Ennedi rock art, Chad’s hidden treasure

The Ennedi rock art is one of the riches of Chad’s most important national park. A territory of more than five million hectares, with an enormous wealth of landscapes. We know it, and everyone who has had the good fortune to visit it knows it. Today we want to focus on this hidden treasure and show you that the desert is not “just desert”.

Ennedi rock art: a magnificent open-air museum

The vast Sahara desert is full of graphic testimonies of the first humans. From when it was an orchard and then a savannah. From when people were nomads, and when they settled down to farming and herding.

The wildlife that inhabited this territory before the dunes and rocks invaded it, the life of the people, even their symbolism, are present in the delicate rock paintings traced with ochre, black and white paint, and in engravings on the rock.

On our expeditions to Chad the Ennedi rock art always surprises our travellers.

You don’t have to be an archaeology buff to understand that you are looking at a marvellous piece of art, and a very old one at that. The oldest art of all. It’s like a painting or a photograph from the very, very distant past, as they would say in Star Wars.

valle de noi ennedi, chad
In this valley we found cave paintings that even our guides didn’t know about – Ennedi Rock Art

But what’s more, and this is important, those of us who travel to the Ennedi have the opportunity to see it in the place where it was painted. The original site. No fences or display cases in between.

Perhaps that is why the experience is so beautiful. In fact, it is impossible not to feel a bit like a “discoverer”, “archaeologist” or “Indiana Jones” when you are in front of the Ennedi rock art.

Ennedi Chad
Looking at the Terkei Barakatra paintings – Ennedi Rock Art

Even when you have trained your eyes a little, you can explore the rock shelters in search of new discoveries. I assure you that you can manage to find paintings that our guides didn’t know about, despite having passed through them😊.

Another aspect that fascinates us is that in these examples of rock art there are scenes that are a faithful reflection of what we can see today in Chad: large herds of goats, sheep (differentiated by the shape of their tails, horns and ears), and cows. Also traditional dances and daily chores such as grinding millet or preparing food in a pot…

Where it is and what the Ennedi rock art looks like

In the Ennedi National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2016, there are more than 650 rock art sites dating back to 7,000 BC. In other words, they are more than 9,000 years old from our perspective.

There are also other remains such as necropolises and traces of settlements with small finds such as ancient stone mills, arrowheads, pottery remains and other utensils.

However, the vast majority have not yet been studied. The remoteness and vastness of the Ennedi makes it difficult and expensive to organise archaeological expeditions. A pity, but from a romantic point of view it’s not bad that they are still hidden treasures, is it?

exploring terkei barakatra in ennedi, chad
Admiring the Terkei Barakatra paintings on one of our expeditions – Ennedi Rock Art

Gérard Bailloud was the pioneer who set out to discover the rock art of the Ennedi. He began his work in this region in November 1956, and during one year he managed to locate 500 sites with rock art, most of them paintings. He took 700 photographs and carried out 200 studies at 82 different sites. Impressive considering the time in which he did it. His book “Rock Art in Ennedi” is already a reference.

Unlike the rock art found in Europe, the rock art of the Sahara is usually in the open air, in hollows and shelters formed by the sandstone rocks, as well as in shallow caves. This was the place where people settled to protect themselves from the elements, and only in some places are the paintings located in deeper, darker areas. Many archaeologists believe that these paintings, the most hidden ones, may have a symbolic or sacred meaning.

Manda Guele cave with paintings
Manda Guele cave with paintings – Ennedi Rock Art

It is not that in Europe men lived and painted only in the depths of caves. It is that the variation of temperature and climate in the different seasons of the year erased them, while in Ennedi, Algeria, Libya or Namibia, the dryness of the desert has acted as a natural “preserver”.

As for how they made these paints, it is known that the men (or women) of that time used pigments of mineral origin. For example, ochre and haematite for red or orange, kaolin for white, and charcoal for black.

What motifs can we see in the rock art of Ennedi?

Three main periods, always approximate, can be distinguished in the Ennedi rock art, which were established by Bailloud:

Archaic period

Between 7,000 and 5,000 BC, humans were hunter-gatherers. Here, representations of people running predominate. Sometimes they wear feathers on their heads and even a mask on their faces.

The animals most commonly depicted are the wild fauna that usually live in the savannah and pre-sylvan territories: elephants, giraffes, panthers, ostriches, gazelles, etc.

Cattle-herding period

Between 5,000 and 2,000 BC nomadic pastoralism was already established, and therefore most of the animal drawings are devoted to livestock. However, in the second part of these three thousand years men are also shown fighting each other or hunting armed with shields.

They can also be seen dancing or in scenes of everyday tasks next to their huts, depicted with a curved line. The presence of men playing the harp at various sites is quite remarkable. Some scholars consider the harp is the oldest instrument for producing music independently of the human voice. And it was invented in Africa.

The figures are small and much more dynamic than those of previous periods, and the level of detail is marvellous.

Camelid Period (camels)

This period extends from 2,000 BC to the present day. It is the earliest period in this stretch of history and the figures are much more schematic.

The dromedary seems to be the most common mount, and in some depictions they appear to be flying because they are galloping. It is clear to see that they carry swords, saddles, etc. Of course, there are also representations of their livestock and war scenes.

We can add that women do not often appear in Ennedi rock art, but when they do, they are easily identifiable because they are depicted wearing long skirts, sometimes with fringes and necklaces!

Some schematic symbols are also easily distinguishable, which may lead us to think of the plan of a house or village, or of a bag with objects – their luggage?

Why were they painted? That is something that escapes us. So do the scientists. It’s impossible to know without talking to them, to the people who did the work.

These drawings… Were they some kind of message to the next group that passed through? An ornament for the place they inhabited for a while or permanently? Were they part of some ritual to ask the gods for luck in hunting or good health for the community? Perhaps there is a bit of all of these. Perhaps it is the “photograph” of the moment, a way of capturing reality in order to retain it in memory.

ennedi rock art in manda guele
Manda Guele paintings of men on camels. The one at the top is wearing a mask – Ennedi Rock Art

Where to find Ennedi rock art

Although they are classified and organised both by periods and by styles within each period (each spanning several thousand years), you should know that paintings from different periods, sometimes overlapping, can be found in the same place.

In other words, thousands of years apart, people have used the same site to paint their art on rock. This is something that humans have been doing since the beginning, even in other continents such as Europe. If you think about it, it’s quite dizzying.

Big rock of Gaora Halagana
Big rock of Gaora Halagana – Ennedi Rock Art

Although Ennedi rock art is present in all the rocky massifs of this National Park, it is true that there is a privileged area. It is the one located from the town of Fada. Spreading about 50 km to the south-west and west, we find, among others, the sites of Mount Fada, Elikeo, Terkei Barakatra and Gaora Halagana. Samples from the three periods described above can be seen there, and we always stop at several on our trips.

Gaora Halagana

Gaora Halagana is one of the most densely painted with superimposed paintings from different periods.

On its walls you can see a scene of a collective dance, all in a line joined together with their arms over their shoulders. In the same scene, on one side, you can also see a funeral scene that has even been part of Chad’s postage stamps. You can see it at this link and it’s incredible!

There are also herds of cows, women, symbols that look like a labyrinth, and scenes such as a woman cooking in a pot and another one with her son next to a hut, isn’t it incredible? There are hundreds of drawings and you could spend hours exploring them.

rock art of ennedi woman with long skirt and cow
Woman in white dress with fringes dancing in front of a seated man – Ennedi Rock Art
symbols in ennedi rock art
Three men holding hands and a symbol that looks like the plan of a labyrinth – Ennedi Rock Art

Moreover, this place is known as “the caves of youth”, although the Tubu call it “the place of the elegant people”. Even today there are still families who hold their feasts and celebrations there, judging by the remains of food, recent bonfires and some other debris. They still go there like the communities of thousands of years ago, to do the same.

Manda Guele

Another highlight is Manda Guele. It is dominated by high quality paintings from the more modern period.

Men on camels with their African saddles, swords, ornaments and hairstyles. Women. Herds of long-horned cows like those of Lake Chad. Everyday objects such as a kind of jar that seems to contain food or objects. The aforementioned musicians playing with their harps… 🥰

Cows from the Manda Guele site - Ennedi Rock Art
Cows from the Manda Guele site – Ennedi Rock Art

Terkei Barakatra

Terkei is another of our favourite sites. In the local language it means “the white pools”, and is a rocky massif with caves open to the outside and communicating with each other.

As with the previous sites, there is another good display of Ennedi rock art here, and of particular note is the “army” or group of horsemen riding their horses. They appear to be flying, and some of them are wearing large hats reminiscent of the Peul of today.

There are also giraffes, goats, camels, and even a huge cow painted on the ceiling with a shepherd standing beside her.

Giant cow painted on the ceiling of Terkei Barakatra
Giant cow painted on the ceiling of Terkei Barakatra – Ennedi Rock Art

Beyond these highlights, as we said at the beginning, it is possible to make your own discoveries taking advantage of a break in the route or before going to sleep, while there is daylight.

Walking among the towers and great stone walls, feeling the sand on your feet, with your eyes fixed on the small rock shelters, can give you more than one surprise. And it is a beautiful feeling.

cave painting with people riding on horseback
Horsemen on their mounts at Terkei Barakatra – Ennedi Rock Art

However, please do not forget to respect this heritage. Don’t touch it with your hands, don’t use the flash of your camera or mobile phone, don’t light a fire nearby, and of course don’t take anything away from it. They have been in place for thousands of years, but they are fragile and it has been proven that the increase in the number of visitors has accelerated their deterioration.

If you are interested in finding out more, we recommend the website of the AARS, Association of Friends of Saharan Rock Art.

We hope you found this article on the rock art of Ennedi interesting and that it is another incentive for you to explore this unique desert with us 😊😊.

Feel free to write to info@kumakonda for information on upcoming expeditions to the Ennedi.

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