Feature Articles –   The 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?
by Philip Coppens

In 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. Despite 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. The 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 visitors.

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. Though 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? Lhote himself identified an Egyptian dimension, though he was at pains to draw a clear outline how Egypt would slot into the Tassili rock paintings.

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”. “If 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. The 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. Though 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.” The 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 exploration. 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. Sir 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.