Staring out across the vast sand dunes that lie beyond Dakhla, it seems inconceivable that the Sahara Desert was once lush with vegetation. Yet according to reports published in Science magazine and other leading scientific journals, a period of heavy monsoon rains that fell some 10,500 years ago turned the 3.8 million-square-mile Sahara into a semi-arid region that supported flora, fauna, and even human life.
Computer simulations of the Earth’s ancient climate reveal that a shift of tectonic plates more than 7 million years ago dried up a vast African sea called Thethys, creating an inhospitable climate much like that found in the Sahara Desert today. The only habitable place to live was in the eastern region along the Nile Valley. Yet a millennium or two of downpours temporarily turned valleys green, allowed trees and shrubs to grow, and even fed large rivers.
The wet monsoons created permanent rain pools and freshwater lakes that lured a vast array of wildlife including elephants, rhinos, giraffes, hippos, and crocodiles. They also attracted human inhabitants, who migrated from the overpopulated Nile Valley. Radiocarbon dating from nearly 150 excavation sites reveals well-entrenched human settlements that even included domesticated livestock up until around 5000 BCE.
This savanna-covered version of the Sahara was not long for history, however. The monsoon rains eventually retreated, desert conditions returned, and human inhabitants headed back to the luxuriant Nile River Valley to usher in the pharaoh era.
Today Dakhla’s desert dwellers include mostly small, nocturnal wildlife and the nomadic Sahraoui or Sahrawi people, a group of whom travelers have the privilege of meeting during our Sea to Sahara expedition. Steeped in tradition and noted for their hospitality, the Sahraoui invite us to take part in their time-honored tea ritual, a time to socialize and perhaps share folklore of when the sands were green.