People of the desert

An old-fashioned narrative informed by the latest discoveries could only be the work of a master historian of the grand scale.

Chromolithograph of the Sahara desert.
Chromolithograph of the Sahara desert. Credit: INTERFOTO / Alamy Stock Photo

Facing the Sea of Sand: The Sahara and the Peoples of Northern Africa, Barry Cunliffe (Oxford University Press, £30)

In the early summer of 1788, Sir Joseph Banks met a dozen of his friends in a tavern on London’s Pall Mall, where he complained that ancient Romans knew more about the interior of the African continent than he did. So much for Enlightenment – although in his defence, he and his friends did immediately send people to northern Africa to fill in the blanks. The first traveller went to Tripoli in Libya, a place where he had served as British consul. What he didn’t know was what lay to the south – there was no map, just rumours – and faced with the enormity of the lone and level sands stretching far away, he decided to return to London.

Much progress has been made since then, and we do at least know the appearance and some of the character of the Sahara Desert, just as we know that it stretches some six thousand kilometres across what Cunliffe calls ‘hard rocks floating on the magma of the earth’s core’, and that it links the Atlantic Ocean with the Red Sea, the River Niger with the Mediterranean. But what do we know of its many peoples and their history? What can we conjure of their stories and motives? This is the subject to which the author turns his learned focus in an attempt ‘to write a balanced account of the desert and its surrounding communities’.

The task is herculean, just as it would be if one were trying to write a balanced ‘from the dawn of time’ account of the people and terrain of the United States, which covers a similar land area to the desert. In the case of the Sahara, the task is made harder by a complete lack of material with which to form an understanding of some significant periods of the past. This becomes painfully obvious in the early history section of the book, where I found myself underlining a sequence of comments such as ‘little understood’, ‘difficult to discern’, ‘incomplete data’ and ‘few actual examples have been found’.

One point that does emerge with clarity from the early chapters is that the story of this region has long been dominated by shifts in climate, from the icy extremes of the Late Glacial Maximum (around 19000-17000 BC) to the African Humid Period, made possible by shifts in the range of the West African monsoons, which turned some of what is now the Sahara into lush grasslands similar to East African savannah. These grasslands attracted a range of wild animals, who were followed by bands of hunter-gatherers. But some point around 5300 BC, the rains shifted south, the grasses and forests burned out and were covered by sand, and hunters were forced either to move with the weather or to adapt. Among those who adapted were people in the Nile Valley, who came together along the river and learned to make the most of the annual Nile flood, in the process creating what we know as ancient Egypt.

Professor Sir Barry Cunliffe is an historian of the grand scale who, as well as being a respected university academic and accomplished archaeologist, has held a range of museum chairs and is the author of a shelfful of books, his speciality being the Celts and ancient Europe. He has also written a book on the Eurasian steppes, which required a similarly extraordinary grasp of a vast range of material. But Facing the Sea of Sand is his greatest challenge to date. Not just because of the lack of textual or archaeological evidence with which to conjure an historical narrative, but perhaps because the narrative suggested by the objects and records we do have is so uneven. On the north-east of the terrain, there is Egypt, with a clear five thousand years of historical timeline and an embarrassment of material to consider, while in the innermost parts of the desert it can be difficult to know what is happening in our own time, let alone thousands of years ago. This can make for a frustrating read, not helped by the fact that it is not clear whether this is a book looking for an academic or general reader – there are long passages devoid of character, relating the sequence of kingdoms and conquests. And yet…

There is something irresistible about the way the author teases out the details and arranges them into coherent sequences, as with the Hausa cemetery of Durbi Takusheyi in modern Nigeria. Sometime in the thirteenth to the fourteenth centuries, three females were buried in a sitting position and adorned with jewellery made from Indian Ocean cowrie shells, others from the western Sahel, as well as an Egyptian bowl, a Near-Eastern bucket and Chinese beads. This, as Cunliffe points out, suggests the sophistication of the deceased and the community in which they lived. It also points to the extraordinary reach of trans-African trade, which was thriving long before the Romans took control of the entire North African littoral, and which only became more widespread. Perhaps around the time those women were buried, the king of Mali, Mansa Musa, went on pilgrimage to Mecca, escorted by many thousands of kilos of gold dust, which he spent and then had to borrow from Cairene traders to get himself home. When trade and religion went hand in hand, the caravans were continually moving on.

In some ways this is an old-fashioned book in its attempt to gather what is known of the desert and the people who have lived around it, and make sense of their experience and the forces that shaped them. What makes it fresh and modern is the archaeology, much of it from the past few decades. There is much to do – it would have been good, for instance, to have included more about the desert and peoples of the past few centuries – but what is here is a fascinating account of one of our planet’s most hostile places. What will linger long in my mind is the image of those long lines of humans walking their paths across the mighty desert – the ones that Joseph Banks’s traveller refused to follow – and the climate, the beliefs, the greed and the needs that drove them to do it.


Anthony Sattin