AskDefine | Define Sahara

Dictionary Definition

Sahara n : the world's largest desert (3,500,000 square miles) in northern Africa [syn: Sahara Desert]

User Contributed Dictionary



From Arabic “desert” (Sahara Desert is thus a pleonasm.)


Proper noun

  1. A desert in North Africa



Proper noun



Proper noun


See also

Extensive Definition

The Sahara (, , "The Great Desert") is the world's largest hot desert and the world's second largest desert after Antarctica . At over 9,000,000 square kilometres (3,500,000 sq mi), it covers most parts of Northern Africa; an area stretching from the Red Sea, including parts of the Mediterranean coasts, to the outskirts of the Atlantic Ocean. To the south, it is delimited by the Sahel, a belt of semi-arid tropical savanna separating the Sahara from Sub-Saharan Africa.
The Sahara is almost as large as the continental United States, and is larger than Australia. The Sahara has an intermittent history that may go back as much as 3 million years. Some of the sand dunes can reach 180 meters (600 feet) in height. Its name comes from the Tamajaq Tuareg language word Tenere, which means the desert, translated into the Arabic it gave Sahara "desert": (صَحراء), "ṣaḥrā´" (صحراء). But the original name of the Sahara is: Tinariwen (the deserts), as for the indigenous people of the Sahara, the Tuareg people, the Sahara is not a desert, but many deserts, distinct and different in nature and lanscapes.


The boundaries of the Sahara are the Atlantic Ocean on the west, the Atlas Mountains and the Mediterranean Sea on the north, the Red Sea and Egypt on the east, and the Sudan and the valley of the Niger River on the south. The Sahara is divided into western Sahara, the central Ahaggar Mountains, the Tibesti Mountains, the Aïr Mountains (a region of desert mountains and high plateaus), Tenere desert and the Libyan desert (the most arid region). The highest peak in the Sahara is Emi Koussi (3415 m) in the Tibesti Mountains in northern Chad.
The Sahara divides the continent of Africa into North and Sub-Saharan Africa. The southern border of the Sahara is marked by a band of semiarid savanna called the Sahel; south of the Sahel lies the lusher Sudan and the Congo River Basin. Most of the Sahara consists of rocky hamada; ergs (large sand dunes) form only a minor part.
People lived on the edge of the desert thousands of years ago since, immediately after the last ice age, the Sahara was a much wetter place than it is today. Over 30,000 petroglyphs of river animals such as crocodiles (which still exist in parts of the desert) survive, with half found in the Tassili n'Ajjer in southeast Algeria. Fossils of dinosaurs, including Afrovenator, Jobaria and Ouranosaurus, have also been found here. The modern Sahara, though, is not as lush in vegetation, except in the Nile Valley, at a few oases, and in the northern highlands, where Mediterranean plants such as the olive tree are found to grow. The region has been this way since about 3000 BC. Some 2.5 million people live in the Sahara, most of these in Egypt, Mauritania, Morocco and Algeria. Dominant ethnicities in the Sahara are various Berber groups including Tuareg tribes, various Arabised Berber groups such as the Hassaniya-speaking Maure (Moors, also known as Sahrawis), and various "black African" ethnicities including Tubu, Nubians, Zaghawa, Kanuri, Peul (Fulani), Hausa and Songhai. Important cities located in the Sahara include Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania; Tamanrasset, Ouargla, Bechar, Hassi Messaoud, Ghardaia, El Oued, Algeria; Timbuktu, Mali; Agadez, Niger; Ghat, Libya; and Faya-Largeau, Chad.
It has been reported that the Sahara is expanding south by as much as 30 miles per year, overwhelming degraded grasslands, taking over the Sahel, the dry tropical savanna that has defined the Sahara's southern limit. Global warming and poor farming methods have been given as possible causes. One report states that all of Africa could eventually become a massive desert. This spreading of deserts is known as "desertification," and the phenomenon is occurring in other desert areas worldwide.


The Sahara covers huge parts of Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Western Sahara, Sudan and Tunisia. It is one of three distinct physiographic provinces of the African massive physiographic division.
The desert landforms of the Sahara are shaped by wind (eolian) or by occasional rains, and include sand dunes and dune fields or sand seas (erg), stone plateaus (hamada), gravel plains (reg), dry valleys (wadi), and salt flats (shatt or chott). Unusual landforms include the Richat Structure in Mauritania.
Several deeply dissected mountains and mountain ranges, many volcanic, rise from the desert, including the Aïr Mountains, Ahaggar Mountains, Saharan Atlas, Tibesti Mountains, Adrar des Iforas, and Red Sea Hills. The highest peak in the Sahara is Emi Koussi, a shield volcano in the Tibesti range of northern Chad.
Most of the rivers and streams in the Sahara are seasonal or intermittent, the chief exception being the Nile River, which crosses the desert from its origins in central Africa to empty into the Mediterranean. Underground aquifers sometimes reach the surface, forming oases, including the Bahariya, Ghardaïa, Timimoun, Kufrah, and Siwah.
The center of the Sahara is hyper-arid, with little vegetation. The northern and southern reaches of the desert, along with the highlands, have areas of sparse grassland and desert shrub, with trees and taller shrubs in wadis where moisture collects.
To the north, the Sahara reaches to the Mediterranean Sea in Egypt and portions of Libya, but in Cyrenaica and the Magreb, the Sahara borders Mediterranean forest, woodland, and shrub ecoregions of northern Africa, which have a Mediterranean climate characterized by a winter rainy season. According to the botanical criteria of Frank White and geographer Robert Capot-Rey, the northern limit of the Sahara corresponds to the northern limit of Date Palm cultivation (Phoenix dactylifera), and the southern limit of Esparto (Stipa tenacissima), a grass typical of the Mediterranean climate portion of the Maghreb and Iberia. The northern limit also corresponds to the 100 mm isohyet of annual precipitation.
To the south, the Sahara is bounded by the Sahel, a belt of dry tropical savanna with a summer rainy season that extends across Africa from east to west. The southern limit of the Sahara is indicated botanically by the southern limit of Cornulaca monacantha (a Chenopodiaceae), or northern limit of the Cenchrus biflorus, a grass typical of the Sahel. According to climatic criteria, the southern limit of the Sahara corresponds to the 150 mm isohyet of annual precipitation (keeping in mind that precipitation varies strongly from one year to another).

Climate history

The climate of the Sahara has undergone enormous variation between wet and dry over the last few hundred thousand years. During the last ice age, the Sahara was bigger than it is today, extending south beyond its current boundaries. The end of the ice age brought better times to the Sahara, from about 8000 BC to 6000 BC, perhaps due to low pressure areas over the collapsing ice sheets to the north. Once the ice sheets were gone, the northern part of the Sahara dried out. However, not long after the end of the ice sheets, the monsoon, which currently brings rain only as far as the Sahel, came further north and counteracted the drying trend in the southern Sahara. The monsoon in Africa (and elsewhere) is due to heating during the summer. Air over land becomes warmer and rises, pulling in cool wet air from the ocean, which causes rain. Paradoxically, the Sahara was wetter when it received more solar insolation in the summer. Changes in solar insolation are caused by changes in the Earth's orbital parameters (9,000 years ago the Earth's axis had a stronger tilt than it does presently, and perihelion occurred at the end of July).
By around 3400 BC, the monsoon retreated south to approximately where it is today, leading to the gradual rather than abrupt desertification of the Sahara. The Sahara is currently as dry as it was about 13,000 years ago. Precipitation, while rare, is not unknown. Half of the Sahara receives less than 2 cm of rain a year, with the rest receiving up to 10 cm a year. The rainfall happens very rarely, but when it does it is usually torrential when it occurs after long dry periods, which can last for years.
Presently, the climate is changing, and the Sahara is expanding southward by about 30 miles per year.


The Sahara comprises several distinct ecoregions, whose variations in temperature, rainfall, elevation, and soils harbor distinct communities of plants and animals. According to the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), the ecoregions of the Sahara include:
  • Atlantic coastal desert: The coastal desert occupies a narrow strip along the Atlantic coast, where fog generated offshore by the cool Canary Current provides sufficient moisture to sustain a variety of lichens, succulents, and shrubs. It covers 39,900 square kilometers (15,400 square miles) in Western Sahara and Mauritania.
  • North Saharan steppe and woodlands: This ecoregion lies along the northern edge of the desert, next to the Mediterranean forests, woodlands, and shrub ecoregions of the northern Maghreb and Cyrenaica. Winter rains sustain shrublands and dry woodlands that form a transition between the Mediterranean climate regions to the north and the hyper-arid Sahara proper to the south. It covers 1,675,300 square kilometers (646,800 square miles) in Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Tunisia, and Western Sahara.
  • Sahara desert: This ecoregion covers the hyper-arid central portion of the Sahara where rainfall is minimal and sporadic. Vegetation is rare, and this ecoregion consists mostly of sand dunes (erg, chech, raoui), stone plateaus (hamadas), gravel plains (reg), dry valleys (wadis), and salt flats. It covers 4,639,900 square kilometers (1,791,500 square miles) of Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Sudan.
  • South Saharan steppe and woodlands: The South Saharan steppe and woodlands occupy a narrow band running east and west between the hyper-arid Sahara and the Sahel savannas to the south. Movements of the equatorial Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) bring summer rains during July and August which average 100 to 200 mm, but vary greatly from year to year. These rains sustain summer pastures of grasses and herbs, with dry woodlands and shrublands along seasonal watercourses. The ecoregion covers 1,101,700 square kilometers (425,400 square miles) in Algeria, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Sudan.
  • West Saharan montane xeric woodlands: Several volcanic highlands in the western portion of the Sahara provide a cooler, moister environment that supports Saharo-Mediterranean woodlands and shrublands. The ecoregion covers 258,100 square kilometers (99,700 square miles), mostly in the Tassili-n-Ajjer of Algeria, with smaller enclaves in the Aïr of Niger, the Dhar Adrar of Mauritania, and the Adrar des Iforas of Mali and Algeria.
  • Tibesti-Jebel Uweinat montane xeric woodlands: The Tibesti and Jebel Uweinat highlands foster higher, more regular rainfall and cooler temperatures, which support woodlands and shrublands of palms, acacias, myrtle, oleander, Tamarix, and several rare and endemic plants. The ecoregion covers 82,200 square kilometers (31,700 square miles) in the Tibesti of Chad and Libya, and Jebel Uweinat on the border of Egypt, Libya, and Sudan.
  • Saharan halopytics: Seasonally-flooded saline depressions in the Sahara are home to halophytic, or salt-adapted, plant communities. The Saharan halophytics cover 54,000 square kilometers (20,800 square miles), including the Qattara and Siwa depressions in northern Egypt, the Tunisian salt lakes of central Tunisia, Chott Melghir in Algeria, and smaller areas of Algeria, Mauritania, and Western Sahara..


  • Dromedary camels and goats are the most domesticated animals found in the Sahara. Because of its qualities of sobriety, endurance and speed, the dromedary is the favorite animal used by nomads.
  • The Leiurus quinquestriatus (aka Deathstalker) scorpion which can be 10 cm long. Its Agitoxin and Scyllatoxin, toxins contained within the venom, are fatal in the majority of cases.
  • The monitor lizard. It has been suggested that the occasional habit of varanids to stand on their two hind legs and to appear to "monitor" their surroundings led to the original Arabic name waral ورل, which is translated to English as "monitor".
  • Sand vipers, which average less than 50 cm in length. Many have a pair of horns, one over each eye. Active at night, they usually lie buried in the sand with only their eyes visible. Bites are painful, but rarely fatal.
  • The fennec, an omnivore.
  • The hyrax. It first appears in the fossil record over 40 million years ago, and for many millions of years hyraxes were the primary terrestrial herbivore in Africa.
  • The ostrich which is a flightless bird native to Africa. They became rare because they have been driven out.
  • The addax, a large white antelope, is a threatened species. Adapted to the desert, they can remain months without drinking, even a whole year.
  • The Saharan cheetah lives in Niger, Mali and Chad. There remain only a few hundred cheetahs which are very cautious, avoiding any human presence, the cheetah flees the sun from April to October. It then seeks the shelter of shrubs such as balanites and acacias. They are unusually pale.
There exist other animals in the Sahara (birds in particular) such as African Silverbill and Black-throated Firefinch among others.



By 6000 BC predynastic Egyptians in the southwestern corner of Egypt were herding cattle and constructing large buildings. Subsistence in organized and permanent settlements in predynastic Egypt by the middle of the 6th millennium BC centered predominantly on cereal and animal agriculture: cattle, goats, pigs and sheep. Metal objects replaced prior ones of stone. Tanning of animal skins, pottery and weaving are commonplace in this era also. There are indications of seasonal or only temporary occupation of the Al Fayyum in the 6th millennium BC, with food activities centering on fishing, hunting and food-gathering. Stone arrowheads, knives and scrapers are common. Burial items include pottery, jewelry, farming and hunting equipment, and assorted foods including dried meat and fruit. The dead are buried facing due west. Megaliths found at Nabta Playa are overt examples of probably the world's first known Archaeoastronomy devices, predating Stonehenge by some 1000 years. This complexity, as observed at Nabta Playa, and as expressed by different levels of authority within the society there, likely formed the basis for the structure of both the Neolithic society at Nabta and the Old Kingdom of Egypt.


The peoples of Phoenicia, who flourished between 1200-800 BC, created a confederation of kingdoms across the entire Sahara to Egypt. They generally settled along the Mediterranean coast, as well as the Sahara, among the peoples of Ancient Libya, who were the ancestors of peoples who speak Berber languages in North Africa and the Sahara today, including the Tuareg of the central Sahara.
The Phoenician alphabet seems to have been adopted by the ancient Libyans of north Africa, and Tifinagh is still used today by Berber-speaking Tuareg camel herders of the central Sahara.
Sometime between 633 BC and 530 BC, Hanno the Navigator either established or reinforced Phoenician colonies in Western Sahara, but all ancient remains have vanished with virtually no trace. (See History of Western Sahara.)


By 500 BC, a new influence arrived in the form of the Greeks. Greek traders spread along the eastern coast of the desert, establishing trading colonies along the Red Sea coast. The Carthaginians explored the Atlantic coast of the desert. The turbulence of the waters and the lack of markets never led to an extensive presence further south than modern Morocco. Centralized states thus surrounded the desert on the north and east; it remained outside of the control of these states. Raids from the nomadic Berber people of the desert were a constant concern of those living on the edge of the desert.

Urban civilization

An urban civilization, the Garamantes, arose around this time in the heart of the Sahara, in a valley that is now called the Wadi al-Ajal in Fazzan, Libya.

Trans-Saharan trade

Following the Islamic conquest of North Africa in the seventh century CE, trade across the desert intensified. The kingdoms of the Sahel, especially the Ghana Empire and the later Mali Empire, grew rich and powerful exporting gold and salt to North Africa. The emirates along the Mediterranean Sea sent south manufactured goods and horses. From the Sahara itself, salt was exported. This process turned the scattered oasis communities into trading centres, and brought them under the control of the empires on the edge of the desert. A significant slave trade crossed the desert (See Arab slave trade).
This trade persisted for several centuries until the development in Europe of the caravel allowed ships, first from Portugal but soon from all Western Europe, to sail around the desert and gather the resources from the source in Guinea. The Sahara was rapidly remarginalized.

European imperialism

At the beginning of the 19th century, most of the northern Sahara, including most of present-day Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, was part of the Ottoman Empire. The Sahel and southern Sahara were home to several independent states.
European colonialism in the Sahara began in the 19th century. France conquered Algeria from the Ottomans in 1830, and French rule spread south from Algeria and eastwards from Senegal into the upper Niger to include present-day Algeria, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco (1912), Niger, and Tunisia (1881).
Egypt, under Muhammad Ali and his successors, conquered Nubia (1820-22), founded Khartoum (1823), and conquered Darfur (1874). Egypt, including the Sudan, became a British protectorate in 1882. Egypt and Britain lost control of the Sudan from 1882 to 1898 as a result of the Mahdist War. After its capture by British troops in 1898, the Sudan became a Anglo-Egyptian condominium.
Spain captured present-day Western Sahara after 1874. In 1912, Italy captured Libya from the Ottomans.

Modern times

Egypt became independent of Britain in 1936, although the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty allowed Britain to keep troops in Egypt and maintained the British-Egyptian condominium in the Sudan. British military forces were withdrawn in 1954.
Most of the Saharan states achieved independence after World War II: Libya in 1951, Morocco, Sudan, and Tunisia in 1956, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger in 1960, and Algeria in 1962. Spain withdrew from Western Sahara in 1975, and it was partitioned between Mauritania and Morocco. Mauritania withdrew in 1979, and Morocco continues to hold the territory.
The modern era has seen a number of mines and communities develop to exploit the desert's natural resources. These include large deposits of oil and natural gas in Algeria and Libya and large deposits of phosphates in Morocco and Western Sahara.
A number of Trans-African highways have been proposed across the Sahara, including the Cairo-Dakar Highway along the Atlantic coast, the Trans-Sahara Highway from Algiers on the Mediterranean to Kano in Nigeria, the Tripoli-Cape Town Highway from Tripoli in Libya to Ndjamena in Chad, and the Cairo-Cape Town Highway which follows the Nile. Each of these highways is partially complete, with significant gaps and unpaved sections.

Peoples and languages

The Sahara is home to a number of peoples and languages. Arabic is the most widely spoken language in the Sahara, from the Atlantic to the Red Sea. Berber people are found from western Egypt to Morocco, including the Tuareg pastoralists of the central Sahara. The Beja live in the Red Sea Hills of southeastern Egypt and eastern Sudan. The Arabic, Berber, and Beja languages are part of the Afro-Asiatic language family.
Speakers of Nilo-Saharan language family also inhabit the Sahara, including Fur of Darfur in western Sudan and the Saharan languages of Niger, Chad and western Sudan, which includes Kanuri, Tedaga, and Dazaga.

Countries in the Sahara

The following countries are either fully or partially covered by the Sahara.


  • Michael Brett and Elizabeth Frentess. The Berbers. Blackwell Publishers, 1996.
  • Charles-Andre Julien. History of North Africa: From the Arab Conquest to 1830. Praeger, 1970.
  • Abdallah Laroui. The History of the Maghrib: An Interpretive Essay. Princeton, 1977.
  • Hugh Kennedy. Muslim Spain and Portugal: A Political History of al-Andalus. Longman, 1996.
  • Richard W. Bulliet. The Camel and the Wheel. Harvard University Press, 1975. Republished with a new preface Columbia University Press, 1990.


External links

Sahara in Afrikaans: Sahara
Sahara in Arabic: صحراء كبرى
Sahara in Aragonese: Disierto d'o Sajara
Sahara in Asturian: Desiertu del Sáḥara
Sahara in Azerbaijani: Böyük Səhra
Sahara in Bengali: সাহারা মরুভূমি
Sahara in Min Nan: Sahara Soa-bô͘
Sahara in Belarusian: Пустыня Сахара
Sahara in Belarusian (Tarashkevitsa): Сахара
Sahara in Bavarian: Sahara
Sahara in Bosnian: Sahara
Sahara in Bulgarian: Сахара
Sahara in Catalan: Sàhara
Sahara in Chuvash: Сахара
Sahara in Czech: Sahara
Sahara in Welsh: Sahara
Sahara in Danish: Sahara
Sahara in German: Sahara
Sahara in Estonian: Sahara
Sahara in Modern Greek (1453-): Σαχάρα
Sahara in Spanish: Desierto del Sahara
Sahara in Esperanto: Saharo
Sahara in Basque: Sahara
Sahara in Extremaduran: Sahara
Sahara in Persian: صحرا
Sahara in French: Sahara
Sahara in Irish: An Sahára
Sahara in Scottish Gaelic: Fàsach Sahara
Sahara in Galician: Deserto do Sáhara
Sahara in Korean: 사하라 사막
Sahara in Armenian: Սահարա
Sahara in Croatian: Sahara
Sahara in Ido: Sahara
Sahara in Indonesian: Gurun Sahara
Sahara in Icelandic: Sahara
Sahara in Italian: Deserto del Sahara
Sahara in Hebrew: סהרה
Sahara in Javanese: Ara-ara Sahara
Sahara in Kara-Kalpak: Saxara sho'listanlıg'ı
Sahara in Georgian: საჰარა
Sahara in Swahili (macrolanguage): Sahara
Sahara in Latin: Sahara
Sahara in Latvian: Sahāras tuksnesis
Sahara in Lithuanian: Sachara
Sahara in Lojban: saxaras
Sahara in Hungarian: Szahara
Sahara in Maltese: Saħara
Sahara in Malay (macrolanguage): Sahara
Sahara in Mongolian: Сахарын цөл
Sahara in Dutch: Sahara
Sahara in Newari: सहारा
Sahara in Japanese: サハラ砂漠
Sahara in Pitcairn-Norfolk: Sahara
Sahara in Norwegian: Sahara
Sahara in Norwegian Nynorsk: Sahara
Sahara in Occitan (post 1500): Sahara
Sahara in Polish: Sahara
Sahara in Portuguese: Deserto do Saara
Sahara in Romanian: Deşertul Sahara
Sahara in Quechua: Sahara
Sahara in Russian: Пустыня Сахара
Sahara in Sicilian: Sahara
Sahara in Simple English: Sahara Desert
Sahara in Slovak: Sahara
Sahara in Slovenian: Sahara
Sahara in Serbian: Сахара
Sahara in Serbo-Croatian: Sahara
Sahara in Finnish: Sahara
Sahara in Swedish: Sahara
Sahara in Tamil: சஹாரா
Sahara in Telugu: సహారా ఎడారి
Sahara in Thai: ทะเลทรายซาฮารา
Sahara in Vietnamese: Sa mạc Sahara
Sahara in Tajik: Саҳрои бузург
Sahara in Turkish: Sahra Çölü
Sahara in Ukrainian: Сахара
Sahara in Urdu: صحرائے اعظم
Sahara in Venetian: Sahara
Sahara in Walloon: Sara
Sahara in Yoruba: Sahara
Sahara in Chinese: 撒哈拉沙漠

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Arabia Deserta, Death Valley, barren, barren land, barrens, brush, bush, desert, desolation, dust bowl, heath, howling wilderness, karroo, lunar landscape, lunar waste, outback, salt flat, waste, wasteland, weary waste, wild, wilderness, wilds
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