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The Sahara has mesmerized outsiders for centuries. The world's largest desert, its size defies imagination: 3.3 million square miles or around 25 percent of Africa. Not surprisingly, the Sahara's name in Arabic means simply "desert."

Camel caravans looking for gold, ivory, grain, salt and slaves made the Sahara the world's first gateway to Africa. These endless trains, run by Tuaregs, Arabs and others, gave rise to the legendary era of trans-Saharan trade, a phenomenon that still defines the Sahara to many outsiders.

Today, the Sahara still serves as a border between the continent's black African south and Arab-influenced north. Its scorching heat and size still influence the cycle of drought and rainfall in sub-Saharan Africa. With one of the planet's lowest population densities, its people -- Tuareg, Arab, Tubu, Moor - can seem afloat in vast seas of sand. Blue-robed Tuaregs still run salt caravans and herd goat, sheep and camels. Moors farm date palms.

But much has changed. The Arabs have retreated to Saharan cities like Cairo; at roughly 10 million people, Africa's largest. Trucks are replacing camels in the salt trade. Tuaregs are acting as guides to Western adventure tourists and oil and gas operations promise far greater riches than gold and ivory ever could. Political unrest has gripped the region: In the late 1990s, armed Tuareg insurgencies blazed across the desert. Nor has the Sahara escaped the Internet revolution. Rissani, Morocco, a tiny desert oasis, offers several Internet cafés, primarily for tourists about to embark on their own exploration of the most famous of deserts.


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