Tassili n’Ajjer: birthplace of ancient Egypt?
The Tassili n’Ajjer
of Southern Algiers is described as the “largest storehouse
of rock paintings in the world”. But could it also be the
origins of the ancient Egypt culture?
January 2003, I made enquiries to visit the Hoggar Mountains and
the Tassili n'Ajjer, one of the most enchanting mountain ranges
on this planet. The two geographically close but nevertheless
quite separate landscapes are located in the Sahara desert in
southeast Algeria. I was told that if I could pack my bags immediately
(literally), I could join the three weeks’ trip. Unfortunately,
I could not, but planned to go on the January 2004 trek.
A few weeks later, Dutch and German tourists were kidnapped in
the area (though the English group I would have joined had no
such problems). Some of the tourists were held for several months,
before German and Dutch troops were sent in to free the hostages
from their rebel captors. The kidnappings have since stopped most
if not all tourists from travelling towards the magical rock paintings
of the Tassili, as insurance brokers are unwilling to provide
cover. At a time when the world was beginning to wake up to the
magical reality of the Tassili paintings, international political
tension has placed the prehistoric rock paintings off-limits.
the fact that the rock paintings of the Tassili can be visited,
the few people who have written about these rock paintings in
popular accounts have largely relied on the pioneering work of
Henri Lhote and his team.
Lhote stated that the Tassilli was the richest storehouse of prehistoric
art in the whole world. He wrote a series of books, the best known
of which is “The Search for the Tassili Frescoes. The Rock
paintings of the Sahara.” It is a popular account of the
hardships he encountered in trying to discover and make drawings
of the rock paintings that were scattered on the rock faces in
the various corners of the Tassili.
Lhote himself built on the work of Lieutenant Brenans, who was
one of the first to venture deep into the canyons of the Tassili
during a police operation in the 1930s. As the first European
to enter that area, he noticed strange figures that were drawn
on the cliffs. He saw elephants walking along with their trunks
raised, rhinoceros with ugly looking horns on their snouts, giraffes
with necks stretched out as if they were eating at the tops of
the bushes. Today, the area is a desolate desert. What these paintings
depicted was an era long gone, when the Sahara was a fertile savannah,
teeming with wildlife… and humans.
Lhote spoke to Brenans after the war; in co-operation with Lhote’s
mentor Abbé Breuil, who had researched several of the Paleolithic
cave paintings in Southern France, a mission to map and study
the rock paintings of the Tassili was organised.
conditions of the Tassili are very otherworldly. One could argue
it is an otherworldy landscape. Some have actually described it
as a “lunar landscape”.
Otherworldly is also a fitting description of the paintings. Lhote
himself described some of them as “Martian faces”.
Lhote used the term as they resembled the alien faces that he
had seen on television sci-fi documentaries. And the term would
later be used by the likes of Erich von Däniken to speculate
whether some of the figures were indeed depictions of extraterrestrial
The “Martians” were what Lhote more scientifically
had labelled “round-headed people”, though they do
indeed look otherwordly. And that is what Terence McKenna believed
that they were: otherworldly, not in the sense of extraterrestrial,
but in the sense of another dimension. In his opinion, some of
the rock art showed evidence of a lost religion that was based
on the hallucinogenic mushroom. He saw figures that were sprouting
mushrooms all over their bodies, like at Matalen-Amazar and Ti-n-Tazarift.
Others were holding them in their hands, and still other figures
were hybrids of mushrooms and humans. He noted that there was
one depiction of a shaman in antler headgear with a bee’s
face, clutching mushrooms and noted that these were the earliest
known depictions of shamans with large numbers of grazing cattle.
The fact that these were shamans was supported by the presence
of masks, an instrument often worn by shamans during religious
ceremonies. If anyone still was not convinced that these people
went “out of their minds” to paint these scenes, McKenna
noted the geometric structures that surrounded the shamans, which
for McKenna and other specialists was evidence of the trance state
that the painters had entered for painting.
McKenna popularised the paintings, what he wrote was largely in
line with what Lhote had pondered himself. He was convinced that
this art was inspired by magic and that it stemmed from religious
beliefs. He also made comparison to the artists who painted inside
the French caves, whereby studies
published decades after Lhote’s death, such as those by
David Lewis-Williams, have highlighted their shamanic context.
Other researchers, notably Wim Zitman, have identified an astronomic
connotation to the various figures. He specifically focuses his
attention on the so-called “swimmer”, depicted at
Ti-n-Tazarift, and argues that this is in fact the depiction of
a constellation. He also argues for a connection between the rock
paintings of the Tassili and the origin of the Egyptian civilisation,
wondering whether the shamans of the Tassili might not have been
the “Followers of Horus” that have been the subject
of so much speculation in the past decade by the likes of Robert
Bauval and Graham Hancock. Rather than from the mythical Atlantis,
might they have come from a region southeast of the Atlas mountains,
i.e. the Tassili?
himself identified an Egyptian dimension, though he was at pains
to draw a clear outline how Egypt would slot into the Tassili
He published in his book two paintings which had an unmistakable
ancient Egyptian character. Furthermore, they were “out
of place art” and did not fit in with the other paintings
that he had found. His discovery caused commotion in scholarly
circles, as it seemed irrefutable proof of contact between the
Tassili and Ancient Egypt. The question was how. Eventually, it
emerged that the paintings were done by one member of Lhote’s
team, who played a successful prank on Lhote. The pictures were
reproduced up to the early 1970s in editions of his book, before
being removed from successive reprints. Today, the paintings have
been discretely erased from Jabbaren and Aurenghet, and the Touareg
guides shake their head if the photos are shown, having never
seen them. Of course, some will argue that this is part of an
archaeological cover-up, whereby one member of his team was forced
to lie, whereby the establishment later removed the paintings
from the cliffs to remove this “Egyptian connection”.
at one stage Egyptian (and maybe also Mycenaean) influence can
be observed, the most archaic of the Tassili pictures belong to
a school unknown up to now and one that apparently was of local
origin”, Lhote concluded.
There were largely two forms of rock paintings, distinguishable
by the location in which they were found. Some were found in rock
shelters, such as at Aouanrhet. These sites were where the shaman
performed his divination, as the face of a rock was often seen
as a doorway to another dimension (another parallel with the paintings
in the French caves). Though one could interpret their location
as the work of a nomadic people, Lhote’s team also found
several urban settlements.
He found small concentrations of human activity around Tan-Zoumiatak
in the Tin Abou Teka massif. It was a little rocky citadel that
dominated the gorge below. The citadel was cut through with a
number of narrow alleys. Lhote described the art he found here
as: “There were life-size figures painted in red ochre,
archers with muscular arms and legs, enormous ‘cats’,
many scenes with cattle, war-chariots and so forth. Up to this
time I had never seen figures of this sort in the Tassili and
the mass of paintings that I managed to view that day quite put
into the shade all those I had seen up to then.”
It was a highlight so far, but more impressive sites were to follow.
At Jabbaren, he found a city with alleys, cross-roads and squares.
The walls were covered with hundreds of paintings. Jabbaren is
a Tuareg word meaning “giants” and the name refers
to the paintings found inside the city, some of which depict human
figures that are indeed gigantic in size. One of them measured
up to eighteen feet high. Several of these paintings depicted
“Martians” and for Lhote, it was the first time he
discovered paintings of hundreds of oxen. Jabbaren was soon labelled
one of the oldest sites of the Tassili.
Ti-n-Tazarift was another city. Its centre was marked by a huge
amphitheatre with a diameter of more than five hundred yards.
It had an immense public square with houses grouped around it.
Given off from it were avenues, streets, passages and even blind
alleys. The city stretched for a mile and a quarter. It were once
again the hollows at the base of the rocks that revealed a variety
and multitude of paintings, including more paintings of “Martians”,
or round-headed people.
true highlight, however, was Sefar. Little is written about the
city. Lhote does not provide many details, except a map, showing
its extent, as well as the presence of several streets and avenues,
tumuli, tombs and something that he calls the “esplanade
of the Great Fishing God”. Lhote named the character as
he seemed to be carrying fish. But a closer inspection of the
photograph that successive expeditions have taken, suggests what
Zitman had always felt could be the truth: rather than a “fishing
god”, was this character not depicted in a pose that the
ancient Egyptians knew as “smiting the enemy”? It
was a pose that was used by the Pharaohs to display their mastery
over the forces of chaos.
The “Great Fishing God” of Sefar is thus potential
evidence that there is indeed a link between Egypt and the Tassili.
Some of the rock paintings also show boats, such as at Sefar and
Aouanrhet. These depictions are very similar if not identical
to what was discovered by the likes of Toby Wilkinson in similar
sites and similar rock paintings in the region between the Nile
and the Red Sea. He dated these paintings to the 5th millennium
BC, which overlaps with the paintings of the Tassili. Like the
Tassili, the desert area where Wilkinson uncovered these paintings
was then verdant grassland. Like the Tassili, these Egyptian paintings
are a complex mixture of motifs, depicting crocodiles, hippos
and boats from the Nile alongside ostriches and giraffes from
the savannah, and suffused with cattle imagery and the religious
symbolism that would characterize classical Egyptian art. This
should by now sound familiar…
For Wilkinson, these rock paintings show that pre-Pharaonic Egyptians
were not settled flood-plain farmers, but semi-nomadic herders
who drove their cattle in between the lush riverbanks and the
drier grasslands. He also identified that several of these paintings
were located around ancient trade routes. For a “semi-nomadic
people”, it is by no means a long stretch of the imagination
to argue that they trekked throughout the savannah, from east
to west and backwards. And thus, in Pre-dynastic Egypt, Egypt
and the Tassili were more than likely “one”. So there
is an Egyptian connection, but rather than arguing for a connection
around 1200 BC, based on the fake paintings Lhote fell for, the
connection can actually be found in predynastic Egypt.
the Tassili paintings are by far the best known, they are not
the only area where such paintings can be found. Nearby areas
such as Acacus and Messak have revealed similar rock paintings.
It confirms that the Tassili was not an isolated incident, but
part of a larger whole.
Both Wilkinson and Zitman argue for a radical reinterpretation
of the origins of ancient Egypt. For Wilkinson, the rock paintings
in southern Egypt provide proof that it is there that we should
look for the “Genesis of the Pharaohs” (the title
of his book). For Zitman, the origin of ancient Egypt can be found
in a culture and area that stretches into the Tassili, where there
is the pose painted on a cliff face in Sefar that would later
adorn the front walls of several Egyptian temples. And that cannot
be a coincidence. Furthermore, it also coincides with what Lhote
wrote: “The most common profile suggested that of Ethiopians,
and it was almost certainly from the east that these great waves
of pastoralist immigrants came who invaded not only the Tassili
but much of the Sahara.”
Tassili has thus added a new chapter to African history –
but it is a new chapter at the beginning of the book. It is the
history of what is known as the “Neolithic wet period”,
which lasted from 9000 to 2500 BC, when much of the Sahara was
habitable for humans, when the dunes were covered with grassland,
supporting hippos, lions, crocodiles, zebras, giraffes, etc. By
7000 BC, there were hunters, dancers, bakers and even sailors.
There were shamans, leaving rock paintings on the cliff faces.
The earliest examples of Saharan rock art are invariably engravings,
sometimes on a very large scale, representing the ancient and
partially extinct wildlife. That they were at this time nomadic
hunters is inferred from a lack of representations of domestic
animals. One of the most prominent and common representations
is the Bubalus Antiqus, the ancestor of modern domesticated cattle,
resembling the modern east African buffalo, but with much larger
horns. As it became extinct around 5000 BC, it has allowed archaeologists
to date the Tassili rock paintings.
Lhote then identified the “round headed people” as
the next phase. This peculiar style is officially limited to the
Tassili, but there are similarities with the large cave at Wadi
Sora in the Gilf Kebir and paintings in the Ennedi, showing that
these people got very close to Egypt.
The consensus among Egyptologists is that the Egyptians did not
penetrate the desert any further than the area around Djedefre’s
Water Mountain, a sandstone hill about 80 kilometres south west
of the Dakhla Oasis that contains hieroglyphic inscriptions. Its
discovery in 2003 by the German explorer Carlo Bergmann already
caused a sensation as it extended the activities of the Pharaonic
administrations an unprecedented 80 kilometres further out into
the unknown and waterless Western Desert.
Now, that dogma has been shattered by the discoveries made by
Mark Borda and Mahmoud Marai, from Malta and Egypt respectively,
when surveying a field of boulders on the flanks of a hill deep
in the Libyan desert, some 700 kilometres west of the Nile Valley
– 630 kilometres further than the previous frontier of Egyptian
Borda and Marai have stated they discovered engravings on a large
rock consisting of hieroglyphic writing, a Pharaonic cartouche,
an image of the king and other Pharaonic iconography. The short
text yielded astonishing revelations. In the annals of Egyptian
history there are references to far off lands that the pharaohs
had traded with, but none of these have ever been positively located.
Borda states that the decipherment reveals that the region of
their find is none other than the fabled land of Yam, one of the
most famous and mysterious nations that the Egyptians had traded
with in Old Kingdom times; a source of precious tropical woods
and ivory. “Its location has been debated by Egyptologists
for over 150 years but it was never imagined it could be 700 kilometres
west of the Nile in the middle of the Sahara desert.” With
the dogma now shattered, it is clear that the field is laid wide
open for further explorations.
Wallis-Budge was amongst the first to identify that the ancient
Egyptians were inheritors of the African shamanic tradition. Wilkinson
agrees; McKenna too. There was a religion in the Tassili, apparently
involving hallucinogenic substances that opened up gateways into
other dimensions for the shamans. The outcome must have been a
religious doctrine, one that began to be written down on the cliff
faces, including the “Great fishing god”, which by
3500 BC became incorporated in Dynastic Egypt as the symbol of
Pharaonic control and which would throughout Egypt’s history
be depicted on its great temple walls.
But when ancient Egypt went Dynastic, the Tassili did not follow
the trend. The rock faces continued to be used for paintings,
though became different in style. By 2500 BC, the savannah began
to transform into the desert it is now. When the horse was introduced
to the Sahara about 1200 BC, enabling horse drawn chariots to
be used along the Saharan trade routes up until classical times,
these animals too became incorporated in the art of the local
people. But by 1200 BC, the climate had become vastly different
from the savannah of 7000 BC. The difference in climate between
today and 7000 BC could indeed be seen as being of a different
world. Today, the Tassili could indeed be on a different planet.
Though its artwork is more and more photographed, few if any are
willing to incorporate it within a larger framework. Von Däniken
was wrong when he stated that these were extra-terrestrial beings,
but he was right to suggest that the Tassili had an unknown dimension
to the history of ancient Egypt. Making a step into the Tassili
will be harder than making a small step on the Moon, it would
not be big step for Mankind, but it would be big step for archaeology.