Libya - Rock Art in the Sahara (Fezzan)

Long after the others have turned in, I grab my torch and shuffle across the cool rippled sand tinged by a gibbous moon and pin-holed sky. Then the deep menacing shadow of huge cliffs swallows mine. My beam flickers and I make towards a flat sloping rock. Seconds later I’m squatting on it, scanning a silvery landscape of flat-topped hills and sandy plains.

No ordinary rock, though, for it is crudely carved with the outline of a pair of human feet. Behind, on the walls of an overhang, are spare little paintings of people and animals. It’s an exciting and spooky spot. Thousands of years ago humans lived, hunted and died at this little abri, or rock shelter. I am sitting, literally, in their footsteps.

Our group had come to the Fezzan, Libya’s vast southwestern province, to view some of its eerie pre-historic rock art and amazing Saharan scenery. Far better known for its Roman remains by the Mediterranean, this remote corner is for the slightly hardier and more adventurous visitor. It is comparatively little visited yet safe, and the Fezzanis seem to relish their regained contact with the outside world.

By way of introduction, we were urged not to think of the desert ‘art’ in purely literal or aesthetic terms. “The aim of this trip,” continued Professor David Mattingly, our expert lecturer with many years in the field, “is to put the rock art and landscape into a human context. It’s a story of human adaptation to a changing environment.”

The Sahara, you realise, is not totally empty. There are huge expanses of emptiness but dotted here and there are the ancient oases and achingly remote settlements that once served caravans. We drove west through Wadi al-Ajal, with dark stark cliffs to our left and stony plains to the right. By Ubari, the first of Libya’s great ‘sand seas’ brushed the road but it was another two hours before we turned off the tarmac and headed south into what resembled oblivion.

It wasn’t always so forbidding. Around ten and then five thousand years ago, the Sahara had two lengthy humid phases. Its hills and mountains had streams that fed massive lakes, and it was covered with savannah and roamed by game. In this now vanished land of plenty, hunter gathers evolved into pastoralists and it is their evocative art we had come to see.

The Jebel Akakus, one of its strongholds, hove into view just as we left behind the last thin strands of tamarisk and acacia. Baked rocky outcrops heralded our approach while atop the main range strange rock spires and eroded pillars teased the horizon. We rose towards a boulder-strewn funnel, gained a col and then descended into a wonderland of sand-choked ravines and convoluted side-valleys that comprise Wadi Teshuinat.

Teshuinat is just one of several deep wadi systems that gnaw the blackened (by so-called desert varnish) Akakus range. Its caves and overhangs hide clusters of paintings and carvings whose precise age and meaning remain uncertain. It was near one such spot that we camped and where, on that first night, I communed with the ancients’ footprints.

You could spend says exploring Teshuinat so we focused on the choice sites, starting with the gaping Afuda Cave. Its deposits, from plant and dung remains to ash layers and fragments of pottery, have revealed more than its faint paintings – the art, we learned, was just part of a complex jigsaw. Yet moving from spectacular cave to cosy overhang it was those haunting, mostly ochre images of, for example, a figure with a bow, groups of hunters and shepherds, a woman apparently washing another’s hair, and possible funeral rituals that proved most compelling.

Even experts differ on these images’ meaning and chronology. Were animals, for example, depicted for their own sake or was it a kind of ‘hunting magic’? Are the oldest images twelve or six thousand years old?

Leaving Teshuinat, we headed east across the mighty dunes of the Erg Uan Kasa. Soon our little convoy was enveloped in the bosom of those fabled sand seas so emblematic of the Sahara. Hill-sized dunes were tinged amber, then salmon-pink, in the setting sun and whipped into exquisite creases and folds like some fantastic meringue.

That magnificent sand conjures quirky risks. Drive over a dune ridge too fast and you’ll thump down hard on the leeward side; wander off (to the loo, say) on a moonless night or without a torch and you might struggle to find camp. For some, a few days out here might be unnerving; for others the stark purity feels like mind-balm.

Our final gallery lay in the southern fringe of Messak Settafet, another wadi-incised range to which access has been improved by prospecting oil companies. Startlingly bleak and relentlessly flat, its wadis emerge suddenly as the ground falls away abruptly. Unlike the Akakus, virtually all of its art is engraved on more exposed rock faces that are often beside seasonal water holes.

Scrambling over rocks onto low ledges, we marvelled at fluid images of wild buffalo with sweeping horns (the now extinct bubalus antiquus), leggy ostriches and herds of mottled giraffe.

At Wadi Mattendush – with standing water from recent rains nourishing flowers and even butterflies – we admired elongated carvings of crocodiles, weird sexual congress and angular Touareg grafitti. High on a cliff face (you’ll need a head for heights for a close look) by the plateau’s rim, one of its most celebrated carvings depicts dancing cats that reminded me of boxing hares.

Gazing down at the curving green-tinged wadi in the utter stillness, the possibility of this once being an ancient spiritual site – perhaps some kind of altar – made perfect sense. But no one really knows.

© Amar Grover