Click on image for list of participants
Central Tassili N'Ajjer, South Algeria
20th - 28th October, 2012
False colour images precessed with dStretch,
a freely available software developed by Jon Harman
This expedition was planned as a follow-up to our October 2011 trip to Tassili N'Ajjer, essentially along the same itinerary on the plateau above Djanet, but hoping to find some of the sites we missed the previous year. Like many other times on this fine continent, things did not quite work out as planned...
NOTE: The place names used in this account are mostly transliterations of phrases given by various guides, and due to the difficulties in understanding exact pronounciation, there are several variations for most localities we have visited from different sources, which don’t always match with the names given by our guide on this trip.
The trip preparations were not quite as smooth as the prevous year, we had very differing experiences at the various embassies where our visas were processed. Brian received his visa in Canberra within two weeks of application, Budapest took six weeks, and one of our planned companions was unable to get the visa processed at all in Rome, and had to drop out on this account. Once the visas were ready, the rest was easy. The London office of Air Algerie was very helpful in extending our bookings for our flights until the visas were ready. The schedules involved a long wait at Algiers airport connecting between the international and domestic flights, but otherwise getting to Djanet via Tamanrasset was uneventful, we arrived to Djanet airport in the small hours and were greeted by Salah of Essendilene Voyages.
Day 1. – Djanet - Tim Ras
Our plans were to do our shopping of supplies, then see the 'crying cows' of Terarart before driving to the foot of the Tafilalet pass to camp for the night before ascending the plateau the next morning. After a late breakfast we went to the market to purchase the needed things. To my great surprise, obtaining oranges proved to be the biggest challenge, finally in the last store we have found some oranges, originating from Chile!
Having secured the whole stock of the town's orange supply for ourselves (a single crate) we had everything we needed and were ready to depart. Omar, our guide of last year appeared, and after exchanging the obligatory enthusiastic greetings and niceties, a markedly gloomy look apeared on his face. Is rapidly emerged that he was just coming from the military office to collect our papers, and the army just closed off the entire plateau for tourists and locals alike giving no explanation. Salah's expression clearly revealed that this was very sudden, apparently that morning everything appeared to be in order...
Making a hasty retreat to the Essendilene premises we held council. Fortunately Abdou Borgi, the owner of the agency just arrived a day before us from Paris, and using his contacts he soon found out the tuth behind the matter. Apparently the army had intelligence of a larger group crossing the border from Libya, but lost track of them and suspected that this group was hiding somewhere on the plateau. While most likely they were harmless refugees, until they were located and identified, the army was not prepared to allow anyone to visit the plateau. In all fairness, one could not argue with this assessment. Fortunately as I was preparing for this trip, I have read in passing several articles about the sites of the central Tassili near the oasis of Iherir, and very quickly an alternate plan was formulated. Instead of visiting the Sefar - Jabbaren region, we could drive the next morning to Iherir and take a guide and donkeys from there to make a week long trek on the adjacent Tadjelahin plateau. A quick call to the military confirmed they have no objections, so immediately we set out for the magnificent eroded country of Tim Ras about 20 kilometres to the north west of Djanet, along the road leading towards Iherir. We made our first desert camp, preparing to leave the next morning.
Day 2. – Tim Ras – Iherir
The morning wait proved to be longer than planned. We could afford a lazy morning as we were expecting our second car to arrive around 10am after going to the army office to get our revised travel permits. The second car did come around 11, but the permits were still in progress, to be brought after us as soon as they were ready. Having seen this before, we proceeded to have our lunch with some anxiety, fortunately unfounded as close to 1pm a car arrived with our awaited papers, apparently everything being in order.
After this belated start we hit the road and drove pretty much non-stop to Iherir (~220 Km), cutting off a corner of the road bypassing Zaoutallaz (the junction towards Tamanrasset), which allowed us to collect some firewood in one of the wadis along the way.
Iherir may be reached on a winding side-road branching off the main Djanet - Illizi road, after ascending the first step of the plateau some 120 kilometres North-west of Djanet. Here the plateau top is a fairly featureless black rocky plain, which abrubtly gives way to the deep canyon of the Oued Illizi that exits to the plains another 120 kilometres to the North. The oasis of Iherir was originally made up of several separate villages centered around a number of permanent gueltas in the riverbed, now all but one are abandoned.
A steep road leads down to the present-day town. There is a campsite on the outskirts, with a number of characteristic thatched stone huts, which all felt like stuffy ovens in the late afternoon heat. After a quick look around we all opted for the tents... We were greeted at the campsite by a man wearing a handsome golden robe, who introduced himself as Ibrahim, our guide to be. After speaking a few sentences in mixed french/arabic it was clear that we were in very good hands. Throughout the coming trip Ibrahim made perfect use of the time, showing us pretty much everything that we could grasp in seven days, at a good but not exhaustive pace.
The main attraction of Iherir is the large guelta on the far end of the town, which permanently holds water. We still had a couple of hours of daylight left, so we made the pleasant walk to the lakes surrounded by lush vegetation. The legends say that up to the nineteen fifties it was inhabited by dwarf crocodiles, but if even if that is true the last ones have long since been hunted down, leaving nothing but birds to hunt the small fish now living in the lake.
Day 3. – Ascent to Tadjelahin plateau, Issalaman
The general area we were planning to visit is called the Tadjelahin (Tajlelahine, in some earlier works Tajdelamine) plateau. This is a generic term for the plateau top lying to the West of Iherir and the Oued Illizi. While the area hosts some of the finest prehistoric paintings in the entrire Sahara, it is much less known than the paintings near Djanet. The magnificent shelter known as the "Tahilahi shelter" was discovered here by Georges De Poitevin (an artist who also took part in the Lhote missions of 1956-57) before 1950, and Lajoux (Merveilles du Tassili n'Ajjer, Paris 1962) also published a couple of scenes from "Tadjelamine". However attention was focused on the sites published by Lhote from the region around Djanet, Lhote himself did not explore the area till 1969 when he found the major Iheren shelter, but his second book on the Tassili (Vers d'autres Tassilis, Paris 1976) does not give it the full credit it deserves. The Tadjelahin sites are only known to a relatively small circle of rock art specialists, and many of the finest sites were revealed only recently, some in the last ten years, echoing our own work at Jebel Uweinat.
By the time we packed our tents and had breakfast, our thirteen donkeys and their four herders started to appear, and the lengthy but amusing process of loading the packs onto the animals started. As usual it took a good hour and a half until all the loads were evenly distributed, everything was packed and loaded, and we were ready to start.
We set out towards a western tributary of the main oued (wadi). The footpath went on the terrace beside the oued, while the train of donkeys passed down in the watercourse, at first keeping pace with us but then overtaking and disappearing ahead. About two kilometres to the west of the town the oued turned south, and a zigzagging path ascended the scree slopes towards the top of the plateau. By the time we reached the bottom of the ascent, our donkeys were just disappearing at the top.
The ascent was just about 300 metres (Iherir camp elevation was 1114m, the top of the pass 1418m) along a well built path, clearly made to cater to a once vibrant tourist trade that now is practically non-existent. Ibrahim told us that this season we were the first tourists to visit Iherir, and most of the few who came in the past year only came to see the guelta, and never came up to the plateau. The slope ahead was fully exposed to the midday sun and it was becoming a bit uncomfortably warm, but despite a few rest stops the climb itself took a little over an hour, before noon we were comfortably up on the top looking back at distant Iherir below.
The plateau top was shiny black rock everywhere with some meagre vegetation in the shallow watercourses, not very inviting on first sight. However the flat gravel and shingle terraces allowed easy going, in an hour we reached our intended camping spot at the base of a couple of low rock ridges with shallow shelters underneath. Our donkeys already wandered off to the only hospitable oued in near and far distance with some tufts of green grass, clearly it was this that determined the place of our resting spot rather than our own comforts. We too had our lunch before setting out to see the first rock art sites some distance away.
Looking closely at the rock face along the shelter behind our lunch spot, we soon found several rather damaged but recognisable groups of paintings. Ibrahim knew of the first group, clearly a group of human figures, but was not aware of the second, an indistinct figure with two apparently upright animals appearing to have human hands. Both scenes are only visible properly after processing with dStretch. The central figure of the first group is holding an object that is very reminescent of a flute (but based on analogies it is more likely an arrow with a transerse point). The site is quite far from other known rock art areas, I'm reasonably certain that it was not published before.
In the afternoon we set out to visit the sites of Issalaman (Issalamen) about two kilometres from camp. As we walked towards the sites, we passed a pack of feral donkeys that gazed at us curiously, apparently unaccustomed to seeing humans up here on the plateau.
The first site we encountered was not partcularly exciting, it was a long shallow shelter containing some rather faint cattle pastoralist paintings, including a group of human figures who held some curious circular object in their hands.
The adjacent large shelter not more than thirty metres away was much more interesting. There was a panel (unfortunately quite damaged by exfoliation) of very fine catte on the ceiling at the far end, and a number of rather weathered paintings on the rear wall.
Had Ibrahim not pointed it out, we would have completely missed the main scene of the site, a group of very fine small scale human figures drawn in the Iheren style in a little hollow on the outer ceiling. The scene is in fact quite complex with several superpostions, it is quite hard to make out which parts belong to which figure. Lajoux published a photo of this scene (1962) as well as of several other scenes at Issalaman (all named "Tadjelamine"), so did Malika Hachid (Le Tassili des Ajjer, 1998, mis-captioned Tin Abenhar), however none of the published photos show the surroundings of the scene. There are some incomprehensible traces of paint to the right of the figures, fortunately I did take a wider angle overwiew. Processing this image with dStretch reveals a very fine elephant, something completely invisible on the spot.
Some 300 metres further on we have come accross a cluster of five shallow shelters along the edge of the rocky ridge facing towards the plain to the North. With no more than 10-20 metres between the shelters, technically they may be considered a single site.
Most of the paintings are faint and weathered, the more interesting scenes can only be viewed properly after processing the images.167
Ibrahim led us to another shallow shelter a short distance away, in one of the 'lanes' between the rocks. Ths one contained a series of better preserved paintings, which were published by Lajoux (1962), including a group of apparently dancing girls (with arms held high, next to the almost invisible heads), and a number of interesting associated figures.
Still a little further we reached another shelter, still a part of this cluster of sites. It was large and shallow with some readily evident cattle and human figures. The more interesting feature is a group of faint running human figures, executed in red paint that are clearly older than the overlying cattle.
Having finished with the cluster of sites, we turned back towards camp, cuting accross this maze of rocks. On our way we passed a small shelter with some unexciting weathered paintings of cattle and humans. However on close look, one particular scene turned out to be very interesting, apparently a pair of wrestling therianthropes.
We returned to camp around sunset and set about to finding some suitable bivouac spots in the few sandy floored shelters, the hard stony ground being completely unsuitable for tents.
Day 4. – Camp 1. – Tan Khadidja – In Amhadj – Oued Telmest
The morning was spent in a rather leisurely fashion with breakfast and packing up camp, while our donkeys were rounded up. We did not wait for them to be loaded, but set out towards the south to start off with a number of sites to be visited before reaching our intended camping spot by early afternoon.
We walked for about four kilometres on a fairly featureless undulating rocky plain, to the large conspicious rocky outcrop of Tan Khadidja. Just before the main rocky mass there was a small shelter with some cattle paintings and a row of barely discernible human figures. dStretch revealed the latter to be rather interesting, with a very strange head shape. The principal site was a very large shelter a short distance beyond, readily visible from the first one, with numerous faint paintings of the cattle period and some of the later 'libyan warriors' more common in the Acacus.
One of the faint scenes on the spot appeared to show a catfish, but after processing the photos I'm no longer sure... This particular scene is a very good study in the abilities of dStretch, with different filters revealing layers of paintings made in slightly differing tones.
The rear of the shelter provided a passage out to the other side of the rock oucrop, with a view over an arrangement of sugar-loaf shaped man-made stones of an unknown function which were first reported by Henri Lhote in 1969. The perimeter of pebbles is recent, and several mortars have been added to the group of stones, but otherwise the carved blocks are in the same position as on Lhote's published (1976) photos.
We turned to the North-west, and after less than a kilometre we have reached a large shelter is a secluded spot, surrounded by rocks from nearly all sides. Ibrahim could not give a name to this shelter, and I could not find any reference to it once back home, it appears to be a known but unpublished site. There are several interesting and unique scenes in the shelter, some rather difficult to interpret.
We continued on the flat plateau top for another couple of kilometres until we reached a dry waterfall leading into a broad flat-bottomed valley with plenty of grass and trees. Ibrahim called the place In Amhadj. We did not descend into the valley, but continued North on a terrace along its edge, which gently dipped towards the valley bottom, eventually reaching the valley floor.
The valley itself is named Oued Telmest (Talmoust), and where we descended into it it was full of green vegetation including some palm trees, indicating the presence of permanent water. Sure enough, after a bend we soon reached a large pool of fine clean water.
We continued downstream in the valley floor for another kilometre. There were no more pools, but the abundant fresh green vegetation indicated that water flowed here not so long ago. The vegetation and the environment was very reminescent of Wadi Hamra in the Gilf Kebir, with numerous Zilla spinosa bushes and a very similar lizard species (Acanthodactylus boskianus). We reached a broad sand filled basin which an ideal camping spot, a welcome change after the barren rocks of the night before, our donkeys and luggage were already waiting for us there.
After lunch and some rest in the narrow strip of shade offered by a low rock ledge at the side of the wadi, we set out to visit the nearby large guelta. After a kilometre of walking in progressively denser vegetation we reached a small pool, but Ibrahim said that this was not yet the real one. We were not quite prepared for the sight that appeared behind the large rocks: a true lake filling the bottom of the wadi, stretching for a good hundred metres. There were apparently heavy rains in the area in September, and all the principal gueltas could be expected to be full.
We climbed up to a large shelter a few hundred metres after the guelta, which is usually referred to as the Telmest shelter (after the name of the oued). At the extreme right of the shelter there is a very fine scene of some giraffe, a pair of ostrich and several human figures in the very refined Iheren style. It is unclear who and when first reported this site, but elements of this scene do appear in several publicatons from the nineties onwards.
There are several other faint scenes on the rear wall of the shelter, unfortunately many scribbled over with modern charcoal grafitti. Ibrahim was visibly embarassed, blaming them on 'les enfants', explaining that several families live in the vicinity. It is really difficult to deliver a judgement - from one aspect it is indeed vandalism, but from another it is simply a contnuation of the millenia old rock art tradition. After all several thousand years ago the makers of the paintings we now admire similarly disregarded the works of their predecessors, and simply painted over them...
In one small smooth patch on the outer ceiling we found a panel of paintings which Ibrahim was not aware of. Apparently these have not been included in any publication either.
Above and outwards of this scene there was a well preserved, rather unusual therianthrope, with a canine head and a striped decoration on the body.
There was a superb view over the valley from the shelter, perched on a commanding position overlooking the end of the large guelta, but also the approaches behind a bend with a smaller pool in the distance. The site being a fitting ending to the day most of the party started the return towards camp with the sun already low on the horizon, while Gábor & Viki went to check out the far guelta.
We caught up with the rest of the party on the terrace above the valley, Ibrahim taking us back along a path that cut accross the bend of the oued above the large guelta. We reached the basin with our campsite at sunset, with just enough time left to comfortably pich the tents and make a good fire before darknes.
Day 5. – Camp 2. – Tahon Tarokhet – Iheren – Tin Abenhar
We had less to walk till camp this day than on the previous ones, so we could afford a lazy morning, basking in the morning sun before packing up our camp.
Once our bags and gear were ready, we left the donkeys climbng out of the valley above our camp towards the south, shortly reaching a solitary upright rock with a natural hollow in its side, with several paintngs of cattle inside.
It was a three kilometre easy walk on the generally flat plateau top to a cluster of rocks which Lhote referred to as Tahount Tehort (1976, other sources give the name as Tahountarvat / Tahon Tarokhet), found on his 1970 expedition. Here at some point in time the isolated sandstone outcrops have been joined by well biult stome walls to make a large enclosure - whether as a fortification or simply as a pen to hold animals is open to debate.
While Lhote did describe in passing the paintings here, he did not give much detail. There are numerous shelters with paintings of varying quality, mostly faint and damaged. The most important is a a large overhang under the central boulder of the main enclosure. Here there are some very faint, barely visible paintings, but dStretch reveals some very fine paintings in the Iheren style.
Outside and below the enclosure there was a very low deep shelter which contained some very unusual paintings of human figures from historic periods.
There were another four lesser shelters scattered about, mostly with barely recognisable traces of paint, and a few more interesting scenes which were only recognisable after processing the images.
After spending a good hour photographing all the sites we moved on, walking another two kilometres along the now more varied landscape. Along the way I finally managed to snap a photo of a big desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria), a number of which we have seen along the way that morning, but they never allowed me close enough.
We reached the big shelter of Iheren well before noon. This site was first noted by Lhote in 1969, and fully copied in 1970 by P. Colombel. The copies were published, on a very small scale, by Lhote in 1976, and larger versions appeared in the catalogue of the 1978 "Sahara" exposition in Cologne. (Rudolph Kuper (ed.), Sahara: 10,000 Jahre zwischen Weide und Wuste, Cologne, 1977. They were also extensively studied in a small book somewhat misleadingly titled Saharan RocK Art by A.F.C. Holl, 2004, but also with very small scale reproductions.) At first it was not easy to make out the multitude of finely drawn figures, but as our eyes accustomed to the light and the subjects, an astonishing array of paintings were revealed. I have read about this shelter, and have seen photos of some of the scenes, but was totally unprepared for the sheer quantity combined with the exceptional quality of the individual paintings. While it is not possible here to show all details, in the following I shall attempt to give a reasonably complete description of the entire shelter.
The left of the shelter is dominated by a complex procession of human figures intermingled with sheep and other animals. Each of the upper figures holds a pointed object in their hands - throwing sticks or throwing knives, a theme very frequently depicted in the Iheren art. Unfortunately as this is the most exposed part of the shelter, the scene is quite weathered, many of the details only make sense after processing the photos with dStretch. Right of this scene there are several very fine delicately drawn cattle next to a hut and human figures.
The most well known scenes are at the top central part of the shelter, with a series of very elaborate human figures centered on a lion that has captured one of the sheep. The lancers are apparently attacking the lion, but of course they may be independent scenes. What remains invisible on the spot, and is only revealed by dStretch, that the entire scene is painted over a large elephant from a much more ancient period.
The group of three lancers are the best preserved and most conspicious figures in the shelter. To the right of them, amongst a herd of cattle, two women are erecting a tent or hut using the curved wooden supports that are often depicted being carried tied to the horns of cattle.
Below the lion scene, an area of at least one square metre is covered with a complex panel showing a large herd of sheep and cattle, intermingled with some elaborate human figures. The paintings in this part of the shelter are very faint, the finer details may only be seen on the processed images.
The herd of cattle contunue for anoher metre to the right, and at the top there is a perfectly preserved delightful scene of a row of drinking cattle which also appeared in a number of publications.
Above the drinking cattle there is a large panel covering several square metres, the central figures of which are a row of women riding cattle, with several other cattle carrying components of huts and other household goods tied to their horns. There are several scenes of women erecting huts and sorting out household items.
At lower centre, there is an isolated scene dating from a much later period than the rest of the paintings, a chariot drawn by four horses.
The right of the shelter is dominated by a panel depicting a herd of very elaborate giraffe, without parallel in Saharan rock art. The giraffe are accompanied by several ostritch, and below them there is a rather weathered scene depicting another woman riding cattle and a number of household scenes.
Interestingly the lower right part of the shelter, though offering a good surface and a protected location, is nearly void of paintings with the esception of some recent camel period paintings, and a row of ostrich that are painted over some older crude human figures.
We spent a long time photographing the finer details, all the the time discovering things that we did not notice on a previous pass. Finally we moved on with some reluctance, but Ibrahim assured us that the camp was just a short distance away and we can come back any time during the afternoon rest or the following morning.
The campsite was closer than we thought, a mere hundred metres away up the "street" among the rocks, where the wind piled up some paches of soft sand, a perfect place for pitching the tents in the otherwise barren, rocky ground. We had lunch and a quick rest before setting out for our next target.
The plan for the afternoon was to visit Tin Abenhar, one of the principal rock art areas on the Tadjelahin plateau. It is unclear if Lhote ever visited these sites, however they are certainly not discussed by him. First notice is given by the publications of Jürgen Kunz in the mid-seventies, and Alfred Muzzolini discussed them extensively in his book (Les images rupestres du Sahara, Toulouse, 1995), using the name Abianora. It is one of the few Tadjelahin localities that presents the "streets & avenues" pattern common on the Tassili du Tamrit sites like Sefar or Jabbaren. The locality is in fact at the far end of the same outcrop of rocks as the main Iheren shelter. We walked beside the rocky maze for two kilometres before reaching the first sites.
The first site we saw was a stunningly beautiful panel of giraffes, one of the best known scenes from Tin Abenhar. Ths scene was strikingly reminescent of the lovely giraffes we have seen on the Upper Brandberg earlier this year (Sites H60 and G2)
The giraffe shelter contains further paintings to the left, all very faint and barely discernible. One large figure made of red lines was completely indiscernible, at first even with dStretch it did not seem to make much sense. It took some time to figure out that it is an ostrich, with the head lowered to the left, and the upward sticking protrusions are in fact the wings.
Beyond this ostrich there is another scene with an exceptional pack of donkeys (or wild ass?) and a human figure holding bow and arrows in the Iheren style. Only one of the donkeys is discernible on the spot, the others are only revealed by dStretch. On close scrutiny it is visible that the animal facing the other two is letting loose a series of droppings.
In the lane behind the giraffe shelter there were several others containing paintings. In a large long shelter there were several weathered cattle and a series of paintngs in dark red that did not make very much sense. Only after processing the images did I realise that we were seeing a large anthrophomorphic figure with a feline-like head from a style pre-dating the cattle pastoralists, usually referred to as the "ancient hunters", but the affinities are not entirely clear - probably this style and period corresponds to the distinct "roundhead" style of the Tamrit region which is absent from the central Tassili (there are a few sites we later visited at Tin Abenhar which Ulrich and Brigitte Hallier and also Muzzolini thought to have some roundhead affinities, but the evidence is not entirely convincing).
Just around the corner there was another shallow shelter with a very fine panel of polychrome cattle (several of them wearing collars), intermingled with two distinctly pig-like animals.
We moved on to what must have been a central point of Tin Abenhar, with one of the larger 'streets' crossing into the principal 'avenue', with painted shelters on all of the corners. The first contained a fine pannel of little human figures, mostly archers in the characteristic local pastoralist style (Muzzolini's school of "Abianora").
Nearby there were two more shelters with similar figures, the one on the corner only containing two, but in a very fine quality.
On the opposite corner, in the shelter already coming out into the sun, on frst look there were only a couple of very faint cattle, but in the left corner I spotted the bizarre elephant that was published recently by Lajoux (Murs d'Images, Errance, Paris 2012, p. 121 mis-captioned Iheren). It was very difficult to photograph as it was already partially on the sun, and was too high to get a proper shade over it. Finally we managed to shade it with Ibrahim's chech held high by a tripod leg. Lajoux's photo shows it in a much better condition, clearly this scene has deteriorated over the past decades, probably as a result of visitors moistening it to make it stand out better.
The main shelter of this 'crossroads' is opposite the elephant, with a large panel of paintings, some rather unusual. The faint ones on the right are more conventional, with a number of fine detals. The adjacent figures, executed as a sketch only with a firm and talented hand over some older cattle are quite exceptional.
The scene on the right is domiated by a large cattle with some objects tied to the horns. The thick red and yellow framing was clearly added at some later time to create an apparent bird. This scene was pubished by Lajoux (2012) but mis-captioned as Iheren.
There are also some fine animals on the panel in line drawing including an unusual oryx, as well as a number of finely executed human fugures, some riding cattle.
After finishing with all the sites here, we turned right in the 'avenue' (facing camp towards the south-east) which contained a continuous series of shelters with paintings on both sides for a stretch of a good hundred metres . They were mostly of cattle accompanied by humans of varying quality, while some were interesting there was nothing exceptional.
After about 100 metres the 'avenue' was blocked by a low rock ridge. Just before it there was a deep cave in the rock wall following a crack, carved out by the watercourse diverting around the harder ridge. Inside this cave there was a very fine panel of two opposing group of archers, with the left group deliberately smudged with red paint.
After the ridge a side 'street' led us out to an open area with sevelal shelters in the sides of the surroundng rocks.
The largest shelter contained some very faint paintings of cattle and humans, but more interestingly an unusual engraved ithyphallic figure.
On the ceiling of this same shelter there were some very faint but fine black line paintings, it required dStretch to make them properly visible. Most of the animals appear to be cattle, but at the left there is a hunting scene, with arrows fired at what appears to be an ibex or antelope.
We turned into another avenue in the direction of our camp. the terrain was rising and the rocks on the sides were becoming lower, until we reached a series of low and shallow shelters. The one on the right contained near its end a very bizarre painting which is difficult to make sense of, my best attempt is that it depicts a hut with a female entering it, with her head, arms and shoulders already inside. The small adjacent female figures are of an exceptionally high quality (these sscenes were described and illustrated by Fabio Maestrucci and Gianna Gianelli in Les Cahiers de l'AARS, 12 - 2008).
At the extreme right of this shelter there are two on a larger scale that are among the best known of this locality. They are both of an exceptionally high quality, depicting the principal attributes of the Tin Abenhar style. The smaller figure at their feet appears to be holding a net.
We moved up the avenue to a point where it merged into a perpendicular 'street' with a large cave opposite the junction. This cave hid the finest site of Tin Abenhar, a procession of three human figures each more than one metre high, executed with delicate detail. The first and probably the second are men, while the third one is almost certainly a woman.
The leading figure is wearing a white wavy lined cap. Unfortunately the facial features are damaged by rainwater that occasionally flows accross the paintings.
The second figure is also wearing a cap, of a slightly different design than the first one. The hair is knotted into a short ponytail.
The third figure also has traces of white wavy lines on the head, but it is not clear whether this too is a cap, or this is the depiction of hair. The facial features and the overall body proportions suggest a female.
Facing the cave on the right corner of the 'avenue' there is a large low shelter with a many protected surfaces ideal for paintings, however there are only only a few crude but well preserved paintings of cattle on the rear wall, and several unusual circular shapes on the ceiling.
On the left corner there is another smaller shelter wih some crude cattle and a human figure. The adjacent shelter is interesting, with some animals and human figures on the rear wall in a strange, aparently rather ancient style. There is also a barely discernible animal executed in white paint in a dynamic posture on the ceiling between a couple of cattle. Birgitte and Ulrich Hallier (www.stonewatch.de, World of Petroglyphs, Part 35) profess to see a large antelope with curved horns, of "roundhead" affiliations. Unfortunately dStretch was not very helpful in this case, using some filters Hallier's reconstruction seems to be confirmed, but others contradict it, rather suggesting a Giraffe with an indstinct head.
We have reached the end of the paintings, it was time to return to camp. This time we took the direct route, zigzagging along the 'avenues' and 'streets' criscrossing the rock outcrop. At one point not far from the last paintings we passed a circular tumulus in the middle of a larger open area.
From the ends of some of the 'side streets' there was a superb view of the Fadnoun plateau (the outer Tassili) less than 20 kilometres away, perfectly illuminated in the low sunlight. We reached camp before sunset, in time to pitch our tents and organise camp before darkness.
As we went to make a call on the satphone after dinner in the darkness, Magdi spotted something small moving away in the moonlight from where I stopped to dial. It turnd out to be a tiny little sand viper (Cerastes vipera), a mere 20cm long. Obviously it was running for dear life, going for the first rock crevice it could find to hide. However the hiding place was not very deep, offering a perfect photo opportunity for all of our group. I checked it out before going to sleep, it was still there after an hour, but by morning it was gone...
Day 6. – Iheren – Tin Abenhar – Oued Afen – Tin Toudouft
As we awoke at dawn, there was some excitement among our Touaregs. Apparently a much larger snake visited them while they were asleep close to the campfire, leaving 3-4 cm wide tracks. It could not have been far away, but despite searching everywhere carefully, it was not fund.
Slowly most of us trickled down to the principal Iheren shelter close to camp, which is facing east and is in perfect light in the morning, with the sun illuminating the shelter floor.
In this different light I have noticed some faint traces of red paint high up above the principal panels of paintings. It was impossible to make them out on the spot, several shots were taken with different zoom angles to try to capture whatever could have been there. Looking at the photos with dStretch revealed a giraffe and four large elephants above the paintings, all in the "ancient hunters" style that is also familiar from the engravings of Wadi Djerat about 100 kilometres to the North on the Fadnoun plateau. I have not been able to find any reference to these figures pre-dating the Iheren style paintings by several thousand years in any of the publications on the Iheren shelter.
As customary when re-visiting such a site, I have found a complete panel of paintings slightly below and to the right of the group of giraffe on the right which I have complately missed the day before. The main theme is a beautiful herd of cattle with downward curving horns, accompanied by some human figres and a solitary cattle above carrying some object tied to the horns.
Taking a good look at the flock of ostritch above next to the herd of giraffe, I noticed a strange shape which was not easy to make out on the spot. This is one of the few instances where dStretch is of not much help, this shape makes about as much sense after processing as before.
This was to be an easy day, before packing up camp we had time to visit an outlier of Iheren, a cluster of rocks situated about 200 metres south of the principal shelter, on the far side of a small wadi. We passed several shelters, mostly with faint and unexciting paintings, but there were a few interestng details.
One small shelter only had the barest traces of paintings, the photos were taken purely by guessing where the paintings were. However dStretch unexpectedly revealed some amazing and unique scenes of therianthropes.
The finest shelter of this rock outcrop was a small shallow one, with a herd of longhorn cattle painted on the rear wall, covering practically the whole suitable surface of the hollow.
After another couple of sites with some very faint cattle, we have seen all that there was to be seen. Visiting the wole area took less than an hour. We walked back the short distance to camp to pack our tents and gear so the donkeys could get on their way before the heat of the day.
After packing we set out again, passing the principal Iheren shelter for one last time. Then we continued towards the north for a short walk of under a kilometre to the shelter usually referred to as Iheren II. (the principal shelter being Iheren I.), both receiving their name from the shallow Oued Iheren passing nearby.
The Iheren II shelter is smaller and shallower than Iheren I, and as it is facing south, the paintings are exposed to the sun from late morning to mid-afternoon. The paintings are of the same style and quality as Iheren I, the two are so similar that it was suggested that it is the handwork of the same artist. Lhote does not explicitly mention this shelter, and it is unclear if he ever visited it. Muzzolini (1995) published three small crops of the larger scenes (figs. 28, 98 & 132), two of which were repeated by Hachid (1998), however both publications simply caption the illustrations as Iheren, failing to make it clear that the scenes were from a major shelter separate from the principal Iheren site. It appears that the first more detailed publication making the clear distinction between Iheren I. and Iheren II. only appeared in 2010 (Ulrich and Birgitte Hallier, www.stonewatch.de, World of Petroglyphs, Part 39).
The shelter contains two distinctly separate areas, a smaller and deeper indentation on the left, and a much higher but shallower part on the right. Both contain paintings, however they are mostly so faint that other than a few figures none are visible from more than 1-2 meres away. This is definitely a site where dStretch makes an enormous difference.
The left part contains a scene with several figures, among which a group of four humans (the best known scene from the site) is the most readily visible. On first look they appear to be fighting with each other, but a careful scan of the rock face reveals a very faint but perfectly drawn sitting lion to the left of these figures, a more likely focus of attention for the group (very reminescent of the 'lion hunt' scene in the Iheren I. shelter). Several other finely drawn figures complete this composition.
Below the lion hunt scene, in the centre of the hollow there is a single other scene of animals and human figures, including some humans riding cattle and perhaps a donkey.
There are relatively few paintings in the right of the shelter, separated by fairly wide areas of empty rock face. In the upper left part, there is a conspicious standing figure with upheld arms, however it is not readily evident except on a close look that there is another running archer immediately underneath.
Immediately underneath these two figures there is a very fine scene of an archer accompanied by a sheep with very fine and elaborate detail.
The centre of the right part of the shelter is dominated by an absolutely lovely scene of a herd of cattle approaching from the right, with a woman leading the herd riding one of the cattle. This is arguably one of the finest scenes produced by the Iheren people. dStretch appears to confirm that the composition is intentionally incomplete, with only the heads of some of the cattle shown. It is astonishing that each of the cattle heads behind the two leading cattle are individual, as if it were an artist's study of the various horn shapes of cattle. The scene gives an almost complete repertoire of the way cattle have been depicted in Saharan patoralist rock art.
Underneath the cattle herd there is a fine group of red archers.
To the right and below the archers there are two distnct group of anthrpomorphs, all apparently with a dog-like animal head.
A little further right there are some more scenes of animals and humans, all very faint and damaged. dStretch reveals much more than what is discernible on the spot.
Higher up on the ceiling there is a large oval shape made up of small individual paint strokes, I could not make any sense out of it. A small scene of barely discernible figures completes the set of paintings at this site.
Leaving the shelter, we turned towards Tin Abenhar to see some of the sites we did not have time for the previous afternoon. We passed a rock wall with a water eroded cave high up, that was apparently used as a food store by recent Touareg inhabitants of the area. A very precarious stone ladder led up to the store room, Ibrahim made an attempt to get up, but the structure was so unstable that he quickly thought better of it.
We soon reached a large shelter on the northern side of Tin Abenhar, which contained a series of very weathered paintngs unlike any that we have seen before. These paintings were published by the Halliers in 2010 (www.stonewatch.de, World of Petroglyphs, Part 35) and considered some of them to be of the roundhead style. The shelter itself is a good 30 metre long, with several widely spaced panels of paintings.
The first panel on the extreme left of the shelter is a weathered but fine panel of cattle and archers, in the common local pastoralist style.
A few metres to the right there is a very weathered panel of paintings, it is only possible to make out with any certainty one large human figure, about one metre in height. dStretch reveals a second figure, and possibly there was a third. The heads are indistinct, I would not dare to assign them to any well defined style, but they certainly appear to be very ancient, pre-dating the cattle pastoralists.
The main panel of the site is at the centre of the shelter, behind a large flat-topped fallen boulder. It is very weathered, even processing the images does not help in making any sense of the remaining paintings. There seems to be a very large animal, perhaps a hippo as the oldest layer, with several other larger animals painted over it. A pair of prominent white horns seems to be of a hippotragus, but there is no trace of the rest of the animal. In the lower part, below a red mouflon and a human figure, one may just about make out the horns of a much larger mouflon. There are a couple of younger paintings as the latest layer, but the majority of these paintings appear to be very ancient. Unfortunately they are too damaged to make any more definitive statements.
Above the main panel, on a rock face jutting out of the shelter ceiling (reachable from the top of the fallen boulder), there is a fine series of paintings of a herd of cattle, with a scene depicing a calf suckling from a cow with an elaborate collar.
Further right, on the shelter ceiling there is another fine panel of cattle, there is a fine panel of cattle with a single pig amongst them.
On corner of the 'avenue' just behind the large shelter, reachable through a passage beside the main panel, there was a low shelter containing some some exceptional human figures and animals, in a bit better state of preservation than the previous ones.
Some features of these paintings do bear some resemblance to roundhead paintings of Tamrit - Sefar area, and are certainly more ancient than the cattle pastoralists. However they do appear distinctly different overall, and the long hair and beard exhibited on some of the figures is quite unlike anything seen among the true roundhead style paintings. These figures, as well as the other ancient looking paintings noted at Tin Abenhar (but nowhere else on the Tadjelahin plateau) probably represent a local culture that pre-dated the pastoralists, and was possibly contemporary with the rounhead people further to the South East.
It was still before noon, and our intended campsite was just two kilometres away in a valley visible from the large shelter. We could afford to spend some more time at Tin Abenhar, re-visiting some of the sites in different and possibly better light. We went back to the three large figures which is quite close to the large northern shelter, inwards among the rocks.
While the others stayed to take more photographs, I quickly went back to the 'elephant' shelter, to take better photos without the sun shining into the shelter. From these photos it is possible to see that the 'elephant' is a bizarre composite creature, it appears to have the ears and short horns of either cattle or some antelope, and also sports a set of rear legs that are reminescent of cattle. The front legs are bent, and have a whitish hoof or paw, definitely un-elephant like. The large thick appendages that on first look seem to be the rear legs stick out of where the tail and the navel is supposed to be.
On the way, I have passed by two shelters which we did not see the previous day. Both had some paintings, including some nice groups of human figures.
We met at the big northern shelter, and started the fairly short and easy walk to camp in the wide riverbed ahead, Oued Afen. Our aiming point was a prominent tree, as we got closer we could see that it was on a broad sandy plain with plenty of vegetation about, an ideal place for both tents and donkeys.
We had our lunch and afternoon rest in the large shade of the tree (actually several trees), very large and old tamarisks, probably growing from a single root.
In the afternoon we set out towards Tin Toudouft, a group of sites about three kilometres to the North West, first reported by Ulrich and Brigitte Hallier about 20 years ago. They are known to a very small circle, and were published only partially by various authos. The sites are set in a maze of rocks similar to Tin Abenhar, actually a continuation of the same geological formation accross the Oued Afen, which is clearly visible on satellite imagery.
The first sites we encountered at the northern end of the area were not particularly exciting, they were several long shelters in a 'street' perpendicular to the main line of the rocks, all containing some rather damaged paintings of cattle and human figures. The most interesting feature was a white positive handprint, clearly under the cattle paintings, apparently with six fingers.
We moved further in among the rocks, and passed another couple of sites which also contained some rather unspectacular faint paintings of a few catle and some human figures.
We were starting to wonder whether a good afternoon nap under the tamarisks may not have been a better idea, when in the next 'street' Ibrahim led us to a low unimpressive shelter, the interior of which turned out to be just the opposite. There were several panels of large well preserved scenes on the ceiling, mainly cattle mixed with some human figures.
On the rear wall there was a lovely small scene, showing several very delicately drawn spotted cattle accompanied by a human figure.
Unquestionably the most exciting scene of the shelter was a fairly compact one showing a multitude of small archers right in the middle of the ceiling, set apart from the cattle herds. Most of the archers are painted in red with a delicate black outline, and there is a multitude of arrows shown flying in the air. The group appears to be facing another one towards the right, of which only two figures remain (or perhaps there were no more).
Facing the small shelter, on the far side of the 'street' there was a much larger open shelter, with a splendid herd of unusually large and fine cattle, clearly visible from a distance, accompanied by a large Tin Abenhar style seated woman holding a pot or a jar.
In the lower part of the shelter there are several large but less readily visible panels of paintings on the usual smaller scale, depicting a multitude of cattle and human figures.
We contnued in the maze of rocks, passing a number of shelters along the sides of the 'streets' and 'avenues', some more interesting than others. A striking feature of this locality is the uniformity of the style and subject of the paintings. All show cattle and associated humans in the similar Tin Abenhar style, one of the principal "schools" of the cattle pastoralist paintings of the Tassili as defined by Muzzolini (1995). Aside the single six-fingered positive handprint we saw early on, there was no trace of other paintings of either the earlier or the later periods.
The last site finally contained something different - but what? It is a strange oval object, with a long stem and some streaks emanating from the bottom of the round part. It is unclear if the red streak to the upper right is associated or not. It is on a panel which otherwise depicts perfectly normal scenes of cattle and humans. This scene was illustrated and discussed by Fabio Maestrucci and Gianna Gianelli (Les Cahiers de l'AARS, 12 - 2008, p.246) who could similarly not make much sense of it.
Near the North eastern end of one of the streets there was a fairly shallow shelter, with a panel of well preserved paintings on the slanted ceiling. While these to depicted cattle and humans, the style was finally strikingly different from the paintings we have seen so far at this locality. Most of the human figures are wearing some kind of headdress, some appearing to be plumes. All wear a white bi-lobed waist gear that appears to be a composite of a dress element and some utility item - I have not seen any analogies elsewhere in the Tassili.
The end of the 'street' offered a splendid view of the edge of the Fadnoun plateau in the low sunlight, here only fifteen kilometres away. Ibrahim said he was not aware of any more sites between here and the plateau, but I'm sure with a good survey of the numerous rocky outcrops one could see in the distance, there may be many more.
Ibrahim said that there was one more site, a short distance away. It was getting late, the sun was getting very low, we followed Ibrahim half heartedly thinking that perhaps it would be time to go back to camp before it gets dark instead of seeing a few more cattle. We arrived at a very long, low shelter, where the outer edge of the shelter almost reached the ground, offering only a few entrance points to the dark, tunnel like interior that must have been carved out by running water ages ago. Once inside, it took some time for our eyes to adjust to the dim lighting, and noticed some incoherent lines of paint on the rear wall, which did not seem to present any recognisable shape. It took some time to realise that we should be looking for the pattern on a much grander scale - we were looking at the rear end of a very large animal, over a metre high and perhaps 3-4 metres long, running along the rear wall of the shelter. Looking in at another entrance of the shelter, we were face to face with an enormous hippopotamus, with some strange wriggly decoration covering its entire body.
As amazing as this hippo was, the true wonder of the site awaited us. Another five metres along the tunnel, there was another hippo, the same size as the previous one but better preserved, with a much more elaborate abstract decoration on the body.
Having not done any homework for this area of the Tassili before the trip, we were totally unprepared for this amazing site, and that probably added to the magic. These hippos were found by Ulrich and Brigitte Hallier back in the early nineties, and were published in 1995 (Felsbilder früher Jägervölker der Zentral-Sahara, Stuttgart, see also Sahara, 20, p.108-111), but that does not prepare one for the grandeur of the shelter.
Naturally we took a long time taking photographs and simply enjoying the site. Sunset was approaching fast, so we had to make a reluctant retreat to cover the three kilometres back to camp in the short remaining daylight. We reached the cluster of tamarisks just as dusk was setting in.
It was a long day so after dinner everyone decided to turn in early. Gábor decided to sleep out in the open in a nice sandy patch, and as he went back to his prepared mattress and sleeping bag, he found a small coiled snake right next to the head of the mattress. On first look it resembled a viper, but it was a harmless sand snake (Lytorhynchus diadema ?), only mimicing a more dangerous species with its scale pattern.
Day 7. – Oued Afen – Timerssaoussin - Tadrast
Our next camp was to be about 8 kilometres downstream in the Oued Afen. With no sites to see in-between we were not presed for time, we could take a leisurely breakfast before starting out in the riverbed.
After an initial sandy and bouldery stretch, the bottom of the watercourse turned to smoothly worn rock, allowing easy going as if strolling on a paved path. Soon we came upon a shallow pool containing good water - the numerous tracks at the water's edge showed that our donkeys too discovered the place the night before.
Continuing down in the smooth rock channel, we soon reached another larger guelta. A sand bank behind it was covered with dense green grass with little white flowers (Androcymbium wyssianum) growing everywhere, conveying the surreal feeling of beng on an alpine meadow. We took a short rest at this peaceful spot before moving on downstream.
A short distance beyond we reached the edge of a deep drop in the riverbed, with a very large and apparently deep guelta below us, and several more shallower ones further downstream. The canyon walls were perpendicular everywhere, we had to continue along the cliff edge for a considerable distance until we could find a way down into the bottom of the valley.
After the large gueltas the valley floor became smooth rock again, but this time bordered by vertical rock walls on both sides. We were not quite prepared for the sight around the next bend: a huge body of water, much larger than the ones seen previously filled the entire falley floor, stretching for over two hundred metres. This was our half-way point, it was still mid-morning so we could afford a long rest at this lovely spot before completing the remainder of the distance to camp.
Strangely despite all this water about, there was very little animal life. We spotted a couple of large water beetles in the lake, but other than these the only meaningful creature was a bright yellow hairy caterpillar that Viki spotted on an acacia beside the water.
We reluctantly left this place, passing by several more small pools in the watercourse, eventually reaching an area with thick vegetation and a series of pools in the now gravely riverbed.
Passing by a long narrow strip of water, we encountered our donkeys indicating that we have reached our campground, already set up under the shade of several acacias at the far end of the lake. Ibrahim called the place (and the long guelta) Timerssaoussin.
It was still only midday, we had plenty of time for lunch, a wash and a lazy afternoon before going out to see some nearby paintings. As we were doing all this, a little Touareg girl passed by herding about fifty goats, providing a perfect opportunity to observe how goats actually climb the smaller shrubs and trees to get at the fresh shoots, a scene often depicted in the rock art of Jebel Uweinat (but to my knowledge not here in the Tassili).
Getting back to camp in preparation for visiting the nearby sites, the Touaregs saw something small and lizard like scurry under a large rock. There was a bit of a comotion, it appeared that they thought it to be some kind of dangerous animal as the rock was lifted carefully. It was a rather ordinary fan-fingered gecko (Ptyodactylus ragazzii, identification by J.F. Trape), I have no idea what they were expecting, as to my knowledge there are no poisonous lizards in the Sahara.
The sites we went to see in the afternoon were indeed close, in a rocky area a little over a kilometre to the North east from camp. Ibrahim called the place Zi Gizzen, but all publications refer to the place as Tadrast / Tadghast (the locality was first noted and published by Gauthier & Lionnet in Sahara 16, 2005).
The first site we saw was a deep shelter with a panel of cattle pastoralist paintings in the Tin Abenhar style, with some very fine cattle and detailed human figures.
The adjacent site was certainly the most interesting one of this locality, and one of the most intriguing on the entire trip. The shallow shelter contains several scenes, dominated by three large human figures who appear to be wearng a turban, and are depicted in full face, with all the facial features fully but rather clumsily depicted. On first look they appear to be modern paintings in a rather naive style, however on close look they are clearly ancient, with the horns of a cattle painted over the leg of one of the large figures clearly demonstrating that they pre-date the cattle pastoralist paintings. Gauthier and Lionnet suggested their affinity with the roundhead style, however to me they look completely different, and unlike anything else I have ever seen in the Sahara. Such full facial depicton is extremely rare in ancient art, usually the human head is shown in profile, a perspective much easier to execute.
The two black and white animals left of the figures are also interesting, they are definitely not cattle, and could possibly be associated with these figures. The rest of the paintings in the shelter are in the common cattle pastoralist style.
Continuing to the corner of the next 'street crossing', there were two shelters with paintings on both sides. The one on the left contained numerous human figures, some weathered to a 'negative' image, including a strange torso with a hard to interpret round shape obscuring the lower body.
On the other corner the paintings were on the vertical rock face above the shelter, cattle and human figures.
A little further up the 'street' another shelter contained several finely executed white cattle, and an absolutely lovely scene of two women wearing an elaborate headdress, riding a bull which is also carrying some household components tied to its now invisible horns.
The adjacent shelter contained some very hard to interpret scenes. Some of the figures were cattle, but in a very unusual style, however the strange creature above appears to be a composite of a giraffe and ostrich.
As we continued in the maze of rocks, we passed several lesser shelters with some paintings with cattle and humans.
In one of the shelters we have found a rather strange human figure, with a very unusual head and body proportions.
In the next shelter, an indistinct blob of paint turned out to be a fugure with a disproportionately large head, holding a throwing stick, with an adjacent fine panel of humans and cattle.
We reached again the edge of the rock maze. In a shallow shelter there were a couple faint but recognisable human figures with a promnent headdress typical of the Tin Abenhar style.
In the same shelter there were a couple of unrecognisable traces of paint. It was only possible back home, processing the images with dStretch, to recognise the true nature of these caricature like paintings.
Nearby we have found another cave high up in the rock face which served as a store room for the recent Touareg inhabitants, with a precarious cairn of stones functioning as a ladder to access it. This looked a bit more solid than the one we saw a day earlier, Ibrahim gave it a try and after a few tense moments balancing on the top of the wobbling stones, he finally made it up to the cave, which turned out to be completely empty.
The shelter under the store cave also contained some faint paintings, though only indistinct blobs of paint were recognisable. It was only possible to recognise at home with dStretch that this was the head shaving scene which was published by by Fabio Maestrucci and Gianna Gianelli (Les Cahiers de l'AARS, 12 - 2008, p.240-241).
This was the last site to be seen here, we started to move back along the edge of the rocks towards our campsite.
We still had a good hour of daylight left, after pitching the tents we spent a quiet late afternoon around the lake just doing nothing, enjoying the lush peaceful suroundings totally out of place here in the middle of the Sahara.
Day 8. – Timerssaoussin – Tasakarot - Tahilahi
This day we only had four kilometres to cover to our camp near the Tahilahi shelter, so we had a slow start taking our time packing camp and having breakfast, while Gábor amused himself with artistically arranged still lifes of camp life...
Rounding up the donkeys, packing and distributing the loads also took plenty of time, it was close to nine o'clock when we finally departed, with the herders still busy getting the loads on to the backs of the donkeys.
We started out up the ridge behind camp, and did not have far to go. Our first target was the ‘elephant’ shelter, another of the sites found by Ulrich and Brigitte Hallier, for which the first published reference is from 2008 (in various publications it is referred to as Tin Amarasouzi/Timedassaousset/Timerassaussin). The shelter was under an enormous boulder on the far side of the ridge, just a few hundred metres from our campsite.
The shelter is the smallest of the principal localities of the Iheren style of paintings. The majority of the lower parts are covered with paintings of camels and tifnar script, as well as modern-looking charcoal grafitti, however there is a lovely panel of Iheren style paintings in the centre, above numerous camels.
The top left of the panel is dominated by the figure of a very fine elephant, hence the name of the site. It is surrounded by a number of human figures, it is not quite clear if we see a hunting scene, or the elephant and the humans are not associated. It is interesting to note that several of the figures have been re-drawn repeatedly. Invisible on the spot, and only revealed by dStretch, I was very suprprised to fing a grazing giraffe with a lowered head partially obscured under the trunk of the elephant.
To the right of the elephant there are a group of figures to both sides of a vertical shape which Ibrahim called "snake". The two humans on the left appear to be retreating from the elephant (or giraffe, another head is visible with dStretch), and there is a fine but damaged sheep on the right together with some indistinct lines that appear to be humans. The big surprise is the vertical shape, which is clearly revealed to be a human figure wearing a loin cloth, with apparently disproportionate arms held closely together and raised above the head. The figure is in fact holding two throwing sticks in both hands, probably facing the charging elephant (or giraffe). The throwing sticks have the same striped decoration as the rest of the body, making this figure very confusing, especially in its original faint state.
Below, there is a herd of fine polychrome cattle, and further right one of the most interesting but difficult to interpret scenes in the shelter: a group of people next to a pair of huts, closely surounding a large vessel in the centre of the composition.
There are two more smaller panels of Iheren stye paintings tucked away in small niches to the right of the shelter. They are faint and easy to miss, I have only noticed them on the third pass, Ibrahim was not aware of them. The first is a very faint but absolutely delightful small group of women with elaborate dress and hairdo.
The second scene is a very fine herd of cattle, they are faint and in a very dark part of the shelter, can hardly be made out on the spot. The cattle at lower right is tended by a woman with several vessels behind her.
A curious feature, only recognisable on dStretch enhanced images, is a trail of clearly human footprints leading from around the vessels towards the herd of cattle, for which I have not seen any analogies elsewhere.
Having finished at the site, we moved on towards the east accross a maze of rocks with a number of wind eroded rock arches.
We passed a large shelter which looked like a perfect location for rock art, but Ibrahim just shook his head indicating that there was nothing there. I could not resist the urge to double-check, and was right to do so. There was a small patch of hardly recognisable paint in the rear of the shelter, which turned out to be a stunning crouching giraffe, very similar to the one well known one from In Djaren in the Tadrart (southernmost part of the Tassili) published by Muzzolini and others. Such representations of crouching girafe are very rare (as is the posture itself among giraffes in the wild, usualy restricted to the very young), there is just one more in the North eastern Tassili, to my knowledge our find is the third such known in the entire Sahara.
Ibrahim was clearly embarassed having failed to spot the giraffe, and while we were busy taking photographs, he disappeared in the maze of rocks. After a while he came back with a restored self-esteem, reporting that he found another site nearby, close to a round tumulus erected in one of the 'street' crossings. The site contained a single large human figure.
We crossed the maze of rocks and emerged on a flat plain on the far side, walking towards a low ridge in the distance. Following the edge of the ridge, we reached a small shelter with some paintings, a few cattle but mostly humans from the historic periods.
A hundred metres further we reached the large shelter of Tasakarot, scenes from which were already published by Lajoux in 1962 (together wit Issalamen). The shelter contains paintings at its two extremities. The ones on the right are not very exciting, the interesting scenes are all concentrated on the far eastern end, with a large panel containing paintings of numerous periods, with horse drawn chariots and other historic period figures mixed with Iheren style cattle, humans and other animals.
These paintings were less than a kilometre from our camp in a rocky area, our donkeys must have passed us while we were busy taking photographs somewhere, they were already dispersed with the bags stacked up in the shade of a shelter. We took our lunch and a lazy rest, then the obligatory pre-departure tea before moving out again in the afternoon.
The principal Tahilahi shelter was less than a hundred metres from camp along the edge of the low rocky escarpment. The name is in fact improper, ‘Tahilahi’ is a general alternate name for the Tadjelahin plateau – however in all publications the site is referred to as Tahilahi. This was the first principal site of the area to become known, it was found before 1950 by Georges Le Poitevin (one of the artists who later joined the Lhote mission) and was already included in Breuil's 1954 publication on the Tasili N'Ajjer. From afar it is an inconspicious low shelter, and one would not expect the wonders inside. However the ceiling of the shelter is domed, and after the low entrance one can stand comfortably inside.
Because of the geometry of the ceiling, the paintings go all around the shelter at and above eye level. The rock has its own natural pattern, which at first makes it difficult to see the paintings, most of which were executed in the fine line drawing technique characteristic of the Iheren style. However as one's eyes become accustomed to the low light, an amazing number of individual images start to emerge in astonishingly fine detail. Despite the fact that the shelter had been known for a long time, and parts of scenes have appeared in practically all of the principal reference works, there is no single publication describing the shelter in its entirety. Aldo and Donatella Boccazzi prepared an article (Les Cahiers de l'AARS, 8 - 2004, p.5-9) with several unrecorded scenes, but many of the finer details remain unpublished.
Immediately to the left of the entrance a fine group of yellow cattle catches the eye. On close look one can see several sheep intermingled among the cattle, and to the left there is a group of people surrounding a large vessel in some unidentified activity, an almost perfect repetition of the scene as we have seen earlier in the morning at Timerssaoussin.
Turning clockwise, one sees a damaged group of large yellow animals, it is not entirely clear if they are antelopes or equids. Below them, straddling a crack inthe rock, there is a very fine group of human figures, some wearing quite unusual clothes.
Further right, one reaches the best known panel in the shelter, cenetred on an elephant, with a group of very elaborate human figures (with tattooed faces?), ostrich, giraffe and numerous other animals, all in exquisitely fine detail.
Immediately behind the elephant there is a very fine flock of sheep on a small scale, hardly noticeable except when looking closely at the rock face.
Below the flock there are a couple of small but interesting paintings, including a group of three humans, a large feline that is apparently eating the innards of a gazelle, and a strange unidentifiable animal, unfortunately even dStretch fails to reveal any trace of a head.
To the right of the group of three human figures (and below the flock of sheep) there is a very fine giraffe, which is held by the tail by two men, the bodies of whom mostly overlap but the two faces, two sets of legs and arms are clearly visible.
Continuing clockwise, opposite the elephant scene, over the right entrance of the shelter, there is the finest panel of paintings consisting of a number of very delicately drawn cattle with a yellow fill, and a trio of bearded men with extremely fine detail.
A little to the right in a small niche there is a large dark crude giraffe, apparently painted over other paintings, with an adjacent fine flock of sheep.
In the middle of the roof above the entrance, there is a large panel almos completely filled with very fine paintings all done in a fine line drawing. The bulk of the figures are a large herd of cattle, both with and without yellow fill.
Amongst the cattle there is a group of human figures, which the Boccazzis called the 'funeral scene' on account of an apparently dead body above the others. However on close look it is evident that the lower group is engaged in the same activity centered on a vessel which we have already seen elsewhere, thus the interpretation of the lying figure is by no means straight forward.
A vertical crack in the rock runs along the left edge of the panel, which was utilised to suggest a running watercourse, with a lined up flock of sheep drinking from it along bots sides of the crack. The sheep are extremely delicately drawn, and uniquely one may spot a few which are depicted head on. There are a few more cattle and a fine human figure adjacent to the sheep on the 'left bank' of the imaginary creek.
By now we have done a full 360 circle of the paintings on the ceiling, with just a few isolated groups left above the left entrance. One appears to be a copulation scene, the only one observed among the Iheren style paintings. There is an adjacent group of sheep and humans, including a lovely scene of a sheep held by the head, while a very indistinct figure at its rear is possibly milking it.
The Tahilahi shelter must have been a very special place, however it was not really suitable as a living area, with only a small rocky terrace in front of the shelter. However in the adjacent bays as well as in the two 'streets' inwards in the rocky escarpment, there were several shelters which offered good habitation. All of them contained some paintings, but they were mostly faint and weathered, only a few are worth mentioning.
One shelter with some traces of paint was fully exposed to the setting sun, while the others returned to camp, with Ibrahim we waited for the panel to get into the shade, eventually revealing some cattle.
The nearly full moon rose on the eastern horizon a little before the sun disappeared in the west. We finished off the day photographing a few more details at the main shelter before heading back to camp, passing a small guelta which we failed to notice on our way here.
Day 9. – Tahilahi - Iherir - Djanet
The task for the day was simply to get down from the plateau to Iherir, where our cars were to be waiting for us at noon. We only had about four kilometres to go to the top of the pass where we came up, so we could afford to re-visit the main shelter after packing up the camp. We took our group photo at the shelter, and took some time just marveling at the details as our donkeys passed us.
From here we were following a well trodden trail, apparently at the height of tourism before the troubles started in Algeria in the early nineties, the Tahilahi shelter was much visited. We continued along the path, taking a small detour to a shelter under a large boulder with some amusing paintings of the historic period of a kind we have not seen before.
This was to be last site we encountered on our trip, the country flattened out and we walked the remaining two kilometres to the start of the descent on a black shingle covered plain.
Without stopping we continued down the same pass where we came up one week earlier, and in an hour we were approaching Iherir.
Our cars were indeed waiting for us with our baggage already loaded, after saying our thanks and good-byes to Ibrahim and the donkey herders we set out towards Djanet, stopping at the very scenic pass where the main Illizi - Djanet highway descends from the plateau to the plains below.
After passing the spot where we collected firewood on our starting journey, we briefly stopped under a large acacia for a quick lunch.
Continuing, we reached Djanet well before sunset, to have a good shower and dinner before taking a short sleep. Saying good-bye to Bryan, who stayed on in Algeria for another couple of weeks, we departed to the airport in the small hours for the uneventful flight to Algiers, then the connecting flights back home.
Comfortably back home, I could go through the relevant literature, and it was good to confirm that Ibrahim did a very good job in showing us all of the principal and lesser sites of the Tadjelahine Plateau. Even though it was not planned this way and we were unprepared, we have managed to see practically everything worth mentoning in the Iherir region.
We plan to return to the Tadjelahine Plateau in late October 2014, with a planned itinerary extended to include the Tikadiouine shelter near the Djanet - Illizi road, and the engravings of Wadi Djerat along the northern part of the Fadnoun Plateau. Application deadline for this trip is end of July 2014.