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Desert landscape in Southern Libya

The Libyan Desert (Arabic: الصحراء الليبية‎) is located in the northern and eastern part of the Sahara Desert. It occupies Egypt west of the Nile (the Egyptian portion is thus called the Western Desert), eastern Libya and northwestern Sudan alongside the Nubian Desert. Covering an area of approximately 1,100,000 square kilometers, it extends approximately 1100 km from east to west, and 1,000 km from north to south, in about the shape of a rectangle. Like most of the Sahara, this desert is primarily sand and hamada or stony plain.

Sand plains, dunes, ridges and some depressions (basins) typify the region, and no rivers drain into or out of the area. The desert's Gilf Kebir Plateau reaches an altitude of just over 1000 meters. and along with the nearby massif of Jebel Uweinat, is an exception to the uninterrupted territory of basement rocks covered by layers of horizontally bedded sediments, forming a massive sand plain, low plateaus and dunes.


Key geographic features of the Libyan Desert

The Libyan Desert is sometimes claimed to be separate entity from the Sahara by traditional British geographers, but this designation most probably has its origins based on the politics of the colonial era when French North African colonies occupied the 'Sahara'. The Brits wanted something else. What really defines the Libyan Desert as separate from the rest of the Sahara (including western Libya) is its extreme aridity (a consequences of the Asian monsoon). Because of the consequent lack of ground water, vegetation is much more sparse, therefore (along with wildlife) no notable camel-borne nomadic culture developed here as it did in the less arid west and south. As a consequence no major trade routes developed as without wells travel by camel was so marginal. It became one of the last corners of the Sahara to be explored by Europeans, and mostly notably the first to see the regular use of motor cars by the likes of Pat Clayton.

The desert features a striking diversity of landscapes including mountains like Jebel Uweinat (1980m, the Gilf Kebir plateau, and sand seas as detailed below. The Libyan Desert is barely populated apart from the modern settlements in eastern Libya. The indigenous population might be described as Arabic and Berber in the north and Tubu in the south. In WWII the area became famed as being the region of operations of the Siwa-based Long Range Desert Group or LRDG, whose daring, vehicle-borne desert raids stretched as far west as Murzuk.


Depressions and oases

There are eight depressions in the eastern Libyan Desert, and all are considered oases except the smallest, Qattara, because its waters are salty. Limited agricultural production, the presence of some natural resources, and permanent settlements are found in the other seven depressions, all of which have fresh water provided by the Nile or by local groundwater. In most of Upper Egypt, the desert encroaches very near the Nile, with a flood plain only a few kilometers wide.

The Siwa Oasis, close to the Libyan border and west of Qattara, is isolated from the rest of Egypt but has sustained life since ancient times. Waw an Namus in the very centre of Libya, is an extinct volcano with reed-filled pools in its crater but no cultivation or habitation. The other major oases include Dakhla and Kharga in Egypt, and Jaghbub and Kufra in Libya. Apart from Kufra they form a topographic chain of basins extending from the Al Fayyum Oasis (sometimes called the Fayyum Depression) which lies sixty kilometers southwest of Cairo, south to the Bahariya, Farafra and Dakhla oases before reaching the country's largest oasis, Kharga Oasis. A brackish lake, Lake Karun, at the northern reaches of Al Fayyum Oasis, drained into the Nile in ancient times. For centuries sweetwater artesian wells in the Fayyum Oasis have permitted extensive cultivation in an irrigated area that extends over 2,100 square kilometers.

The Gilf Kebir

The Gilf Kebir plateau rises to around 1100 metres in the south and lies in the south west corner of Egypt.[1] It is similar in structure to the other sandstone plateaus of the central Sahara; its southern rim rising in sheer cliffs separated by wadis. The northern part is more broken and supports three large wadis of which Wadi Hamra and Adb el Malik are the most distinctive. Here there is scant vegetation but a profusion of Neolithic artefacts and rock art. Indeed the southern Gilf and Uweinat are among the richest troves of rock art in the Sahara. The 'Cave of the Swimmers' as featured in The English Patient film is actually Wadi Sora, discovered by the real life Laszlo Almasy in the 1930s. The so-called 'swimming figures' here are in bad shape, but as late as 2002 a spectacular new cave was discovered nearby, displaying hitherto unseen prehistoric imagery. New discoveries continue to be made. Just north of the Gilf, among the shallow peripheral dunes of the southern Great Sand Sea is a field of Libyan desert glass or 'desert emerald', a piece of which was recently found to feature in a piece of Tutankamun's jewellry.

The Three Sand Seas

The three sand seas, which contain dunes up to 512 meters in height cover approximately one quarter of the region. They include:

Modern Exploration

The Sahara was traversed by mostly Muslims traders, natives and pilgrims of which the best known is Ibn Battuta. The first European explorer to the Sahara was the German Friedrich Gerhard Rohlfs.[2] In his expeditions on 1865 in he received much resistance from the natives of the Saharan oases and kingdoms he's visited. Because of the much resistance to all European explorers at the time, especially by Senussis Ikhwan, Rohlfs only managed to come back with a few important findings which included an inaccurate first map of the Libyan Desert.

It was not before the 1924, when Ahmed Hassanein undertook a 3500 km expedition with a camel caravan that the first accurate maps were drawn and the mountain of Jebel Uweinat with springs at its base was discovered.[3] He wrote important accounts on the Senussi sect, explaining their lifestyle and ethics to the civilised world in his important book The Lost Oases. Ralph Bagnold, who went on to help found the LRDG, greatly extended the knowledge of the area (as well as developing techniques still used today for driving cars in sand) with many journeys in the 1920s and 30s using Model T Fords.

In 1935, the famous French aviator Antoine de Saint Exupéry crashed in the northern Libyan Desert.[4] After miraculously surviving, he and his plane's mechanic nearly died of thirst before being rescued by a nomad. This event is described in Exupery's book Wind, Sand, and Stars. The wreck of the B24 bomber Lady Be Good, discovered 200 km north of Kufra 15 years after it was reported missing during WWII, had a less happy ending. The crew bailed out believing they were over the sea, when their plane ran out of fuel, and they became lost. When they landed in the Libyan Desert they could feel a North Westerly breeze, thinking they were near the Mediterranean they headed into the wind hoping it would lead them to safety, However they were many hundreds of kilometers from the Mediterranean, and they all slowly died from dehydration after covering an impressive 70 miles with minimal water in a place so dry even the desert Bedouins refuse to enter.


  1. ^ Bagnold, R.A. 1939. A lost world refound. Scientific American 161(5, November):261-263.
  2. ^ Rohlfs G. 1875. Drei Monate in der libyschen Wüste. Cassel: Verlag von Theodor Fischer, 340 p.
  3. ^ Hassanein Bey, A.M. 1924. Crossing the untraversed Libyan Desert. The National Geographic Magazine 46(3):233-277.
  4. ^ Saint-Exupéry, A. de. 1939. Terre des homes (English title: Wind, Sand and Stars). Paris.

See also

Further reading

  • Almásy, L. and Lozach, J. 1936. Récentes explorations dans le Désert Libyque (1932-1936) (Recent explorations in the Libyan Desert, 1932-1936). Société royale de géographie d'Égypte, 97 p.
  • Almásy, L. 1942. Unbekannte Sahara mit flugzeug und auto in der Libyschen wüste (The unknown Sahara by airplane and auto in the Libyan Desert). Leipzig: F.A. Brockhaus, 215 p.
  • Bagnold, R.A. 1931. Journeys in the Libyan Desert, 1929 and 1930. The Geographical Journal 78(1):13-39; (6):524-533.
  • Bagnold, R.A. 1933. A further journey through the Libyan Desert. The Geographical Journal 82(2):103-129; (3):211-213, 226-235.
  • Bagnold, R.A. 1935. Libyan Sands: travel in a dead world. London: Travel Book Club, 351 p.
  • Forbes, R. 1921. Secret of the Sahara: Kufara. New York: George H. Doran, 356 p.
  • Hassanein Bey, A.M. 1924. Crossing the untraversed Libyan Desert. The National Geographic Magazine 46(3):233-277.
  • Hassanein Bey, A.M. 1925. The Lost Oases: Being a narrative account of the author's explorations into the more remote parts of the Libyan Desert and his rediscovery of two lost oases. 363 p.
  • Hoskins, G.A. 1837. Visit to the Great Oasis of the Libyan Desert. London, 341 p.
  • Rohlfs G. 1875. Drei Monate in der Libyschen wüste (Three months in the Libyan Desert). Cassel: Verlag von Theodor Fischer, 340 p.
  • Scholz, J.M.A. 1822. Travels in the countries between Alexandria and Parætonium, the Lybian Desert, Siwa, Egypt, Palestine, and Syria, in 1821. London, 120 p.
  • Scott, C. 2000. Sahara Overland: A route and planning guide‎. Trailblazer Publications, 544 p.
  • St. John, B. 1849. Adventures in the Libyan Desert and the Oasis of Jupiter Ammon. London: John Murray, 244 p.
  • Zittel, K.A. von. 1875. Briefe aus der libyschen Wüste (Letters from the Libyan Desert). München.

External links

Coordinates: 24°N 25°E / 24°N 25°E / 24; 25


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