When the harmattan wind blows south from the Sahara, it spreads a veil of dust over West Africa and out to the mid-Atlantic. This is a drying wind off the desert, which often seems to suck the moisture from any living thing in its path. At times it rises to gale force, with heat like the wind off a brush fire. Some people in the Sahel call this wind the breath of the Devil.
In Tibet, hell is often pictured as a place of terrible cold. But most desert cultures describe hell as a realm of intensified, punishing heat. According to an Omani saying, the town of Muscat “gives to the panting sinner a living anticipation of his future destiny.” And the coast of Oman in summer is “hell with the fires put out.”1
The early Muslim geographers pictured the desert as comprising one quarter of the world. Their Earth was a great ball floating in the cosmic sea, half submerged in water. The other half of the globe floated above the waterline, exposed to the air and light. Of the exposed half, half again was the “inhabited quarter,” where plants, beasts and human beings could live. The remaining forth was the “scorched” or “ruined quarter.”2 Perhaps these proportions indicate that a thousand years ago, only half of the Middle East was “scorched.” The term “ruined” implies a memory of when it was otherwise. And the dichotomy of inhabited and ruined environments could be a basis for presuming that the other world also is divided between paradise and hell. As below, so above.
The old geographers designated several types of terrain within the ruined quarter. Hamada is exposed bedrock with all overburden of soil eroded away, leaving vast plates of stone baking in the sun. Reg is a landscape of jumbled rocks, broken into sharp fragments by extreme fluctuations of heat and cold. The third kind of terrain is of mountains areas, which are also usually stripped of soil to the naked rock. These three kinds of stony terrain form about 70% of the Sahara. The forth type of ruined landscape is erg, or “sand sea” with its waves of dunes. The sand is also stone, only ground so fine as to resemble organic soil. At least the sand often contains clay. As Mansanubu Fukuoka says, “if there is clay there is hope.”3
It was incorrect of the early geographers to call the ruined quarter “uninhabited.” The plants, insects, crustaceans, mollusks, and all other classes of creatures are there, ready to vastly increase with any improvement in conditions. But in Leslie Hazleton’s view, “life in the desert is … life on the brink of death. It is the outer limits of life.”4 The old geographers cannot be blamed for failing to see the life there. It was an easy mistake. Riding through the southwest Sahara on a camel, Geoffrey Moorhouse felt that “I was a caterpillar wriggling hopefully across an eternal nothingness from which all other life had apparently been extinguished.”5 The country through which Moorhouse rode, approaching the Ahaggar Mountains of southern Algeria, was known by Arab travelers as “the country of fear.” Moorhouse found out why: “Thrice now, sitting in an oasis just before departure, I had experienced a deep primeval fear of the void around. Not a quaking sensation; no more than an uneasy, feathery turning of the stomach. But there, distinctly there, as a warning and as a question mark I could not ignore.”6
The Realm of Fear
At Jiayuguan fortress on the Great Wall of China, the old Silk Road passed through an archway. For those traveling westward into the desert, a sign above read, “The Gate of the Bravest People in the World.” The gate seemed to lead from the world of life into a realm where ghosts and demons whispered on the wind. So the seventh century traveler Hsuan-tsang wrote that when the winds rise, “both man and beast become confused and forgetful … At times, sad and plaintive notes are heard and piteous cries, so that between the sights and sounds of the desert, men get confused and know not whither they go. Hence, there are so many who perish on the journey. But it is all the work of demons and evil spirits.”7
“Hallucinations,” Jeremy Swift explains, “are thought to be due to extreme sensory deprivation.” And in the Saharan reg, that condition for illusion is met in spades. Driving over a carpet of meteor-like stones, Swift kept thinking that a member of his party was missing. On every side, mirage hills and trees floated above the shimmering ground. The pale sky faded imperceptibly into the slate-gray landscape, erasing the skyline. All sense of distance or scale was lost. Far out on the plain, Swift saw a large tree. The party drove toward it, and it turned into a stunted bush two feet high. A strangely shaped hill appeared on the horizon. As they approached, it shrank to a rock less than a foot across.8 The feeling that an extra person was with them nagged at Swift’s mind the whole time he remained in the Tanezrouft (the great reg of southeast Algeria).9
This is a land of almost constant mirage, where sense perception is obviously unreliable. “Phantom rain” pours from the clouds, evaporates in mid-air, and never touches the ground. Illusory lakes vanish without a trace. As on the open sea, travelers may hear siren voices calling them to change course. Magnified in the re-telling, grand illusions fill the desert’s lore. Soldiers of the ancient Assyrian army marching through Sinai (in 671 BCE) claimed their ranks were depleted by large green beasts and two headed serpents.10
Another cause of illusion is dehydration. If the desert traveler misses a well, or finds it dry, the loss of body fluids proceeds rapidly. In extreme Saharan heat, a person can easily lose several gallons of water a day (two at rest in the shade, four if walking in the sun). If one gallon is lost and not replaced, dizziness, increased pulse, labored breathing and disorientation are normal.11 When Geoffrey Moorhouse and his guide Ould Mohammed became lost somewhere in northern Mali, the two men entered a contest as to whose judgment was sane. Moorhouse eyed Ould Mohammed suspiciously: “He had eaten little for two or three days and he was badly dehydrated. He had also been riding all morning with his bald head exposed to the fierce sun.” Repeatedly Ould Mohammed tried to turn and ride back the way they had come. Moorhouse chased him down, arguing that water must lie in the opposite direction. Suddenly Ould Mohammed flung out his arm crying, “Look, there’s the town—that thing sticking up there.” Moorhouse told him there was nothing to be seen. The guide cursed him, furiously kicked his camel and rode on. Every now and then, Ould Mohammed appeared in the distance, driving his camel one way or another. Moorhouse sat against the trunk of a thorn tree: “My mind whirled with anxiety. What on Earth was my responsibility to Ould Mohammed? Somehow I ought to have prevented him from riding back suicidally into the desert, but I couldn’t see how I could have stopped him physically.”12
Fortunately, Ould Mohammed returned from his madcap ride having found the well. In this same region, between Taodeni and Timbuktu, a famous salt caravan of 2,000 people went astray in 1805, with all hands lost. Of course these days most desert travelers use cars, buses or trucks. Fewer people die when they get lost and run out of gas. But in the vague corridor of desert known as the “Trans-Saharan highway,” William Langewische counted 15 abandoned vehicles within one particularly difficult mile.13
Although a camel can survive dehydration to the point of losing a third of its body-weight, a human cannot survive losing 10 or 12%. That is about two gallons, which can be lost in only half a day.14 If that much water is lost, the blood congeals. Body temperature soars out of control. When the Swedish explorer Sven Hedin missed his way in the Chinese Taklamakan, he watched his own body wilt like a plant. After wandering several days without water, he saw a pool in the Khotan-daria riverbed, plunged in his head and drank like a camel: “Every blood-vessel and tissue of my body sucked up the life-giving liquid like a sponge … My hands, which had been dry, parched, and hard as wood, swelled out again. My skin, which had been like parchment, turned moist and elastic.”15
Many of the desert’s poets and prophets spoke with familiarity of primal fear and of redemption at death’s gate. They described visions of the next world, like people used to hearing stories of near-death experiences. Even today, with all our technological safety nets, those who travel in the true desert still know that anxiety. After traveling in the Negev Desert of Israel, Lesley Hazelton observed that we all carry a basic fear of being lost: “Normally, this fear lies below the threshold of awareness. In the desert, it rises to consciousness. And for anyone traveling alone in the desert, it is a nagging fear that cannot be ignored.”16 Hazelton adds, “it seems to me that it is not physical death we fear in the desert so much as death of the soul.”17 Perhaps inter-planetary astronauts will know such fear of being lost forever. And partly with that literal fear in mind, the ancient desert Muslims prayed daily: “In the name of Allah, the compassionate, the merciful, king of the day of judgment, lead us into the straight way, and not as those who have gone astray.” So the Tuareg poet Shaykh Muhammad Hamma Al-Suqi wrote to God, “Thou art among the shepherds of creation, secretly or seen. If Thou sleepest and ignore us for an hour or for a day, then we are those who in a desert lose their way.”18
Of course desert travelers did everything in their power to ensure a safe passage. They committed the known paths across hundreds of miles to memory and carefully passed on what they knew. As an old Algerian man described this lore of the desert, “by the stars at night, in daylight, by local knowledge of the desert—this soil, this tree, this ruin, these tracks, these shadows before sunset. It is passed down from father to son, and spoken of among friends.”19 Malise Ruthven explains that the closest word in Arabic to the English “good” is al ma’ruf, which literally means “the known.” Evil is associated with the opposite word, al munkar—meaning that which is unknown, outside of tribal tradition, or which departs from the proven path. Al-munkar is that which would lead people astray into the void.20
Most ancient people believed that threats to their survival came from the Devil. And in a killer environment, the Devil and the land seemed strangely united against humanity. In that harsh country the Devil played tricks with people’s minds, conjuring illusions to deceive them. He animated the landscape with his hostile spirit. The passing whirlwinds were “djinn,” or “dust-devils.” The blinding sandstorms known as “black hurricanes” seemed to be all-out assaults by the Devil himself. In desert myths, the soul of all evil and the “Lord of this world” were commonly one and the same.
In the lands of mirage and heat- or thirst-induced hallucination, personal perception was commonly distrusted. What the whole group affirmed was more likely true than what one person “saw.” In a treacherous country, where one mistake could be fatal, this was common sense. What was the shortest route to water? Which leader should be trusted? Which customs must the group follow to gain God’s mercy? A desert tribe could feel forced to gamble on such decisions at every turn. Perhaps the fear of being subject to illusion made people depend on group consensus all the more. But if each member of the group was so prone to deception, how did their collective knowledge become trustworthy? One common answer was that the tribe’s collective wisdom originally came from God. Long ago, the ancestors received their beliefs and traditions from the Lord. And this was demonstrably true. By clinging to their tried ways and proven paths, the ancestors had survived in the desert. They were shown the way in the wilderness. They were saved from dangers on every side. It was a miracle.
The ancient desert people had no evidence that rain came from earthly water evaporated from other regions. They thought that moisture fell directly from the blue vault of heaven, as mercy from God on those who deserved it.21 “He sends down saving rain for them after they have lost all hope and spreads abroad his mercy”(Quran 42:28). By observing certain traditions, the surviving ancestors had merited mercy through the years. Anyone who would now depart from their ways was a fool, or worse. In Arabic, the closest word to “innovation” is bid’a. But the traditional connotations of this word are almost all bad. Bid’a was generally presumed to involve a mistake, a betrayal of the community, or a corruption of its sacred customs.22 Those who would stray from tradition in the desert were more likely seen as devils than prophets.
Where ancient desert tribes stood in competition for scarce resources, each tribe tended to demonize the other. In a similar way, different religious groups often viewed each other as enemy faiths, with enemy gods. During the early decades of Islam, militants of the breakaway Kharji sect demonized all other religious communities. Their own Kharji ways were of God, and all other cultures were deceptions of the great deceiver. So the Kharjis described their world as a “zone of war,” where the “people of paradise” engaged the “people of hell” in mortal combat. But Abdullah Ibn Ibad urged a more moderate view on the Kharjis. This world, he agreed, has no worth save as God’s testing ground for souls, but it is not a realm of war. Rather, for every earthly creature, it is “the realm of prudent fear.”23
Based on a portion of The Gardens of Their Dreams: Desertification and Culture in World History
1. Phillips, Wendell, Unknown Oman, Longmans, Green and Co. Ltd., London, 1966, 6.
2. Phillips, Unknown Oman, 208.
3. Fukuoka, Mansanubu, The Road Back to Nature; Regaining the Paradise Lost, trans. Frederic P Metreaud, Japan Publications Inc, Tokyo and New York, 1989, 335.
4. Hazleton, Lesley, Where Mountains Roar: A Personal Report from the Sinai and Negev Desert, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1980, 86.
5. Moorhouse, Geoffrey, The Fearful Void, Hodder and Stoughton, 1974, 118.
6. Moorhouse, The Fearful Void, 118.
7. Hsuan-tsang, quoted in Hopkirk, Peter, Foreign Devils on the Silk Road: The Search for the Lost Cities and Treasures of Chinese Central Asia, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1984, 11.
8. Swift, Jeremy, and the eds. of Time/Life, The Sahara, Time-Life Books, Amsterdam, 1978, 154-155.
9. Swift, Jeremy, The Sahara, 166.
10. Raux, Georges, Ancient Iraq, 2nd ed., Penguin Books Ltd., 1980, 302-303.
11. Langewische, William, Sahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the Desert, Pantheon Books, New York, 1996, 150.
12. Moorhouse, Geoffrey, The Fearful Void, 232-233.
13. Langewische, William, Sahara Unveiled, 204.
14. Langewische, Sahara Unveiled, 182, 150.
15. Hedin, Sven, Through Asia, quoted in Hopkirk, Peter, Foreign Devils on the Silk Road, 60.
16. Hazelton, Where Mountains Roar, 34.
17. Hazelton, Where Mountains Roar, 45.
18. Al-Suqi, Shaykh Muhammad Hamma, quoted by Norris, H.T., “Indigenous Peoples of the Sahara,” in The Sahara; Key Environments Series, Cloudsley-Thompson, J. L., ed., Permagon Press, Oxford, 1984, 317.
19. Langewische, Sahara Unveiled, 142.
20. Ruthven, Malise, Islam in the World, Oxford University Press, New York, 1984, 131.
21. Hillel, Daniel, Rivers of Eden: The Struggle for Water and the Quest for Peace in the Middle East, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1994, 24.
22. Ruthven, Islam in the World, 131.
23. Ruthven, Islam in the World, 183-185.
Article Written by Brian Griffith
Brian Griffith is an independent historian who’s interested in culture wars and cultural creativity. So far he’s written four books. The Gardens of Their Dreams: Desertification and Culture in World History examines how environmental degradation has affected society across the center of the Old World from ancient times forward. Correcting Jesus: 2000 Years of Changing the Story and Different Visions of Love: Partnership and Dominator Cultures in Christian History reflect on the culture wars that have raged within Christianity from the religion’s beginning down to the present. A Galaxy of Immortal Women: The Yin Side of Chinese Civilization explores the alternative traditions and religions of Chinese women, which offer the world a powerful vision for partnership, health, and spirituality. He lives in a multicultural marriage in the multicultural hub of Toronto, and publishes with the Exterminating Angel Press.