It’s been called ‘the greatest museum of prehistoric art’—but few tourists know it exists

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Referred to as ‘the most extensive collection of prehistoric artwork,’ but recognized by only a few tourists, Tassili N’Ajjer National Park remains a hidden gem in Africa. Despite being the largest national park on the continent, it remains relatively unknown due to its remote location.

Situated in the southeastern part of Algeria, the park encompasses the remnants of an expansive Precambrian sandstone plateau, spanning across 2,780 square miles in the heart of the Sahara Desert, sharing borders with Libya and Niger.

This region is a geological marvel, characterized by peculiar rock formations intermingled with orange dunes. Millennia of erosion have sculpted the sandstone into towering spires, carved openings through towering cliffs, and shaped formations into abstract and animal-like figures. Remarkably, the park is believed to contain over 300 natural arches.

However, the allure of Tassili lies not only in the visual grandeur of its rocks, but also in the stories etched upon them by past generations.

Abdellah Elies, a Tuarag guide, recounts the tale behind the “Crying Cows,” a renowned ancient engraving on a rock surface positioned between Djanet and Tadrart Rouge. This engraving symbolizes the sorrow of the region’s herders as the “African Humid Period” concluded, transforming the green Sahara into arid desert.

One of the most captivating areas within Tassili is Tadrart Rouge, accessible through 4×4 tours from the oasis town of Djanet, a flight of about two and a half hours from Algeria’s capital, Algiers. As tour guides, often members of the nomadic Tuareg tribe, identify spots to pause, visitors frequently encounter ancient etchings and paintings adorning the rock surfaces.

Back in the 1950s, French archaeologist Henri Lhote, who documented a significant portion of Tassili’s 15,000 rock art pieces, praised the region as “the world’s most extensive prehistoric art museum.”

These outdoor galleries offer a vivid ethnological record of the various peoples drawn to the area across time. Intriguingly, many of the prominent petroglyphs depict large mammals more commonly associated with sub-Saharan Africa, such as elephants, giraffes, rhinos, and hippos.

This outdoor artistry provides insight into the Sahara’s changing climate. As the region’s weather patterns evolved, so did its human societies. Certain overhangs exhibit intricate, lifelike depictions of piebald cattle, reflecting the transition from hunting and gathering to mobile pastoralism. Many of the surviving images from this “bovidian” era are created using carmine paint, a mixture of crushed stone and cow’s blood.

The weeping cows, carved into a lone rock outcrop near the road connecting Djanet and the Libyan border, serve as a harbinger of the Sahara’s current arid state. As a lush era gave way to a dry one, the sophisticated glyphs transformed into simpler camel sketches – the hasty graffiti of a nomadic lifestyle.

In recent years, regional instability, particularly conflicts in Libya and Niger, has restricted access to much of the national park. The vastness of the wilderness places it beyond the reach of Algerian military patrols.

Though Tadrart Rouge feels like a separate world, many of Tassili’s rock art pieces, along with the breathtaking landscapes that backdrop them, remain lost in the passage of time.

For those interested in visiting, Tassili N’Ajjer tours typically span five to seven days, with Tuareg guides picking up visitors from Djanet Airport and heading directly to Tadrart Rouge. The teams include a guide, driver, and cook, along with camping equipment, food, and water. A seven-day tour with Fancy Yellow, including domestic flights, costs around $770 per person.

Visitors with more time can combine a Tassili trip with a visit to Hoggar National Park, another spectacular natural wonder in the Algerian Sahara. This mountain range of volcanic plugs is accessible from the town of Tamanrasset, which is a 45-minute flight west of Djanet.

The author of the article is Henry Wismayer, a London-based writer, and the photographer is Matjaz Krivic, a documentary photographer from Slovenia.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about prehistoric art

What is Tassili N’Ajjer National Park known for?

Tassili N’Ajjer National Park is renowned for its extensive collection of prehistoric rock art, captivating geological formations, and its remote location in the Sahara Desert.

How large is Tassili N’Ajjer National Park?

Tassili N’Ajjer National Park spans over 2,780 square miles, making it the largest national park in Africa. It is located in the southeastern corner of Algeria, bordered by Libya and Niger.

What kind of rock formations can be found in the park?

The park features uncanny rock formations, shaped by millennia of erosion. The sandstone formations include pinnacles, arches, and outcrops, creating a surreal landscape in harmony with the surrounding orange dunes.

Who were the creators of the prehistoric rock art?

The rock art in Tassili N’Ajjer was crafted by past generations of different peoples drawn to the region over the ages. These petroglyphs provide an ethnological record of their cultures and lifestyles.

What is the significance of the “Crying Cows” engraving?

The “Crying Cows” engraving symbolizes the end of the “African Humid Period” when the Sahara transitioned from a lush environment to an arid desert. It represents the despair of herders as the rains diminished and the landscape changed.

How can visitors explore Tassili N’Ajjer National Park?

Visitors can join 4×4 tours led by Tuareg guides, who are often members of the local nomadic tribe. The tours offer access to various rock art sites and unique landscapes within the park.

What is the cost of a tour to Tassili N’Ajjer National Park?

A seven-day tour with Fancy Yellow, including domestic flights, costs around $770 per person. The tour typically includes guides, drivers, cooks, camping gear, food, and water.

Can Tassili N’Ajjer be combined with other attractions?

For those with more time, a trip to Tassili N’Ajjer can be combined with a visit to Hoggar National Park, another remarkable natural wonder in the Algerian Sahara known for its volcanic mountain range.

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