Libyan Desert

by 03/11/2012 12:03:00 0 comments 7153 Views
Libyan Desert

The Libyan Desert covers an area of approximately 1,100,000 km2, it extends approximately 1100 km from east to west, and 1,000 km from north to south, in about the shape of a rectangle. Like most of the Sahara, this desert is primarily sand and hamada or stony plain.

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

The desert features a striking diversity of landscapes including mountains such as Jebel Uweinat (1980 m), the Gilf Kebir plateau, and sand seas (see below). The Libyan Desert is barely populated apart from the modern settlements at oases of the lower Cyrenaica region in southeastern Libya. The indigenous population is Berber. In most of Upper Egypt, the desert is close to the Nile River, with a seasonal flood plain only a few kilometers wide between river and desert.

North of the Gilf Kebir plateau, among the shallow peripheral dunes of the southern Great Sand Sea, is a field of Libyan desert glass. A specimen of the desert glass was used in a piece of Tutankhamun's ancient jewelry.

Gilf Kebir


The Gilf Kebir plateau rises to around 1100 metres in the south and lies in the southwest corner of Egypt. It is similar in structure to the other sandstone plateaus of the central Sahara, with its southern rim rising in sheer cliffs separated by wadis. The northern part is more broken and supports three large wadis of which Wadi Hamra and Adb el Malik are the most distinctive. There is sparse xeric vegetation.

There is a profusion of Neolithic artifacts and rock art. The southern Gilf Kebir and Uweinat are among the richest troves of rock art in the Sahara. The 'Cave of the Swimmers' petroglyphs featured in The English Patient film are in Wadi Sora, discovered by the non-fictional László Almásy in the 1930s. The 'swimming figures' are in poor condition now. In 2002 a new cave was discovered nearby, with hitherto unseen prehistoric petroglyph images.

Three sand seas


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

Great Sand Sea

Calanshio Sand Sea

Rebiana Sand Sea



In this map of Africa from Sebastian Münster's Cosmographia (1545), the Libyan desert (marked Libyae desertum and Libya Interior) is shown in the center of the continent, west of Nubiae regnum, south of Regnum Tunis and east of Regnum Senegae.

Modern exploration

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

It was not until 1924, when Ahmed Hassanein undertook a 3,500 km (2,200 mi) expedition with a camel caravan that the first accurate maps were drawn and the mountain of Jebel Uweinat with springs at its base was discovered. He wrote important accounts on the Senussi sect, explaining their lifestyle and ethics in his book The Lost Oases. Ralph Bagnold, who went on to help found the LRDG, greatly extended the knowledge of the area (as well as developing techniques still used today for driving cars in sand) with many journeys in the 1920s and '30s using Ford Model Ts.

World War II

In 1935, the famous French aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry crashed in the northern Libyan Desert. After miraculously surviving, he and his plane's mechanic nearly died of thirst before being rescued by a nomad. This event is described in Exupéry's book Wind, Sand and Stars.

The wreck of the B-24 bomber Lady Be Good—discovered 200 km (120 mi) north of Kufra 15 years after it was reported missing during WWII—had a less happy ending. The crew bailed out believing they were over the sea, when their plane ran out of fuel, and they became lost. When they landed in the Libyan Desert they could feel a northwesterly breeze. Thinking they were near the Mediterranean, they headed into the wind hoping it would lead them to safety. However, they were more than 640 km inland from the Mediterranean, and slowly died from dehydration after covering 130 km with minimal water in a place so dry even the desert Bedouins refuse to enter.