The Sahara: A Cultural History. Eamonn Gearon. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. ISBN: 9780199861958

For teachers and scholars of world history, the Sahara offers an exciting locale to explore connections between societies. Eamonn Gearon’s The Sahara: A Cultural History offers an introduction to the region’s history as well as its attraction to a wide range of European artists, writers, and travelers. This book is designed for general readers unfamiliar with the Sahara and provides a broad albeit uneven review of the great desert’s role in global history and the Western imagination. Though the book has no place in either a high school or a college classroom, it could be a useful resource for instructors who wish to bring the Sahara more attention in their world history classes. Gearon’s effort to look at the Sahara – a region that usually serves as a dividing line between specialists of North Africa and sub Saharan Africa – is creative and laudable. Unfortunately, at times this book reads more like a history of North Americans and Europeans in the desert than a history of people from the region.

Some of the best moments in this book can be found in the opening chapters. Gearon discusses rock art and archaeological findings on different societies in the Sahara before 1500 BC. This material shows the importance of dramatic environment change in world history prior to the development of urban cultures. The book explores at length the use of underground water tunnels by the Garamantes of what is now modern central Libya and their collapse soon after the Vandals invaded Roman North Africa. Arab migrations into North Africa and the introduction of Islam also receive succinct but informative coverage here. Gearon clearly enjoys retelling the adventures and foibles of European explorers in the Sahara in the 18th and 19th centuries, and these sections are especially entertaining. Likewise, the inspiration of the desert for British poets and novelists during World War 2 draws as much attention as the more famous work of Paul Bowles. The short annotated bibliography does contain a good range of more scholarly works.

Yet this book also has some major weaknesses when it comes to major cultural themes within global history. The trans-Saharan slave trade is only mentioned in a cursory way. Its varied legacies, such as the role of African communities in creating gnawa religious music in Morocco, do not receive any coverage at all. Readers will not learn much about how colonial rule and the advent of independence influenced cultural achievements. Admittedly, The Sahara is oriented more toward Western travel readers than historians, so it should come as little surprise that European descriptions and depictions of the Sahara eclipse the cultures of indigenous people. The impressive contemporary musical scenes of Mali and Mauritania, for example, demonstrate how Saharan and European ties could be woven together by artists such as Ali Farka Touré. One would never know that from reading this book. Women are likewise almost entirely invisible, save for a few exceptions such as the French eccentric traveler Isabelle Eberhardt. The varieties of Islamic beliefs that emerged in Saharan communities also remain obscure, even with a brief discussion of Sufi brotherhoods during the Almoravid empire, which controlled much of the Western Sahara region.. This book does not draw on recent scholarship on trans-Saharan connections very much. More generally, the switch from chronological to thematic organization midway through the book is quite jarring.

As a whole, The Sahara: A Cultural History can be mined for insights by teachers of world history, but no reader will confuse this with an original work of scholarship or a comprehensive overview of the culture and history of this fascinating part of the world.

Reviewed by Jeremy Rich, Marywood University
Edited by Karen Rosenflanz

(c) 2013 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 6, Spring, 2013. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]

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