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The Critical Influence of the Sahara on Africa and the World

June 17, 2010

Sahara: The life of the great desert
Marq de Villiers; Sheila Hirtle
Harper Collins, Hammersmith London 2004
Rating: 5 Stars Transforms ones understanding of Africa.

Ten thousand years go the Sahara was a sparsely populated temperate grassland. A shift in the earth’s axis transformed this grassland into the world’s largest desert forcing most of the Saharan population to the valleys of the River Nile. Sahara: the life of the great desert makes an understanding of this huge geographic entity and its peoples and empires accessible to the general reader. De Villiers and Hirtle who reside in Lunenburg Nova Scotia have the rare ability to make geography and history of this poorly understood region amazing and exciting and demonstrate its importance to global climate and the development of western civilization.
The first section on geography includes the reiteration of the correct description in the 14th Century by Leo Africanus of the five major deserts which constitute the Sahara. It is possible to grasp the modern countries which make up the Sahara by their description in clusters. In the north Algeria Libya with Tunisia and Morocco as lesser presence, to the south Mali, Niger and Chad, to the West Mauritania and Western Sahara and in the east Sudan and Egypt. I was surprised that sand only makes up 15% of the Sahara and fascinated by the fact of the sands origin Saharan lakes, how dunes are formed and how small sand particles moves by a jumping action called saltation and larger particles by impact creep. The global impact of the Harmattan and other Saharan winds including the birth of hurricanes some of which devastate the new world, the aquifers’ rivers , mountains (Massifs) and ancient and current life forms of the Sahara all make the Sahara more interesting.
The book’s second section reviews peoples and empires; including the great ancient empires of the southern Sahara and the population shifts from the Sahara to the shores of the river Nile which made the Pharonic Egyptian civilizations possible. The trade of gold, salt, slaves along the caravan routes, the types of camels and the modern nomads in particular the Turareg are well described.
Sahara the life of the great desert is makes an understanding of this huge geographic entity accessible. This desert is significant to world climate and can no more be ignored than the polar ice caps or the Amazon rain forests. It is also critical to an understanding of African history. Not only for the countries that are part of the Sahara but also the 10 countries have that made up the Nile basin. It is likely that the “Nilotic” peoples who inhabit the countries from Egypt to Burundi originated from the Saharan grasslands as they were transformed into deserts.
If you are going to read anything about the Sahara desert this is where you should start. To understand Africa and in particular ancient Epypt you need to be informed about the Sahara and the Nilotic migrations. This book is highly recommended but is not a light read.

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