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Treading the Tuareg people's path through Tassili n’Ajjer

BY Alice Brouard

30th Jan 2024 Travel Stories

6 min read

Treading the Tuareg people's path through Tassili n’Ajjer
With the Tassili n’Ajjer open to the public once more, the Algerian desert's Tuareg people guide hikers back to one of the world's most ancient art exhibits
Wrapped in a superb, green-blue cotton takakat and a white tagelmust around his head, our Tuareg guide’s fiery coal eyes are riveted on the horizon.
Agaoued Mechar leans on a stick, his chest bent by years of work on this inhospitable land. And what a land!
“It’s beautiful. It’s good!” he says.
Agaoued encourages us to take photos, happy that foreign tourists are once again allowed to visit the Tassili n’Ajjer plateau in southeastern Algeria. From 2008 to 2019, Algeria’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs recommended that tourists avoid the area because of a high risk of terrorist activity. 
We are standing at the foot of the plateau. An ocean of rocks and sand, it seems to have fallen from the moon: dried valleys, gaping canyons, excavated cliffs and blocks of reddish sandstone burned, crumbled, eroded.
"Neolithic peoples painted images of their daily lives, beliefs and myths on walls"
At an altitude of 6,500 feet and covering almost 28,000 square miles, the vast area sits on Algeria’s borders with Libya and Niger.
In this rugged environment, Neolithic peoples painted images of their daily lives, beliefs and myths on walls, crevices and cavities. 
Agaoued, 79, knows the plateau down to its smallest folds and can easily find these treasures for us. Born and raised here, he followed in the footsteps of his father, who guided French explorer Henri Lhote in 1950s expeditions to inventory and reproduce the Tassili n’Ajjer rock paintings.
At the time, few foreigners dared to venture into this remote region. Copies of the paintings made by Lhote and his team, traced on sandstone and then painted with gouache on paper, were exhibited at the Louvre in Paris, bringing world renown to the Tassilian wall art.
But the methods employed by Lhote and his team also caused controversy: moistening the walls to eliminate millennia of dust buildup damaged the original works. 

Into the wild

Hikers in Tassili n’Ajjer desert
It is time to leave our camp and head to the base of the plateau. The sun is already burning. The caravan includes a cook named Ibrahim, friends Saayh and Abdelkrim, and seven heavily loaded donkeys.
For a strong walker, it takes about four hours to climb onto the plateau—via a hill of scree called Akba Tafelelet (5,853 feet) and three successive projections; less experienced trekkers could take six hours.
High table-like mountains formed by ancient geological forces are topped by cones and mounds streaked by the wind. 
As we proceed, step by step, ruinous towers emerge from monstrous rubble-covered slopes.
"The desert, a nature not upset, not devastated by man, strips us"
Cliffs that look like they were cut with a knife are hollowed out at the bottom, offering shelter under the rock. Small passages weave between the enormous masses; skinny columns rise high and gorges bring welcome shade.
“Are you OK?” Agaoued asks the group. There’s a lot to acclimatise to: the intense light, the heat, the dryness, the nakedness of the landscape.
And even just the idea of infiltrating this land, of taking in what might have been intended by the painters and engravers of one of the most significant collections of prehistoric art in the world—an open-air museum of 15,000 works. 
As the Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra warns, “The desert, a nature not upset, not devastated by man, strips us and, at the same time, reconstitutes us, dresses our soul and purifies our spirit. Let yourself be carried by the beauty, the wonder, the moment. Ignore time, opt for the maybe, the all or nothing.” 

The evolving art of the Tuaregs

Tuareg man wearing traditional dress in desert
Who are the Tuaregs, these Indigenous nomads, descendants of the Berber people who, in the seventh century, tried to oppose the Arab conquest of Byzantine North Africa, before migrating to the Sahara?
What are these civilisations from the depths of time?
Why—using a few lines and various flat tints or dots in ochre, yellow, green, purple and white—did they leave images of oxen, elephants, sheep, giraffes, human hunters and gatherers, and even half-human, half-animal figures?
How did these artists forge their talents? What can we learn from their drawings about climate change, animal migration and the way the peoples of northern Africa lived at the time? 
Ethnologists and historians generally agree upon the chronology of the region’s major art periods, grouped by similar artistic characteristics.
"It’s really not necessary to try to solve the mysteries"
The Bubaline Period (from 12,000BC) featured large wild fauna, including a now-extinct giant buffalo.
Next came the Round Head Period, which some believe was around 9,500BC. This was the first time human-like figures were featured in the art, with large, round, featureless heads and formless bodies.
During the Bovidian Period (around 7,200BC), the emphasis on cattle demonstrated that they were among the most important property at that time.
The Caballine Period (around 4,000 or 5,000 years later) saw the appearance of horses and the Garamante peoples, an ancient civilisation, shown as chariot drivers and builders.
Lastly, the Cameline Period (which lasted about 1,000 years beginning around 50BC) gave us the dromedary camels. 
Thousands of frozen stories, ghostly elements, strange and fanciful forms are intertwined. It’s really not necessary to try to solve the mysteries; it’s better instead to just appreciate the indescribable, the wonderful.

The desert belongs to its creatures

Donkey in Tassili n’Ajjer desert
In the middle of a valley surrounded by sharp peaks, we finally reach the camp where we will spend the night. A fire is lit, a carpet unrolled, and the donkeys devour twigs. Before long, Saayh and Abdelkrim take them to a watering hole, then tether them.
“Tea?” suggests Agaoued, readjusting his tagelmust to protect himself from the sun and wind.
Slowly the sky turns pink, and the sun sets the rocks on fire as we unfurl our sleeping bags. The breeze brushes, caresses, refreshes and invites us to get in tune with this wild world. Enveloped by silence, we eat a vegetable stew under a night sky sparkling with stars. 
At dawn, Agaoued and Ibrahim light a fire, prepare tea and toast bread. There is no sign we’ve had canine visitors, though we did hear some piercing barks during the night. Saayh and Abdelkrim collect wood, gather the donkeys and load the packs. 
We head out. Our path takes many forms: a strip of sand, a stone slab, a pile of pebbles, a road, a staircase, a mule track. 
In the distance, a cypress tree with a huge trunk and twisted limbs that we are told is more than 2,000 years old bears witness to a time when large herbivores (elephants, giraffes, antelopes, hippos), wild cats (cheetahs, panthers) and humans lived here, when animals enjoyed forests, grassy valleys, lakes and rivers.
On the way, Agaoued looks for tracks of the Barbary sheep, denizens of the area. “They’re not here,” he almost apologises. “The sun is shining too much.”

The lost city of Sefar

Painting of oxen herd on wall from Tassili n’Ajjer mountains
As we move eastward the valley of In Attinen rolls out miles of sandstone arches. At one point we pass three beds of stone where a shepherd family was laid to rest; Agaoued pauses to honour them.
As we continue, the impression of petrified cities and a dead planet prevails. 
Finally, we reach the lost “city” of Sefar, a cave complex that houses nearly 15,000 paintings.
They show men guiding herds of oxen, hunters chasing antelopes, women dancing, women with babies on their backs. Two large frescoes—the Great God and The Black Lady—evoke mythical heroes and the mysteries of life.
Agaoued sings as we move through the area. Against an azure sky, darkness starting to descend, two crows watch our advance towards the place we’ll camp for the night.
"Two large frescoes—the Great God and The Black Lady—evoke mythical heroes and the mysteries of life"
“Welcome to the 10,000-star hotel,” says Ibrahim when we arrive. After our evening meal, the Milky Way propels us into infinite dreams. 
The next day brings us to a canyon that’s at least as impressive as the US Grand Canyon. Dotted with cypress, oleander, date palms and other acacias, it offers a beautiful overview of the succession of climates—humid, Mediterranean and desert.
It brings to mind once more the words of Yasmina Khadra, who says that the desert offers “the incredible chance to see the day rise, the evening set, to enjoy each moment, to reach humility…to love the world.”
At camp that evening, Agaoued, Ibrahim, Saayh and Abdelkrim serve taguella, a semolina flatbread cooked under the embers, along with hot tea and dried dates. Their smartphones play Tuareg music.
“Tonight, we must get to sleep quickly,” our guide says, laughing.
That’s because tomorrow, the journey to the Djanet oasis will be long. We’ll be going back down to earth, leaving the Tassili n’Ajjer plateau. 
“It is beautiful. It is good!” says Agaoued. Sublime even. 
© 2022, Le Figaro Magazine. From “Voyage en Algérie dans les pas des Touaregs, gardiens de la préhistoire” by Alice Brouard, Le Figaro Magazine (January 27, 2023). Lefigaro.fr
Banner credit: Chettouh Nabil, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
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