The Sahara

The desert shows you nothing; you must find everything.

al hamada al hamra, Sahara, Libya

al-Hamada(h)   al-Hamra(h)



Sahara: Tenere: Tanzerouft, الصحراء

The awesome Sahara is the largest desert on the planet earth, with an estimated size of between seven and nine million square kilometres (9,000,000 sq km). Its shortest distance from north to south is about 1000 miles. To imagine the scale of this gigantic size, the Sahara occupies a third of Africa and is as large as the continent of Europe. It is made of a number of smaller deserts including the Libyan desert in Libya and Egypt, the Central Sahara in Libya and Algeria (including the Ahoggar Mountains, the Tibesti Mountains, the Air Mountains, and Tenere), and the Western Sahara; stretching across the whole of North Africa, from the Red Sea to the Atlantic Ocean and from the Mediterranean to Chad and the Sudan; with Tibesti's Emi Koussi being its highest peak (3,415 m/11,200 ft).

Sahara from the sky

Courtesy of Nasa

Sahara golden colour sand dunes

terra incognita


The origin of The Sahara

Hundreds of millions of years ago the Sahara was covered by a great sea called the Tethys Sea. Around 40 million years ago the tectonic plates gradually began pushing Africa against Europe for 20 million years. Around 20 million years ago Africa collided with Europe and closed the Tethys Sea. As Africa continued to push against Europe northern Africa began to slowly emerge from the bottom of the sea; leaving behind a tropical swamp. Eventually the swamps turned into massive expanse of searing desert around 3 million years ago. See the following documentary for detailed history.


saharan gourds: Citrullus colocynthis
40 Million Years Ago: The Tethys Sea.
This image is a screenshot from the following documentary.



Fascinating documentary about the Sahara when it was thriving with marine life.

Watch this documentary in full screen at https://youtu.be/LIAkJg8knTI


Around 800,000 years ago, the Sahara was hot, damp and covered with swamps and vegetation everywhere. This period of heavy rain lasted for hundreds of thousands of years; leaving behind wet and lush-green land, covered with rivers and lakes, and teeming with hippopotami, rhinoceroses, crocodiles and elephants; as well as three megalakes (giant lakes of fresh water): one lake was situated in Tunisia (the tiny Chott el Djerid of today, the ancient Lake Tritonis); the second megalake was in southern Libya (the Fezzan lakes of today); and the third is the Chad megalake in Chad. According to the Sahara Megalakes Project, Megafezzan is the only lake that provides long term record of climate change in the central Sahara.

Ever since, the Sahara comes and goes just as ice ages do elsewhere. However, according to an article published in the Independent Newspaper (September 8, 1999), titled: "Tilt of Earth's axis turned Sahara into a desert", scientists have found that the Sahara was abruptly transformed from fertile land into a desert after the Earth underwent one of its periodic changes in orientation between 9000 and 6000 years ago; during which its tilt lessened from 24.14 degrees off vertical to its present 23.45 degrees, and its closest position to the sun gradually shifted from July to January.

The above documentary shows the last cycle to have started around 5,500 years ago; after which the inhabitants of the Sahara left to build the great civilisation of all times: the Egyptian civilisation along the Nile. Scientists say 15,000 years from now the tilt of the Earth will turn the Sahara green once more; and therefore each dry-green cycle is around 20,000 years long.



Sahara Types

The Sahara is not a permanent feature of the landscape, but is a continuously changing phenomenon that comes and goes just as ice ages do across time. The last visit was about 5000 years ago, when the Sahara began its current cycle after its lakes and rivers dried up into thin air. All it remained are its prehistoric engravings, paintings and rock petroglyphs of extinct life, and some of the lakes. (See Sahara Wildlife page for more on these periods). Contrary to conception, only a quarter of the Sahara is covered with sand and sand dunes, some of which are nearly 200 metres high. Occasionally, sand dust from the Sahara has been carried as far north as Germany and the United Kingdom, and as far west as the Americas. The rest of the Sahara is mainly:

  • Mountains (25%) and dry valleys: like the Hoggar mountains in Algeria, Air mountains in Niger, and Tibesti (also written as Tibisti) in Chad (with a small section in Libya).
  • Rocks, stone plateaux and gravel plains.
  • Oases, like Ghadames and Ghat.
  • Sand Seas: sand with sparse vegetation: as in the Western Sahara, Libyan Desert, Ubari Sand Sea, and Murzuk Sand Sea, and also found in mini rocky deserts, like Acacus and al Hamada.


  • Sarir: a flat sand plain, such as Tibesti or Tenere.
  • Idhan: a sand sea, like Idhan Murzuq and Idhan Awbari.
  • Erg or irq ( 3irq ): coarse or gravel plains (ergs), like Tanezrouft.
  • Hamada: stone plateau, like the Red Hamada.
  • Jabal, jebel or djebel: mountain (in Arabic).
  • Tadrart, adrar: mountain (in Berber).
  • Adrar, adghagh: stone, rock (In Berber).
  • Wadi: dry valley.
  • Waw: from Waha (oasis: /Awasis/).
  • Aman: water (in Berber).



Sahara pure sand


Sahara Eco-Regions

1- North Saharan: (1,675,300 square km): the far northern part of the Sahara, just below the coasts of Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Morocco. A midway point between the Mediterranean climate and the Sahara proper.

2- Sahara Central: (4,639,900 square km): mainly sand dunes, ergs, hamadas and dry valleys, in Libya, Egypt, Chad, Algeria. Mainly dry, rare rain, scarce vegetation..

3- Atlantic Coastal: (39,000 square km): along the Atlantic coast, in the Western Sahara and Mauritania. Moisture from the Atlantic Ocean sustains a small community of plants.

4- West Saharan: (258,100 square km): Saharo-Mediterranean climate, in Tassili n Ajjer, Air in Niger, Dhar Adrar in Mauritanian, and Iforas Mountain in Mali and Algeria.

5- Saharan Halophytics: (54,000 square km): saline depressions sustain salt-adapted plants, in Swia (in Egypt), and in the western Libyan and southern Tunisian salt marshes and lakes.

6- Tanezrouft ('desert'): dry and totally bare desert region, along the borders of Mali, Niger and Algeria, just west of the Hoggar Mountains.

7- South Saharan: (1,101,700 square km): a narrow strip between the central Sahara and southern sahel savanah. Summer rain sustain some plants and grasses in Sudan, Chad, Mali, Algeria, Mauritania.

8- South-South-East Saharan: Tibesti and Uwaynat Mountains (82,200 square km): more rain and lower temperatures sustain a family of trees and bushes including acacias, palm trees, myrtles and Tamarix, in northern Chad, southern Libya (by the Sudanese border).


Temperature In The Sahara

Winters in the subtropical north can be very cold where temperatures can fall below freezing point, as opposed to the mild tropical south, where rain falls more during the summer than it does in the north. Similarly, temperatures are high during the day and low at night. Although in the summer the temperature can reach 50 degrees Celsius in the shade and in the winter can reach -9 (minus nine), the average year round temperature is about 30 degrees Celsius. Between the 27th of December and the 18th of January some area of the Sahara becomes covered with a thin white layer very similar to frost in Europe, which turns the surface white and hence the name: "The White Nights".

sahara wind

Wind In The Sahara

One of the main features of the wind in the Sahara is its ability to change the surrounding landscape by shifting sand from one area to another; leading to the formation of sand dunes on roads, where driving at night becomes very dangerous. The worst time to visit the Sahara is between March and April largely because of the wind: very windy almost every single day, especially near the end of March and most of April. It is also common to see archaeological artifacts, like flints, stone tools, pottery shreds and bones, exposed by the wind and scattered across the surface of the Sahara. These are part of Libya and the world's heritage and history and therefore should be left where they are. Not doing so could lead to prosecution.

Sahara surface exposed by the wind
The effects of the wind, exposing stones, flints, and stone-age tools.

sahara sand dunes, camels and people


The Libyan Sahara

The Libyan Sahara can be further divided into several smaller deserts or regions. For convenience, Libya may be divided into three sections (from top to bottom): the Western section (starting from the top and all the way down to Acacus); the Middle section (from Surt and all the way down to Sarir Tibesti); and the Eastern section (Cyrenaica and the Libyan desert, all the way to Kufra and down to the border with Sudan.

The Western Section

Al-Hamada al-Hamra (the Red Plateau): a mixture of sand seas and rocky plains, immediately below the Western Mountain and all the way down to Awbari Sand Sea and Wadi Ash Shati. Often accessed via Daraj and Ghadames.

Idhan Ubari (or Awbari Sand Sea): a sand desert of magnificent sand dunes  and desert lakes, starting from the Algerian border and extending east to Sabha. Bordered from the south by Hamadat Zigher (west) and Wadi al Hayat (the Valley of Life), where a strip of oases and settlements cuts through from Sabha to Awaynat near the Algerian border.

Ghat: immediately below Idhan Awbari: includes three mountains: Acacus, and Messak Mellet & Messak Settafet, separated by Wan Casa (a narrow strip of sand running along the Acacus mountain from south to north). It is often used to enter the Acacus Mountain either coming down from Serdeles (Awaynat) or from Wadi Metkhandoush via the Messak Settafet.

Idhan Murzuq (Murzuk Sand Sea): immediately west of the Messak Millet and all the way east to Jabal Ghunaymah.


The Middle Section

The Pre-Desert: this term is generally used to refer to the area before the desert proper, just below Misrata and immediately to the west of the Western Mountain, which includes sites like Ghirza.

Sahara Surt (Surt Desert): this mini desert is located below the Gulf of Surt (Syrtis) and between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, which includes Waddan Mountain and the Black Mountain (Asawda').

The Black Haruj Mountain: right at the centre of Libya, with a summit of 1200 meters (Qaraf as Sabah), and surrounded by a huge area of lava flow, which accounts for its name. Accessed from Zillah (in the north) via a track that cuts through the mountain all the way south to Tmassah and Waw al-Kabir.

Sarir Tibesti: from Waw al Kabir one can turn west and enter Sarir as-Sabah and then Bin Ghunaymah mountain (the site   of several Garamantean and Stone Age discoveries); or continue south towards Sarir Tibesti (which extends a bit into Chad) and south-west towards Waw an-Namus.

Rebiana Sand Sea: from Waw an-Namus one tracks east across the huge Ramlat Rabyanah (Rebiana Sand Sea) towards Tazirbo (in the Eastern Section).


The Eastern Section

Marmarica (al-Butnan): a small desert area starting immediately below the coast and between the Green Mountain and the Egyptian border in Cyrenaica, and extends all the way down to the great sand seas and Al Kufrah.

The Great Sand Sea & Calanscio Sand Sea: these great sand seas separate Cyrenaica from the Libyan desert proper in the south and along the Egyptian border; with various oases: Jaghbub (by the border), Awjilah, Jalu, and various oil fields.

As-Sah'ra' al-Libiyyah (the Libyan Sahara, also known as the Libyan Desert ): occupying much of south-east Libya and extends into Egypt, which includes:   Rebiana Sand Sea (coming from Waw an-Namus), and then Zighan, Buzaymah, Rebiana and al-Jawf; from which one can either head north towards Jalu (via a tarmac road), or track south towards Jebel Uweinat.

Jabal al Uwaynat (Jebel Uweinat), close to the Egyptian border: also the site of prehistoric art.



The Languages Spoken in the Sahara

dark rocks of the sahara

The main language spoken in the desert is Tamasheght or Tamazeght (Tamazight), the Berber language of the nomadic Tuareg people, who inhabited the Sahara from immemorial times. The Tuareg tribes are found in several countries including Libya, Chad, Niger, Mali, Algeria, Burkina Faso, northern Nigeria, Mauritania and the Western Sahara. Other none-Tuareg Berber-speaking areas include Siwa (in Egypt), Jalu and Awjilah (in Libya), and other villages in southern Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. Other languages spoken in the Sahara include: Arabic (of Egypt, Libya, Mauritania and the Western Sahara), Beja (of the Red Sea), Nilo-Saharan (of the western Sudan including the Fur of Darfur, and the Tbawi of the Tebo of Libya), and the Saharan languages (of Niger and Chad including Kanuri, Tedaga and Dazaga). The Berber, Chadic and Arabic languages are members of the Afro-Asiatic linguistic family (originally the Hamito-Semitic Family), of North, Central and North-East Africa.





The Red Sahara Desert

Alhamada Alhamra

al hamada al hamra, Sahara, Libya

Hammada al Hamada or Alhamadah al Hamra (or al Hamrah) means The Red Plateau, probably in reference to its vibrant, ochry, red colour. In contrast, other districts of the Sahara are strictly golden, particularly with their calcite specks shimmering like desert stars. The Red Hamada is a large area located in north-west Libya, at the entrance to the great desert, coming from the western mountain via Daraj, Ghadames and Qaryat. Hundreds of meteorites smash onto her surface as far north as Daraj. (See our Daraj page for a link to a list of Daraj meteorites). The red plateau is a mixture of rocky terrains, mountains, valleys, tracks, sandy plains and deserts; very popular among Sahara adventure travellers, who often cross it from Daraj to Adiri via Awaynat Wanin, and from there continue into the Awbari Sand Sea towards the famous Fezzan lakes. After the lakes, one briefly returns to civilisation at Sabha, Awaynat and Germa - the home of the ancient civilisation of the Berber Garamantes, before venturing into: Acacus.

Hamada Hamra: the red desert

Sahara sunset


Red desert

Rocky Red Hamada

Rocky Hamada.



The Golden Acacus

acacus sand dunes and mountains.

Entering The Golden Acacus.

Somehow one often hears about 'ancient places', like ancient Egypt and the more recent ancient Rome, but only in Acacus that one can actually feel "ancient". You would instantly realise a new alien landscape, hidden back in time and well isolated from the outside world. Secrets of unknown civilisations and episodes of human's distant history withstood the onslaught of time in solitary caves for more that 12,000 years. No visit to the desert is complete without seeing Acacus.

Acacus Sahara

Acacus Stone Formations.

Sphynx-like natural sculpture from Acacus desert

Sphynx-like natural sculpture from Acacus.


The Black Sahara

Waw an-Namus volcano is located south-east of the Harouj Alaswad Mountain (The Black Harouj Mountain), and not far from Tibesti Mountain by the Chadian border. The volcanic field of Waw an-Namus is surrounded by an area of black deposit of ash, between 10 and 20 kilometres wide, which accounts for its online nickname: the Dark Spot, as it appeared in Google Earth.

the black sahara, near the volcano of waw an namus,

the black sahara, near the volcano of waw an namus

the black sahara, near the volcano of waw an namus,



The Green Sahara

Sand dunes and  desert bushes

The Green Sahara


Water Sources in the Sahara

a small lake surrounded by sand dunes, Awbari sand sea

The Sahara is green only where there is water, otherwise it is white, beige, yellow, caramel, gold, brown, red or black. Water sources in the desert include several water wells, lakes, underground tables and rain.

  • Water wells in the Acacus desert are clearly marked on the EWP Jebel Acacus map, like Aminanegh, Talwawat, Sughd and Abankur, as well as several gheltas (or water holes), in In Farden, Tin Lalen and Wadi Bubu.

  • Rain: average rainfall: between 0 and 25 mm per annum; scarce but brings the valleys back to life, and hence the name: the Valley of Life in Fezzan.

  • Lakes: there are several lakes in the desert, mostly in the Awbari Sand Sea. These were part of, or left over from, the ancient giant lake known as Megafezzan Lake. The source of this water is usually a water table under the surface of the desert, which intercepts the land surface where the lakes are located.

  • There are huge water reserves under the Sahara, just like oil, which the Great Man Made River intercepts to pump to the coastal towns and cities of Libya - an idea which may had its origin in  the Garamantean "foggaras" - an ancient system of channels used to channel the liquid-of-life from underground reserves to farms.


desert valley, sahara, with some bushes

After rain, the dry valleys come to life again to sustain some desert shrubs and bushes.


The Sahara Forest Project

Covering less than 1% of the world’s deserts with concentrating solar power plants could produce 100% of the electricity used in the whole world.

In addition to oil, gas, minerals and underground water reserves, potential investors and governments have set their eyes on the Sahara as a source of infinite energy. The staggering temperature degrees apparently can turn the arid desert into a gigantic storehouse of solar energy.

Environmentalists and critics have strongly objected to the project being labeled "green" and "natural", and argue that this kind of expensive energy will not benefit the local poor populations of the Sahel, just as most Europeans nowadays spend the harsh winter nights shivering with hope because their low wages cannot match the staggering costs of energy bills. Others even went on to say the project is a European ploy to deploy the Sahara to power future Europe when oil becomes history.

While enthusiasts stress that current methods of supplying arid regions with water, such as over-abstraction from underground reserves and diverting water from other regions, are not sustainable and could lead to conflict in the long run. As often is the case fact and fiction are not hard to obfuscate.

sahara forest project
Covering less than 1% of the world’s deserts with concentrating solar power plants could produce 100% of the electricity used in the whole world.
Image from exploration-architecture.com

The Sahara Forest Project was first proposed at the third Claverton Energy Group Conference, at Wessex Water Plc headquarters, on April 13, 2008. The SFP was the brainchild of Bill Watts, Charlie Paton and Michael Pawlyn. The name "Sahara" is used here to mean what the word 'Sahara' means: namely 'desert', and therefore it includes any desert in the world, although the focus point is the Sahara herself. The project aims to provide a source of renewable energy, food and water to desert regions around the world, by using two technologies: Seawater Greenhouse technology (SG) and Concentrated Solar Power (CSP). The former creates fresh water from seawater via especially designed greenhouses, which also provide food-growing environment; while the latter produces electricity from sunlight at a fraction of the cost of photovoltaics, via special mirrors used to condense (or concentrate) sunlight to create heat, which then is used to drive conventional steam turbines to generate the needed electricity.

It was estimated that it will cost around $59 billion to begin producing energy by 2020, and that to start sending significant amounts of energy from North Africa to Europe one needs to spend about $465 billion over the next 40 years. Hence, it does not come as a surprise when the French President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed the construction of a new solar-power station in the Sahara last year, when he founded the Mediterranean Union: a strategic alliance of 43 countries from Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.

Who knows, maybe North African countries will have something more valuable in the future than the oil currently their countries have but which they cannot enjoy. In contrast to winter fuel-bills in Europe, only some lucky Libyans and Saharans can enjoy the cool breeze of expensive air-conditions seen at the Rixos hotel - where the leaders sit to decide the destiny of the impoverished population(s). It is not a question of what the earth has to offer the country, as much as what the leaders and their policies have to share with people.

Oil will certainly run out, and other sources of energy must be found. The Sun is the best source of pure and clean energy in our Solar System, as it is guaranteed to shine for an estimated 5 billion more years - although the last two billion years of its life will be far too-hot to sustain any form of life but lava - just as it started its 10 billion years cycle.




Driving & Riding in The Desert

a rusty vehicle abandoned in the Hamada, sahara desert.


sahara riding down dune

Sahara Highways

Sand mountains approached by a convoy of desert vehicles.

driving over the sand dunes

a lorry stuck in desert sand

driving over a sand dune, acacus


Sahara Sand Geyser ?

The locals in this video (youtube-nocookie.com/iGFwA14YfTg) seem puzzled by the phenomenon. Some say it is a geyser, which usually occur only in icy conditions or in lakes; while Wikipedia says it is "a sand geyser or sand fountain", occurring in connection with seismic events. Youtube users are saying it could be a ruptured, pressurised gas pipe, while others say it is underground water. There is another opinion saying it is to do with high underground temperature, while some it is underground cable running from Ashati to Sebha in southern Libya.




Online Sahara Journals & Articles

Sahara Journal: saharajournal.com/: Prehistory and History of the Sahara: Scientific, international yearly journal. Articles in English, Italian or French.

Journal of North African Studies: 

Volume 10, Number 3-4 / September-December 2005:
Special Issue: The Sahara: Past, Present and Future:

  • The climate-environment-society nexus in the Sahara from prehistoric times to the present day”, pp. 253 - 292.

  • Incoming tourism, outgoing culture: Tourism, development and cultural heritage in the Libyan Sahara”, pp. 441 - 457, Savino Di Lernia.

  • “Garamantian agriculture and its significance in a wider North African context: The evidence of the plant remains from the Fazzan project, pp. 397 - 412, Ruth Pelling.

  • “Cultural heritage and conflict: The threatened archaeology of Western Sahara”, pp. 413 - 439, Nick Brooks.

  • “Libya’s Saharan destiny”, pp. 605 - 617, George Joffé.
  • “Waging war on terror: The implications of America’s ‘New Imperialism’ for Saharan peoples”, pp. 619 - 647, Jeremy Keenan.

  • “Looting the Sahara: The material, intellectual and social implications of the destruction of cultural heritage” (briefing), pp. 471 - 489, Jeremy Keenan.


Sahara Books

Sahara: The Extraordinary History of the World's Largest Desert , by Marq de Villiers and Sheila Hirtle.

Hunters vs. pastoralists in the Sahara: material culture and symbolic aspects, by Barich, Barbara E. Publication: Oxford: Archaeopress, 2005

Art of being Tuareg: Sahara nomads in a modern world, by Seligman, Thomas K.; Loughran, Kristyne. Publication: Los Angeles : Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at : UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 2006

Men of salt: crossing the Sahara on the caravan of white gold, by Benanav, Michael. Publication: Guilford, Conn. : Lyons Press, 2006

Traditional medicine in Central Sahara : Pharmacopoeia of Tassili N?ajjer, by Hammiche, H. & K. Maiza. Journal of Etnopharmacology, Volume 105 (2006) pp. 358-367

Medicinal plants of the Sudan . Part 1 : Medicinal plants of Erkowit.Medicinal and aromatic plants institute, by El Ghazali, G. E. B. National council for research, Khartoum, 55 p., (Augustus 1986)

Medicinal plants of North Africa , Boulos, L., Reference Publications, Inc., 218 St. Clair River Drive, Box 344, Algonac,  Michigan 48001, 286p. , (1983)