Sahara: The Forgotten History of the Worlds Harshest Desert


So let’s imagine this: You’ve decided to take a vacation and visit your sister in Los Angeles. For whatever reason, air travel just isn’t a possibility, so you’re going to make a road trip of it. You gas up your car in Boston for a leisurely jaunt across the United States, load up the cooler, queue up your playlists on your Ipod, and off you zoom into the multifarious expanse of the nation. Except, wait — where once there were lofty mountain ranges, lolling flatlands, languorous rivers, urban sprawl and bisecting highways, there is now simply nothing but sand everywhere, an infinite horizon of relentless desert every way you look. Undulating dunes tower ominously over you, a scorching sun bears down mercilessly from an impossibly azure sky, dust storms driven by a merciless wind swallow up the road behind you, you never see a soul for days on end, and water quickly becomes your one and only concern. And this is pretty much IT: all you will see, all the way from Boston to about the California border. Friends, welcome to the Sahara.

Ease and speed of travel in the modern world has pretty much killed our sense of scale and vastness, along with any attendant awe and wonder at just how overwhelming Nature can be. Are we stunned to learn that the Sahara is almost as large as the entire contiguous United States? Probably not — but we should be. Just imagine, for a second, if you stepped outside tomorrow and found yourself in one of the most punishing and hostile environments on Earth (oh, wait, we just did that). Sounds highly improbable, but that’s pretty much what happened to the good folks living where the Sahara is now about 5,000 years ago, when they were driven out of their traditional homes when the lush savannah that sustained them suddenly decayed into the desolation it has become.

Huh? Wha? Just one of the sundry interesting facts presented in this History Channel documentary is this corker: from about 10000 BC up to 5000 BC, the Sahara was actually a humid, waterlogged tropical paradise, overrun by the lush vegetation and myriad animals we associate now with southern Africa. Sustained by monsoons from the Indian Ocean, the Sahara was a verdant cradle of nascent human civilization, much like the Tigris and Euphrates. Then, due to slight shifts in the Earth’s axis and orbit, the region actually started to cool down (sounds counterintuitive, a desert emerging from less heat), the monsoons were pulled south, the grasslands started to dry up, and animals, and then people, began to flee the encroaching desert, heading south or east into Egypt. In about the span of about 300 years, the Sahara as it is today was born. And it happened… Just. Like. That. (As a footnote, this waxing and waning of desert is cyclical, and it’s very likely that one day the Sahara will revert back to savannah).

And ever since it has lain there in all its imposing serenity, both beckoning with its promises of hidden riches, and punishing those foolhardy souls who plunge into its depth unprepared. Herodotus reports of a grand Persian army, 40,000 strong, bent on invading and destroying Egypt, being swallowed up in its entirety by a particularly monstrous sandstorm. This is perhaps apocryphal, as no traces of this army have ever been found, but it still gets the point across loud and clear: the Sahara is no place you want to mess with.

So then, Sahara tries to dispel some of this ominous mystery and legend that envelops the desert. But really, how do you write the history of a geographic monolith like the Sahara? How are we to get it, truly understand the concept of “desert”, short of being plunked down in the middle with a compass, a bottle of water, and a camel? How do you write a history of a place where history goes to die? The History Channel opts for the safe route, recounting the progress of man in his attempts to traverse, colonize, or just plain survive in a place where no sensible person has any business being. It’s a history long on fascination, but short on pivotal historical events. It’s where time slows and evaporates, where significance can only be measured in centuries.

By the time of the Roman empire, nomads had transformed the Sahara into a kind of terrestrial sea for traders between the African interior and the Mediterranean, which led to improbably wealthy cities springing up around oases (Timbuktu being the most famous and legendary), and aided in no small part by the introduction of camels from Southwest Asia. (Yet another fun fact: camels, the most emblematic of all desert animals, are not indigenous, despite being supremely adapted to desert travel). Eventually these trade routes also became the main channels for Islam’s mercurial spread westward and into Mediterranean Europe. And of course, most famously, the Sahara has been a famed battleground for over 2000 years, from clashes between the nomadic Berbers and the Romans, to the repulse of Rommel at El Alamein during World War II.

Also highlighted is the frankly insane, but nonetheless Romantic assault by US Marines and a ragtag mercenary army (Greeks, Arabs and Turks) of 500 on the citadel of Durna in Tripoli, in 1805 (part of a war brought on by Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean). Though it was all for naught (Jefferson had signed a peace treaty with Tripoli a few days before), the heroism of its leader, William Eaton, and improbable victory of this (not very) American force became the stuff of early American legend (and if you were wondering where the “to the shores of Tripoli” in the Marine Hymn came from, here you go). And then there’s the storied history of the French Foreign Legion, an ill-begot unit of the French Army initially composed of riff raff from Paris, sent over to Algeria to colonize Northern Africa for France. Over the years, of course, it became a refuge for all sorts of lost souls, seeking adventure or redemption in the harsh desert, but mostly finding only disease, and death.

The program ends on a rather disquieting note about the life of the desert into the 21st century. It may sound a bit daft to think of such an arid, inhospitable place being alive, but beneath its deadening exterior, the Sahara is thrumming with life, mostly fueled by vast reservoirs of water called aquifers, deposits of ancient water that burble up into the oases scattered about the desert. Increasingly, these vast wells are being tapped more and more for irrigation, and are in danger of drying up altogether in the not too distant future, as they are finite and unreplenishable. The other threat, of course, is the desert itself, which has a particularly annoying tendency to not sit still for very long. Roads still go missing, the topology is impossible to get a handle on, and, more and more, outlying towns and villages are being swallowed up wholesale by the sand, entailing either movement of the entire village to “higher” ground, or abandonment. The mind reels just thinking about this, still: again, imagine your house vanishing day-to-day beneath a relentless march of sand. And unlike other 21st century quandaries surrounding man’s relationship with the planet, this is really not a question of preservation or environmental responsibility. The desert, simply put, always wins. Perhaps there are some places on Earth we just don’t belong.

Included on an extra disc are two 45 minute programs about two vastly different individuals who found success and made legends of themselves in desert settings. Erwin Rommel, the “Desert Fox” of WWII fame who would so bedevil Allied forces in North Africa, emerges as a hesitantly sympathetic figure, a consummate solider caught between duty and conscience, though mostly favoring the former. His renowned victories in the desert made him a national hero second only to Hitler in wartime Germany, but eventual disillusionment with the true purpose of the war led him to become involved in the late war conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. Found out, he was given the choice of taking poison or being court-martialed, executed and having his family hauled off to a concentration camp. He chose the former, and died a state hero, lauded by the same men who killed him.

Now, the second program is only tangentially related to the Sahara, but is a welcome bonus, nonetheless. Here we have a short put absolutely fascinating biographic portrait (if such a thing is truly possible) of T.E. Lawrence (who made his fame in Arabia, not the Sahara, of course, but hey, sand is sand), in all his confusion of man, myth and legend. I trust I need not go into too much detail about his storied career, but if you need somewhere to start in trying to suss out legend from fact, this is a worthy place to start, tracing his eccentric history as adventurer, soldier, spy, writer, sado-masochism enthusiast, and recluse. It could also serve as a good prelude to David Lean’s gargantuan epic film of Lawrence’s life and legend, since so much of the film’s plot can confuse without some sort of background as to what all the fuss is about.

RATING 6 / 10