The Algerian portion of the Sahara extends south of the Saharan Atlas for 1,500 kilometers to the Niger and Mali frontiers. The desert is an otherworldly place, scarcely considered an integral part of the country. Far from being covered wholly by sweeps of sand, however, it is a region of great diversity. Immense areas of sand dunes called areg (sing., erg) occupy about one-quarter of the territory. The largest such region is the Grand Erg Oriental (Great Eastern Erg), where enormous dunes two to five meters high are spaced about forty meters apart. Much of the remainder of the desert is covered by rocky platforms called humud (sing., hamada), and almost the entire southeastern quarter is taken up by the high, complex mass of the Ahaggar and Tassili-n- Ajjer highlands, some parts of which reach more than 2,000 meters. Surrounding the Ahaggar are sandstone plateaus, cut into deep gorges by ancient rivers, and to the west a desert of pebbles stretches to the Mali frontier.
The desert consists of readily distinguishable northern and southern sectors, the northern sector extending southward a little less than half the distance to the Niger and Mali frontiers. The north, less arid than the south, supports most of the few persons who live in the region and contains most of the desert's oases. Sand dunes are the most prominent features of this area's topography, but between the desert areas of the Grand Erg Oriental and the Grand Erg Occidental (Great Western Erg) and extending north to the Atlas Saharien are plateaus, including a complex limestone structure called the Mzab where the Mzabite Berbers have settled. The southern zone of the Sahara is almost totally arid and is inhabited only by the Tuareg nomads and, recently, by oil camp workers. Barren rock predominates, but in some parts of Ahaggar and Tassili-n-Ajjer alluvial deposits permit garden farming.
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