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Tassili N'Ajjer, South Algeria
18th November - 3rd December, 2016
False colour images processed with DStretch,
a freely available software developed by Jon Harman
Our first Sahara voyage together was to the Tassili n'Ajjer 25 years ago in the autumn of 1991 (incidentally our honeymoon). This year we did a remake, spending nearly three weeks in the Djanet area and the Central Tassili, visiting some splendid remote and seldom visited sites. We had an absolutely fabulous time, finding most of the sites we intended to, and just enjoying being only the two of us out in the desert.
Day 1. Djanet area
After the fiasco a year earlier when four out of our party of five never received their visas in time and our trip had to be cancelled, this year it was a pleasant surprise to receive the visas within two weeks of application without any issues. Air Algerie launched a direct service between Algiers and Budapest just two weeks before our departure, so we could leave home early afternoon and reach Djanet soon after midnight with a few hours' wait at the fine pizzeria of the domestic terminal at Algiers. Still it was past 2 am when we could finally go to sleep, so we had a lazy morning with a late breakfast at the new Essendilene premises in Djanet to catch up on our sleep.
During breakfast we discussed our plans with Abdou Borgi, the owner of Essendilene Voyages. I have spent a long time pouring over publications from the eighties and nineties (mainly those of Jürgen Kunz and Ulrich & Brigitte Hallier) detailing a number of splendid new finds made in the central and northern Tassili. I have corresponded with the authors, however as the finds were made in pre-GPS days, most of the location information they could provide was rather vague and imprecise. As the majority of these sites were unknown to guides, our plan was to search for them at a leisurely pace, trying to find as many as possible, without the pressure of having to complete a specific itinerary. All the places were relatively close to the main Illizi road or at least a piste, so all we required was a single car with a driver plus a 'minder' who would accompany us on longer walks away from the car and interact with any local nomads of officialdom we might encounter. We decided to start the next morning, allowing another comfortable night in Djanet, and to spend the day in relaxation mode. We were also very happy to hear that the military authorities permitted day-visits to Jabbaren ascending the Akba Arum at sunrise and returning by sunset. We set aside the last day before flying back to Algiers for a trek up the plateau, where we had plenty of unfinished business.
Henri Lhote published a little booklet with the drawings of Pierre Colombel under the auspices of the Parc National du Tassili in 1979 describing a number of rock art and archaeological sites in the vicinity of Djanet (Gravures, peintures rupestres et vestiges archéologiques des environs de Djanet (Tassili-n-Ajjer)). This little booklet was the first to detail the well known and much visited "crying cows" (Térarart) and the less known panel at I-n-Débirene near the old airport. A large part of it showed engravings at localities called Tiratimine and Kisrass, west of the main oued crossing Djanet opposite the village of Azelouaz (where the Essendilene premises were located). Supposedly there were also some paintings, a fine panel with many 'dancing' human figures found by Lieutenant Brenans and copied during the 1935 Reygasse expedition, and a place called "Grotte des Ambassadeurs", a site shown to a group of visiting Ambassadors and dignitaries following the establishment of the National Park. Unfortunately the published location information given was rather vague, and knowledge of these sites has faded from recent local memory. The term Kiss Rass was now used for a large rocky area about 3-4 kilometres to the west of the valley.
After the third cup of coffee Abdou's mind clicked - in his childhood as they played along the sides of the valley they saw some pictures scratched and painted on the rocks in several places. The closer of the two was just across the valley, less than five minutes drive from the house. Abandoning the remnants of breakfast we immediately hopped into Abdou's car for the short drive, and we started finding engraved cattle and some indecipherable lines on rocks straight away at the recalled spot.
It did not take long to find the most conspicuous scene, an ithyphallic animal headed figure which clearly identified the locality as Tiratimine. Apart of the cattle and other animals we also found a number of elongated slug-like representations that Lhote identified as serpents, plus some other panels that were too damaged to be recognised.
The old memories were now coming back, Abdou drove us to a cluster of rocks about a kilometre away where after some searching we came upon a large panel of engravings. It was the fine panel of cattle illustrated on a foldout page in the Lhote booklet, unfortunately sometime recently the outlines have been crudely re-grooved to make them more visible, and parts have been defaced by modern graffiti.
A hundred metres from this panel there was a conspicuous rock with an underhang running all around its base. Most of the rock was covered with modern charcoal graffiti, and based on the amount of rubbish around it was a favorite local picnic spot. However there were a few recognisable older paintings, mostly camels and a few human figures.
On the far side of the rock there was a small area protected by stones at its base, above it we found a panel depicting several giraffe and a group of cabaline style human figures. This was the "Ambassadors" site, not a cave at all just a shallow shelter. It was much closer to the village than I imagined based on Lhote's description, at present only fifty metres separate it from a block of newly constructed buildings. It is a rather unspectacular site, especially when compared to the wonders of the plateau (Colombel's tracings do not suggest that it was in any better condition forty years ago), but it is certainly a very convenient one. The dignitaries could be driven right to it within sight of the village, sparing them any strain other than the effort of having to get out of the cars.
On another rock outcrop 150 metres beyond the "Ambassadors" we found another panel of engravings, plus a number of deep grinding basins. On the far side of the same block, we also found the fine engraved elephant. All these were reported in the Lhote booklet, but there was also a low shelter near the elephant which contained a few faint paintings which were not published. The scenes were difficult to make out on the spot, but DStretch reveals a number of archaic round-headed figures.
Abdou remembered some more sites among the more distant rocks emerging from the sand along the edge of the valley, leaving the car at the "Ambassadors" we went to search among the isolated blocks on the slope slowly rising towards the dissected plateau (presently the whole plateau area is called Tis Rass). We had a nice walk with a superb view over Djanet, but did not find many sites. Aside a single panel depicing some cattle and gazelle (?) we only found some non-figurative lines and symbols, though by the degree of patination and weathering quite ancient.
We returned for lunch to the new "Auberge d'Essendilene", a nice new house (the old one was partially demolished when the main road was widened) built at the foot of the conspicuous granite mountain at Azelouaz, once a separate village but now just the Northern quarter of Djanet. The new house has spacious rooms around a courtyard, and more importantly showers with hot water, a considerable improvement from the icy experiences of the old premises. At lunch we met a small Swiss party who just returned from a week's trekking in the Tadrart, the only other foreign tourists in the Djanet area. After a little afternoon nap we went out by ourselves to re-visit the Tiratimine site across the valley in a better light, also taking the opportunity to look about in Azelouaz with the conspicuous recently installed (and rather out of place) public lighting.
Tiratimine was just a 15 minute walk from the house. Taking a more thorough search among the rocks we found several more of the "serpents", the likes of which I have not seen anywhere else.
Just beyond the panel with the ithyphallic therianthrope we found a small shelter which contained a vertical wall at its rear with a few traces of paintings. Nothing could be made out on the spot, but DStretch reveals a rather unusual theme, some kind of shrub or tree with flowers or fruit, being grazed by some animals adjacent to a cabaline style human figure.
After lunch I have re-read Lhote's description of the panel of paintings copied by the Reygasse mission, which seemed to be the most interesting among this group of sites at the edge of Djanet. Abdou knew nothing of its location, but now with the benefit of knowing the location of Tiratimine and the "Ambassadors", Lhote's description of a small valley branching from the path connecting the two made more sense. There was indeed a footpath still in use by villagers cutting across the hills towards the "Ambassadors", and in a small narrow side-valley one could see a conspicuous shelter from Afar. I was convinced this had to be the site, however on approaching it we were disappointed to find only some very meager traces of paintings. The most interesting was some kind of abstract shape that did not make any sense on the spot. One cannot make much more sense of it even after processing with DStretch, however rather surprisingly a large feline (most probably lion) is revealed next to it, of which practically nothing may be seen on the spot.
After continuing further up the small side valley, at a narrow spot we found a small shelter which was hidden from view from below. This time it was the site we were looking for, with the panel of paintings on a vertical rock face at the rear of a small terrace with a number of deep grinding basins. The paintings were faint but recognisable, apparently the hidden location spared them much damage. The white scars at the right of the panel were not there when Rigal made his copies in 1934, but were already in place in the seventies as attested by Colombel's tracing. Fortunately these scars only affect a few of the figures, the majority become clearly visible with DStretch, including the steatopygous female figure in the centre that was likened to Josephine Baker by Reygasse. It is not entirely clear what style this panel may be assigned to, but the closest fit would be the Sefar-Ozaneare style well known from localities up on the plateau above Djanet (if so, it would be the only site with this style known from the lowlands at the foot of the high plateau).
We explored the remainder of the little valley above the paintings, but found nothing more other than a few sandal prints which were also noted by Lhote. We returned to the engravings then walked back to the house to get ready for the evening event organised by Abdou for the Swiss party to which we were also invited.
For the evening we were driven out to a spot not far from the "Ambassadors" site among the sand engulfed rocks of Tis Rass, where a barbecue dinner was already prepared. The highlight of the evening was a post-dinner performance by a female chorus, I was particularly impressed with their sophisticated low bass percussion instrument. Abdou later revealed that the old woman who dozed off to short naps between reviving to let out some of the loudest shrieks was well past her eightieth birthday. After a while the drivers and Abdou joined the performance whirling around the band with outstretched arms holding up their cloaks, very much resembling a cloud of oversized bats... Finally around 10pm Abdou took mercy and called for the grand finale, after which we were driven back to Djanet for a well earned nights' rest.
Day 2. Djanet - Tilleline - Aït Talawaten
In the morning Abdou introduced Omar, who was to be our 'minder' for the next two weeks. He was a young lad of about 25, and turned out to be a very pleasant companion. Our Driver was Ibrahim, the father of Saleh (the office manager at Essendilene) whom we knew from previous trips, with his patience and experience he was an excellent choice for a trip venturing to little traversed areas. We loaded our gear, and after a shot stop at the Djanet market to purchase supplies we set out North along the main Illizi highway. Our first objective was the Tilleline region, about 50 kilometres to the North west of Djanet, where a large site was reported by Fabio Maestucci & Gianna Giannelli (Sahara 23). We left the road about 25 kilometres after Djanet and zig-zagged in the maze of narrow canyons across the broken foothills of the low plateau until reaching the more open area of Tilleline, with dozens of isolated rocks rising from the sand. While we knew the location of the site access was not that easy with several passages between the hills blocked by sand. Finally we stopped about half a kilometre away and covered the remaining distance on foot to the site at the base of a high cliff, a rather unusual location for paintings on the Tassili.
Once the wall must have been full of paintings, but now with the exposed location they are very weathered. Even the most recent cabaline and cattle pastoralist paintings are barely visible, the ancient Roundhead figures which make the site very interesting can only be recognised on images processed with DStretch, but even then it helps to have the published tracings for guidance. It is certainly an important site, one of only a handful of lowland sites at the foot of the plateau which depict unquestionable Roundhead figures, but in its present state it was rather disappointing.
Going back towards the car we spotted a low shelter on the far side of the valley which looked promising enough to warrant a detour. On reaching it we did find a painting of a human figure drawn in outline like a caricature. With DStretch many more paintings became visible, including a fine flock of sheep above the head of the human which was completely invisible on the spot.
The site of Aït Talawaten (first reported in 1993 by Jean-Marie Gouarat in Sahara 5) was only five kilometres away as the crow flies, but it was closer to twenty to reach the locality with car, zig-zaging in the sand-filled narrow canyons which dissect the lower plateau. We set up camp in a sandy bay along the side of the valley nearby, and set out to locate the paintings. Based on the description of previous visitors I was expecting a shelter along the side of the oued. There were dozens in the vicinity, we climbed into all of them without finding anything. We broadened the search area and continued till sunset, but still nothing.
Day 3. Aït Talawaten - In Trouia - Taserert
Overnight it became overcast, and we awoke to a dark grey morning. Having re-read the Gouarat article it became clear that we were searching in the wrong places, the site was supposed to be under some large boulders along the side of the valley, not in a rock shelter. With this information we re-searched the vicinity of the camp, and did find a likely area strewn with large angular sandstone boulders.
Under one of the boulders I finally found some faint paintings: a roundhead figure accompanied by a gazelle or antelope. While these were not the ones we were looking for, they were of the same style, so the principal panel had to be close, but we could still not find it.
While I searched the boulders Ibrahim found another small site on the far side of the valley, this time with some rather young camel period paintings depicting humans with swords & shields. We considered the possibility that perhaps the location information I had was wrong, and we made a further search with the car upstream in the valley, but the site proved elusive. We finally gave up and drove back along our tracks to continue further north along the road.
Once reaching the road we drove non-stop till Bordj el Hawass (old Fort Gardel), the last refueling place until we would reach Illizi, then we continued up the pass to the north of the town. Soon after reaching the plateau top we stopped for a quick lunch at the site of Tazerouk a short distance from the road. The locality is a big shelter along a terrace in the side of a vertical cliff, but it only contains a few rather damaged paintings from the cabaline and camel periods.
Our original plan was to visit the engravings of Tin Terirt, but with the weather still overcast the light conditions were the worst possible in the early afternoon, so we decided to leave it to the return leg, hopefully with good sunlight. Instead, we decided to visit the site of In Trouia which was just a short distance beyond the Dider plain. The site is among a cluster of wind eroded rocks clearly visible from the road, the principal panel is in a shelter in the side of a free standing rock.
This site is known for its archaic paintings, it was first mentioned by Alfred Muzzolini in an 1989 article. Unfortunately as it is very close to the road and the area is used as a rest stop, the main panel is damaged by modern charcoal graffiti, but DStretch can filter them out fairly well, making the original red paintings well visible. The most prominent figure is a large (approximately 2 metre long) bear like unidentified animal, but there are several more smaller animals underneath including ostrich, a rhinoceros and a horned animal that could be a buffalo. Above the heads of the rhino and the horned animal there is another indistinct animal figure which has the same kind of patterned body decoration as the famous Tin Todouft hippos. While these paintings have been referred to as "roundheads", I am a bit uncomfortable with this classification. The outlines are simple red with no infill, and there are no associated human figures.
Finishing at In Trouia we returned to the North western corner of the Dider plain to find the start of the old piste leading up to Imirhou. Our plan was to visit several sites reported by Fabio Maestucci and Gianna Giannelli in the Tasserert region North of the Dider plain, between the oueds Imirhou and Zarzaoua. The old piste linking Fort Polignac (Illizi) with Fort Gardel and the Tibesti passed through this area, all the sites we planned to visit were within a day's walking distance. The route was already marked as 'motorable' (Eastern Erg and Tibesti Route) on the 1938 IGN map, it fell into disuse after the Illizi - Djanet piste (the precursor of the present road) was constructed in the nineteen sixties. It can still be made out on Google Earth, however I had no information on its condition. Ibrahim traversed it in the nineteen seventies, and he was confident it could be tackled with our Landcruiser, though at a slow pace. It was not easy to find its beginning on the Dider plain as many recent tracks led to all directions, we had to search for a good hour with several false starts leading to temporary and abandoned nomadic settlements before we hit upon the correct track which became unambiguous as soon as a low pass took us out of the Dider plain. It was clear that the piste was well constructed, with strong retaining walls, but in places rain washed away the compacted soil leaving only rocks and sometimes deep gullies which had to be bypassed. We could only progress at little above walking speed, generally under 10 kilometres per hour.
We only had 25 kilometres to cover before reaching the starting point to the first site, we were hoping to reach it by sunset but with the delay in finding the track and the slow progress we had to resign to stopping for the night a good 8 kilometres short of our goal among some rocks along the edge of a sandy valley. The clouds were breaking up, and we had a superb view of the sunset from our campsite.
Day 4. Taserert: trek to Ihetsen
The clouds were gone by the morning and it was a rather crisp day, perfect for a walk. Our goal for the day was the Ihetsen shelter with its magnificent Iheren style elephant hunt scene published by Fabio & Gianna in Sahara 21, lying at a distance of about seven kilometres to the East of the road at the closest point. After a quick breakfast we started rolling again, and in about an hour we reached the designated spot near a circular prehistoric monument. Ibrahim was to stay with the car, while the rest of us quickly prepared to make a start.
The starting spot was chosen after studying the terrain on Google Earth, most of our way was on the open flat plateau top with only a few rock outcrops requiring small diversions from the direct route, and just one shallow riverbed to cross. Right at the first rock outcrop we passed still within sight of the car we found several shelters showing traces of paintings, including a fine recognisable giraffe. We left more detailed investigation for the return, not to jeopardize our time at the more important target.
As we had a late start because of the morning drive, after about an hour all of the morning crispness was gone and a pause in shade was rather welcome. We spotted a large shelter at the base of an isolated rock cluster a little to the right of our course which looked like a good spot for a rest, and also looked promising for some paintings.
Indeed there were paintings in the shelter, at some point all of the rear wall must have been covered with them, however they were so weathered that only a few individual figures could be made out. They appeared to be mostly cattle pastoralist scenes, with some later additions. On close scrutiny we also found some very faint paintings on the ceiling, including a fine archer.
From the pause at the paintings we only had to walk another half an hour to reach the Oued Tizzeine, the Ihetsen shelter was just a few hundred metres further upstream on the far side of the riverbed. In the middle of the watercourse we met an old woman tending a big flock of kid goats. Remarkably all the animals were of similar size, several does must have had their litter about the same time.
Magdi did the unwise move of petting a few of them, and they all immediately recognised mama. As we walked away they started following in a neat line, and no amount of shooing could convince them to stay with the old woman. She was apparently not concerned at all, so we gave up and continued with a greatly enlarged entourage.
The shelter was indeed there just beyond a bend of the river as expected. It is just a rock overhang with a high ceiling, offering only a small patch of shade at midday. At first it was very difficult to see anything other than a conspicuous group of cattle, but as our eyes adjusted we could recognise the dozens of exquisite small figures surrounding an indistinct darker blob, the two elephants.
The main panel is a good three metres above the ground level on the ceiling of the shelter. The individual figures are quite difficult to make out, masked by the faintness of the paint and the irregularities of the rock. However on photographs taken with a zoom lens they stand out in amazing detail. The elephants are surrounded by a group of more than 40 hunters (Fabio & Gianna traced 43, but there are some more incomplete figures), all on a scale of 12-15cm, drawn with exquisite care, paying full attention to facial details, weapons, clothing and accessories.
The two elephants at the center of the scene are also drawn with a fine red outline characteristic of the Iheren style, and once had a dark infill, most of which has faded making them very hard to see in the natural lighting of the shelter. DStretch shows that they were redrawn, the red outlines and the stronger contours of the black infill do not fully overlap, the position of the hind legs of the lower animal is altogether different.
There are many more interesting elements in the panel which one only begins to appreciate after going repeatedly through the details. There are several figures holding composite bows (weapons assembled from several pieces, as opposed to the simple bow made from a single suitable piece of wood), and the fine ram depicted at the right of the scene wears an extraordinary headdress, a detail unnoted in the published tracings.
Above and to the right of the elephant hunting scene there is a fine herd of cattle, the rightmost of which appears to be a later addition, not a part of the original Iheren style composition. There is also a human figure below the main scene, somewhat isolated from the rest of the composition.
There are two more panels of paintings at the right of the shelter adjacent to each other in small niches on the shallow ceiling. They are more exposed than the main panel and are correspondingly fainter, however with DStretch one can see that they both depict very fine Iheren stile scenes.
The rightmost panel depicts a large flock of sheep, and a few unclear animals and perhaps human figures, likely a later addition. Some of the animals are drawn only in outline, others have filled bodies. Remarkably in two separate areas a part of the flock is shown only by depicting the heads of the animals.
The panel further to the left shows a large group of human figures (again ore than forty, the exact number is not clear due to the damage of the bottom of the panel). They are mostly male and appear to form several distinct lines. Fabio & Gianna called it the "ceremony scene" but that is simply code language for absolutely no clue as to what is really happening here...
As the Ihetsen shelter was the only target for our day we could afford several hours to marvel at the details and wait for the midday heat to pass. We also had a quick lunch, though the little goats tried their best to prevent us from doing so, making an inquisitive approach as soon as something was taken out of the packs. We did offer them the cucumber peels, however the poor little things never saw such delicacy, they did not recognise it as food and turned away after sniffing suspiciously.
We required about two hours to cover the seven kilometres back to the car, we left the site around three in the afternoon and made it pretty much non-stop back to the shelters with the paintings we found just after leaving the car. In the morning it sounded like a good idea to leave taking photos till the return, but now all the panels were fully exposed to the sun, so the photo session was once again adjourned till the early morning.
It was a short kilometre remaining till the piste and the car, we reached our campsite a little before the sun disappeared behind the hill to the west.
Day 5. Taserert: trek to Oued Zarzawa
Our next targets were the sites of Ouan Azawa and Tan Timzar, both reported for the first time in 2010 (Civrac et. al. in Les Cahiers de l'AARS 14). The latter was published in more detail by Fabio & Gianna in 2014 (Les Cahiers de l'AARS 17). While we did not have precise location information, both sites were known to be about 14-15 kilometres from the road near the Oued Zarzawa, which called for a two-day trek with a night at one of the sites. The closest starting point was about six kilometres north of our camp along the piste. While the others took breakfast and packed camp, I made a quick dash to the sites we found the day before at sunrise to finally take the photos.
As anticipated the paintings were not spectacular, but there were a few recognisable scenes of cattle, and another showing a fine giraffe.
By the time I returned we were ready to go, we quickly covered the driving distance and made camp at the foot of a rock tower near the piste with a shelter at its base offering good shade for Ibrahim while waiting two days for us to return. We did not waste much time, our backpacks were ready so we immediately set off towards the East. This time the terrain was not so easy, we had to cross the Oued Tizzeine which was already a deep gorge just a few kilometres downstream of Ihetsen. There were many rocky areas to deviate around, in reality the planned 14 kilometres to Ouan Azawa was closer to 16-17. We walked all morning, only stopping for a short lunch-break in the early afternoon. We finally reached the area where we thought the site to be at around 3pm, a typical "rock city" with a maze of parallel streets, avenues and open plazas.
We set about to search the area for the fine Iheren style paintings, and soon enough along the side of the main plaza I found a wall with some traces of red paint, including a recognisable barbary sheep and some other red blobs. The blobs turned out to be an ostrich and another sheep, all apparently of the same archaic type as the paintings at In Trouia.
While this was a nice find (they have not been reported before to my knowledge) they were certainly not the fine Ouan Azawa panels we were looking for. After another hour spent searching in vain, we had to concede that we were looking in the wrong place. Ouan Azawa was likely another rocky area we have passed about two kilometres earlier. We were keen to reach the Oued Zarzawa for the night, so we left any further search for the return leg and continued towards the valley.
We reached a quickly deepening gully that led towards the edge of the gorge. We were a bit apprehensive as such watercourses usually end in a vertical drop on reaching the canyon wall with no way down, but this time we were lucky, the ravine ended in a rubble slope where we could easily get down to the bottom of the gorge. In sand-filled patches we found several gueltas still holding water from the last time the river flowed. As the sun was already down by the time we reached the bottom of the Oued, we did not walk much upstream in the direction of Tan Timzar but searched for a suitable bivouac, settling on a section of smooth rock with some patches of soft sand at the foot of a couple of large boulders.
Day 6. Taserert: Tan Timzar
We were up with the sun and after a quick breakfast we set out along the riverbed. We had better luck than the day before, just a few hundred metres North of our overnight spot we came upon a huge shelter at the base of the cliffs on the right side of the gorge, with the paintings visible from afar.
The paintings of the Tan Timzar shelter were classified as "roundheads" in both publications, but their classification is not as straight forward as it appears. At the extreme left of the shelter there are two animals with a kinked tail (not recorded in any publication) done in red outline with a white infill with no other internal features which conform perfectly to Muzzolini's definition of the style.
Continuing towards the right there are more similar animals, this time in outline only (baboons perhaps ?), plus a pair of long-tailed animals which could be both jackals or domesticated dogs.
Underneath this scene one finds the most problematic one. It depicts two very faint crude figures, apparently therianthropes, with the same type of kinked tail, which seem to belong to the same horizon as the previously described paintings. Invisible on the spot, they overlie an even fainter Iheren style pastoralist scene (already noted by Fabio & Gianna in Cahiers 17), which would suggest that all the paintings in the shelter are relatively late, post date the Iheren style (something which is also suggested by their surprisingly good state of preservation, which would be very unusual for true roundhead paintings). The entire interpretation of this site hinges on how we consider this little and damaged scene.
Continuing right, one reaches the main panel, with a conspicuous hartebeest flanked by incoherent smudges of paint, and at top left a pair of figures which are very similar to the two covering the Iheren style scene.
The central part of the main panel mostly depicts a variety of animals, including a number of ostrich, barbary sheep, hartebeest, but also a clearly recognisable rhinoceros. More unusual are the representations of a catfish, and two other shapes which could also be fish adjacent to a cluster of small featureless oval shapes. There are two human figures which are not very diagnostic, and an abstract composition of joined ovals. The two possible fish, and both the separate and joined ovals have a white infill, the remaining figures are just done in a thick red outline. They are clearly related to the paintings at In Trouia, and also to the ostrich and barbary sheep we found the day before, their roundhead affinities are much less evident.
The main panel is high up on the rock face, underneath there is a low shelter, the ceiling of which also contains some faint paintings with several superpositions. With DStretch it is possible to make out that the lowest layer contains two large human figures executed in yellow paint which do bear some resemblance to the classic roundhead figures, the majority of which are found in the Djanet region.
Further right, on an out-jutting part of the rear wall there are a series of rather abstract figures, with a prominent hartebeest and an oryx or roan antelope underneath. The latter is superimposed over another rhinoceros which is executed with a white infill, and some other indistinct animals.
There is a low deeper section at the right of the shelter which contains paintings in a very different style. Apart of a single animal the rest are humans, some in very dynamic postures, with yellow infill and various body decorations. While they appear archaic, they do not resemble any true roundhead paintings. This panel certainly represents the most intriguing part of the shelter, I cannot think of any ready analogies.
The floor of the shelter also attests to a lengthy human occupation with a number of large grinding basins in the rocks.
The shelter was truly spectacular and we could have easily spent the whole morning just looking at the panels, but we still had about 17 kilometres to cover on the return journey (also with some hopes for finding Ouan Azawa on the way), so we had to start. Fortunately there was an easy ascent just opposite the shelter, after a few minutes' scramble we were up on the easy terrain of the flat plateau top.
After about an hour we reached the rock city where we thought the Ouan Azawa sites to be. We knew that our time was very limited, with a good 14 kilometres remaining to the car. We searched the Eastern area of the rocks for an hour without finding anything, a full day would have been necessary to survey the whole area. With the clock ticking we set out for the long walk back to the car, again only stopping for a short lunch in the early afternoon. After the third day of doing more than 15 kilometres over the rocks we were all thoroughly tired by the time we reached Ibrahim just before sunset.
Day 7. Taserert - Imirhou
There was a remaining site, Tin Mousa within walking distance from the piste before reaching Imirhou, but the location information I had was very vague. After the fiasco with Ouan Azawa we decided not to waste another day, but to continue along the track to Imirhou, then take the new piste back towards the Illizi road.
We did stop however a few kilometres north of our camp to check out an interesting geological feature which I spotted on high resolution Google Earth imagery. It was a perfectly round white spot indicating a basin, surrounded by concentric rings of rock. While the chances of finding an uncharted impact crater were slim, it was less than a kilometre off the piste, worth investigating. Magdi decided to stay back with Ibrahim so we only made the short walk with Omar. On the ground the feature was hardly recognisable apart of the mud-filled basin which clearly collects water after rains. The surrounding rocks all showed undisturbed horizontal beding, the feature was nothing more than an eroded dome, with the uplifted strata forming the concentric rings (a miniature version of the famous Richat Structure of Mauritania).
We had about 30 kilometres remaining till Imirhou, but given the condition of the piste that was a four hour drive at snail pace. We stopped for lunch in the very meager shade of a few small rocks then continued towards the village in the Oued Imirhou. The location was conspicuously visible from the distance where the Oued Imirhou breaks through the Fadnoun plateau in a narrow valley.
It was mid-afternoon by the time we reached the Oued Imirhou a few kilometres before the small village. We had nothing to do there, all we needed was to get to the other side of the riverbed to hit the new piste and turn towards the West. We met a small snag when reaching the riverbank, as the crossing was washed away by the floods of the year before, fortunately a shepherd boy came to the rescue and showed us the correct track towards the next crossing. With the backtracking and searching for the way it was four in the afternoon by the time we reached the Imirhou piste.
We drove for another hour along the piste at the foot of the Fadnoun plateau back towards the road, covering about half of the distance before we reached a small oued with some trees, the only reasonably nice camping spot along the way. It was not a particularly productive day, we only covered a distance of about seventy kilometres with a full day's drive (half of that in the last hour), but after three full days of walking it was not altogether unpleasant to have a rest.
As we stopped early the sun was still well up as we prepared camp, then we just sat on the top of a small hill enjoying the superb sunset with the clouds and the cliffs of the Fadnoun plateau.
Day 8. In Akkarene - Illizi
With the usual morning routine we were up at sunrise, and were ready to go after less than an hour. Most of the clouds of the previous evening were gone, we continued along the piste back towards the road under crisp blue skies.
A short distance before the road we encountered a single dorcas gazelle that was hiding among some grazing camels, a behaviour I have observed also in the Enned. On our approach it did not run, just broke into a slow trot, not seeming to take much notice.
Our next point of call was the site of In Akkarene, which was reported by Jürgen Kunz in 1979. It was located somewhere in a side valley of the Oued Tissalatine on the Fadnoun plateau. Having corresponded with Jürgen, I had a fairly good idea of the approximate location: it was just two kilometres to the East of the modern asphalt road. Unfortunately at present it is impossible to leave the road anywhere towards the East due to the construction of a gas pipeline with an uncrossable deep trench running parallel to the road, so we stopped by the ditch and started out on foot towards the valley hiding the site.
After a kilometre we reached the beginning of a small oued leading down to the valley with the site. Along the side we spotted a low shelter that looked promising, and indeed we did find a few traces of paint which turned out to be not the expected cattle but a herd of giraffe and perhaps some gazelle.
We continued down in the valley, and had to go a good kilometre past the estimated point until we came upon a large prominent shelter along a bend of the river - the site of In Akkarene.
The right part of the panel illustrated by Kunz depicts an apparent elephant hunt. It seems to be in the Iheren style (echoing several other elephant hunt scenes, including the one we have just seen at Ihetsen), though the figures are cruder and less elaborate than what is expected from this style. There are arrows or spears sticking out of the dark elephant, and there is an adjacent red elephant that was not visible on published photos.
The lower left part of the panel shows a multitude of human figures, while their accessories appear to be the same as those of the Iheren people, their overall style is different. Looking carefully, it is possible to see an older Iheren style scene of cattle and some humans underneath.
The site continues for a good 150 metres along the bend of the river, and contains many more panels in addition to the one illustrated by Kunz, unfortunately most are very weathered, and there are several instances of recent damage caused by clumsy attempts to trace some figures with charcoal. Nevertheless some rather nice and interesting scenes are revealed, and probably with further scrutiny one could find even more.
It was mid-afternoon by the time we returned to the car to continue towards Illizi where we needed to refuel before moving on. As there were no suitable campsites in the vicinity of the town, and it was too late to move out to a suitable distance, we decided to pamper ourselves a bit and checked in to the Hotel Bounaga, the only one in town. We had some apprehension at first, but it was entirely unwarranted, the room was clean, the bathroom had running hot water, and a good meal was served in the restaurant - unexpected luxuries in the middle of the desert.
Day 9. Illizi - Oued Tikraratine
In the morning we had the only encounter with officialdom during the entire trip. I received a polite call from the Chef du Police during breakfast inquiring about our plans, as an escort would be necessary to continue further North towards In Amenas. After I said we are returning to Djanet the call quickly ended with a cordial 'bon voyage'. We checked out and left the town the way we came, rolling past the old Fort Polignac, with some of the old inscription still visible on the walls.
Our target for the day was the Oued Tikraratine, a valley reaching the plain between the Tassili and the Tin Esker dunes about 80 kilometres to the West of Illizi along the infamous 'garveyard piste'. Jόrgen Kunz found a site with some amazing Iheren style paintings here at what he called the 'Tirendam shelter' (Sahara 10), which to our knowledge has never been visited since. I have been quietly planning a visit here for several years, and having corresponded with Jürgen the location was pinpointed to a roughly one kilometre section of the valley. After leaving the town we turned west and soon reached the starting point of the 'graveyard piste' or the Oued Samen piste as it is formally known. It was in fairly good condition, sections have been rebuilt recently, and much to our surprise we passed several road construction crews who were clearly preparing a surfaced road. After cutting across a rocky protrusion of the Tassili we reached the edge of the big dunes about 25 kilometres west of Illizi.
Making good progress, by lunchtime we were about 70 kilometres west of town. We stopped at the only possible shade, beside a large tamarisk on the plain between the plateau and the dunes.
After another ten kilometres we reached the point where one needs to turn off the piste towards the Oued Tikraratine. There were a few tracks to follow, and by mid-afternoon we reached the end of the driveable section where we made our camp. The Tirendam shelter was one of the main objectives of our trip, so we were determined to stay for as long as it takes to find it. We were planning the first serious search for the following morning, I only planned a short reconnaissance of the camp environs in the two hours of remaining daylight while Magdi decided to be lazy and stay in camp for the rest of the afternoon. By the time camp was made and I was ready to start a solid cloud cover rolled in from the North.
Only 500 metres upstream from camp I came upon a low shelter which showed some indistinct traces of paint. On close look it became clear that there were two Iheren style human figures facing each other, DStretch reveals some very fine details.
On the far side of the valley a few hundred metres away there was another large shelter at the base of the cliff bordering the watercourse (a setting similar to that of the Tirendam shelter as described by Kunz). Most of the wall was empty (and in places covered with soot made by recent campfires), however in one small section it was possible to recognise some traces of paint, including what looked like a 'horned' human figure. Much to my surprise DStretch shows much more, including two bizarre large round headed and round bellied figures which have two prominent eyes and antenna like ears (?) instead of the usual lack of any facial features. The stile and degree of weathering suggests archaic paintings, but I have never seen anything remotely similar.
As I started to explore further upstream the cloud cover became thicker, and it started to become distinctly dark, even though there was an hour left till sunset. After a short time rain started falling in large loud drops, each making a sound as if a pebble were dropped from the sky. While it was insufficient to make anything wet, I made a hasty retreat to camp in case it decided to change to a real rain.
Day 10. Oued Tikraratine - Oued Adjanadjane
Overnight the rain did turn real, several times it made a rattle on the tent canvas. The tent held, but poor Ibrahim and Omar had a rough night, sleeping outside around the fire in sleeping bags and blankets. By the morning when we awoke the ground was wet and everything left outside was drenched, with a light drizzle still falling.
By the time we started out the drizzle turned into light rain, but it was still warm t-shirt weather. It was bizarre to walk along in the desert under leaden skies with rain falling into our faces.
Our plan was for a full day's trek upstream to reach a point about seven kilometres from our campsite, which was the likeliest spot for the Tirendam shelter based on the discussion with Jürgen and looking at satellite imagery. However only after half an hour we approached a large bend with a long shelter at the base of the cliff. Immediately we found some paintings, Magdi walked a little further and soon found the panel we were looking for - this was indeed the Tirendam shelter, much closer than anticipated.
The most striking scene of the site is a procession of exquisite Iheren style human figures. They wear a bun on their foreheads, some have additional elaborate coiffure and hold various implements in their hands. Strikingly they all either appear to wear a mask or have body paint on their faces. Kunz thought them to be women, but looking at the figures closely (and comparing them to several available Iheren style analogies) I am convinced they are all men.
Kunz only published the procession in detail, but the panel continues on both sides, though those scenes are more difficult to make out. There are numerous superpositions of cattle and humans, but also one can make out several giraffe. On close scrutiny the indistinct dark abstract shape in the middle turned out to be three gazelle, with very elaborate white heads and yellow horns. At the extreme right of the panel there are some further Iheren style scenes, including what appears to be an ostrich hunt.
A surprising find was a large panel of paintings high up on the rock face to the left of the main panel, hich seems to have remained unnoticed or at least unmentioned by Kunz. Once there must have been a ledge which had fallen away, making access to these paintings rather difficult. Remarkably some scenes are actually broken in half, with a part visible on the block that has fallen away from the bedrock. There are several scattered scenes of giraffe, ostrich and cattle. One scene shows a very fine giraffe and a possible associated hunter, both of which are overlain by a later cattle. Tucked away in a little corner there is a fine small Iheren style scene of a flock of sheep.
At the extreme left of the site there is another panel of paintings on a difficult to access vertical wall, again left unmentioned by Kunz. The scene shows a number of human figures with striped body decoration or box-like bodies, some holding curved objects (resembling the curved throwing knives of the Iheren people). The style of these figures is very different from other paintings known from the Tassili, they are very difficult to classify. Based on the style they appear to be linked with the giraffe figures further to the right, and as such they seem to pre-date the Iheren style paintings.
While I photographed the site the rain stopped, and it became a bit lighter. It was still mid-morning, and satellite imagery showed a number of promising bends with vertical cliffs casting deep shadows further upstream, possibly hiding some undiscovered sites. We set out towards the closest about a kilometre away. We did find a shelter with some blobs of paint, but they were only late camel period figures. It started to rain again, and after some discussion we all agreed that the best course of action was to return to camp and start going back, there was little to do other than to spend the time driving while the weather remained like this. On our return we passed by the Tirendam shelter again for some more photos, then made a hasty retreat to camp as a lull appeared in the rain.
Ibrahim was a bit surprised but not altogether unpleased to see us back so early, and was even happier to learn that we will not spend another wet night here but start going back towards the road. In the morning we left the tent to dry (plus there was the prospect of another night here), now we had to pack everything damp and wet. After a quick lunch we loaded the car and started back towards the piste.
The Tin Esker dunes were really a bizarre sight in this weather. The sand was wet to a depth of about 25-30 centimetres, walking on it felt like being on a beach at low tide rather than the Sahara. The sky remained leaden grey, and the darkness and lack of shadows created a surreal landscape.
The rain continued all afternoon as we drove back along the graveyard piste, and it started to become noticeably colder. There was not enough water to make the oueds flow, but it was enough to make the piste muddy in several places, creating some interesting moments when we had to ascend steeper slopes.
By the late afternoon the rain calmed to a drizzle, and we started looking for any sheltered spot to spend the night. In the absence of any rocks and shelters we picked a large acacia in the bed of the Oued Adjanadjane, a little removed from the piste near the spot where the river disappeared among the dunes. As Ibrahim made a fire, it emerged that someone was already calling the place home - there was a large (~70cm long) sand viper (Cerastes vipera) living in the shrub next to the tree, the largest I ever saw. It was making a feeble attempt to dry itself when we spotted it, on realising our presence it quickly disappeared into its hole under the bush and was not seen again.
Day 11. Oued Adjanadjane - Baidakoré - Tissebouk
The rain stopped overnight, but it was an unpleasantly cold and dark morning, with no sun to warm or dry our damp gear. We packed up and continued back towards Illizi.
The rain re-started intermittently as we drove back south over the Fadnoun plateau, and it became even colder as we steadily gained altitude. There was an icy wind blowing over the edge of the plateau as we reached the cliffs looking south, but this also meant the end of the rain. The rising terrain forced all the moisture from the clouds, and they rapidly started to break up and clear as soon as the terrain dropped away. As we reached the bottom of the pass there were already patches of blue showing through.
We had our lunch in the Oued Agdaodaou not far off the main road along the Ifni piste at the foot of the Fadnoun. The site of Baidakoré, our next target was not far, just a few hundred metres away in a little side valley. By the time we were ready to start there were patches of bright sunshine, the very unusual two day spell of steady rain was coming to an end.
The huge Baidakoré shelter along the side of a small oued at the foot of the Fadnoun was already mentioned by Lhote in his 1972 article (Lybica XX) on the results of the 1971 Franco-Algerian expedition, and it was also included by Kunz in his 1979 site list, but neither provided any illustrations other than a very brief description. The shelter remains mostly unpublished to this day save for two isolated scenes published by Alfred Muzzolini in his 1995 book.
The shelter was occupied by humans for a long time until recently, and the paintings on the ceiling are mostly very damaged. Some sections of the roof are covered with modern charcoal graffiti, some apparently made by children trying to trace the indistinct outlines of older paintings, or just scribbling over surfaces that appeared empty. There are few remaining coherent scenes, but there are some extremely fine details, most only revealed by DStretch, giving a glimpse of the fine paintings that once must have covered the entire shelter.
Near the central part, the modern charcoal graffiti hide a faint but surprisingly well preserved Iheren style scene with women riding cattle, flocks of sheep and huts and a unique figure of a semi-bald bearded man, apparently a realistic portrait.
In some places it is possible to observe a number of superpositions, the shelter certainly had a long history. However I see no archaic paintings, to me the therianthropes Muzzolini considered to be roundheads (Nyame Akuma 31, 1989) clearly belong to the Iheren style.
The shelter is a good 80 metres long, continuing along its length one may find many more Iheren style scenes, some better preserved others just the remnants of a few figures. The standard theme of women riding cattle pops up frequently, and there are also examples of baggage tied to the horns of cattle, like on the better known scenes in the principal Iheren shelter.
Near the centre of the shelter in a little niche there is an exceptional and fortunately undamaged scene of an elephant with its young, this time without any humans. Near the extreme right there is another elephant, barely recognisable, probably a part of a larger elephant hunt scene.
The best preserved scene (the one published by Muzzolini) is at the right of the shelter relatively high on the wall. It presents a number of human figures in both the Tin Abenhar and Iheren styles. Muzzolini already noted that the darker and better visible Tin Abenhar figures are superimposed over the fainter Iheren woman riding a cattle at upper right. DStretch confirms this, and also reveals a faint giraffe under the Tin Abenhar style figures. This seems to indicate that the Iheren style pre-dates the Tin Abenhar style, something which I sensed from the generally fresher appearance of the latter style sites.
Perhaps the finest artistic achievement of the site is at the upper right corner of the scene, a perfect scimitar-horned oryx (Oryx dammah) drawn in the finest Iheren style. There is a second oryx below it, only revealed by DStretch, partially superimposed by the dynamic Tin Abenhar figure.
There are further less well preserved Iheren style scenes along the right edge of the shelter, closed off by a scene with a very fine hartebeest (also illustrated by Muzzolini).
Baidakoré turned out to be a far more interesting site than I expected, we spent a long time finding and photographing all the details. It was mid-afternoon by the time we returned to the car to continue.
A further site was reported by Giancarlo Negro upstream in the same valley as Baidakoré. It was more accessible from the asphalt road, so we drove the few kilometres and walked from the road towards the site. Before reaching the valley we passed a small but well preserved keyhole monument, one of hundreds of similar tombs littering the country to the south of the Fadnoun plateau.
We reached the valley a few hundred metres before the reported site. The riverbed was hollowed out of the solid bedrock, and at the junction of the overlying strata there were several shelters along both banks. Magdi climbed to the most prominent one, and after some searching found a faint but recognisable elephant on the ceiling. A little search revealed some further faint paintings which turned out to be fine Iheren style cattle. We are not aware of this site having been reported before.
The site we were looking for, named Adgaod by Giancarlo, was a few hundred metres further in the valley, in a long low shelter above the smoothed rock of the valley bank. It consisted of two parts, in the left there was only a fairly recent looking painting of two barbary sheep, but the scenes in the right part are quite extraordinary and very hard to classify.
On the right the paintings are executed on the ceiling of a very low shelter that extends quite deep into the rock. Due to their location it is impossible to photograph them except at an angle. The deepest figure is a large giraffe, preceded by a strange abstract composition which does not readily make any sense.
To the right of the giraffe there is another abstract shape, though very different from the previous, surrounded by some animals and a human figure wielding a bow.
To the left of the giraffe there is a more conventional scene of several animals (though not fitting into any of the established stylistic categories) including a clear goat and a domestic cattle.
We re-traced our tracks back to the car past the keyhole monument, and drove 15 kilometres south along the road to our last site of the day, the Tissebouk shelter located among a cluster of rocks not far from the road.
The Tissebouk shelter (or rather shelters) were known since 1962 according to Lhote (Lybica XX), and it was also included in the list of Kunz (1979) who published some photos. The site was published in full detail by Ulrich & Brigitte Hallier in Sahara 14. The upper shelter ranks among the ultimate artistic masterpieces of the Iheren people.
At some point the lower shelters must have been full of paintings too, but by now they have almost completely disappeared, except for a recognisable hartebeest and some Tin Anneouin style late pastoral figures.
The upper shelter is a fairly small hollow in the side of a rock at the top of the cluster of boulders, now protected by a stone wall. The paintings are on the rear wall of the shelter, a little faint (probably they were moistened several times in the sixties and seventies), but otherwise they are in a perfect condition.
The main scene is in the centre of the shelter, with a herd of very fine Iheren style cattle, and below them a group of three human figures. The large figure is clearly superimposed by the legs of a cattle and by the Iheren style couple. The Halliers assign the large figure underneath to the Tin Abenhar (Abianora) style, I am less certain about this identification.
Further to the right there are some more cattle, rather faintly preserved, the details are only visible on processed images. At the extreme right, in an isolated spot with no other paintings there is a typical Iheren style torso in the same posture as the row of figures at the Tirendam shelter. It is likely unfinished, as there is no trace of a lower body.
The most intriguing scene is a little removed to the left of the main composition, and is centered on two figures who appear to be in a boxing or wrestling posture facing each other. They are accompanied by a figure with an amorphous body, with a protruding human face and appendages, for which there are no ready analogies. These figures do not appear to be of the Iheren style, but something else matching the large figure in the main scene.
There is a second smaller shelter about ten metres from the main one on a slightly lower level, with a number of late pastoral figures in several different compositions, though mostly in a rather poor state of preservation.
It was rather late so we took a few quick photos then started back towards the car to go looking for a campsite. When we left Tissebouk the sun was still up, but with the gas pipeline blocking access to the country to the East we could find no suitable camping place until we were almost at the Tasset junction. It was almost completely dark by the time we reached a small cluster of rocks about a kilometre from the road and pitched the tent in the still damp sand.
Day 12. Tributary of Oued Tasset
In the morning everything was cold and damp, but the clouds of the previous day were mostly gone, and as soon as the sun arose it started to become warmer, and more importantly the tent and sleeping bags could dry a bit.
We made a quick start as we had a long way to go. Surveying the Tadjelahine and Aharhar-Tasset regions on Google Earth I have spotted hundreds of the characteristic keyhole monuments, including one in a tributary of the Oued Tasset that was exceptionally large. It was aproximately 8 kilometres from the road at the closest point, we had to drive back towards Tissebouk to our starting point, and with Omar we set out while Ibrahim remained with the car as usual. The terrain was mostly flat and easy, with very little to note along the way except a few very ancient looking stone structures.
Two kilometres before our goal we had to cross the Oued Tasset, on the terrace along the watercourse we passed a smaller keyhole monument, perfectly visible on satellite imagery but hardly recognisable on the ground.
After the Oued the terrain became a bit more difficult, we had to find our way in a broken country of rock spires and deep gullies, but about three hours after leaving the car we finally reached a ridge, and could look into the valley below. The sight was astonishing - I was expecting a big structure, but it is one thing to see it on Google Earth and another to sense it on the spot, when it literally filled the valley and the field of view. The monument is 150 metres in length and 90 metres wide, almost twice the dimensions of the second largest such structure in the region, but the majority range between 20-30 metres. The base area is actually comparable to that of the pyramid of Menkaure (the smallest of the three) at Giza which is a near-square of 102 by 104 metres.
It was rather fortunate (and probably intentional) that the monument was constructed next to the ridge so one could have a view from above, as on ground level it is very hard to perceive its true nature. However the care that went into its construction is evident. The ground of both the inner and outer rings, as well as the central corridor, is covered with a pavement of large stones. The wall of the rings and corridor rise about half a metre above the pavement, with the central tumulus (probably the least impressive part of the structure is) rising to about 1.5 metres with a 13 metre diameter. Possibly it was higher, there is a deep trench in the rear, a sign that the underlying tomb was robbed at some point, possibly as early as antiquity, as there is a small parasite tumulus perched on the side probably made from the stones removed from the trench. There are also two small stone rings within the structure that are likely modern additions.
About 250 metres North of the large monument there is a small one built on the scree of the valley side. This one is what one could call the typical keyhole monument, almost circular with a 19 metre diameter, located on a slope overlooking a valley.
Two hundred metres further East along the same scarp there is a third such monument built on the steep slope so it is well visible both from the plain and from the plateau above. It is also larger than average at 50 by 30 metres, though it is dwarfed by the big one down on the plain.
Having explored the area, it was striking that there were practically no artifacts to be found in the entire valley. The only man-made object I found was a probably associated lower and upper grinding stone near a small stone circle adjacent to the watercourse, but they could be from any time period from the mid-holocene, and rater unlikely to be associated with the monuments. Returning to the big structure, along the Northern side I could observe that the outer perimeter wall is built up from large blocks to a height of about two metres above the surroundng gravel plain, but as it only dips about half a metre inwards the whole monument base must be filled up to a height of 1-1.5 metres under the paving stones.
We spent another hour at the top of the ridge taking a quick lunch and just admiring the view. While the monument is located in a small hidden valley and is only visible when one is within a few hundred metres, very clearly it was built to impress and dominate the landscape. From a few sporadic excavations we know that these structures were definitely tombs (usually for just one individual), and Christine and Yves Gauthier have rather convincingly demonstrated (Les Cahiers de l'AARS 10, 2006) that their distribution perfectly overlaps with the distribution of Iheren style paintings, meaning they are most likely contemporary and the product of the same culture. Given the enormous collaborative effort that must have gone into its construction, it was clearly meant for an important person, suggesting a high degree of social stratification among the Iheren people, something which cannot be inferred from the paintings.
Before starting on the return journey Magdi went down to the monument to act as a human scale, it is the small white speck on the photos that truly reveals the enormous size of this structure.
We had a rather uneventful three hour walk back to the car by the roadside, taking a small detour to have a close-up look at the solitary tree (a Maerua crassifolia) perched at the top of a rocky hill. There were a few adjacent shelters, but other than a single smudge of paint (probably the remnants of a cow) we found nothing more of interest.
We reached Ibrahim around 5pm, we quickly covered the short distance to the Tasset turnoff and reached the In Tahadouft campsite adjacent to the painted shelters before sunset, a very picturesque place hidden among high rock towers bordering the Oued Tasset.
Day 13. Upper Oued Tasset - Tikadouine
The rock city along the Eastern bank of the Oued Tasset just south of the Illizi - Djanet highway contains a large number of shelters with paintings, mostly found in the late nineteen nineties by Ulrich & Brigitte Hallier (published in detail in World of Petroglyphs 32, Stonewatch, 2005). Interestingly there is a mix of Tin Abenhar and Iheren style paintings in the area, plus a few that may be categorised as archaic ones.
The first site was quite obvious, right across the open "plaza" where we had our camp. Under a low natural arch there were several of the typical clover-leaf headed figures which date from the early historic (cabaline) period.
On the far side of the arch, there is a faint but fine pastoralist scene with human figures, cattle and flock of sheep including a ram which has a long spiral horn (much resembling an addax on superficial look). The style of these figures resembles the Ouan Amil people of the Acacus (closely related with the Iheren style paintings), the Halliers professed to see this scene as evidence for the presence of Fulani (Fulbe) people in the central Sahara (World of Petroglyphs 40, Stonewatch 2012)
We did not know the location of any of the other sites, but the area was quite small, with Omar we started out to find them. Not far from the first one we came upon a shallow shelter with a large panel of paintings with many superpositions. The earliest phase seems to be a pair of yellow giraffes, which were superimposed by several cattle, which in turn were overpainted with relatively recent camels.
The cattle pastoralist figures are executed in the Tin Abenhar style, there are a number of human figures including some who wear the characteristic pendant between the legs, one of the clear attributes of the style.
The left of the shelter is taken up by a rather weathered but huge herd depicting dozens of cattle, all in the same Tin Abenhar style.
A short distance away there is another shelter with some more Tin Abenhar style cattle, but these are very faint and are only properly revealed by DStretch.
The nicest site lies hidden in the middle of the rock city. We searched among the lanes for a long time until we stumbled upon it by accident, first attracted by a large prominent shelter which was visible from afar that only contained some indecipherable traces of paint. On turning around to leave, we immediately spotted a rather unassuming low shelter with a low dune covering the floor, mostly hidden from view except if one is right next to it.
The ceiling only contains a single figure, but it is absolutely magnificent. It is an Iheren style bull, with every little detail perfectly executed, one of the absolute masterpieces of pastoralist art.
At the rear of the shelter, partially obscured by the sand, there is another Iheren style scene, depicting a flock of sheep and a hut with a very indistinct human figure.
Searching for this shelter took up most of our allotted time, while there were still a number of unaccounted for sites, we had more important things to do for the day. We only had time to take a brief look at the rear of the rock city, where we found a big shelter with some traces of unrecognisable paint, then we had to go back to pack camp and move to our next target.
One of our most important objectives on this trip aside Kunz's Tirendam shelter was to find the stunning Tasset shelter reported by the Halliers (World of Petroglyphs 24, Stonewatch, 2002, also Sahara 13) which is one of the finest manifestations of Iheren style art. Unfortunately the precise location was not recorded, and all Ulrich could give as guidance was that it was in a vague rocky area some kilometres to the south of the In Tahadouft "plaza". Having identified the likely region on Google Earth, we drove to its edge and set out on foot to check the possible locations among a very picturesque landscape.
The search proved to be a rather frustrating one: we searched dozens of very promising shelters finding absolutely nothing. After about an hour Omar did find a small shelter with a few cattle on a terrace overlooking the Oued Tasset with a lovely view, but this was certainly not what we were looking for.
Clearly we were looking in the wrong area, so as a last resort I moved to another rocky area about half a kilometre away, where after some searching I did come upon a wall with some painted figures.
Again this was not what we were looking for, but at least it was a known quantity. This was what the Halliers called the "gallery of ancestors" and classified as "roundhead" paintings (Sahara 12, 2000). While I do not agree with their classification, these figures do look archaic, and almost certainly pre-date the cattle pastoralist paintings.
The serendipituous finding of the archaic panel confirmed that we were looking for the Tasset shelter in the right general area. It was already lunchtime, I was the only one willing to sacrifice a decent meal for some further searching, and after a quick bite I left again to search, this time going a little further south than previously on a promising terrace. Again, aside some very rudimentary paintings the result was nothing. The only place left was the rock island which we already searched thoroughly- except the interior which appeared to be inaccessible with no passage among the rocks and boulders. Finally on one side I did find a narrow passage that led into the interior, and there without any further effort I found the double shelter we were looking for at the side of a small open area.
The main panel consists of an extremely fine and detailed depiction of a cattle herd, with only a single human figure holding a stick or staff, depicted standing behind the central cattle with only the upper body visible. There is a fine sheep next to the human figure (the only one on the panel), and the animal above the sheep seems to be either a dog, or perhaps a hyena - in any case it is not a bovid, the individual digits on the paws are clearly visible.
To the lower left there are a few more scenes which are hard to make out on the spot, but DStretch reveals a group of therianthropes and a strange animal that most resembles a moose, it is hard to tell whether it is a blotched cattle of some equine. A dozen metres to the left there is another shelter perforated by a natural arch, on the area above the arch there is another very weathered cattle herd.
We have used up nearly half of the day to search for the Tasset shelter (with no regrets), so we only had time left for two more nearby sites whose location was well known. We crossed the Oued Tasset and drove past the small village of Tasset to the huge rock of Ikadnouchere, where Kunz found the famous painting of a quadriga that is unlike any other chariot depiction in the Tassili (or elsewhere in the Sahara). Muzzolini considered this depiction to be of the Iheren style, and this identification greatly contributed to him placing these pastoralist paintings very late in his chronological sequence.
Unfortunately the site turned out to be a grave disappointment. It is in a very sorry state, with hundreds of modern graffiti covering the rock face in all places where older paintings are not evident. Even where visible, ancient paintings are mostly covered by tifinagh inscriptions which are not necessarily modern, but may date to late medieval times. With the help of Ibrahim we searched the rock face for the quadriga but could not find it, and being pressed for time we had to leave the site. We did find however the separate horse noticed by Mόller-Karpe (BAVA 2, 1980), and DStretch shows the head of another one nearby, all in the same style as the horses of the quadriga. However all of the human figures that one may note on the panel and elsewhere at the site are clearly of the cabaline style, with the characteristic triangular upper bodies, very much questioning Muzzolini's categorical assertion on the style.
Our next target, the Tedar shelter was back towards the North among the hills to the West of the Oued Tasset. As we approached the clouds started to roll in again, and by the time we arrived it was a gloomy grey afternoon. The site itself is a very big shelter, already mentioned by Lhote (Lybica XX, 1972). The first photos were published by Kunz in 1979, but only of the well known lion hunt scene. Much like at the Baidakoré shelter, a few selected scenes were illustrated by Hachid & Muzzolini, however most of the shelter remains unpublished to this day. Unfortunately most of the old paintings at the rear of the shelter are covered by innumerable older and modern tifinagh inscriptions, there are only a few patches on the ceiling where the ancient paintings are free from any damage.
Starting at the left of the shelter the first scene that one encounters on the ceiling is the lion hunt scene reported by Kunz. It matches several similar scenes known from other Iheren style sites, including the principal Iheren shelter.
Continuing towards the right along the ceiling there are several more Iheren style scenes and figures, of which only the forward-leaning figure accompanied by a sheep and bull with a strange spotted coat was ever published. Just to the right of the lion hunt there is a row of human figures which is an almost perfect match for the row of figures in the Tirendam shelter.
More to the right one may find a group of figures that includes a very fine archer that was published by Malika Hachid (Les premiers berbères, 2000, fig. 70). With the experience of having noticed similar scenes at Issalamen and at Iheren II it was not difficult to spot that again the archer is part of a larger elephant hunt composition, with several figures under the belly of the animal attacking it with spears.
There are a few more isolated Iheren figures on the ceiling, but from the middle part of the shelter the bulk of the paintings are on the rear wall, and are quite hard to make out with the numerous superpositions.
The deep left end of the shelter is a jumbled mass of inscriptions and overpaintings, it is extremely difficult to make sense of any individual scenes, especially in the dark natural lighting. However in good illumination it is clear that here too there are many well preserved details.
One of the better visible scenes is a large herd of yellow/red cattle, accompanied by a row of ornamented human figures.
It is not readily evident, but in the center of these jumbled scenes some of the latest additions are three chariots drown by horses depicted in the characteristic flying gallop (something horses never do).
The extreme right of the ceiling of the shelter is covered by a large Iheren style scene, quite well preserved despite some defacement by recent looking black tifnagh script. There are the usual Iheren elements, including sheep, cattle, men with throwing knives and a woman riding a cow.
It took a long time to photograph the entire shelter in full detail, despite it being clouded over we could sense that it was getting close to sunset. We made the short 12 kilometre drive to the Tikadouine shelter, where we were planning to spend the night to have the opportunity to visit and photograph the paintings in the evening and early morning.
We quickly looked for a flat sandy spot reasonably free of dung to pitch the tent, then we climbed to the main shelter to make use of the best light. Unlike at most shelters with paintings, the surface the scenes are painted upon is very irregular, any natural light from the side causes deep disturbing shadows. At dusk artificial lighting can easily overcome this while there is still enough light left to see what one is photographing. For Magdi this was the first visit, we spent the whole evening at the shelter marveling at all the little details and re-taking all the scenes with a better camera than I had the last time.
With the good light conditions and the lack of any time pressure I have found a previously unnoticed scene under the prominent giraffes under a little overhang that obscures them from view. It is very faint, but with DStretch it is possible to make out what is going on in this unique scene: a boy is transporting a hunted ostrich on a donkey, while a man behind the donkey is holding the dangling legs of the bird.
I continued with the paintings on the ceiling deep inside the shelter and along the right edge, but it soon became too dark to see the scenes to be photographed so we called it a day and returned to our waiting tent.
Day 14. Tikadouine - Tin Terirt - Djanet
In the morning we were in no particular hurry as the only objective was to get back to Djanet by the afternoon. We spent a lazy morning having breakfast and slowly packing camp among the plentiful green vegetation.
With plenty of time on our hands we could afford a leisurely re-visit of the Tikadouine shelter, passing by the lesser shelter located between our camp and the principal one, while Omar & Ibrahim packed the car to follow us.
I possibly looked more carefully than last time, or simply the light conditions were different, but I have found some very fine cattle which I have failed to spot previously.
In the main shelter I continued primarily with the scenes at the inside and right of the shelter. I was particularly pleased to find out that the group of indistinct red stripes at the extreme right were in fact once a very fine herd of gazelle, the head of one is perfectly preserved.
On our return we made a small detour to the engravings of Tin Terirt at the edge of the Dider plain. I was hoping that there would be a good morning light as on our last visit we had hazy conditions with no contrast at all, but we had no luck. The clouds that floated in the previous afternoon were still thinly blocking the sun, resulting in a diffused light with practically no shadows, the worst possible conditions for photographing the panels. Even the deeper engravings were hard to make out, and the shallower grooves were rendered invisible. We soon gave up and continued towards Bordj el Hawass and Djanet.
In Bordj el Hawass we fueled the car and brought some fresh bread, then continued to the oued a few kilometres beyond to make a lunch stop next to a grove of tamarisks which were both flowering and bearing fruit.
We had little over an hour's drive left to Djanet along the edge of the plateau, we reached the town by mid-afternoon, leaving plenty of time to take a shower, back up the photos and have a good rest before the long hike the following day.
Day 15. Tin Taharin - Jabbaren
We were up before dawn, Ibrahim and Omar picked us up at 5:30am to drive to the bottom of the Akba Aroum for the ascent to Jabbaren. We were also accompanied by Mahmoud, usually one of the expedition cooks of Essendilene, whose main job this time was to keep Omar company while we were busy at the rock art sites. We started out in dark, but soon the contours of the plateau became well defined, and by the time we reached the end of the road it was sufficiently light to start walking.
Without much ado we started out on the zigzagging donkey train, climbing pretty much non-stop save for a brief pause at the shelter at the base of the vertical cliff. It is a good two hours to reach the top of the pass from the end of the car track (which has been re-built to bring it closer to the trailhead since we were last here in 2011). By 9am we were up, looking across the ravine at the head of the Oued Amazar to the cluster of rocks at Tin Taharin, our first objective.
In 2011 we visited Tin Taharin at the very end of our trip, just having a couple of hours to spare before we had to descend the Akba Aroum. While we unexpectedly found the sites reported by Bernard Fouillieux (Sahara 17), we were unable to locate the masked figure published by Lajoux despite a fairly extensive search of the area. This time we were determined to find the site which we knew to be in the roughly 150 x 250 metre area, we must have passed within a few dozen metres of it. e started out at the edge of the rock city, and made a systematic search of every rock outcrop. Initially we have simply re-traced the path we have taken five years earlier, but at the far end of one of the "streets" I found a narrow entrance that led to a small terrace at the side of the cliff dropping away to the abyss. Another passage led from here to a spacious open area with a big shelter along its side, all covered with paintings - the site we were looking for. This shelter was first reported by Lajoux who visited it in 1961 towards the end of his trip, it was not seen or copied by the earlier Lhote missions. Being short on film, Lajoux could only photograph a large masked figure similar to the well known one at In Aouenrhet and a scene of white locusts, referring to the place as Matalen Amazar (Lajoux, 1962). The shelter was only re-discovered in 2004 by Bernard Fouilleux (Dupuy & Fouilleux 2007) also finding several more paintings nearby. While Bernard's slides were digitised to permit treatment with DStretch for the 2007 publication (one of the first on Saharan rock art to use this software for enhanced illustrations), our present visit was the first where high resolution digital photographs could be taken of these unique scenes.
The pair of masked figures are at the very right end of the shelter, surrounded by a wallpaper of white negative handprints. The rightmost figure is the one better preserved, and this is the one known from Lajoux's published photo. I was expecting faint, barely visible paintings, but the figures are well recognisable on the spot, and all details are perfectly visible when viewed with DStretch.
To the left of the masked figures there is another red figure and some unclear white geometric shapes, all superimposed over the wallpaper of white negative handprints.
The next section of the shelter further left is nominated by a huge yellow figure with a red cap, flanked by a large red figure and some unclear scenes and shapes.
Some more towards the left there is a 2 metre high classic "martian" roundhead style female figure next to some animals and other human figures which are very difficult to make out.
At the very left of the shelter there is an absolutely delightful little scene without any parallels. A large yellow archaic animal is covered by some white roundhead style human figures and animals, but the most intriguing element is a swarm of white locusts in flight, a theme unparalleled among all the other rock art sites of the Tassili (or the entire Sahara). It is unclear if the locusts belong to the same horizon as the roundhead figures or they are fresher, however they are clearly superimposed over the underlying animal.
This site was the most important objective for the day, we spent a long time taking the photos and repeatedly going through all the details. We also made a survey of the immediate area and found two smaller sites with pastoralist paintings which we did not notice five years earlier.
Before leaving, we made a quick visit to the two beautiful sites discovered by Bernard (Sahara 17, 2006) near the western edge of the Tin Taharin rock cluster.
When we were here in 2011 Magdi only found the second shelter at the very last moment, just as we were about to leave the area towards the pass. This time we could afford a more thorough scrutiny of the walls, aside the well known scenes I spotted several details which we missed previously. We could have lingered here for several more hours, but we also wanted to spend time at Jabbaren so reluctantly we had to press on.
As we approached Jabbaren along the high ledge bordering the Oued Amazar we passed a big rock that had some very faint paintings in a shallow shelter along its base. With DStretch it is possible to discern a large ghost-like roundhead figure, which in a rather unusual manner seems to have some facial features.
It was past midday when we reached the round rock outcrop at the entrance of the Southern "avenue" of Jabbaren, with a shelter containing paintings running practically all its circumference. We dropped our packs near the fine panel of cattle and humans, where following our 2011 trip I was startled to find with DStretch a distinct lizard on one of my photographs. This time with the benefit of knowing where to look I could take some much better photos. On the ceiling nearby we also found a roundhead figure which I failed to see previously.
Just a short distance to the left of the roundhead figure we found a small panel of Tin Abenhar style human figures (again have missed these 5 years ago), the central archer has been published by Lajoux, but I never knew the precise location.
We had a little over an hour left before we had to start down, planning 3 hours to get back to the car, roughly the same time as the ascent plus the distance to the top of the pass. As I have extensively photographed the Jabbaren sites in 2011, we just took the time to cherry pick some shelters and scenes, hoping to find things we have missed before. We stated out at the first "street" to the right along the southern "avenue" best known for the "Great Martian God", but also there are a multitude of other scenes along the Western wall.
While most of the scenes are well known, I did spot two details which I have passed by on previous visits. One was what appeared to be a very indistinct animal, but DStretch revealed it to be the large masked figure published by Lajoux - unfortunately not realising what it was I have cropped the head with the mask. In the shelter of the "Great Martian God" I also found a scene of a flock of sheep tucked away to a niche in the left corner which I did not see before.
Taking the narrow passage at the rear of the street we passed into the next one, containing Lhote's famous "Antinea". This scene was very faint already in Lhote's time, and repeated wetting did not help either, but after processing the images with various DStretch filters it is possible to ascertain that the figure is not sitting or kneeling as suggested on the Lhote copy, but it is running with outstretched legs.
I have managed to take better photos this time which reveal more details, including the superimposed human figure at the head, and a pair of roundhead figures plus an even older animal under the revealed rear leg. What Lhote took to be the protruding breast could also be the hand of the left arm, questioning the sex of the figure.
Further in along the East wall of the lane there are a multitude of scenes from various styles and periods, the most striking are an Iheren style human figure with the same kind of facial decoration as the ones in the Tahilahi shelter, and a unique depiction of an aardvark, with the huge claws of the forelegs clearly visible.
We continued down the south avenue to a small inlet with two shelters, one of which has pastoralist scenes. The other shelter with a sand filled floor contains a single animal figure superimposed on negative handprints, which on first look does resemble a domesticated cattle, and seems to be of the roundhead style. It was used by Christian Dupuy (2006) as an example to demonstrate that the roundhead style is in fact the produce of an early pastoralist group. However both attributes are rather uncertain, in absence of any clearly associated human figures this assertion is rather debatable.
Our last stop was the large shelter in the avenue itself with the well preserved pastoralist scene, elements of which frequently appear in publications. Rather than running through several more sites, we decided to use our remaining time to have a good look at all the lovely little details.
We returned to Omar and Mahmoud who were busy guarding our packs in a horizontal posture. After they sufficiently recovered from their afternoon nap we all started on the 3km trail back towards the top of the pass.
On the way down we passed several fresh green plants of a species that I have not seen before. Subsequently they were identified as Reseda villosa on Sahara-Nature, complete with bright green caterpillars feeding on the budding flowers.
It was a long day, coming down the pass we were acutely aware of our legs and feet. It took a bit longer to get down than up, by the time we reached Ibrahim and the car the sun almost set, it was almost dark when we reached the outskirts of Djanet.
Day 16. Djanet - Algiers
Our flight back to Algiers was mid-afternoon, with the effort of the previous day we were happy to have a relaxed morning. Magdi stayed in the house, while with Abdou we went out with the car to tick off a few remaining items. First we went back to the low shelter between the engravings and the panel copied by Rigal in 1934 which contained the strange unidentifiable shape which we saw on the first day of our trip. I have only discovered the lion next to it the previous evening when backing up my photos and taking a quick look, I wanted to take close-up shots of the animal itself which was only partially visible on my earlier pictures.
Afterwards Abdou took me to an isolated rock in the valley beyond the "Ambassadors" shelter, where he recalled seeing some engravings long ago. We did find the panel, depicting a cattle and some unrecognisable lines.
On the way to the airport we made a little detour so Magdi could also see the engraved panel of In Debirene close to the old airport. The style of these cattle is very similar to the more famous "crying cows" of Terarart, for some unfathomable reason they are nearly forgotten and hardly anyone visits them.
Our flight to Algiers departed on time, except for the haze we had a perfect view of Djanet and the edge of the plateau as the ATR struggled to gain height. This flight must be one of the longest anywhere with this aircraft type, the 1500 kilometres to Algiers in 3.5 hours is very close to its maximum range.
The direct course towards Algiers took us over the little uninhabited oasis of Ihreri (not to be confused with Iherir) in the Oued Ihreri, then over the lower course of the wadi past a number of inselbergs. We were still climbing when we reached the Northern edge of the Tassili to the East of the Oued Djerat.
We spent the next two hours in a monotonous cruise over the endless dunes of the Grand Erg Oriental, with increasingly superb lighting as the sun approached the horizon.
The sun set soon after we passed the big oil complexes of the Northern part of the Grand Erg. We reached the edge of the Atlas and the first illuminated towns and villages in twilight, and it was pitch dark by the time we landed in Algiers close to 7pm.
With the apparent ease of restrictions we plan to return to the Tassili n'Ajjer again in the future, plese keep an eye on the Planned Expeditions page for updates, or "like" the FJ Expeditions FaceBook page to receive notices of news and updates.