Tag Archives: Charles de Foucauld

A is for Assekrem

Part of the Sahara A to Z series

In just about the geographical centre of the Sahara lie the Hoggar mountains. Compared to the tawny Tassili N’Ajjer further east, it’s a harsh landscape of basalt buttes erupting vertically from the barren landscape.

In the heart of the Hoggar massif is a dramatic cluster of eroded volcanic cores overlooked by the 9000-foot high Assekrem Pass, part of the Ahaggar National Park. Some maps call it the Atakor.

There are three ways to get to Assekrem: the regular 85-km eastern route up from Tam via Iharen peak. A gnarlier and slightly shorter western route which starts near the airport, though is usually taken as the decent from Assekrem to make a loop back to Tam as it’s easier to follow going down. Another route comes in from the north from Hirhafok over the Tin Teratimt Pass (above).

Or you can follow a network of camel tracks (above). It takes a week or more, depending where your start.

Assekrem is the best known of the many wonders of southern Algeria. A lodge sits on the saddle of the pass (above) where tourists spend the night to enjoy the stunning sunset and sunrise across the brooding volcanic monoliths from the plateau above the Pass.

Though he spent most of his time in Tam, early in the early 20th century Charles de Foucauld, a French bon viveur and soldier turned missionary, built a crude stone hermitage on this plateau (above).

Among other things, Foucauld was responsible for the first Tamachek-French dictionary, and his house still stands in Tam. It was in Tam in 1916 that Foucauld was assassinated as a suspected French spy, during the Senussi uprisings in Libya and Egypt. Je was beatified in 2005 anf the hermitage is still tended today by a couple of aged members of the order of Les Petites Frères de Jésus, who were inspired by Foucauld’s life.

Book review: The Sword and the Cross ~ Fergus Fleming


Fergus Fleming, 2004

A double biography of two extraordinary characters who helped shape France’s colonial fortunes in North Africa. This is the story of General Henri Lapperine, the dashing Commander of the Oasis whose camel corps rode sleek racing méharis with the general at their head. Alongside walked his guide and interpreter – a sunburnt scarecrow of a man reciting prayers as they went – Charles, Pere de Foucauld.

Fleming’s style is well researched and enthralling. He admits that there is not a lot of material on Lapperine, who wrote little down and seems to have been little appreciated in his lifetime. Foucauld, an obsessive letter writer and list maker, left a large legacy and has been the subject of many works – mostly in French and usually lionising his saintly attributes.

In order to tell the tale, Fleming first describes the situation in the French African colonies of Algeria and the Soudan to the south during the 19th Century. The grandiose plan is to link the two – eventually by rail – via the Sahara, the conquest of which becomes a matter of national honour. The descriptions of the large expeditions sent to achieve this aim are horrifying – they end in unmitigated disasters, each one greater than the previous. The flamboyant characters involved are described – with a repetitive postscript ‘…they too were murdered’.

Into the desert enter two seemingly different men – bound by a desire to see the Sahara and its population as French – in Foucauld’s case, Godly and French. The main protagonist is Charles de Foucauld, an aristocrat turned hermit. Starting out as an overweight and not very good cavalry officer with a taste for women and the easy life, he is sent to Algeria. Here he discovers not only a love of the desert but also forms the idea of creating a religious order – not just an average order, but one whose regime of self denial makes Trappism seem luxurious. Living on a diet of barley and dates, spending twelve hours a day in prayer he founds an order that had a membership of one during his lifetime (unsurprisingly) and converted a single elderly blind woman. He never loses touch with his acquaintances from military days – they provide protection for him and he in turn supplies them with maps and information regarding the ‘ground feeling’ of the desert tribes.

Lapperine sees the folly of the mass marches and forms a camel corps, whose swiftness in smaller numbers and less need for supply chains enable them to subdue the Tuareg. A ‘soldiers’ soldier’ he was a hard taskmaster admired by his troops (when one of his natives was questioned about his loyalty to France he replied that his loyalty was not to France – but to Lapperine). He needed information from the Hoggar (a little light spying) and who better than his old friend Foucauld. When offered the chance to set up a hermitage in the remote outpost of Tamanrasset, Pere de Foucauld relishes the prospect of tending to the locals (and supplying Lapperine with reports).

By 1910 with the Tuat and Hoggar under the control of the French and with Foucauld alternating between Tamanrasset and his even more remote hermitage at Assekrem, Laperinne sets out on a series of tours. Although successful these are seen by his superiors as meddling in the affairs of the Ottoman Empire (which at the time was nominally in charge of the Tripolitania to the east of Algeria). Lapperine is recalled to France as war clouds gather leaving Foucauld behind. In an obscure footnote to the international situation Senoussi raiders roam the Sahara attacking the remaining French at the behest of the crumbling Ottoman Empire. Caught up in the intrigue, Foucauld is assassinated on December 1st 1916.

Upon hearing the news Lapperine requests immediate transfer back to Algeria to avenge his friend. Three years later as he lays dying, lost in the desert following an aircrash, General Lapperine’s utters his final words: ‘People think they know the desert, people think I know it. Nobody really knows it’.

Tim Stead