Tassili n’Ajjer

A desert beauty with an unsuspected cultural heritage


Tassili n'Ajjer, Illizi, Algeria

GPS: 25.814582846813, 8.1347838390238

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Tassili n’Ajjer, the “Plateau of rivers” in the Berber language, is a vast rocky area of 138,000 km² in the heart of the Sahara. This natural site is the largest protected area in the country. It is located in the south-east of Algeria, not far from Libya’s and Niger’s borders, in the wilayas (administrative area) of Illizi and Tamanghasset. Since 1972, the Tassili n’Ajjer Cultural Park has protected a mountain range in the central Sahara rising to an average altitude of 1,500 metres. It is composed of two geomorphological features of interest: a sandstone plateau and a mountainous volcanic ridge.

Historically inhabited by the nomadic Tuareg people, the Tassili n’Ajjer Cultural Park is particularly rich from a geological point of view. Its arid and mountainous environment offers a very diverse range of landscapes: rocky plateaus and tabular massifs of the Tassili, fairy chimneys and eroded rock arches, deep gorges and wide valleys, green wadis and refreshing oases. It is hard to imagine today that this desert area, one of the most arid in the world, was once a grassy savannah and fertile agricultural land for its inhabitants. Before the desertification of the Sahara began only a few thousand years ago, Tassili n’Ajjer was teeming with large wild animals and lush vegetation. Nowadays, the wildlife species that have managed to survive in this area of the Algerian Sahara are considered endangered, such as the Barbary sheep, the dorcas gazelle, the Sahara cheetah and the screwhorn antelope.

In addition to its natural beauty, Tassili n’Ajjer conceals an impressive collection of 15,000 engravings and rock paintings which are very well-preserved thanks to the dry environment of the region. These date from the Neolithic period (corresponding to the last ice age) and depict scenes of hunting, dancing or religious rites. The oldest ones are dated to around 10,000 years ago. A real plunge into the history of Humankind and the Earth, the open-air museum of Tassili n’Ajjer is not only an archaeological jewel but also a Ramsar site due to the importance of its wetlands. Inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1982, the Tassili Cultural Park is the first Saharan biosphere reserve in the world.

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  • The bewitching atmosphere of the place; the lunar landscapes of the park (rocky sandstone formations); the ergs of the Sahara (sand sea); the absolute silence reigning in the desert
  • One of the oldest cave sites in the world and one of the largest open-air prehistory museums on the planet
  • Archaeological remains found on site (pottery, sculptures, dwellings, ruins)
  • The innumerable collections of rock art (sites of Tan Zoumaïtek, Tin Tazarift, Jabbaren, Tamrit, Timenzouzine, Tegharghart, Sefar plateau and oued Djerat); the enigmatic paintings of round-headed characters reminiscent of extraterrestrials (“Great Gods” and “Martians”)
  • Hiking on foot or by camel and the organization of bivouacs with the Tuareg community; walks on the Fadnoun and Tarzeeroukou plateaus; discovery of the Tadrart Rouge massif and the Tihounadj rock paintings in the south-east of Tassili n’Ajjer (near the Libyan border and the Tadrart Acacus mountain range)
  • The oases of Djanet (palm grove), Iherir (cliffs and wetlands) and Essendilène (canyon); the gorges of the Tamrit wadi; the valley of the thousand-year-old cypress trees; the “rock forests” of Jabbaren; the natural reservoirs and water basins called gueltas; the architecture of the three ksour of Djanet (16th century fortresses): Azelouaz, El-Mizane and Adjahil; the observation of the stars at nightfall
  • The shifting dunes of the Erg Admer and Erg Tihodaine; the sandstone formations of the Assassou wadi and the Tikoubaouïne site
  • The Mediterranean, Saharan and tropical vegetation (thousand-year-old cypress, lavender, laurel, grass, scattered forest, wetland…); the park’s fauna (cheetah, gazelle, insect, small rodent, reptile, migratory bird…)
  • The traditional Tuareg festival of Sebeiba or S’biba in Djanet (between October and November); local crafts; agricultural, market gardening and pastoral crops of the region (dates, figs, grapes, vegetables, fruit, wheat, livestock, fishing…); the Kel Ajjer confederation of Tuareg tribes
  • Like the South African Drakensberg mountain range, the Tassili n’Ajjer Cultural Park is home to one of the world’s largest collections of prehistoric cave art.
  • Mysterious cave paintings, unearthed by the French prehistorian Henri Lhote in the 20th century on a rocky outcrop, depict large and round-headed figures. Because of their supposed resemblance to extraterrestrials who came to Earth several thousand years ago, they are called “Great Gods” and “Martians”.
  • The ancient paintings and engravings of the Tassili n’Ajjer Cultural Park are a wealth of information for specialists. They give indications on the evolution of wild animals and their migration, climate change and the way of life of the inhabitants of the Sahara.
  • About 10,000 years ago, rainfall in the Tassili n’Ajjer region was 10 times higher than today. At that time, the Sahara contained lakes and was covered with several types of vegetation, forest areas and tropical savannahs.
  • Fish bones and fossils, dating from -10,000 to -5,000 years ago, have been unearthed in the Sahara desert. They confirm the disappearance of lakes and marshes, a process that began some 7,500 years ago and which is synonymous with drastic climatic changes in the region.
  • The cypress trees found in the region of Tassili n’Ajjer are the only conifers in the entire central Sahara. Some of them, located in the Cypress Valley and the Tamrit wadi, are more than 2,000 years old.
  • Find out about the situation in the region before going there because of its political and security instability. In recent years, the park has remained under threat from jihadist groups prowling in the Sahara and is suffering the consequences of the armed conflicts in Libya (it may be temporarily closed to tourists).
  • The Tassili n’Ajjer Cultural Park is easily accessible from the town of Djanet, which is about 10 kilometres away in its southern part. Having an airport, it can be an excellent starting base for a trek in the company of a Tuareg tribe. Incoming agencies are likely to organise a bivouac for you in the desert to spend a night under the stars.
  • The purchase of a permit is required to enter the Tassili n’Ajjer Cultural Park (it is strongly advised to request the services of a guide).
  • Beware of high temperature variations between day and night.
  • The ecosystem of this desert area is extremely fragile. Take care to respect the fauna and flora and be sure to avoid damaging the invaluable rock paintings and engravings.
  • It is in the canyon of the wadi Djerat, located south of the town of Illizi, that the most important rock engravings of the region are to be found (they are spread over more than 30 kilometres).

Where to eat

  • Restaurant Nina
    (traditional specialities)
  • Taj Mahal
    (indian restaurant)
  • Saladbox
    (healthy mediterranean)

Where to go

  • Ahaggar Cultural Park
    (superb eroded massif)
  • Abalessa
    (venerated site of the Tuaregs)
  • Assekrem
    (in the footsteps of hermits)

Where to stay

  • Camping Zeriba
    (practical stay)
  • Hôtel Tidikelt
    (modest address)
  • La Grotte des Ambassadeurs
    (family hotel)