead pharaoh might recognize and enter its image. Since a person’s soul was believed to leave and enter by his/her mouth and nose, these might be smashed later by enemies to ensure that the deceased would not be reborn. Hatshepsut was the only female ruler to reign over ancient Egypt (about 1500 BCE) and had legitimized her claim to the throne by declaring herself the daughter of the god Amun-re. (Funerary temple of Hatshepsut)

156. It was believed that the names (or cartouches) of dead pharaohs carved into the walls of their tombs ensured that they would not be forgotten when they died; so these too might be damaged. This cartouche of Ramses II from Abu Simbel is in near perfect condition, but Thutmosis III was so angered by Hatshepsut (his predecessor and a usurper) that he erased her name wherever it appeared in her temple and substituted his own or that of his father. The cartouche in this photo was damaged long afterwards, by European soldiers who carved their names into the walls of the temple.

157. The manner in which particular pharaohs assumed god-like proportions is most obvious in the temples at Abu Simbel. The largest of the two (on the left) honoured four gods -- Amun, Ra-Harakty (a manifestation of Horus), Ptah (god of creation) and the pharaoh himself -- Ramses ll (who, admittedly, was considered the greatest of all pharaohs).

158. In addition to demonstrating his divinity, the giant statues of Ramses II at the entrance to his temple also reminded Nubian boatmen entering the kingdom of the pharaohs of their authority and power. They were built in the 13th century BCE and were buried under by sand till 1813.

159. There were four statues originally but one collapsed long ago and lies on the ground. Accompanying these large statues are smaller ones of the pharaoh’s mother Queen Tuya and his queen Nefertari and some of their children.

160. The outer hypostyle hall of Ramses’ temple is supported by eight columns fronted by statues of a god-like pharaoh. Beyond it there is a second pillared hall, and beyond that the sanctuary. (Courtesy Dennis Jarvis at,_eight_Osiris_pillars.jpg)

161. Within the sanctuary the four gods wait for dawn. The temple was carved out of rock in such a way that twice each year, at the spring and autumnal equinoxes, the first rays of the rising sun reach across the Nile to penetrate the temple corridor and shine for five minutes on the faces of the waiting gods, 65 metres from the entrance!

162. The second temple is dedicated to the Hathor, goddess of love, though four of the six statues at the front, 10 metres in height, are of Ramses II. Significantly, the other two are of his wife Queen Nefertari (with smaller images of their children). This is the only temple in which the wife of a pharaoh is honoured with a statue as large as that of her husband!

163. Ramses II had seven wives/consorts but Nefertari was his favorite. She is shown here wearing the plumed tiara of Amon and the solar disc of Ra. (

164. While their position alongside the Nile allowed these temples to overawe visitors from the south long ago, it was to prove hazardous much later, when the level of water in the Nile was raised following the construction of the Aswan High Dam. As a UNESCO World Heritage site, and one of Egypt’s top tourist attractions, carved out of solid rock, it was dismantled, together with the cliff out of which it had been carved, and reassembled on higher ground in 1968 ... which explains the cut blocks visible in the photo.

3.2 Judaism and Christianity

165. Some have claimed that the clarity of cloudless desert skies and the spectacular display of stars at night, turned the minds of desert people skywards, to marvel and to honour the Creator behind the wonder of the heavens. This, of course, is a question of faith, not science: but the fact remains that the deserts of North Africa and the Middle East were the birthplace of three of the world’s great religions -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

166. At one time Jewish communities were dotted all across North Africa. Many of these disappeared with the advance of Islam, but not all. Egypt still had a Jewish population of 80,000 in the early 20th century. They were active in business and finance and contributed significantly to the modernization of the Egyptian economy. However, most of them left following the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. The Jewish community in Algeria dates from the 1st century CE, but most of them left when Algeria gained independence as they had previously been granted citizenship in France. (“Scene in the Jewish Quarter of Constantine”, painted by Theodore Chasseuriau in 1851 : at

167. Tunisia had 100,000 Jews in French colonial days: but, similarly, many of them fled when the country gained its independence in 1956: and many more left following subsequent bursts of Arab nationalism. In Tunis today there are just 300 Jews, two kosher butchers, and one synagogue -- the Beit Mordechai Synagogue in La Goulette, a suburb of Tunis, which formerly had 13 synagogues. (

168. Till the arrival of Islam, Christian churches, too, were scattered all across North Africa. Saint Augustin, considered by many to be one of the theological fathers of the Protestant Reformation a thousand years later, was bishop of Hippo (in the Algeria of today) in the 4th century CE. (

169. Christianity was brought to North Africa by the Romans but almost disappeared after the Arab invasion in the 7th century. It was revived somewhat during the colonial era, when churches were built by the French: but Christians in Algeria today represent less than 2% of the total population. (The basilica of Notre Dame d’Afrique in Algiers at

170. Christianity was actually the predominant religion in Egypt during the 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries of the Common Era. Egypt’s Copts consider themselves to be direct descendants of the ancient Egyptians, and the Copts remain a significant minority in that country -- an educated elite in some ways, but also active in business -- though in practice there is little to distinguish Copts from other Egyptians, most of whom are Arabs. (Modern Coptic cathedral in Aswan)

171. St. Mark is believed to have brought Christianity to Alexandria in the first century CE, and it spread throughout much of Egypt in next century. The Christian religion seemingly appealed to people seeking inner purity and pre-occupied with the after-life. Christians were persecuted by the Romans initially, and many sought refuge in the desert: but the number of converts increased when the Roman Empire, of which Egypt was then part, was declared to be Christian by the Emperor Constantine in 313 CE.  (Icon of St. Mark at

172. The early Christians here vandalized what they thought of as  “pagan” shrines and adapted old tombs and temples to fit this new religion. The columns in this picture, for example, were painted over with Christian images. (Karnak)

173. Even statues were recycled. In this case three sacred images -- of the pharaoh Thutmosis III flanked by two gods (Amon-Re and his wife Mut) -- were modified to produce an image of a crucified Christ with arms outstretched ... by defacing the pharaoh’s image and removing the tops and bottoms of the gods! (Karnak)

174. Alexandria was the site of the world’s first Christian university, and its scholars helped clarify Christian beliefs and formulate basic dogmas. The Patriarch of Alexandria originally ranked second only to the Pope in Rome. (St. Mark’s Coptic Cathedral in Alexandria at

175. Though today’s Copts were originally part of the Eastern Orthodox Church they broke away in 451 CE when the rest of Christendom declared (at the Council of Chalcedon) that Christ was both human and divine. The Patriarch of Alexandria refused to accept this, insisting that Christ was totally divine and it was blasphemous to consider him human. (Patriarch Theodorus II of Alexandria in 2012 at

176. Between the 4th and the 7th century CE the desert south of Alexandria was actually an area of pilgrimage, and it still occupies an important place in the evolution of Christian spirituality. The many hundreds of “Desert Fathers’ who lived here then in total isolation (and there were nuns too) believed that from the solitude and the physical privations they suffered they would learn stoic self-disciple (asceticism). St. Anthony the Great, who moved to the desert in 270-271, is known as the father of desert monasticism. (Icon of Anthony courtesy

177.  Desert life, they believed, would teach them to turn away from the things of this world and follow Christ more closely. They renounced all the pleasures of the senses -- rich food, baths, rest and anything that made them feel comfortable. Instead they focused on interior silence and continual prayer; and stressed the need to practice the teachings of Christ in daily life -- in place of mere theoretical assent. Much of what they wrote is highly regarded still, and quoted in devotional books. (Courtesy

178. And the Desert Fathers’ commitment to inner purity and to abstinence as the keys to holiness is reflected in devotional practice today. For half of each year, Copts are forbidden to eat animal food of any kind, which means milk, cheese, eggs and butter as well as meat. (Coptic monks at Wadi Natrun, courtesy

179. Though the original Desert Fathers were hermits who lived in individual cells, the greatest among them, like St. Anthony, attracted followers who together formed loosely connected monastic communities. There were hundreds of little communities then. Most have disappeared long since, but Wadi El Natrun is home still to four ancient monasteries ... and the Pope of the Coptic Church is actually chosen from among the monks here. (Monastery of the Syrians at Wadi Natrun)

180. Having been attacked on several occasions, and even sacked, both before and after the arrival of Islam, the community at Wadi Natrun was progressively fortified, surrounded by high walls.

181. Given the ever-present danger from outside these walls the communities here needed to be as self-sufficient as possible ... growing much of their own food in their monastic gardens. (In garden of the Monastery of St. Pishoy)

182. They also milled their own flour and baked their own bread ... and still do. The monastic communities, which grew from the informal gatherings of hermits here, actually provided a model for later Christian monasticism in both eastern and western churches. They not only inspired the monastic revivals of the Middle Ages but, through their pietism, also influenced later Protestant renewal movements ... including the Mennonites and the Methodists. (Flourmill turned by hand; with millstones behind)

183. As such the monasteries at Wadi Natrun are a major tourists attraction, especially for Western Christians wishing to touch base with the roots of their spiritual tradition. Much money, therefore, is invested in the upkeep of old buildings and the preservation of their artistic tradition. (Traditional roof style)

184. And though relations between Christians and Muslims in Egypt have been strained at times in recent years, the Coptic community at Wadi Natrun was actually building a new cathedral at the time of the author’s visit in 2003.

185. Though the monastic tradition of Egypt was focused on the desert west of the delta, the most famous monastery today lies on the other side of the Red Sea in the shadow of the Gebel Musa. It was built between 548 and 565 CE and claims to be one of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world still operating. It is known officially as “The Sacred and Imperial Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount of Sinai”. (Monastery of St. Catherine)

186. Most people know it by the name of the saint from Alexandria (Catherine) who was sentenced to death on a spiked wheel in the 4th century, whose remains were miraculously transported here by angels and discovered by monks around the year 800 ... after which it became a place of pilgrimage ... and still is. (Bell tower of the monastery)

187. The monastery was built by order of the Emperor Justinian to enclose the chapel that had been built previously by order of Constantine’s mother Helena in the year 330 on the site of “the burning bush”. And the monks here still care for what they believe to be the bush where Moses met with God. (The “burning bush” of today, at St. Catherine’s Monastery courtesy

188. The monastery lies close to Gebel Musa (literally the “Mount of Moses”), identified in guidebooks as the Mount Sinai in the Bible. Here Moses supposedly met with God again and received the Ten Commandments. As a result the mountain is sacred to Muslims and Jews as well as Christians. (Gebel Musa)

189. A mosque was actually built within the walls of the monastery. It was no doubt well-intentioned and occupied a significant position close to the entrance and opposite the cathedral: but it was never used because it was not correctly orientated towards Mecca. (Mosque, in white, next to the bell tower: in Fatimid style it combines elements of eastern and western architecture)

190. During the seventh century all the other Christian communities in the Sinai were eliminated, but St. Catherine’s was well fortified and it survived. The community was and is headed by an archbishop: and since his entire diocese lies with these walls, it is the smallest diocese in the world. (The monastery’s main fortifications)

191. The monastery was at times surrounded by enemies, but it had a large garden, plus a good well, and so was able to provide its people with food and drink even when isolated. (Corner of monastery garden)

192. The protected area was clearly limited, though, so when the monks died their bodies were buried for a few years and their bones then exhumed for storage in a charnel house, allowing the original burial place to be re-used, since there was not enough room to leave them all in the ground. (Charnel house)

193. Though many Christian communities in North Africa disappeared -- through martyrdom or conversion to Islam -- as the Arabs armies pushed westwards, violence was not inevitable. When the Muslims conquered Egypt, Caliph Omar’s general (Amr Ibn al-As) promised to respect church property and not to interfere in church affairs. He allowed Copts who held public office to retain their positions, and he conferred new offices on others. (Courtyard of the Amr Ibn al-As Mosque in Cairo courtesy

194. However, later Caliphs imposed heavy taxes, placed all government in Arab hands, forbad the display of Christian symbols and the wearing of vestments, destroyed churches and monasteries (confiscating their property), and suppressed ruthlessly those who rebelled. (Print dated 1840 by David Roberts of “The Tomb of the Caliphs” in Cairo :

195. In 706 they made Arabic the language of government, replacing the language of the Copts ... which thereafter declined in use to the point where in the 12th century they had to translate their liturgy into Arabic since the Coptic tongue was then spoken only by a minority. (Inscriptions in Arabic and in the language of the Copts, at a church in Cairo courtesy

3.3 Islam

196. Though they have, sadly, been bitter enemies at times (but not always!) the Jewish, Christian and Islamic religions share the same patriarch -- Abraham. The Jews are descendants of Isaac, whose mother was Sarah; and the Arabs look to Ishmael his half-brother, whose mother was Hagar, Sarah’s maid.

197. However, Muslims believe that while the One Truth was revealed to humanity by a series of inspired prophets (including Jesus) and these insights can be found in Christian and Jewish scriptures, their revelations were corrupted -- by changes in the text during translation and/or willful misinterpretation. (Rowan Williams, when Archbishop of Canterbury, with an early English translation of the Bible courtesy

198. So, Muslims believe, God addressed a final message to mankind through Mohammed who was “the seal of the prophets” (the last in the series). Born in Mecca around 570, he received his first divine message when he was about 40.These revelations continued for the rest of his life, and were written down in classical Arabic to form the Holy Koran or Qur’an. (An eleventh century North African Qur’an courtesy

199. While the Koran has been translated into other languages, its Arabic version remains unchanged since it is believed to be the direct word of God (Allah). There is nothing equivalent to the translations and/or paraphrases in which the Christian Bible has appeared over time. The meaning of the Koran can, however, can be clarified by reference to the “Sunnah”, a collection of models and rules for daily living, and to the sayings of the Prophet recorded in the “Hadith”. (A dua -- or expression of submission -- from the Sunnah courtesy

200. The Koran declares that God (Allah) is both merciful and all-powerful, and that he controls the course of events -- which makes it possible for people to accept suffering without question, since it must be the will of Allah. On the Last Day he will judge people according to their acts and assign them to heaven or hell, so that how one behaves in this life is of utmost importance. (Mother and daughters studying the Qur’an: courtesy “I love Islam”)

201. The theology of the Koran is holistic, and allows no separation between the sacred and the secular. “Down the centuries the traditional education of a Muslim has rested on two pillars. Theology taught them what to believe, and the sacred law (Sharia) prescribed how they should behave. And in practice the law has been the senior partner, for Islam has always been more explicit about the quality of life God has ordained for his people than about the nature of the Creator himself.” [Norman Anderson in “The World’s Religions”: Lion Hudson, 2007] (Women and girl in conservative Swat Valley, Pakistan courtesy

202. In other words, Islam is clearly a way of life as well as a religion. Sharia law has at times been used (some would say misused) in ways that have harmed the image of Islam in the West, but it is meant to be a blueprint for the smooth running of an Islamic community and (inevitably) makes provision for punishment in one form or another. (Public caning :

203. While some Arab countries still use the Western/Christian calendar, others count their years from the migration of the Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina in the Christian year 622AD. This migration is referred to as the “hijrah” and Muslim history is reckoned in hijrah years -- or AH (Anno Hegirae) -- which are themselves based on the cycles of the moon. Each month begins only when the new moon is actually sighted in Mecca: and a full Islamic year is just 354 days in length. (Cover of wall calendar for 2009 AD and 1430 AH courtesy

204. Since from the beginning Muslims have always emphasized the importance of reading the Koran in the unchanged original, the language of Arabia spread with the religion. Persons who cannot read Arabic, like the Tuareg, are clearly disadvantaged and considered less than pure ... “cast out by God”. (Tuareg guide near Djanet)

205. In much the same way that Christ’s followers were split in time between Protestants and Roman Catholics (and much blood shed as a result) so the adherents of Islam have long been divided between Sunnis and Shi’as, over who should succeed the Prophet. The division is deeply felt and expressed today in horrifying sectarian violence. In 9th, 10th and 11th centuries the Great Mosque in Kairouan was an important centre of Sunni theology. (Mosque in Kairouan)

206. The Sunnis claim to be the true heirs of Mohammed. Believing that no one could possibly succeed him as a prophet, they appointed a succession of caliphs from Mohammed’s tribe who would guard the existing prophetic legacy.  (Abdulmecid Khan II, the last Caliph of the Ottoman Empire courtesy

207. The Shi’as believed that there was room for further inspired interpretation and that this should be provided by someone with a personal connection to the Prophet. They chose his son-in-law Ali as the first imam. Shia’s today are outnumbered by Sunnis, who dominate worldwide (85%) including North Africa. (Shia Muslims in Bahrain beating their chests to express their grief in remembrance of the hardships Ali suffered :,_Manama,_Bahrain_%28Feb_2005%29.jpg)

208. While Sunnism and Shi’ism represent the major doctrinal forms of Islam, Sufism celebrates the inner spiritual life of both (though at times Sufis have been persecuted because they were different). They are sometimes referred to as “Whirling Dervishes” ... because of the way they may spin like tops to induce a trance-like state. In this case, though, the dancer was performing at a restaurant in Cairo.

209. The heart of Sufism is the love of God, which is celebrated in study and prayer as well as dancing. The Sufis are not a distinct sect, simply Muslims -- Sunnis or Shi’as -- who seek intimacy with God through a discipline of spiritual purification. In the West they are best known today for the ecstatic verses of their early poets -- especially Rumi and Hafiz -- whose lines serve sometimes as spiritual graffiti. (A wall in an American city courtesy

210. Islam means submission and this is expressed in the observance of the so-called “Five Pillars of Islam”, namely (1) that followers declare publicly that “there is no God but God and Mohammed is his prophet;” (2) pray five times a day; (3) give alms to help the needy and assist in the propagation of the faith; (4) fast during daylight hours during the month of Ramadan; and (5) complete the haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca (if humanly possible). (Ghardaia and the mosque that dominates the town’s skyline)

211. Prayer is an essential part of daily life in both towns and villages. The call to prayer -- “Allahu akbar!” (‘God is most great’) -- is now broadcast from loudspeakers fixed to minarets, but for most of history it was proclaimed by voice alone. (Painting of “A Muezzin Calling from the Top of a Minaret the Faithful to Prayer” by Jean-Leon Gerome in 1879 courtesy

212. At sunrise, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset and during the night -- five times a day -- all work and business stops. These men were fishing from the walls of the harbour in Alexandria when, from a distance, they heard the call to prayer.

213. In the business district, offices and shops were closed. The shopkeepers pulled down their shutters, and simply knelt outside in the street. (In Alexandria)

214. Women usually pray at home then, or in their garden. On six days of each week both men and women are welcome to pray at home, or wherever they happen to be. However, Friday prayers are meant to be offered at a local mosque, or in the street outside it when the number of worshippers exceeds its capacity (as often happens). (Woman praying at Ain Khudra)

215. People remove their shoes before entering a mosque, leaving them at the entrance. And inside, before they pray, they perform a ritual washing of their hands, forearms, face, hair, ears, nose and feet. (Street in Alexandria)

216. In the desert, too, at the appointed times, people stop what they are doing. In the absence of water it is difficult to complete the necessary ablutions beforehand, but during the heat of the day travelers still dismount and kneel ... wherever possible in a patch of shade ... where they will clean their hands and feet with sand before they pray. (In the Tassili-n-Ajjer)

217. Muslims face the Holy City of Mecca when they pray, and when they die they are buried facing in the same direction, usually with the simplest of grave markers. (Cemetery at Siwa)

218. In both Coptic and Islamic traditions, respect for deceased parents is expressed in visits to their graves and prayers for the souls of the departed. Muslims pray  “May peace be upon you, you dwellers of the abode of believers and Muslims” and “May Allah show His mercy upon those who went before us and also upon those who follow. Allah willing, we will join you.” (Cemetery at Aswan)

219. The giving of alms (zakat) is said by modern Muslims to be a pillar of social action. Followers of the Prophet are expected to share with those who are poor and needy but equally part of the worshipping community and equally precious in the eyes of God. The Sharia stipulates how much should be given in each category of one’s possessions. (Courtesy

220. Contemporary practice has settled on an annual rate of 2.5% of one’s profits. Giving is believed to atone for sins that are motivated by self-centredness and irresponsible stewardship of one’s possessions: and most Muslims give more than the amount specified. (Courtesy

221. The fourth pillar, Ramadan, -- when Muslims fast between sunrise and sunset during the ninth month of their year -- celebrates God’s gift of the Koran. Pious Muslims will not allow anything to pass their lips, not even water -- though exceptions are made for expectant and nursing mothers. (Poster courtesy

222. Those who are both pious and wealthy may provide food for the poor to eat during the feast, which ends each day’s fast. (At the opposite end of the spectrum, though, are some who eat all night, and get up late so they have few hours of fasting to observe!) (Boy prepares food for the evening’s breaking of the fast at

223. All Muslims are required to complete their hajj to the Holy City of Mecca at least once in their lives, if they can afford it. For those who cannot afford to go, there are charities in some countries that help with fares: and if a person is unable to go during their lifetime, a brother or son may later satisfy this requirement on behalf of the deceased. (Pilgrims at the Holy Kaaba in the heart of Mecca courtesy

224. There are other (but not alternative) places of pilgrimage. Many of those who live in North Africa travel to Kairouan (in Tunisia). Founded by Arabs in about 670 it is considered Islam’s fourth holiest city -- after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem -- and 7 visits to Kairouan are claimed (by those who live there!) to be equivalent to one pilgrimage to Mecca. Festivals are held here in memory of Sufi saints.

225. The principal holidays in Muslim countries are Eid al Fitr that celebrates the end of the fast of Ramadan, and Eid al Adha (“The Feast of Sacrifice”) which marks the end of the annual haj. (Feast of Eid al Fitr in Malaysia courtesy

226. Eid al Adha commemorates Ibrahim’s (Abraham’s) willingness to sacrifice his only son in obedience to God’s command. (The Koran speaks of Ishmael, the Bible of Isaac.) Sheep, goats, cows, and camels are ritually slaughtered then. One-third of the meat is given to friends and neighbours and a further third to the poor and needy. (Skins of slaughtered animals in street at Aswan)

227. The design of mosques is standardized and supposedly based on that of Mohammed’s own house. Domes are symbolic of the vault of heaven; and minarets reach towards the absolute (much like church steeples). There will also be an inner courtyard with an ablutions fountain used in purification before prayer. (Courtyard of mosque in Kairouan)

228. The inside walls of the mosque will be decorated with arabesque patterns and verses from the Koran (but no images of living things since it is believed that an object and its image are magically united). And at the end of the prayer hall there will be a decorated alcove or niche (the mihrab) indicating the direction of Mecca, which people must face when they pray. (Prayer Hall of the Great Mosque in Kairouan showing the minrab at the end of the nave, courtesy

229. Islam has no priests as such or hierarchy of bishops and archbishops. Imams (in some cases sheikhs) are the closest one gets to a priest, since they are schooled in Islamic law and give the sermon (the khutba) on Friday ... from a wooden pulpit (or minbar) beside the mihrab. The traditional Muslim greeting is “as salaam alaykum” (“Peace be upon you)” to which the reply is “wa alaykum as salaam” -- “And upon you be peace.” (Mihrab and minbar in the Amr Ibn Al-as mosque in Cairo courtesy

230. In spite of the absence of any central authority comparable with, say, a Catholic Pope; and in spite of the bitterness and bloodshed that has set Sunnis against Shi’as, the power of Islam is such that the conversion of a Muslim to Christianity can be both difficult and dangerous. Besides being a religion and way of life it is a philosophy, a culture and a civilization. (Modern painting celebrating the victory of Saladin over the Christians at Hattin in 1187 courtesy


4.1 Introduction and Overview

231. The Saharan camel or dromedary has only one hump, unlike the Bactrian camels of Central Asia, which have two. An ancient legend explains that when Allah created man from clay into which he breathed life, he had some left over. He cut this into two lumps, and made one half into a camel and the other into a date palm. The camel, therefore, is man's brother and the date palm is his sister -- and without them no man could survive in the desert. (Near Ain Khudra)

232. There are, in fact, three main ways in which people, traditionally, have survived here, and each of them has links to both the date palm and the camel. (Date palm at oasis near El Oued)

233. Some adopted a nomadic lifestyle, herding animals, and moving great distances in search of suitable pasture. (Tuareg herders near Tamanrasset)

234. Others, secondly, settled in oases, growing crops where water could be found at or near the surface. (Djanet)

235. The Sahara is one of the most sparsely populated regions in the entire world -- simply because the pastures are so poor that a large area is required to provide enough food for each animal, and because the water sources on which crop farmers depend are so widely spaced. Only the Arctic and Antarctic are less hospitable. (Tassili-n-Ajjer)

236. Thirdly, there were those who lived in market towns and gained their income through trade -- buying and selling things produced by, or needed in, the surrounding area. (Date sellers at Biskra)

237. In modern times we have also seen the expansion of market towns into cities, as a result of population growth, tourism and, most significantly, the enormous wealth generated by the discovery and development of extensive oil and gas fields. (Ghardaia in 1982)

238. The author visited the desert first in 1982 and again in 2003. When they think of the Sahara many people in Australia still imagine fiercely independent but hospitable nomads living as their ancestors did in times past: but even in 1982 traditional lifestyles were changing, and the pace of change has quickened greatly since then. (The author at Ain Khudra)

4.2 Nomadism

239. Over northern sections of the Sahara, nomadic Berbers and Arab Bedouin herd goats and sheep or camels: and because the pastures here are poor their herds must migrate if they are to survive. (Tuareg goats near Tamanrasset)

240. In Arabic the word bedawiyin means "those who wander", and in the West today the word Bedu, though it is technically a plural, is commonly used to indicate the singular case... that is, an individual. (Bedu and camels in Sinai)

241. The Prophet Muhammad, having like his father herded camels at one stage in his life, declared that Allah never sent upon earth a single prophet who had not been a herdsman, for only a herdsmen knew how to lead both animals and men! (Herder near Touggourt)

242. Though their movements in recent decades have been complicated by the policing of national boundaries, the Bedouin traditionally shared out territory, allocating each tribe a range (or dirah) within which they could pasture their herds and water them. (Pasture near Tozeur)

243. More recently the introduction of unrestricted (common) grazing in some areas has meant that those who were traditionally responsible for a particular range, do not bother to conserve pasture now if they feel that the next group to come along will over-graze it. (Heavily grazed land east of Ghardaia)

244. The distance Bedouin have to travel depends on the weather. After a good rain the desert is covered with herbs and grasses and herds do not have to travel far to find enough food. In winter they might move only a few kilometres each day. In the course of a dry year, however, migrations of more than a thousand kilometres could be required, and distances like these can only be covered by camels. (On the Tassili-n-Ajjer after rain)

245. Goats and sheep do not have the same endurance as camels: in the cool season they can go without water for 4 or 5 days but they must be watered every two days in the hot season. (Goats near Biskra)

246. Camels can manage without water for 6 or 8 days at a stretch even in very hot weather, and they can go without water for weeks on end if the weather is cool and the pasture good. This allows camels to be taken into areas where there are few if any wells, where no sheep or goats could survive. (South of Illizi)

247. Sheep and goats were kept mostly by nomads who lived on the margins of the desert, either in addition to or instead of camels. Their breeding was often restricted to better-watered areas -- notably the foothills of mountain ranges in the north. In the spring, after winter rains, flocks could be moved further south into the desert, before retreating to the desert margins and grazing on stubble in the autumn. (Sheep in farmyard south of Kairouan)

4.3 Camels

248. Camels seem to have come from Arabia originally, though there are no wild camels left anywhere in Africa or the Middle East. And when, as the legend suggests, God made the camel, he obviously prepared it for life in the desert. No other animal on earth is better equipped for survival: and, in the words of the Koran, it is not the man who owns much land who is rich but he who can call many camels his own. (Camels “parked” by their owners near the town centre in Tamanrasset)

249. Camels cannot reproduce till they are five years old, take a year to gestate, and a further year to nurse a single offspring ... which helps explain why every camel was (and is) a valuable piece of property. (Camel market in Ghardaia)

250. The souls of a camel’s feet are big and broad as a soup plate, with soft leather cushions instead of hooves, to spread its weight. From the depth of its footprints you can tell whether it was ridden or used as a pack animal. Riding camels are females and pack animals are bulls. (At Tamanrasset)

251. Heavily laden in a caravan, with loads of between 150 and 200 kilograms, a camel can cover 30 or 40 kilometres day after day, and a riding camel can cover 60 or 70. A camel’s requirements are modest and it can vary its body temperature by up to 6 degrees Celsius to adjust to its surroundings. Camels are trained to bear loads from their fourth year, are fully grown when they are 17, and live typically between 30 and 35 years. (Camels carrying personal effects near Tamanrasset)

252. A camel can loose more than a quarter of its body fluid and still survive -- a degree of dehydration no man could tolerate. (Most animals die if they lose 12-15% of their fluids.) And a camel can rehydrate itself in minutes, drinking 100 litres of water at a time, an amount equivalent to one third of its body weight! This is quickly distributed throughout its body. Its hump stores fat, not water, and this fat, too, is drawn upon to maintain life in lean times. (Camels at In Salah facing downwind as a dust storm approaches)

253. Watering the stock commonly requires two men. One leads the camel that pulls the bucket up from the well, and the other empties it into a trough. The breeding of the camels is arranged so that calves are born in the winter when the grazing is better. Male calves may be slaughtered for meat or kept as baggage animals. Females are never slaughtered, since they provide both milk and future generations of calves. (Well at Arak north of Tamanrasset)

254. Camel urine is highly concentrated so the animal loses little moisture and its dung, similarly, is dry and hard. The dung was burnt as fuel on camp fires; and the urine served as a purgative. Camel urine was also used to bathe sand-scratched eyes, cleans wounds, treat skin complaints and even wash one’s hair (since it killed lice). It is also believed now to contain cancer-curing compounds! (Camel dung at Fort Gardel)

255. The camel is also endowed with a heat exchange process which allows it to withstand the temperature extremes of the desert. After it’s been watered, it cools itself by sweating during the heat of the day, maintaining a constant body temperature of 37 degrees C: but if it becomes at all dehydrated it allows its body temperature to rise -- as high as 41.5 degrees! It has less need then to sweat and so conserves water. In other animals high body temperatures cause brain damage. (Camel resting in the middle of the day at Ain Khudra)

256. A camel’s nostrils collect and retain most of the moisture in its breath when it exhales. This maintains a moist atmosphere in nasal passages and minimizes water loss. Any moisture that does escape as mucous from its nose is channelled straight back to its mouth by the split in its upper lip. (Ain Khudra)

257. As a defense against windblown sand it has thick eyelashes, ears lined with hair, and nostrils it can close. In a sandstorm it will lie down on its knees, stretch its neck flat over the sand, and close its nostrils, almost! (Kairouan)

258. A camel can survive on the poorest of pastures, chewing thorns if need be. In winter camels survive on the water contained in green fodder and can go for a month without drinking. In the hot season, with drier fodder, they should, whenever possible, be watered weekly. (Camel munching on palm fronds at Ain Khudra)

259. And there's no such thing as an unwanted came. There may be no one in sight, but every animal you meet is owned by someone, and carries a brand indicating its owner and tribe. And though most of the herd will belong to the senior male in each Bedu family group, the stud bull is often the property of the senior woman. (Hobbled camel south of Illizi)

260. Today, a single truck can carry as much as 80 to 100 camels, but there are remote areas still that rely on camel caravans for their supplies. In these areas the camel is still "the ship of the desert". (Tuareg camel saddle)

261. Soft hair from the camel’s belly can be woven into long strips, and sewn together to produce either a warm robe (burnous) or the dark cloth used to cover the wooden framework of Bedouin tents. Camel leather is used to make sandals and bags in which to carry water (though goat skin gerbas are more common.) And camel bones can be carved to make jewelry or handles for tools and weapons. (Bedouin knives, halter and saddle decorations using camel hair: from the author’s collection)

262. Goatskin gerbas are made by pulling the skin of a slaughtered animal over its head without cutting it. They weigh little when empty, do not break like clay pots, and the small amount of water they absorb cools the contents as it is evaporated from the bag’s outer surface. They hold between 20 and 30 litres of water; and are hung under the camel or on the side that is in shade. (As here on the camel on the left)

4.4 Foodstuffs and Diets

263. The Western image of the camel is of a pack animal crossing the desert in a caravan, nose to tail: but most of the camels herded by Bedouin have always been females kept for milk. These drifted like sheep in herds of between 50 and 100 camels from one patch of scrub to the next, with the 3 or 4 tents of a father, his sons and their womenfolk. (English language promotion of the health value of camel’s milk courtesy

264. Camel’s milk was the basis of Bedouin diet -- warm and frothy when drunk straight from the udder, or kept for a little while and lightly curdled. While the ability of camels to go without drinking for weeks at a time is impressive, of greater significance is their ability to convert scrubby vegetation and undrinkable brackish water into milk -- top quality human nutrition -- almost year-round. (Fresh camel’s milk courtesy

265. Traditionally, some Bedouin lived on nothing but camel’s milk, some on a mixture of dates and camel’s milk, and others on camel’s milk, plus dates, couscous, cheese made from goat's milk, soup, unleavened bread baked over hot coals, plus a little meat. (Women preparing bread for baking over hot coals at Ain Khudra)

266. Meat (from male camels) was eaten only rarely -- on feast days, when a visitor arrived, or if an animal had to be slaughtered following an accident. Nothing was wasted: bones were cracked to get at the marrow, and the stomach and intestines were dried and kept for use in soups later. Even their hoofs were eaten -- being ground into powder and baked in cakes! (Butcher in Biskra)

267. Cash for household items was obtained by selling animal fat, butter, cheese, skins, wool and livestock in the nearest market town. It was the men who went to market, not the women: any women you see there will be town’s people, not Bedouin. (Livestock market in Kairouan)

268. The dates they buy there will be eaten fresh or dried, or stored till required. They would also have bought bread grains there in former years but are now as likely to buy flour. (Dates in the market at Biskra)

269. The women milk their animals every morning and evening, and those with sheep and goats also make butter and cheese. A female camel can suckle her young and also provide 4 or 5 litres of milk each day for 11 months of the year, but camel’s milk is of no use in making butter since it has no cream. Camels do not need to be herded like sheep or goats, but will return of their own accord to be watered and milked by their owners. (Young camel nursing courtesy

270. When the nomads moved to new pastures the tent and all of the family’s possessions (cooking pots, carpets, cushions, firewood, food and animal-skin bags full of water) would be loaded on to camels. Today trucks are sometimes used instead, carrying the women as well as their tent and their possessions. Trucks can also move water in barrels and sometimes even camels! Motor vehicles are also used today by those Bedouin who still hunt with falcons. (Near Arak)

4.5 Shelter and Hospitality

271. The entire family moves with the herd and lives in a tent -- though some Bedu used tents only in winter, when it was colder and sometimes rained. The tents were (until recently) made by the nomads themselves, from a coarse material which in the Sahara was woven from scraps of wool and white goat’s hair. It was both warm and waterproof -- for both the wool and the hair swell when wet and their natural oils also help repel moisture. (At Ain Khudra)

272. In Arabia the tents were darker in color, made mostly from hair combed from goats, and often acquired through trade with sedentary communities. Tents are central to the identity of the Bedouin, and where they have adopted a sedentary lifestyle many continue to live in tents. Some who have acquired houses put their animals inside and live in a tent outside! (House and tent in Ain Khudra)

273. In addition to making their tents, women were expected to look after them, and to put them up and take them down as and when  required. It was a major responsibility, since Bedouin typically moved camp every week or two. The tent and everything inside it could, however, be dismantled and loaded on camels in less than two hours. (Camp north of Touggourt)

274. Tents typically were made of six to eight woven strips sewn together to form a rectangle, and supported by two main poles (more if the tent was a long one). The corners and the sides were supported by shorter poles, and the entire structure was held in place by guy ropes and pegs. (North of Touggourt)

275. The walls of the tent could be raised when it was hot, and lowered when it was cold or windy. They might also have separate panels which could be attached when required. In winter the living area was reduced in size, to reduce the amount of heating required, and the unoccupied portion of the tent was used to shelter newborn lambs and such like. (Diagram based on sketch in “Primitive Architecture” by Enrico Guidoni)

276. Tents like these are divided in two by a central partition. One part, usually the largest, is used by the husband and his guests; the smaller section houses his wife and children, their cooking fire and the family's possessions. Men and women never ate together: father and son ate on one side of the dividing curtain; mother and daughter on the other. (Entrance to women’s side)

277. The men made tea or coffee for their male guests, but the women cooked all the food. They also collected brushwood for the fire. In the old days they would also grind the grain used to make bread and cereal dishes like couscous. Now this is often purchased. (Brewing of coffee in tent near Mt. Sinai)

278. The rite of hospitality was part of a strict code of honour, and a means of protection in a world fraught with danger from both man and nature. In a hostile environment the only thing over which a man could be sure to have control was his own dignity and honour. These mattered far more than wealth; and dishonorable behaviour or insults invariably met with harsh punishment.
(Tuareg traveler near Tamanrasset)

279. Bedouin hospitality traditionally lasted three days. If you were a Bedu male, any traveller could stop near your tent (customarily 30 metres from it): and if he took time adjusting his camel’s harness you would be bound to go out and welcome him. Your wife, if she were alone, would have to go out and offer him a bowl of camel milk, and then invite him to enter the man’s side of the tent’s divider, where he could rest till you returned. (Near Touggourt)

280. On your return you would have to slaughter a sheep or goat to provide a feast for your guest. He could stay with you for three nights, after which you could ask him politely where he was going and if you could help him on his way. That would be his signal to move on. And if he were an enemy (or a man you intended to rob) you would be unable to attack him for three days -- for as long as he held your food in his stomach! In the same way, it was also considered fairer to raid another tribe at sunrise, since this would allow them a whole day to follow your tracks and try to win their camels back! (Near Touggourt)

281. The names given to Bedouin children typically commemorate the bravery and virtues of distinguished ancestors. Since there are a limited number of such names it is sometimes difficult to keep track of who is who. This confusion is reduced in part by references to parenthood: by the inclusion of “ibn” (meaning “son of”). (Boy with goat at Ain Khudra)

282. Since one's lineage was a matter of pride, a Bedu would identify himself by naming two generations of male ancestors and then name his tribe, like: "Suhail son of Salem son of Mohammed of the Bait Kathir". The tribe's name is usually that of the ancestor from whom it can trace its descent as an independent grouping. Tribes are divided into clans and the members of a clan often pitched their tents close together in a circle, with a pen for livestock in the middle. (At market in El Oued)

4.6 Clothing

283. In addition to weaving their tents, women also made their family's clothes, or used to. Looms were set up so that a woman could sit in the shade of her tent while the other end of the loom was outside. The clothes worn by nomads typically covered them from head to foot, as protection against solar radiation and windblown sand, and were loose with wide sleeves so the air could circulate freely underneath, allowing their perspiration to evaporate and cool their skin.
(At Al-Milga, near Saint Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai)

284. Most Arab men today wear a plain long-sleeved shirt reaching to their ankles (known as a dishdasha or thawb) -- white in summer but heavier and darker in colour in winter, when a heavier and darker outer robe (a mishlah) may be worn over the thawb. (Bedu father with his children at Ain Khudra: the boy in the blue shirt holds the author’s microphone)

285. Arab men typically cover their heads with a small cap and wear over that a square scarf, usually of cotton, referred to as a keffiyeh (or ghoutra). Typically checked, black-and-white or red-and-white, it is folded once to form a triangle, draped over the head, and held in place by an igal -- a ring of black rope-like cord, commonly made of goat or camel hair. (In Alexandria)

286. Women also wear long cotton thawbs, now commonly made from cloth bought in the market. These are worn over baggy trousers and, again, are often covered by a heavier robe (sometimes of wool) in winter and on cold nights. (Bus queue in Biskra))

287. And though black is the commonest colour worn by women, especially in winter, garments are frequently decorated with panels of brightly coloured woolen embroidery. (Embroidery on two dresses the author acquired in Siwa)

288.  Similarly, those women who wear the veil, and by no means all tribes do so, may decorate it using coloured wool, coins and beads. There are actually many acceptable forms of hijab (or covering). Those who choose to wear a veil see it not as a restriction but as an expression of their modesty. (Veils the author collected in Sinai)

289. At one level the wearing of veils (which is more common today) conflicts with Bedouin tradition ... in that facial tattooing was once common. Tattoos on men were considered effeminate, but they were believed to add to a woman’s beauty. Today, though, it is rare to see a young woman with tattoos. (An older woman near Touggourt)

290. In tribes that do not wear the veil, women and girls who have reached puberty will at least cover their hair, usually with a black scarf or shawl, trimmed with beads, coloured tassels or embroidery. (North of In Amenas)

291. The clothes worn by the children are often brightly coloured -- and warm too, as it was winter when the author visited them. (North of In Amenas)

292. The clothes worn by men are plainer than those worn by women due to Islamic beliefs requiring modesty and forbidding the use of bright colours. However, weapons and everyday items like cushions, camels’ halters, saddle blankets and such like may be lavishly decorated. (Bedu guard at Giza)

293. Marriage among Bedouin is seen more as a social contract than as a love match. Girls are married when they are 16-20 years of age, most often to one of their cousins -- as a means of strengthening family ties. There is a bride price of sorts, some of which is retained by the bride herself in case things don't work out. Marriages can be dissolved easily and no stigma is attached. (Bedouin family in Oman courtesy )

294. But it is a man’s world still. Women cannot divorce their husbands the way a man can put away his wife. However, they can return home to the protection of their own family -- and if the rift is not healed divorce will follow. The commonest reason for divorce is that the couple are childless, and barrenness is always assumed to be the woman’s fault! (Women baking for men at Ain Khudra)

295. Children are taught to be responsible from an early age. They look after their younger brothers and sisters and are also assigned a share of the daily tasks, in particular looking after the sheep and the goats. Boys of 10 are treated as men and expected to behave accordingly. There is little time for them to play games. (Girl caring for younger sibling at El Golea)

296. Traditionally Berber men wore a burnous, a long cloak of coarse woolen fabric (a cross between a Roman toga and an European duffle coat) worn over ankle-length tunics or loose trousers (chalwa). Though the burnous has a hood, men also wear wrapped cloth turbans. (In Tozeur)

297. Berber women cover their hair with scarves but rarely veil their faces. They spin wool, weave tribal blankets, make the burnous worn by their husbands, do the washing, grind grain, and cook. (Between Kairouan and Tozeur)

298. At puberty a Berber boy’s head is shaved and will usually remain shaven under a turban for the rest of his life. Girls are not veiled: they wear a tribal blanket that identifies them, but are free to decorate themselves as they desire -- using handmade embroideries, silk headbands, coins, bracelets and tattoos. (Family group near Touggourt)

4.7 Crop Farming

299. Though some Bedouin and a few Berbers have traditionally spent the whole year traveling, others were semi-nomadic and settled for several months each year close to the palm groves of an oasis. Many Bedouin also own gardens in oases like El Golea and Ouargla. (Garden at Hassi Messoud, north of Amenas)

300. In the Northern and Western Sahara it is actually possible to combine herding with the growing of wheat and barley in winter. This is most characteristic of those who herd sheep or goats, since they do not travel as far as camel herders, and are able to stay in one area for longer (and may even live in houses for part of the year). They grow grain for their own use and alfalfa for their livestock. (Sheep near Touggourt)

301. The soil is turned using a simple wooded plough, often drawn by a camel. Seed is sown only when there has been enough rain. It is broadcast over the damp soil and ploughed in. The actual location of the areas cropped varies from year to year depending on the distribution of the rainfall. In many cases these improvised fields will then be left till harvest time, when the men will return to cut, thresh, and winnow the crop. (Dry-land farming between Kairouan and Tozeur)

302. Water for animals can be carted in, if and when required: but combining the breeding of livestock with the cultivation of cereals is only possible on the moister margins of the desert. (Dry-land farming between Kairouan and Tozeur)

4.8 Case Study : The Tuareg

303. Though some people in the Sahara have traditionally herded animals and others have grown crops, the Tuareg have always done both -- though not always in the same way they do today. The once warlike Tuareg now herd animals in the high country of the Central Sahara (between Djanet and Tamanrasset) and own gardens close by. (Tuareg cattle at Fort Gardel, near Djanet)

304. Related neither to the Arabs nor the Negroes, the Tuareg once occupied much of the northern and central Sahara; but after the Arab invasion they were forced to withdraw southwards, most of them eventually relocating to the Sahel – in present-day Niger and Mali. (Tuareg gardens at Fort Gardel)

305. Before the French came with their guns and built forts like this (at Serouenout) the Tuareg, with spears and swords, raided their neighbours, who lived in constant fear of attack. The Tuareg were defeated by the French in 1902 but were allowed to maintain their traditional way unhindered for 60 years -- till Algeria gained its independence in 1962.

306. "Tuareg" from the Arabic Tawarek, means either  "those caste out by God" or “those who have abandoned God”; for although they were converted to Islam they are not regarded as true Muslims because they do not understand Arabic, and so cannot read the Koran. The language that they speak is related to that of the Berbers on the northern edge of the desert. (Mosque at Illizi)

307. They attend the mosque when they can, and when away from home in the desert they still pause for prayer: but they are less zealous in the performance of other religious duties; and do not, for example, observe the month-long fast of Ramadan. (Midday prayers on the Tassili-n-Ajjer)

308. The Tuareg actually call themselves the "free men" or “noble ones” (Imazighen), and even today some of them range far and wide across the desert with little regard for political boundaries. (Near the mosque at Illizi)

309. They are divided into social classes or castes, like feudal societies in Europe long ago. At the top of the ladder were the nobles (or imohar), warriors who refused to do any physical work but spent time guarding salt caravans, hunting animals and raiding other tribes. (North of Tamanrasset)

310. Next came the vassals, the imghad, of mixed Arab and Tuareg descent. They looked after the animals and provided the nobles with meat, milk, and butter -- plus military service in time of war. (Herders moving camp north of Tamanrasset)

311. At the bottom of the social scale were Negro slaves (or iklan) and contract labourers (haratin), neither of whom could own either land or water. They provided the labour for the tribe's gardens, since the Tuareg have traditionally looked upon farming with contempt. They grew wheat, barley, and millet; and a variety of vegetables ... tomatoes, onions, leeks, cucumbers etc. (Children of workers at Hirhafok north of Tamanrasset)

312. Their gardens at Djanet supplied them with dates; but since the altitude of Tamanrasset meant it was too cold for date palms, much of the millet grown by Tuareg around the Tassili-n-Ajjer was traditionally bartered for dates at oases like In Salah. (Djanet)

313. The hard round grains of millet are husked using a mortar and pestle, winnowed using a shallow bowl, then crushed, and cooked to produce a sort of porridge, eaten with cold milk ... men first, then the women and children. As a treat pounded dried dates may be added. (Gardens at Ideles in winter; with millet stalks, melons, and a few dates drying in the sun)

314. The slaves were also made to dig underground aqueducts (foggaras or quanats) to irrigate the land contracted out to the haratin. These aqueducts tapped into the water held in gravel fans at the foot of escarpments. Each foggara was owned by a number of shareholders and the water was distributed among them -- unevenly, in accordance with their water rights. A series of shafts were sunk and tunnels dug outwards from the bottom of each one to connect them up and channel water to croplands. It was dangerous work, digging in gravel. (Cross section of a quanat, by Samuel Bailey at )

315. The course of such channels is revealed by the pile of spoil at the top of each shaft, since both the shaft and the channel needed to be cleaned our regularly. Today, however, many such channels are in a poor state of repair and carry little water. They need to be cleaned out periodically (roughly every second year) because tunnels can collapse and shafts can become choked with sand. It is dangerous work and since the abolition of slavery there are few men willing to do the job. (At Hirhafok)

316. The slaves were obtained on trading trips to lands south of the desert or captured from slave caravans crossing the Sahara on their way to ports in North Africa. The Tuareg treated their slaves well as a rule and many of their men married slave women -- which accounts in part for the darkness of their skin today. In the central Sahara slaves and ex-slaves have typically made up a third of the community. (At Hirhafok)

317. The haratin are believed to be the descendants of freed slaves and members of trading caravans from the south who chose to remain in the desert. They were exploited as serfs, under a contract system that allowed them to retain one-fifth of the crops they produced. (Terraced garden at Djanet)

318. They were only allocated a fifth because five factors were considered decisive and of equal importance in dividing up the crop -- soil, water, seed, implements (including work animals) and lastly labour. Since the haratin supplied only one of these five, labour, they received only one fifth of the crop! Yet much hard labour was involved, with gardens divided into basins into which water could be channeled or carried. (At Hirhafok)

319. In 1962, with the coming of Algerian independence, both slavery and contract labour were abolished, depriving the Tuareg of the food which previously came from their own gardens. (Garden used for production of sun-dried bricks)

320. From 1962 onwards gardening was to be organized on a co-operative basis, with land being declared “free” to those who worked it. In some cases former slaves and contract labourers were able to obtain land and water rights and farm gardens of their own; but others left the area, to work in the oil fields and cities of the north. (Gardens at Fort Gardel)

321. At much the same time border disputes with Niger ended the salt trade, and prolonged drought forced the nomads of the central Sahara to abandon their nomadic existence. Today most of the vassals are only semi-nomadic and all of the nobles are sedentary, living year-round in permanent settlements. (Homes in Hirhafok)

322. Traditionally the Tuareg used small tents made of goat skins, a metre or more in height: but most now use shelters (known as seriba) made from the fronds of the doum palm woven into panels. (Djanet)

323. Like tents these shelters can, if necessary, be dismantled easily and shifted to a new campsite. However, though some Tuareg are semi-nomadic still, most have settled permanently, despite their contempt for agriculture. (Moving house near Djanet)

324. The palm mat tent was believed to model the cosmos, with a circular base and a rounded form that mirrored that of the celestial vault. Its four poles, similarly, were compared to the four pillars said to uphold the sky at the four corners of the earth. (Outside Illizi)

325. Some have attempted to shape bricks homes accordingly, but with less success. (Ideles)

326. Most “upper class” Tuareg men still despise farming but some younger men have swallowed their pride. They grow crops today for their own use, sometimes pumping water from wells. (Djanet)

327. Others even maintain the aqueducts dug by former slaves, or pump water from their headworks. Many actually cultivate gardens alongside former slaves and haratin! (Djanet)

328. In conservative Muslim families further north women, of course, live in seclusion and are tightly veiled whenever they leave home. Among the Tuareg, in contrast, it is the men who wear a veil! It is common throughout the Sahara for men to cover their faces with a long scarf or shesh wrapped around the head for protection against the sun and the sand when travelling. In the case of the Tuareg, however, it is worn night and day, both when traveling and around camp. (Tassili-n-Ajjer)

329. Men over the age 16 use scarfs 5 or 6 metres in length (known as litham), to cover everything but their eyes and the bridge of their nose when in the presence of their parents-in-law, women, old people and strangers from their own society. With outsiders they are less strict and may allow the veil to drop slightly. It is commonly dark blue in colour, from indigo dyes; and the skin of the man who wears it may eventually be stained blue. (Tassili-n-Ajjer)

330. Nowhere else in the world do men go about veiled and the reason is buried in history. One possible explanation is the belief that a dying warrior would lose his soul if his face were left uncovered -- as it was widely believed in ancient times that a person's soul escaped the body by way of the nose and mouth. Alternatively, it may be that without a veil a man was afraid of breathing in evil spirits. It may even have started out as a protective covering, but its use was later imbued with a variety of social and religious beliefs. (Tassili-n-Ajjer)

331. Though Muslims elsewhere are allowed as many as four wives (if they treat them equally) the Tuareg have only one; and the women, who are never veiled, are treated with respect. (Woman at Hirhafok who had added knitting to the usual round of wifely tasks)

332. A person's descent was traced traditionally through the female line, not the male. Children belonged to the same caste/class as their mother, not that of their father, and instead of their father being their male next of kin and guardian it would be a brother of their mother's. And, till recently, it was from this uncle that they would inherit, not from their father. (Children near Fort Gardel)

333. Men marry when they are about 30 years of age; girls when they are 14 or 15. A bride price is paid and divorce is taboo. Though women do not wear veils, they do dress modestly. They play a major role in the social life of the community and are often the only ones who can read and write. (Fort Gardel)

334. Girls of marriageable age are not kept in seclusion, as they would be in Arab societies; nor are they married off by their father. Instead they are free to choose their own husbands, as long as they are both of the same caste. (Fort Gardel)

335. The Algerian government has, in some places, provided both schools and teachers: but since children are required from an early age to help care for the their family's animals and its garden their schooling is frequently interrupted. (Lower caste boy at Hirhafok)

336. The Tuareg raise camels, sheep, goats and some cattle still. These provide them with meat, milk, and skins: but camels were valued also as a means of transport. For hundreds of years the Tuareg crisscrossed the Sahara, following long established routes, leading great lines of camels ("caravans") carrying salt, mined in the mountains south of the Hoggar) or concentrated by evaporation. (Camels north of Tamanrasset)

337. They sold much of the salt to farmers south of the desert who paid for it with grain and slaves: but they moved it also to oases further north (like In Salah and Ghardaia) and to markets in Libya, where livestock, grain and salt were exchanged for dates, tea, sugar, clothes and household utensils. (Market at Biskra)

338. Trips like these could take two or three months. While the men were away with the camels, their women looked after the sheep and goats. They had to find them water as well as pasture, but in the mountains of the Hoggar they needed typically to travel no more than 50kms in the course of a single year. (Temporary camp at Arak)

339. Today Tuareg women spend most if not all of their time in the towns and villages where they have taken up permanent residence ... and may now help care for their family’s garden. (Djanet)

340. Here they will also fulfill the usual range of responsibilities entrusted to the wives of nomads ... caring for their palm mat tent, cooking, making and/or repairing clothes, washing them, and caring for their children. (Djanet)

341. Young boys here typically run around naked. They will sleep in their parents’ tent till puberty, after which they must build their own shelter or, if the weather is warm, sleep on a mat beneath a tree, wrapped in a blanket.

342. Today some of the old caravan routes serve as unmade roads (or "pistes") used by vehicles which can move supplies quickly to those settlements that are accessible by road. (Crossing the Erg D’Admer near Djanet)

343. Some Tuareg now drive trucks instead of camels -- carrying fuel for cars and pumps, spare parts, and consumer goods. Sometimes trucks are even used these days to move camels quickly to better pasture! (Erg D’Admer)

344. Where camels are required to walk as they always did in the past, a man is likely now to throw his saddle into the back of a utility vehicle at the start of a trip and race off into the desert to find them. They will have been hobbled so they cannot wander far. (Near Tamanrasset)

345. Sadly, almost the only caravans you are likely to see here today carry tourists rather than salt. They come here for a “desert adventure”, some of them flying direct from Paris: and trouble is taken to ensure that they have every luxury they might need during their journey. (Near Tamanrasset)

346. Other men are employed to guard the cave paintings of the Tassili-n-Ajjer and to look after the tourists who visit them ... ensuring that they do not get lost, and policing the regulations instituted by the Algerian government for the care of the paintings.

347. From the gravestones in the cemetery at Djanet it’s obvious that the region has for generations been part of the Tuareg heartland, but the nomadic way of life is in decline everywhere -- for various reasons. These include the collapse of the caravan trade, massive stock losses in recent dry years, the income available from tourism, and government policies.

348. Long-distance movements have been restricted by nation states that distrust people whose tribal loyalties cut across political boundaries. And governments have also been keen to settle nomads so they can be counted, monitored, and controlled; and so that power lines, schools and clinics can reach them. (Illizi)


5.1 Housing

349. Though semi-nomadism combined with the growth of dates has always been widespread, the population of most oases is decidedly sedentary. And people here live in houses, instead of tents. The word "oasis" is derived from the language of the Coptic Christians of Egypt -- from "oueh" meaning "to dwell" and "saa" meaning "to drink". (Djanet)

350. Houses here protect those who live in them against the heat of summer, the cold of winter, and sandstorms -- and they also allow a man to shut off his womenfolk from contact with the outside world, since the Muslim faith is more than just a religion. It is a way of life: and in a conservative household women, after marriage, speak to no man other than their husband, father and brothers. (El Oued)

351. Most such houses are made of clay bricks. The clay is made into a slurry by adding water and sand: and chopped straw and dung may be added to increase its strength. It is mixed by treading underfoot and then shaped into bricks by hand, or with the aid of a wooden frame. These are then dried in the sun ... for just a couple of days in summer. (In Salah)

352. The walls are often half a metre thick, with two lines of bricks and a cavity between them for added insulation. Mud brick houses are cheap but can be damaged by heavy rain. If this happens they are rarely rebuilt: it is easier to build a new one. (Inside old Shali fortress at Siwa)

353. The trunks of palm trees are used to support the roof, but because they are pliable they are used only in short lengths of no more than 2.5 metres, which means that rooms in such houses are rarely more than two metres wide. (In Salah)

354. Walled roof terraces commonly provide a secluded place for women, where they can work unobserved. Firewood and garden produce can also be stored here, and crops dried in the sun. (In Salah)

355. At Siwa the buildings in the rain-damaged Shali division have been progressively replaced by homes built of local stone, and dates are dried on the roof. (Siwa)

356. Other crops may be dried against the walls of desert houses -- like these chili peppers at Kairouan.

357. Though houses in the Sahara vary in form they do have certain features in common, including an inner courtyard. Cooking facilities are located here, including an oven for baking, for this is where women have traditionally done much of their work -- like cooking, weaving, and grinding grain. Such courtyards may also contain stabling facilities for livestock, plus a latrine. (El Golea)

358. Houses here are typically entered from the street by way of a narrow passage which is angled in such a way that even if the door beyond is left open no one can see inside ... ensuring privacy. (Village near Touggourt)

359. For the same reason houses have few if any windows on the outside (though sometimes narrow slits in the walls). Besides increasing privacy this also reduces penetration by sunlight (and associated radiation). (Village south of Hassi Messaoud, south of Touggourt)

360. Extended families are the norm, made up of grandparents, their sons, with their wives, and a host of grandchildren. The living rooms and bedrooms of each son's family are grouped around the courtyard. They were floored traditionally with hard-packed soil. (El Golea)

361. Till recently they all slept on carpets (like the nomads): now they have beds. Mud floors have sometimes been replaced by concrete and tile. (El Golea)

362. The provision of electricity in settlements like this, financed by the profits of the oil industry, has reduced a woman’s workload in part, as she no longer has to sew by hand. (El Golea)

363. And the discomfort and monotony of desert life has been eased by the availability of refrigerators, fans, electric lights, radios, and televisions (and mobile phones in some areas). (El Golea)

364. Most houses will also have a room for storing dates, where they will be compressed (stamped underfoot) into large blocks for marketing -- shown here lying on palm fronds awaiting transport to market. (El Golea)

365. The terraces where women spend much of the day are generally connected to the courtyard by a staircase. On hot nights they serve as sleeping quarters -- and for that reason alone are usually enclosed by walls. (El Golea)

366. Children play in the courtyard and across the town’s vacant lots. Their clothes will have been bought in a local market and will most likely have been made in China. (El Golea)

367. House form does, however, vary somewhat from place to place. Around El Oued and Touggourt, for example, the courtyards are surrounded by rooms with domed roofs, which are supposed to prevent the build-up of sand. The bricks used in their construction are made from gypsum leached from the sand here by underground water.

368. And while most houses are brown due to the colour of the mud bricks used to build them, these are sometimes painted white or pale blue -- to reflect more of the sun's heat. (Ghardaia)

5.2 Irrigation

369. Permanent settlements like this are only possible where there is water. And since reliable sources of water are few and far between in the Sahara, settlements are widely spaced. (Djanet)

370. With the obvious exception of the Nile there are no rivers flowing year-round across the desert, so water for irrigation must be obtained from underground. Some settlements are blessed with natural springs: Tozeur, in Tunisia, is blessed with 200 springs, and has prospered accordingly. In most cases, though, water must somehow be raised to the surface ... and there are many ways of doing this. (Tozeur)

371. The best known is the shaduf, where a bucket is suspended from a counter-weighted pole. To drop the bucket into the well you simply raise the weight: to get water you pull down on the pole. However, the shaduf is suitable only for shallow wells, to around 10 metres in depth. (Oasis south of El Oued)

372. When the well if deeper  -- say 10 to 70 metres -- the bucket can be raised using a pulley and a rope. When the well is deep the rope will be attached to an animal that is made to walk up and down a ramp -- the length of which depends on the depth of the well. (North of Touggourt)

373. Water wheels (sakiehs or norias) are used also, powered by farm labourers or draft animals. In this case a series of interlocking cogs lifts a chain of buckets filled with water.  (Kom Ombo)

374. Where the flow from natural springs is adequate, water may be channeled direct to palm groves. And where landforms permit, it may be conveyed by underground channels (known as foggaras or quanats), which tap into the water held in gravel fans [see frames 314 & 315]. (El Golea)

375. Unfortunately, because of the demands placed upon it, the water table is sinking in many parts of the Sahara, and wells must be deepened from time to time ... like this one at Arak.

376. Elsewhere, deep bores have been drilled (in modern times) to tap artesian waters far below. These sometimes provide enough to irrigate large areas ... in the Central Sahara at El Golea, Ouargla and near Ghardaia for example; but the water is hot when it reaches the surface and must be cooled before it can be used in irrigation. Also, with each new well the volume of fossil water available in these artesian basins is reduced. (Warm water bore north of El Oued)

377. In addition, of course, the application of mineral-rich waters to palm groves year after year has resulted in saline soils and the need for better drainage facilities, and (if possible) quantities of fresh water to flush out the salt. (Salt encrusted soils near Touggourt)

5.3 Cropping

378. Whatever its source, though, the water is distributed throughout all or part of the oasis by a network of channels and measuring devices. (Siwa)

379. Most ditches are not lined; so10% of the water typically is lost by seepage before it reaches the roots of the palms. (Siwa)

380. Without irrigation, though, dates could never be grown in the Sahara. They are favoured by the hot summer and the dry atmosphere, but to grow well a mature palm needs one third of a litre of water every minute. (Ditch in grove near Touggourt)

381. In rare instances water is found so close to the surface that the roots of the palms can reach it unaided; but everywhere else they must be irrigated. The water is apportioned according to the number of date palms owned, and the width of the openings in the sluice gates varies accordingly. (El Golea, where they are 180,000 palms)

382. To save space and water in some oases, only one male date palm is allowed to survive for every ten females. This makes artificial fertilization necessary. The men cut the heavy flowers from the male palms and climb the female trees to shake pollen over the female flowers. This is called "marrying the palms". And, since it is seen as interfering with the work of Allah in creation, his help is invoked by prayers chanted throughout the pollination process. (Male flower: courtesy jeanbradbury at

383. It is 5 or 6 years before a new date palm bears any fruit at all, and it won't come into full production till it is between 40 and 80 years old! But when properly irrigated -- every four days in winter and every second day in summer  -- a single tree can yield between 60 and 100 kilograms of dates a year. (Courtesy Stan Shebs at

384. In the Central Sahara, though, yields may be as low as 10 or 20 kilograms: and since a typical family there owns between 30 and 100 trees, they may be unable to satisfy even their own requirements -- since each adult typically consumes between 180 and 210 kilograms of dates each year. (El Oued)

385. Every second year each palm must be manured. A deep hole will be dug around its roots then and filled with ten to twenty camel-loads of dung ... traditionally purchased from nomads. (Healthy immature fruit courtesy

386. There are many different types of dates and 20 or 30 varieties are grown in some oases. They differ in shape, colour, size, texture, gloss, sugar content and keeping qualities: and they also ripen at different times. (In market at Biskra)

387. In addition to providing fruit -- eaten fresh or dried, raw or cooked, or used in the distillation of strong drink ("aragi") -- date palms have other uses. Their stones can be ground up and fed to camels, fibres from the leaves can be twisted into rope, and the trunks of dead trees are used to support the roofs of houses. (Courtesy

388. In addition, the leaves of date palms can be burnt as fuel, woven into fences, or stuck into the sand to break the force of the winds and slow the progress of advancing sand dunes. (South of Hassi Messouda)

389. The palms also shade the crops that are grown beneath them, for nowhere can dates alone sustain the population: other crops are needed, especially cereals. (Ghardaia)

390. Couscous, their staple food, is made from coarsely ground wheat, barley, millet or sorghum mixed with vegetables. On feast days a little mutton or camel meat may be added. (Grains and pulses in the market at Biskra)

391. Wheat and barley are grown in winter when less of the precious water is lost by evaporation. After the dates have been harvested, the soil in the gardens is turned over with a short mattock ... since the individual plots are too small for a plough to be used. (Seedbeds prepared beneath palms at Djanet)

392. Farmyard manures and domestic waste, including ash from cooking fires, are then worked into the soil (and sometimes today artificial fertilizers). The seed is broadcast by hand, harvested with a sickle, and threshed with a flail or with the help of donkeys (in a yard) driven round in a circle to tread out the grain. (Vegetable gardens at recently developed oasis --  Bir Wahed)

393. Once the winter crops have been harvested a summer crop may be sown -- millet, sorghum or maize -- if there is enough water -- and vegetables like tomatoes, melons, pumpkins, red peppers and mint for making tea. Beans, peas, onions, lettuces, cabbages and such like are grown in the cooler winter season. (In small oasis south of Hassi Messouda)

394. Most oases will also have a few fruit trees -- sometimes olives but more often figs, oranges, peaches, apricots, pomegranates, almonds and (in some places) bananas. (Bir Wahed)

395. Most towns and villages also have goats, but opinions are divided concerning their real value. For some they are testimony to the wisdom of Allah who created such a wonderful machine to turn degraded pastures and refuse into good milk. Others consider them a menace, believing that the processes of desertification -- and the advance of the desert southwards across the Sahel -- will continue till they are removed. (Goats at the Biskra dump)

5.4 Related Issues

396. All such farms are small by Australian or European standards -- more like large gardens. As a result, no oasis in the Central Sahara is able to supply all the grain it needs, as yields are low. Large quantities of cereals have, therefore, to be shipped in each autumn -- formerly by camel caravan but now by truck. (The garden at Bir Wahed)

397. And there are two environmental hazards which threaten most oases -- one is poor drainage and the other wind-blown sand. Getting rid of the water that is delivered to the gardens is as important as getting it there in the first place. Much is lost by evaporation, and a lot seeps into the ground and raises the level of the water table. As a result salination is a problem in many oases.  (Near Touggourt) [See also frame 377]

398. The advance of sand dunes bordering the oasis may also threaten its continuing existence. (Oasis south of El Oued)

399. Fences made of palm fronds can slow the advance but seldom stop it. There may over time be a series of such fences, for as sand piles up against them and overflows the obstacle, a new line of fronds must planted along the new dune crest: but it’s a losing battle. (Oasis south of El Oued)

400. The gardens on the edge of the settlement will be buried eventually, with just a few palm fronds poking through the sand as a reminder that the land beneath was once productive. (South of Hassi Messouda)

401. At In Salah (one of the hottest and driest places in the Sahara) the gardens have shifted westwards (that is, downwind) over the centuries. Oases without additional land suitable for irrigation have been abandoned and now lie buried and forgotten. (In Salah sheltering behind fences during sandstorm)

5.5 Case Study : Siwa

402. Positioned on the edge of the Libyan Sand Sea, 580 kilometres from the Nile and 290 from the Mediterranean, Siwa was a point of call for caravans traveling from north to south -- from the Mediterranean to the Sudan -- and those traveling from east to west -- from the Nile Valley to Libya. (Nearby Sand Sea)

403. It was also a stopping-off point for pilgrims traveling to Mecca from the south and from the west, having a large mosque and a conservative Muslim population.

404.The Romans used Siwa as a place of banishment; and because of its remoteness, it has been able to retain a degree of cultural independence. Its people are still mostly Berbers (though passing caravans introduced slaves of Ethiopian or Nubian origin). (Their descendants)

405. They have retained their own local language -- Siwi -- which is quite distinct from Arabic, as are some of their customs ... including the long dresses worn by young girls.

406. Women were (and to a great extent still are) strictly segregated and confined to houses in the centre of town, leaving them only for important occasions like weddings, baptisms and funerals. (Woman being lead in procession)

407. Their houses have flat roofs, allowing them to watch comings and goings below while they themselves are unseen. (Old town centre)

408. When they do venture outside married women are masked by a large shawl which covers their faces completely, leaving only a small opening so they can see where they are going. And for transport they will depend on a husband, brother or son to drive them. (Boy driving donkey cart)

409. Outside activities are reserved for men. They cultivate the gardens and run the town’s businesses. Trucks now transport them to their place of work. (Men waiting for transport in town square)

410. Traditionally young bachelors had to live outside the town, where they looked after the gardens, away from any women. They slept there also, seemingly out of harm’s way. Siwa was long acknowledged to be a centre of male homosexuality, and even formalized same sex unions. (Siwa with distant gardens)

411. The town and its gardens lie in a depression 80 kms long and 20 metres below sea level. The little rain that falls is trapped in salt lakes, but the oases is maintained by artesian springs of freshwater ... 300 of them! (View from Aghurmi)

412. Their flow is diminishing in some areas, but they supply water to 250,000 date palms, 70,000 olive trees, and many orchards of fruit trees -- of oranges especially. Its population numbers around 15,000. (Gardens between Siwa and Lake Zeitun)

413. Siwa is mentioned in a text concerning “The Seven Oases” engraved on the walls of the temple at Edfu. The word aman meant “water” and Ammon was the god of springs here originally, but his identity was blended eventually with that of the more illustrious sun-god Ammon worshipped at Karnak. (The approach to the Oracle)

414. The power of the Oracle of Ammon to attract pilgrims increased accordingly. Supplicants came seeking answers to spiritual questions direct from their god -- through his priestly intermediary.(Remnants of the Temple of the Oracle)

415. The Oracle here was held in high regard and rivaled that of Apollo at Delphi, on the other side of the Mediterranean. It was housed in a temple within the fortified city of Aghurmi on a hill east of present-day Siwa. The temple itself was built of stone (during the 6th century BCE), unlike the other buildings in Aghurmi ... which collapsed long ago. (Remains of Aghurmi)

416. Nearby (just 200 metres away) the Temple of Umm el-Beyda was also dedicated to Ammon, but even less of it remains today, as it was blown up by the Ottoman governor in 1896 to provide him with building material. (All that remains of the temple today)

417. The great age of settlement in and around Siwa is obvious also from the many tombs carved into Jebel al-Mawta, the “Mountain of the Dead”, on the northern edge of town. (Burial area)

418. The tombs here date from Ptolemaic and Roman times, but were used as air-raid shelters when the Italians bombed Siwa during the Second World War: and they were greatly damaged then. Their contents were also pillaged by British troops stationed here then. (Surviving tomb painting)

419. In the 13th century the survivors of a Bedouin attack decided to build a fortress on a hill overlooking the oasis, and named it Shali, a Berber word for “city”. It was meant to fortify the oasis against invasion either by Egyptians or Libyans. (Shali)

420. Originally Shali had only one point of entry. Another gate was added later which was reserved for the exclusive use of women, allowing them discreet access to their gardens. (Buildings surrounding the Shali mosque)

421. Shali was built of blocks of salt incorporating rock fragments and plastered with clay. Its buildings were four or five storeys high and housed hundreds of people at one time.

422. However, though the average rainfall here is low, it is both variable and destructive (in common with most deserts). It rained heavily for three days in 1926 and many of the buildings collapsed.

423. The mosque, with a minaret shaped like a chimney, is used still (as evidenced by its loud speaker), as are a few buildings on the edge of the former “city”.

424. Such homes disintegrate further whenever it rains, but they provide short-term accommodation for those who cannot afford anything better.

425. The new houses below the fort were built of limestone blocks and/or concrete. They should weather most storms easily but do not provide the same degree of protection against heat or cold. (New homes below the old fort)

426. Siwa today is a bustling regional centre, with a variety of functions still... though no longer a place of pilgrimage. Ammon is no longer worshipped here.

427. Its men-only markets provide fresh foodstuffs for the local population. (Local market)

428. It also has supermarkets (or corner stores?) that sell processed items...

429. And there is a corresponding need to dispose of the packaging involved.

430. But Siwa also “exports” items of its own, supplying markets in Cairo and Alexandria with large quantities of dates and olives. (Olives)

431. With encouragement from the wife of Egypt’s former president (Mubarak) Siwa also offers significant educational opportunities to young and old.

432. Teenage girls attending school are not required to wear veils (at least, they weren’t in 2003) but they do cover their hair.

433. And if they get a lift to school they do not ride there with boys of their own age!

434. Donkeys are used here in preference to camels because insects like mosquitoes thrive around lakes that are too salty to allow for the fish that would normally eat them. Camels, being creatures of arid lands, have no resistance to mosquitoes. However, in deference to the modesty of Siwa’s women, female donkeys are relegated by custom to an island in a lake nearby; where a meeting with male donkeys is arranged for mating once a year.

435. In recent times Siwa has also been developed as a tourist destination ... as a doorway to the Libyan Sand Sea, and because of its cultural distinctiveness and its rich history. Tours can be booked here, also hotel accommodation.  And there are, the inevitable range of handicrafts for sale.

436. Tourists can also rent bicycles, to help them move around the oasis and explore historic sites outside the town.

437. Siwa was once ringed by smaller oases on its eastern side. These were a source of additional food: but they were also important for safety, serving as outposts to protect Siwa from a surprise attack. (The view from Aghurmi)

438. However, these smaller oases lay in depressions well below sea level and were eventually destroyed by salt. All that remains of them today are a few old palms encircling ponds of salt water. (Salt lakes east of town)

439. Fresh water from Siwa’s springs is channeled to the foot of each palm tree in an age-old strictly regulated system of irrigation. In ancient days SIwa’s dates were known as “Fruits of the Oracle of Ammon” and their reputed quality was amplified by Siwa’s prestige as a place of pilgrimage. (Irrigated palms)

440. Though growers must wait 40 years or more for their palms to reach maturity, they will bear fruit for between 150 and 200 years. Unfortunately today the cultivation of dates, fruit trees, and other crops is a struggle between rising salinity and sources of enough fresh water to flush it away. (Young date palm)

441. Now for every set of channels that delivers water to a date garden there needs to be one that drains it away. Many growers are fighting a losing battle against a rising tide of salinity … which, of course, is a problem common to many oases. (Irrigation water channeled over drainage ditch)


6.1 Homes and Streets

442. The people who live in oases and those who move their animals across the desert are economically interdependent. The nomads need the dates and grains produced in the oases, and the farmers there cannot survive without the produce of animal husbandry -- and in earlier days the salt carried in caravans from areas to the south. (Market in Biskra)

443. The two groups came together in the towns which developed in the larger oases and on the northern edge of the desert. However, because life depends on the availability of water, sources of which were few and far apart (and often of limited capacity), permanent settlements, too, are widely spaced ... and were small in size originally. (Djanet)

444. Streets are usually narrow (often less than two metres in width). They are wide enough to allow two riding animals to pass but narrow enough to block much of the sun’s radiation and also allow rooms to be built over the street sometimes, to provide a shaded passageway below. (Nubian village near Aswan)

445. In communities where women are not allowed to use the streets but are confined to their roof-top terraces, having the alleys below them covered over, allows women to move around in a world of their own, with inter-connecting pathways, small squares, and markets with stalls operated by the wives of the male shopkeepers active at ground level. (Covered walkway at Touggourt)

446. The maze of narrow streets and alleys at ground level is broken by small squares where the men meet in their leisure hours. Here there will be special places for prayer, feeding troughs for donkeys and camels, and often a public convenience of some sort. (Men with hookah in Siwa)

447. Urban settlements are often divided into ethnically distinct districts, since the basic elements in the population -- traditionally Arabs, Berbers, Negroes and Jews -- preferred to live in separate quarters. In Ghardaia their districts were clearly defined, but with the exodus of the Jews in 1962 the Jewish ghetto was given to refugees who had been displaced during Algeria’s struggle for independence (1954-62). (Ghardaia)

448. Every town will have at least one mosque, where some men will meet for prayer fives times a day, and all of them on Friday. The call to prayer was once chanted from the minaret by a muezzin. Now they use a tape-recording and a speaker system. (Ancient mosque with loudspeakers in Kairouan)

449. Among devout Muslims those women who are able to leave home wear a veil of some sort, but others are less strict. However, this photo was taken in 1983, and since then the adoption of a more fundamentalist approach to religion has resulted in most Arab women being veiled, and even some Berbers. (At Bus station in Biskra)

450. In Egyptian cities, industrial development, trade and commercial agriculture funded the growth of a middle class, whose houses were up-market versions of those in oases. Windows facing the street were masked by wooden screens, which provided both shade and privacy. Gardens at the centre of the house cooled and gave light to the surrounding rooms. (Mix of housing types in Cairo)

451. In such middle class homes the innermost room was typically reserved for the women and included a bath: while visitors were received in a large room with a marble fountain. A series of porches ringed the upper terrace floor, equipped with screens through which the women could watch what was happening below without being seen. Near the centres of cities, however, most such homes have been replaced by apartment blocks. (Alexandria)

452. Similar contrasts are visible in recreational facilities. In the biggest cities playgrounds have been provided in association with new commercial developments. (On the outskirts of Alexandria)

453. Elsewhere recreational activities are frequently improvised. All of the nations involved are “soccer mad” but most kids start out playing on vacant lots ... where the goal line is likely to be marked with stones instead of lime. (Ghardaia)

454. Younger children also improvise, making the most of whatever “toys” are available. There are no “after school care centres”. (Car body dumped in the riverbed at Biskra)

455. Adults (mostly men) may go to a cinema, where they are increasingly likely to see films which promote Islamic values rather than those of Hollywood. (Tozeur)

456. Others with time on their hands may stop off during the day at one of the many cafes that ring the squares, but not during Ramadan. (Touggourt)

6.2 Markets and Marketing

457. The market square or suk (suq, souk, or souq) is the busiest part of each and every town. Men go there to buy and sell goods, and also to talk with friends. (Aswan)

458. Public announcements are made here too -- on matters like garbage collection, taxation and lost animals. These messages were once broadcast by town criers, but now are piped through loudspeakers. (El Oued)

459. In the larger suks, where markets are held daily, in addition to local producers, traders from outside the area will sell utensils and luxury goods; and there will also be specialists like dentists, smiths and even fortune-tellers. (Aswan)

460. The smaller suks, where markets happen once or twice each week, provide an outlet for local farm produce, and every suk has an appointed official to check on the weights and measures being used. (Scales at Biskra)

461. Negotiations over sales are normally the responsibility of men. When closing a transaction the vendor usually shakes hands with the purchaser. (Biskra)

462. The vendor then kisses the bunch of banknotes handed to him, sealing the sale. In this case the money was handed over by a female purchaser ...which is acceptable in some communities but forbidden in others. (Tozeur)

463. There are also markets with female vendors, but not many. It depends usually on the level of conservatism in the Muslim community. (Aswan)

464. In Coptic communities, however, women do most of the buying and the selling. (Wadi Natrun)

465. Growers use donkeys or a horse and cart to carry vegetables to market from nearby oases in the early morning. (Kairouan)

466. They will be joined on the main market day ... usually Friday ... by men, young and old, from the surrounding settlements who arrive by bus, car or bicycle to purchase supplies. (Kairouan)

467. The markets are busiest in winter, when there are more nomads around with meat, wool, cheese, butter and milk to sell and/or exchange for local produce. This is also when fresh dates are marketed, having been picked in late autumn: and red peppers, too, are ready for sale then. (Peppers at Kairouan)

468. In common with markets elsewhere in Africa, the stalls are usually segregated. Those selling vegetables frequently cover the largest area. (Aswan)

469. Most markets also have a section of stalls selling fruit, much of it grown close by, but some shipped in from more favoured areas. (Aswan)

470. There will be plenty of dried foodstuffs and spices on offer. (Aswan)

471. And there may also be a line of butchers selling fresh meat. (Aswan)

472. While on the far side of the market animals that are still alive will be offered for sale-- camels, cattle, horses, sheep, and goats, and chickens too. (Kairouan)

473. Beyond these staples, the range of items on offer will vary according to the resources, skills, needs and wealth of the communities involved. Those who ride animals need saddles or the materials with which they can make their own. (Kairouan)

474. And the challenges inherent in do-it-yourself housing projects are reduced by the availability of well-hung doors and privacy screens to cover windows. (Kairouan)

475. Carpets are essential for families that live in tents, and they also make life easier for people in town with dirt or tiled floors. (Tozeur)

476. Baskets have a range of practical domestic uses, but when decorated become wants rather than needs ... and also catch the eye of tourists. (Tozeur)

477. Basic, and cheap, containers for carrying and/or packaging produce are also available: and so are pots. (Touggourt)

478. Pots are typically made in Berber towns using a heavy stone wheel, which the potter turns with his foot. They will be dried in direct sunlight for at least two days and then fired in a simple kiln. These ones are used to store water.

479. Plastic containers are available for those who have to carry water, and piping for those fortunate enough to have access to a source of water under pressure. (Ghardaia)

480. Though most of the produce on sale comes from the surrounding area, most of the clothing and household goods are imported today ... from China especially. (El Oued)

481. In large towns refreshment stalls like this are common, but mobile stalls the size of wheelbarrows are also used to hawk wares around town. (Ghardaia)

482. Others use their heads to peddle their wares, or supply smaller outlets ... in this case with bread. (Alexandria)

483. Meanwhile, the growth or tourism is reflected at historic sites in lines of stalls of exotic clothing, staffed by men but aimed at women from overseas. (Edfu)

484. Some of them specialize in decorative clothing for belly dancing. (Edfu)

6.3 Land Transport and Changing Urban Functions

485. Towns like Ghardaia have been transit centres from time immemorial. Since the desert is a major barrier to transportation, separating Sub-Saharan Africa from the Mediterranean and Europe, oases situated on north-to-south caravan routes prospered accordingly. (Ghardaia)

486. In addition, of course, since the Sahara has never been able to subsist on its own resources and has depended on imports of wheat and barley from the north of the desert and millet from the south, many communities have functioned as distribution centres. (Tamanrasset)

487. Until recently even the largest towns of the Sahara were quite small, typically having between 10 and 20 thousand inhabitants: but the development of the desert’s oil and gas reserves led to an explosion in population. El Oued had 7,000 in 1906, 17,000 in 1960, and 135,000 in 2008. Ghardaia had 8,000 in 1906, 20,000 in 1960, and 93,000 in 2008. And so on. (El Oued in 1982)

488. Towns like Ouargla (with 200,000 inhabitants) expanded to accommodate the engineers, technicians, drilling crews, and office staff employed in the search for and development of the region’s oil reserves. (Ouargla)

489. Several pre-existing settlements also boomed as transport centres following the dramatic increase in freight and passenger traffic. And their growth was augmented by nomads settling close by, in search of work as labourers, bricklayers and carpenters etc. (Ghardaia)

490. Originally everything moved by camel train, following traditional routes. This dry river channel across the Tassili-n-Ajjer was used by caravans traveling between Tripoli and Niger.

491. In seemingly featureless areas routes were often marked by piles of stones, so that travelers would not lose their way. (Approach to the Hoggar)

492. During the Second World War some of these tracks (pistes) were converted into routes negotiable by motor vehicles. (Crossing the Erg d’Admer near Djanet)

493. However, as camel caravans were progressively replaced by trucks, such tracks became badly worn and impassable at times. (Firmer ground near Arak)

494. Later, with the need to move heavy drilling equipment around, several of the old pistes were tarred in the 1950s and made into proper roads. (Near In Amenas)

495. Unfortunately, having been laid rather hurriedly over sand, the road surface breaks up readily and is in constant need of repair. (Near In Amenas)

496. Tourism has also contributed to urban development. In addition to its functions as a regional capital, Biskra, with over 300,000 inhabitants, is the chief tourist centre for the Sahara, as it is blessed with beautiful scenery. It lies in the foothills of the Aures Range where the mountains merge with the vast desert to the south. But it is also of historical interest, as it was occupied by the Romans and was the only oasis with a Christian population at the time of the Arab invasion. (Biskra)

497. Djanet is considered by some to be the most beautiful oasis in the Sahara, but it now has an airport thanks to the tourist industry, as it is the starting point for visits to the famous rock paintings of the Tassili n’Ajjer. “Djanet” is an Arabic word meaning “the garden of gardens” (that is “Paradise”). Its inhabitants are mostly the dark-skinned descendants (haratin) of former slaves, plus a few settled Tuareg. (Djanet)

498. Aswan, Egypt’s southernmost city, was a garrison and frontier town for hundreds of years. It was that country’s gateway to Nubia and Ethiopia. But with the world-wide attention given to the preservation of the temples at Abu Simbel it became a tourist centre also. And its economy was further diversified by the influx of displaced Nubians, and the availability of hydro-electric power for use in local industry. (Aswan)

499. Long a place of pilgrimage, Siwa, too, is now a tourist centre ... and the gateway to the Libyan Desert. Since there are no camels in that oasis, trips to the Great Libyan Sand Sea are offered by 4WD vehicles. (Siwa)

500. Their death-defying drivers race across the dunes on their way to this hot spring at Bir Wahed.

501. Here visitors take it in turns to bathe in sulfurous water, which bubbles upwards from deep underground.

502. The run-off from the pool is used to irrigate a small garden, and serve tea to visitors, who will later return to their hotels in town.

503. Not all the visitors are “backpackers” from Europe and America, booked on exotic tours. The increased prosperity of Saharan nations is reflected in regional tourism also. (Bir Wahed)

504. The oil industry has obviously transformed the economies of several desert states. The search for oil and the building of pipelines have created many new jobs and remodeled many towns. (Ouargla)

505. But oil revenues have also financed the provision of electricity to remote settlements, and changed people’s lives accordingly. (Village near Touggourt)

506. In addition the production of oil has led to the development of a range of petrochemical industries, both within and on the margins of the desert ... in Libya as well as Algeria. (Map of Libyan oil fields courtesy Danmichaelo at

507. Revenues from oil have also underwritten a number of irrigation projects which would otherwise have been considered impractical. With drilling equipment on hand it was possible to tap into artesian reservoirs, and the income from oil exports financed the building of immense pipelines. (

508. These were designed to move vast quantities of water to irrigate more land and meet the needs of expanding urban areas where enormous quantities of water were needed for drinking and sanitation, and to maintain parks and gardens. The planned network was celebrated on the Libyan 20 dinar bank note, but such projects are problematic since they draw tremendous volumes from subsurface reservoirs that are not being replenished. (Courtesy Victor Korniyenko at


7.1 Ain Khudra and Tourism

509. Ain Khudra lies in a hilly section of the Sinai Desert (which is an eastern extension of the Sahara) north of St. Catherine’s Monastery, and roughly 10 kilometres inland from the Gulf of Aqaba. (The approach to Ain Khudra)

510. Here the Bedouin have swapped their traditional lifestyle for one grounded in a growing tourist industry, as increasing incomes in other countries allow both young and old greater opportunities for travel. (Sale of handicrafts)

511. Heads of families still wear the keffiyeh typical of the Bedouin, to protect their faces against both sun and sand, and loose white dishdashas which reflect the sun's rays during the day but can be wrapped tightly around the body on the cold nights common under clear skies: but almost everything else has changed. (The boy in the blue shirt holds the author’s microphone)

512. The village lies in a dry river channel (or wadi), where little rain falls, but where water is naturally available beneath the surface.

513. Sheep were grazed here traditionally over rock-strewn pastures on the surrounding hills, which are still marked by stone sheepfolds where animals could be penned up at night.

514. The Bedouin have watered their stock here for thousands of years, at a spring where Miriam, Moses’ older sister (who had saved his life years before), is said in the Bible to have been stricken with leprosy as a punishment for criticizing him (in Numbers, chapter 12, verse10). (“Miriam’s Spring”)

515. Since the Bedouin believe themselves to be descended from Ishmael, son of Abraham, they are not only allied racially to the Jews, as Semitic people, but also have histories that are inter-twined. And Miriam is celebrated in Islam as an important member of the generation of Moses. (Painting of Miriam with “Moses in the Bulrushes” by Paul Delaroche, at )

516. For most of its history “Miriam’s Spring” was a stopping off point visited by nomadic herders. That people have been settled here permanently for only a short period of time is obvious from the cemetery. Since no grave is ever disturbed in a Muslim cemetery they typically date from the foundation of a settlement; and, clearly, few people have been buried here.

517. Muslim graves are so aligned that the body has its face turned towards Mecca. An upright stone is placed at the head and another at the feet, though the graves of women usually have a third stone in the middle. There will be no ornament whatsoever.

518. Four families now live here year-round, -- or 30 people in total. A few more families work at resorts on the Red Sea coast and spend their holidays here in the desert.

519. Most of Ain Khudra’s inhabitants now own houses built of local stone. These are more secure but less suited to the climate.

520. For old time’s sake, though, most of them have hung on to their tents and pitched then alongside their new homes.

521. And some even live in tents and use their stone houses for storage and/or to keep their youngest animals safe at night.

522. At Ain Khudra shelters have also been built for tourists. They are made of palm fronds attached to a wooden frame, and are furnished with carpets and cushions so the visitors can rest in the shade.

523. The folk who live here now keep a few sheep and goats -- all of which scavenge for food and are also fed kitchen scraps.

524. At night they are locked up in improvised pens made from the kinds of odds and ends which accumulate in permanent settlements.

525. Their chickens, which feed mostly on garden waste, look for shade during the heat of the day.

526. At night these same birds are kept safe from foxes and raptors in this old oil drum.

527. Today, water from Miriam's spring is actually drawn off in plastic pipes to irrigate the gardens of what has in effect become a small oasis.

528. Some of this water is used to supplement the moisture supply which the date palms had previously obtained naturally through their roots.

529. They have some fruit trees here too now, most of them olives.

530. And they also grew, under netting to keep out animals and birds, a selection of animal feed and a variety of vegetables, though not enough yet to feed all of their visitors.

531. The camels here are used to give tourists a "taste of desert life".

532. These were getting ready to collect the next group of visitors, from the nearest road -- to which they would be brought by bus.

533. On their way in they are likely to stop off at the local cafeteria. It’s offerings are basic but (reasonably) cold drinks are just what a traveler needs in the desert.

534. The saddles used were suitably padded, but some visitors preferred to travel here instead by four-wheel-drive.

535. Before anyone arrived there was fuel to be collected.

536. Some of this would be used to serve hot drinks, much as it had been for hundreds of years.

537. But the women also had to bake bread for their guests, and they did so using a curved metal plate balanced on the usual three stones.

538. Visitors  -- seated in the shade -- were also given an omelette, a salad, and sweet mint tea -- for which, since local resources are inadequate, the necessary supplies were shipped in by 4WD.

539. After the meal the women, who are generally veiled, sell visitors craft items they or their relatives have produced. The prices charged, for both beadwork and woven cloth, are low by Western standards, given the amount of work involved.

540. However, the income generated in this way supplements the “cut” the village receives from the travel agents in town who bring visitors here on package tours. Hospitality, once a sacred duty among the Bedu, is now one way to earn a living.

541. And the washing of dishes, which was such a chore when the family was nomadic, was made easier by water piped from the spring.

542. The income received from tourism has allowed some families to build large homes from cement as well as stone. They can also afford radios, though the microphone is again the author’s.

543. There is no school at Ain Khudra: it's too small. Instead the children there cared for the sheep and goats: and when these were fed and watered they found other ways to pass the time.

543. Their parents had no money for toys, so the kids made their own.

545. Their clothes were clearly not made locally, but bought in town, and most likely imported from China.

546. They would probably have been more difficult to wash and dry than their traditional garments, but caring for them was another of the things women were required to do.

547. Between their many duties, though, the women found time to pray -- to "Allah, the Great, the Compassionate, the Merciful". Much has changed in Ain Khudra over the years (and I did not see a man praying while I was there!) but some things remain sacred and beyond change.

548. Finally, to fit Ain Khudra into a broader context, listening to the radio and talking with visitors, Bedouin here and elsewhere are now aware that their way of life, though cherished, is a hard one. Many young men have abandoned herding to seek their fortune in the oil fields or in town, and now only spend their holidays in the desert. Their search for jobs is not always successful, but a few have even found ways to use their camels in Cairo, guarding the pyramids and posing for photographs!

7.2 The Banks of the Nile

549. The greatest oasis of them all -- that nourished by the waters of the Nile -- lies on the eastern edge of the Sahara in Egypt. The tract of land that can be irrigated from this great river is narrow in the south, but broadens to the north close to the Mediterranean Sea. (Satellite image at )

550. Where water can be applied to its surface the land is green: everywhere else it is brown and lifeless, for water is the key to life -- in a country where less than 5% of the land can be cropped. (Satellite image of delta at

551. Beginning in the 19th century, major works were undertaken to control the Nile. Levees were built to constrain floodwaters, and dams and deep canals built, making it possible to irrigate a large part of the valley throughout the year and allow three harvests per annum. Drainage was improved as well as irrigation. (Levee and canal near Giza courtesy at

552. . A veritable agricultural revolution followed the introduction of cotton in the 19th century. Within 50 years Egypt became one of the world’s leading producers of high-grade cotton, much of which was exported. Unfortunately, the commercialization of agriculture led to many small farmers being forced off their land to work as agricultural labourers on the large farms of rich landowners. (Egyptian cotton courtesy Baumwolle at

553. In the 1950s, however, following a change in government, Egypt’s class of rich landowners was eliminated and there was a more equitable redistribution of land among smallholders. (Farm at Kom Ombo)

554. By that time there was a real need to bring more land into cultivation. Between 1897 and 1960 Egypt’s area of arable land had expanded by 20%; but its population had grown by 370%! The solution, seemingly, was to reclaim new land from the desert by increasing the year-round supply of water. (Crowded street in Alexandria)

555. The Aswan High Dam, built by the Soviet Union and finished in 1971, created the largest man-made lake in the world. The original Aswan Dam, built by the British between 1898 and 1902 simply was not high enough. (Aswan High Dam at

556. The new dam drowned the farmlands of the Nubians who lived in villages further south, close to the Sudan. They were forced to move north, and many settled in the Aswan region, which was industrialized after the dam was built since there was now ample hydro-electric power. (Nubian resettlement area near Aswan)

557. The High Dam allowed for a 30% increase in Egypt’s arable area and a doubling of the country’s supply of electricity. It has also led (it is said) to a rise in the water table beneath adjacent desert areas. (Aswan hydro-electric power station with High Dam behind: courtesy Orlova-tpe at

558. The High Dam was a massive undertaking, but its influence was not wholly beneficial. It blocked the flow of the silt critical to the fertility of soils downstream  -- resulting in a dramatically increased demand for artificial fertilizers, which are not only expensive but have ecologically damaging side effects ... including increased salinity of ground water, and the collapse of the fishing industry at the mouth of the river. (Panorama courtesy at

559. And there are public health problems also, because there is no season now when the canals dry up, killing the insects that live there. The bilharzia parasitic worm is the most dangerous, living in snails that thrive in warm slowly moving waters. They have been a problem in Egypt for a long time, but now more than ever. They rarely kill: instead they penetrate internal organs and drain the strength from their host. In China they solved a similar problem by draining the canals. (Skin vesicles on forearm indicating penetration by the bilharzia parasite: courtesy United States Department of Health at

560. In addition, of course, no one knows when the lake will actually be filled with silt and cease to regulate the flow of the river: only one thing is certain ... that it is bound to happen one day! (Satellite image of Dam at

561. Lake Nasser, above the dam, presently rates as one of the largest man-made lakes in the world, and in addition to its guaranteeing a reliable supply of water for agriculture downstream, it also has had a role in tourism following the relocation of Abu Simbel. [See frames 157-164](Paddle wheeler alongside at Abu Simbel)

562. More than half of Egypt’s Arabs are still fellaheen, or peasants. The lands they cultivate are some of the most densely populated in the world. Their compact villages of mud huts are built, wherever possible, on rocky outcrops to save the level land for cropping, and they typically have between 1,000 and 5,000 inhabitants. Census data identifies 4,200 villages and a further 24,000 hamlets. (Below Edfu)

563. In common with peasants elsewhere, the fellaheen are naturally conservative and use much the same tools as were used in ancient Egypt. The hoe used today (fas in Arabic) is identical to those portrayed in ancient wall paintings, and is used for the self-same tasks ... to work the soil, weed between seedlings, and touch up the walls of canals. (Near Edfu)

564. Other items of equipment still in use include some shadufs (see frame 371) and the Archimedes’ screw or screw-pump, both used to raise water where it lies close to the surface. The screw was turned by hand, and its invention attributed to the Greek scientist Archimedes after his visit to Egypt. (Archimedes screw at Kom Ombo)

565. Water wheels, in one form or another, are still used in some areas: but like shadufs they have been largely displaced by pumps -- large and small. (Kom Ombo)

566. Pumps like this can raise water for household use and for livestock, and for hand watering of nearby gardens, but for field crops and palm groves farmers need greater capacity. (Downstream from Kom Ombo)

567. It also took the fellaheen hundreds (actually thousands!) of years to put wheels on their ploughs, preferring the “swing-plough” found in many old tombs ... in paintings or as artifacts to be used by the pharaoh’s servants in the next life. [See frame 093] (Swing plough from barn on island near Edfu)

568. Some farmers have acquired mechanical cultivators with petrol engines, but they are the fortunate few. (Near Edfu)

569. The author also encountered examples of machinery that had been improvised, like this disc plough/harrow. (Downstream from Kom Ombo)

570. The conservatism of the fellaheen is reflected also in their customs and religious practices. Hospitality is as sacred a duty among them as it is for Bedouin; likewise their commitment to the reputation of their family and the need to cleanse its honour by killing those who have offended. (Teenager at work near Edfu)

571. They are almost all Muslims, and pray five times a day, but they maintain superstitious beliefs and practices from the age of pharaohs ... including fear of the “evil eye” and of subterranean beings, both reflected in the wearing of sacred amulets and the offering of sacrifices. (Mosque at Edfu)

572. At Aswan, where the average annual rainfall is zero, farmers in times past got the water they needed from the river when it flooded each year after tropical storms drenched its headwaters further south. They also received a fresh layer of silt that enriched the soil: and the taxes they paid to the pharaoh depended upon the level of the floodwaters. [See annotation to frames 91 and 92] (Gardener at Aswan)

573. Now that the river has been dammed again, flooding is rare. Instead the water is lifted from the river by a host of diesel pumps. Some of them are large, and service an entire village. (Downstream from Kom Ombo)

574. Others are much smaller and water the fields of a single family. They may look improvised but they make it possible to farm throughout the year. (On island near Edfu)

575. And in both cases water is carried to fields in main channels lined with concrete to minimize loss. (On island near Edfu)

576. The farmers here grow cotton as a cash crop, and grains (mostly millet and maize), bananas, vegetables, and dates for subsistence. (Near Kom Ombo)

577. They also grow food for their animals and harvest this with a sickle still. Irrigable land is too precious to be used as pasture. (Island near Edfu)

578. Instead, their cattle are fed by hand, in yards enclosed by walls made of mud brick, or tethered close by. As at Siwa donkeys rather than camels are used to get around and to move produce to market. (Upstream from Kom Ombo)

579 .The fellahs go to the fields at dawn and return at dusk, and have little or no time to relax. They have benefitted in part from the year-round cropping made possible by high dam at Aswan, but the standard of living possible on their smallholdings is clearly limited. (Upstream from Kom Ombo)

580. Farm life is hard; and they now have alternatives following the modernization of the Egyptian economy. This is reflected in part in the increased role of women and children in farm work ... in families where men have found jobs in town. (Near Kom Ombo)

581. Some will supplement their income by weaving baskets from palm fronds. (Between Kom Ombo and Edfu)

582. And those who own boats can collect firewood for sale to riverbank communities. (Near Edfu)

583. The fellaheen traditionally live in houses which they themselves have built ... from sun-dried bricks. (Bricks drying downstream from Kom Ombo)

584. These bricks are then plastered over with mud, rather like those in the other oases ... typically with a courtyard and stable in the centre offering access to two rooms. (Above Kom Ombo)

585. One of these rooms will have an oven, used not just for cooking but also for heating in winter ...  when the family will sleep close by. There will be few windows and only rudimentary furniture. (Kom Ombo)

586. The courtyard and/or the roof will be used for storage of firewood, corn stalks, cotton plants, compost and earthenware pots containing grain and oil. (Kom Ombo)

587. Elaborate pigeon houses are a distinctive feature, though, in many Nile villages. (Kom Ombo)

588. They provide birds with nesting recesses and roosting perches: and in return their owner receives both meat and fertilizer. (Kom Ombo)

589. Men and boys can bathe in the river (or canal), and women wash their clothes and crockery there, and collect water in jugs, shooing away their geese and ducks if need be. The water they collect will be run through a zir -- a rudimentary earthen filter -- before it is drunk. (Children playing beside the river at Karnak)

590. The standard of living is such that their diet is often lacking in both quality and quantity. Of necessity, they live mostly on cooked vegetables, plus some fermented cheese and cornmeal cakes. Meat is eaten only on special occasions. Some may improve their diet by fishing and/or setting fish traps in nearby wetlands. (Between Kom Ombo and Edfu)

591. With improved means of transportation (buses and shared taxis) fellahs can now reach regional centres with ease, and sell their produce at bigger markets, buying in return the fruits of technology -- butane stoves, radios, televisions and refrigerators. But life is still hard here. (Sleeping space at Kom Ombo)

592. Many fellaheen have moved into the cities, where conditions are a little better. The lucky ones find jobs in the textile, chemical, cement, and food industries: but many remain unemployed. (Crowded street in Alexandria)

593. The tourist industry was once a big employer but has been undermined in recent years by acts of terrorism and political instability. For a hundred years or so, cruising was a magnet that drew rich Europeans and Americans to indulge their interest in the temples of the Nile. (Above Edfu)

594. From the 1960s onwards, with rising living standards In Europe and America, a dramatic increase in the number tourists generated many jobs on large boats based in Cairo. With deteriorating political conditions many boats stood idle; but when there was a demand they carried tourists from Cairo to historic sites upstream. (Cruise boat alongside new “tourist attraction” at Kom Ombo)

595. Following the construction of the High Dam and the relocation of Abu Simbel, Aswan, too, was a busy port of call ... till politics intervened. (Aswan)

596. For much of the time now the boats lie idle and their crews are unemployed. (Aswan)

597. Other boats were anchored permanently, and served as restaurants and nightclubs. In this case, as the oldest person present, the author was seized by a belly dancer who stuffed a lot of table napkins up his jumper to give him a more nubile figure, before dragging him on to the dance floor!

598. Other fellahs crewed the feluccas that often operated higher up the river. At the time of the pharaohs’ sailing boats like these carried much of the stone used to build their pyramids and temples, but today these same boats carry tourists. This one was contracted to a British tour company. (Below Aswan)

599. Compared with the big cruise boats this was travel “backpacker style” with the most basic of facilities. Passengers slept on the open deck, and were fed there also by an on-board cook. (Below Aswan)

600. The felucca made scheduled stops at historic sites along the way where the river's gods were worshipped long ago, which passengers then explored ... in this case the “nilometer” at Aswan.

601. Since there was no toilet on board, the boat pulled into the bank of the river as and when required. The money earned by those fellahs lucky enough to crew these boats exceeded that earned from sale of farm produce. (Below Kom Ombo)

602. A few have also found work at the newly created “rest stops” for travelers. This one, at Kom Ombo, in addition to serving food and selling souvenirs, also had an open-air museum demonstrating irrigation techniques.

603. There were even a few snake charmers to entertain visitors. And much the same thing is happening throughout Egypt and the Sahara; people are moving to towns and cities, or to more favoured agricultural regions near the coast. They prefer paid employment to herding camels or growing dates in a hostile environment. This decline in traditional practices is regrettable in some ways but the lives of those who live here have been changing for thousands of years, and will continue to do so.

7.3 Future Challenges : Rural and Urban

604. The desert covers a far larger area today than it did when its northern margin was the breadbasket of the Roman world. In part this may be due to climate change, but human intervention has undoubtedly contributed to the expansion of the desert. (Portion of ancient aqueduct at Timgad)

605. When trees are felled, either to feed stock in times of drought or as fuel for fires, their roots are lost also. And when pastures are eaten off as a result of overgrazing, there is nothing to hold the sandy soil together. (Moving sand southwest of In Amenas)

606. The people who live in the Sahara have never worried much about things they cannot change: the future, they believe, rests in the hands of Allah. However, the greatest challenge to traditional ways of life today is likely to come not from the environment but from population growth, prosperity and the continuing struggle between the forces of secularism and Islamic fundamentalism. (Cemetery at El Golea)

607. The birth rate is high: and the death rate has been lowered by improvements both in domestic hygiene and public health services. As a result, it is becoming more and more difficult for either people or nations to feed themselves from their own crops and livestock. And this has increased pressure on lands which are already overworked. (Mechanized farming near Edfu)

608. Cultivation in marginal areas has also contributed to desert expansion. In areas where at one time warlike nomadic herders fought off farmers, new lands have been ploughed during years of good rainfall, only to blow way during drought. (Degraded land south of Kairouan)

609. In the old days small fields in such marginal areas were worked with hoes and left fallow for several years after harvest. This caused little damage to the environment, but intensive, large scale, mechanized agriculture can have a devastating impact. As the population grows and there are yet more mouths to feed, fields that for centuries were cropped only occasionally are now overworked. (Rain-fed cropland south of Kairouan)

610. And whereas nomadic herds once moved continually, following the rain and giving the grasses time to recover, the building of wells in the Sahel by well-meaning aid agencies has encouraged herds to linger, and nearby pastures have been overgrazed as a result. The same has happened where nomads have settled outside towns and villages and their herds have destroyed the pasture. The wind does the rest! (Tented settlement on the outskirts of Touggourt)

611. In recent decades several Saharan countries have drilled wells to tap artesian water and have built pipelines to irrigate new agricultural developments. However, this has resulted in a significant reduction in the level of subterranean water. Some wells have gone dry as a result. Others have been deepened: for artesian waters in a desert are a fossil resource and are not being recharged. (Water point in farm area south of Kairouan)

612. The most dramatic examples of this process have been in Libya. Only 2% of Libya receives enough rainfall for cultivation and in the 1970s the government launched a massive irrigation project in the southeast of the country, in the heart of the Sahara. (Laying water pipeline courtesy Turkiye Muteahhitler Birligi at

613. Here, at Kufra, non-renewable fossil water was pumped from an underground aquifer and distributed using a pivot irrigation system, the arms of which were typically a kilometre in length --and produced round fields that could be seen from space. (Satellite image of Kufra oasis at )

614. Then, in the 1980s, the Libyan government announced that they would sink a thousand wells and build a “Great Manmade River” to carry fossil water from the same aquifer (in underground pipes) all the way to the coast, to support Libya’s growing population and industrial development. (Map of project at

615. Government representatives declared that this water supply would last a thousand years: but independent scientists suggested only 60, and by December 2011 excessive exploitation of the aquifer had already caused the lake in Kufra to dry up completely. So the long-term future of both projects (one rural and the other urban) is in doubt. (Rotary sprinkler in use in Algeria, near El Golea, courtesy J. Etienne

616. Life in Tripoli and Benghazi, the largest cities in Libya, was disrupted greatly by the Civil War in 2011: but Egypt’s cities, too, show signs of stress. Alexandria with four million or more inhabitants, handles 80% of Egypt’s imports and exports. Following the construction of natural gas and oil pipelines from Suez it also developed as an industrial centre: and tourists come here too. (Alexandria waterfront)

617. Tourists explore the city’s Greek and Roman heritage. Sadly the great lighthouse (the phairos) built by Ptolemy l, and one of the “Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, “was destroyed by an earthquake in 1303; and only stones remain. The Great Library, also founded in the 3rd century BCE, and one of the greatest of all classical institutions, was destroyed by the Romans. The modern Bibliotheca Alexandrina (on the right) is intended to recapture past glory.

618. Alexandra’s prosperity is reflected in waterfront amenities not unlike those of seaside resorts in Europe and America, with well-maintained parks and gardens.

619. And there is room for a host of anglers -- both men and women -- on the walls of the old harbour.

620. For hundreds of years Alexandria was an outstanding example of multiculturalism within the Arab world. The late 19th and early 20th centuries witnessed an influx of wealthy Greek, Jewish, Turkish, Italian, British and French businessmen. With 40% of its population listed as “foreigners” in 1940 it was far more cosmopolitan than Cairo! (Roast chicken franchise in downtown Alexandria)

621. This all changed when Nasser came to power in1952. Fearing that their properties would be nationalized most of the “foreigners” sold up and left: and with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism today (and the attacks on churches in Cairo) they are unlikely to return. Once few women in Alexander were veiled: now most of them are.

622. Till quite recently Egyptian industries were focused on the processing of agricultural products like cotton and sugar: but the regime established in 1952 gave high priority to the development of heavy industries -- steel mills, cement factories, fertilizer plants, and electric power stations. (Amreyah Cement factory near Alexandria courtesy L.M.Cabrita at )

623. As a result the population of Cairo expanded dramatically, as people poured into the city seeking to take advantage of remunerative employment in place of struggling to survive in rural areas. From its ancient heart the city spread out in all directions. (Sultan Hassan mosque, completed in1363)

624. With 17 million inhabitants, Cairo is Africa’s largest city and one of the most densely populated areas in the world -- with well over a100,000 persons per square kilometre in some neighborhoods, and a corresponding level of pollution. (Courtesy Omar Kamel at )

625. High-rise apartment buildings were built to house the new arrivals, but many ended up camping on roofs downtown, so that the poor and the wealthy often live side by side ... literally on top of each other! (Downtown Cairo)

626. The fact that buildings are erected in a hurry, and that their owners hope to increase their height, should the opportunity arise, is obvious from their unfinished appearance at rooftop level.

627. Popular districts are so crowded that many people live on the street, which consequently bustles with activity. Here the shops of craftsmen, knife-grinders, tailors, basket makers, weavers, bakers, barbers and fast food sellers are crammed together.

628. Mobile kitchens on carts, with windows through which meals are served, are common here also. Such streets are also the last refuge of pedlars. Carrying their merchandise on their heads or pushing it in handcarts, they offer fish or vegetables, poultry, breads, cheese, and fruit. Others use their heads to move goods between sales outlets.

629. During rush hour in Cairo the traffic downtown is trapped in gridlock -- due not only to the enormous number of cars, but also lines of buses (since five million people here use public transport every day), and thousands of handcarts and vehicles drawn by animals. (Lighter traffic at

630. One idea to reduce congestion at the centre of the city has been to build satellite towns like this on Cairo’s desert outskirts and avoid encroaching on precious farmland: but such initiatives have proved to be both costly and unattractive. (New suburb at Giza)

631. In addition, the new-found wealth derived from oil and gas has proved to be a mixed blessing. It has made governments here susceptible to blackmail by armed terrorists. In 2013 fundamentalists over-ran the Algerian facility at In Amenas, said they would destroy it, took hostages, killed some, and declared that the others would only be released if the Algerian government (a) freed terrorists they had imprisoned earlier and (b) ceased to allow French war planes to use Algerian airspace. (The In Amenas gas facility courtesy

632. At that time French planes were bombing a related group of Islamic fundamentalists who threatened to take over Mali. French ground troops were also involved ... in a campaign reminiscent of the colonial era. For local Tuareg warriors also, the ensuing battles offered them a taste of former glory. They had served as mercenaries in Libya, trained by Gaddafi, and when he was overthrown in 2011 they escaped through Algeria bringing their weapons with them. (Courtesy Getty Images at

633. They then joined a coalition of Islamic extremists headed by members of Ansar Dine (“Defenders of the Faith”), reviving memories of their former glory as raiders. Interestingly enough, though, after early victories, the fundamentalist leadership of the Islamic coalition chose to dispense with the services of the Tuareg ... possibly because as Arabic-speaking followers of the prophet the terrorists still doubted the purity “those caste out by God”! (Tuareg terrorists in Mali at

634. Clearly, some things in the Sahara remain much as they always have been: but, obviously, much has changed. Camel trains have frequently been replaced by trucks, and donkeys by cars. But the greatest changes are probably not material or visible but internal and attitudinal. In his classic study “Sahara” Rene Gardi observes: “Thanks to the pacification of the Sahara, the growing decline of the nomadic way of life, the abolition of slavery, the substitution of cash for barter trade, and the population’s increasing contacts with Western civilization -- thanks to all these the old patriarchal order, based on tribe and clan, and the ancient feudal societies are in a state of dissolution.” (Service station outside Alexandria)

635. AS a result, Gardi continues: “Old customs and ways are gradually being lost. The former sense of community, which owed much to the constant threat of conflict with neighbouring tribes, is vanishing and giving way to a more self-centred outlook” for there are easier ways now to earn a living. And some who once drew water from a well in an oasis now prefer Coca Cola! (Young people chat at a park in Cairo)


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