The Strange Lunar Beauty of the Algerian Sahara

The Sahara Desert: a name that conjures romantic fantasies of shifting sand dunes, palm-lined oases, and hellish visions of vast waterless expanses. It’s a place known as much for its breathtaking beauty as its capacity to kill those foolish enough to get lost in its harsh wilderness. And it’s these two apparent contradictions of the Sahara that seem to be embodied so well here in Algeria.

“I spent a month in Algeria earlier this year trekking through the Sahara in the southern portion of the country,” says photographer Patrick Hamilton, who took these amazing photographs. “It was incredibly beautiful, particularly in the region called Assekrem.”

This part of the Sahara is fascinating in so many ways. The surrounding landscape includes the vast plateau and mountain range known as Tassili n’Ajjer, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that contains, among other natural wonders, a petrified sandstone forest – a place so strange in its beauty that it has been compared to the surface of the moon. Also in the vicinity are high, rolling sand dunes and beautiful Mount Assekrem itself.

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Given its otherworldly appearance, it perhaps comes as no surprise to learn that, at the turn of the 20th century, French priest Charles de Foucauld sought out the Assekrem for his spiritual contemplation in retirement. The isolated and peaceful surroundings must have made the area seem the perfect destination, yet it turned out to be a tragic move.

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Sadly, in 1916 Foucauld was murdered outside his compound in the oasis city of Tamanrasset by passing outlaws with links to the Senussi people. Foucauld – who was also an acclaimed ethnologist and an expert of Tuareg culture – was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2005 and is considered a martyr by the Catholic Church. And the remoteness and ethereal beauty of Assekrem have ensured its popularity with pilgrims even today.

As for Tassili n’Ajjer, spectacular scenic wonder is not the only reason for the plateau’s UNESCO listing. Another is the rock art of the area, which dates back over 12,000 years. Discovered in 1933, these paintings are a priceless record of life in prehistoric times, when the Sahara was a very different place to what it is today.

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Looking around the harsh, dry surroundings of the Tassili now, it’s hard to believe that this is a landscape that was carved out by water. The early inhabitants of this area lived in a far wetter environment than exists today, as evidenced by their drawings of aquatic animals like hippos.

The strange desert landscape becomes even more haunting when you imagine what it once was: a grassy savannah, populated by wildlife such as giraffes and rhinos. The archaeology of the area, especially the ancient paintings, is a record of that time and includes depictions of animal migrations, herding practices and changes in the weather patterns.

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If the fertile terrain of the past seems incredible in this now arid environment, the Tassili’s ancient human inhabitants are no less intriguing. They are depicted in some cave paintings with large, round heads, which has led some to speculate about extraterrestrial visitors.

More scientific analysis points to religious reasons for the bizarre drawings. One theory suggests that the unusual figures were the result of ritually consumed hallucinogenic mushrooms. Some researchers even link the Tassili art to the ancient Egyptians.

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Magic mushrooms and alien theories aside, the natural history of the Tassili plateau is interesting in itself. The name Tassili n’Ajjer translates as “plateau of chasms,” which is a fair description of what makes up the terrain. The rocky formations are composed of ancient weathered sandstone, with past climate and geological events recorded within its layers.

Sweeping sand dunes, or ergs, mark what were once great lakes, fed by rivers that ran down from the mountains. Some springs and pools also still remain, but the volume of water is, obviously, nowhere near what it once was.

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The climate in this rugged desert can be extreme, as you would expect. In summer, the heat can soar as high as 86°F (30°C), or even 122°F (50°C) in some extreme cases, while in winter it can drop as low as 30°F (-1°C). In the early hours of the morning, when Patrick Hamilton took these starry shots, the photographer described the weather as “Pretty flippin’ cold!”

You wouldn’t expect much vegetation to survive in such an unforgiving environment, yet there are still relics here from the region’s more humid past. Among these is the ultra rare Saharan cypress, of which there are only around 200 left on Earth.

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The Tassili is home to 28 plants that are rare in the rest of Algeria, including the Saharan cypress mentioned above, Olea laperrinei and Ficus ingens.

And plants are not the only remnants of wetter times. Fish and brine shrimp also call the Tassili region home. And once, even a small crocodile species known as dwarf crocodiles inhabited the area. Today, there are also the more usual desert animals: Barbary sheep, cheetahs and Dorcas gazelle.

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Yet it’s not just the flora and fauna that have had to adapt to survive in the challenging conditions. One group of human inhabitants that has lived in the Sahara – including here in Algeria – for centuries is the Tuareg. The Tuareg are nomadic herders whose origin is a mystery, but they are thought to be of Berber descent.

One of the distinctive characteristics of Tuareg society is that, traditionally, it is the men who wear veils. When a man comes of age, he will begin wearing the head covering, which conceals most of his face, excluding the eyes and the ridge of the nose. Although it is said that the custom originated with the aim of chasing away evil spirits, others believe its origins are connected to a more practical need: protecting the men’s faces in the harsh desert environment.

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The Tuareg people have had a huge influence on the culture of the Sahara. Before road and rail transport reached the desert in the middle of the 20th century, trade between the cities and towns of this region (and the rest of the world) relied heavily on the camel caravans of the Tuareg. Luxury goods and essentials were carried north by the Tuareg, as, unfortunately, were human slaves.

The Sahara in Algeria is a unique and enchanting place. The scenery, the geology, the history, the flora and fauna, and the culture of the people make it a truly remarkable region, no matter what your area of interest. In fact, tourism has become an important part of the local economy.

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Unfortunately, with added human traffic come problems like erosion, vandalism, theft of artefacts, and pollution. So perhaps it is lucky that the difficult terrain keeps the number of visitors in check and limits them to certain routes.

It is hoped that the management of the Tassili National Park (which surrounds the Tassili n’Ajjer) will be able to control the threats to the environment and preserve this amazing place for Algeria and the world at large.

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Thank you to Patrick Hamilton for sharing his stunning photographs of this incredible natural wonder with us.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

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