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Sahara: A Natural History

by Marq de Villiers and Sheila Hirtle

It is true, the authors of this fascinating book tell us, that the Sahara Desert is “The Great Nothing, the Endless Emptiness,” where nomads wander for days and days under a pitiless sun, over valleys and rocks, sand dunes, and spreads of gravel “each as featureless as the last.”

But the Sahara is not the “endless dune of literary fascination.” It is full of wild and deadly creatures, scattered oases of precious water, wonders of nature, and chattering caravan routes. In it we find “traders and traffickers and travelers and trickery.” Sahara offers a dialectic between these two sides of the desert, showing how inhabitants deal with nature and its often life-threatening influences. The result is a beautifully crafted piece of non-fiction for readers captivated by geography, history, and lifestyles drastically different from those in North America.

The first half of the book details “The Place Itself” – the Sahara’s geography, history, and non-human inhabitants (think lizards, antelopes, and big silver ants that literally get under your skin). There is a chapter on winds and one on water.

The latter is especially strong because of its sheer understatement. Authors Marq de Villiers and Sheila Hirtle convey how precarious life can be when water is non-existent for miles upon miles. They explain, for example, what to do when a man is found dying of thirst: “[T]he common practice is not to let him drink right away. Wash his brow, and his neck, and if you have food, let him eat a date or chew on a biscuit…. Gulping a draft too soon can cause severe retching, enough to draw blood from a damaged throat.”

The book’s second half details “The People Who Live There,” the two million citizens of the Sahara, one-third of whom are nomads. The authors provide an in-depth history of the region’s first peoples and the growth of Saharan societies during the Roman Empire. Saharan caravan routes and their terminal cities are covered.

Except for the occasional stretches where historical or geographical facts weigh down the story, the book has a dream-like quality and the prose is almost poetic in places. De Villiers and Hirtle largely absent themselves from the narrative, but the book’s intimate eyewitness accounts of life in the Sahara suggest that the authors know their subject intimately.