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In the southwest part of Libya, a region called Fezzan is the beating heart of the Sahara, an inaccessible place full of sand seas, wadis, mountains, plateaus, oases, and mystery. Between 500 B.C. and A.D. 500 an estimated 100,000 people farmed and thrived here, in an area that typically receives less than an inch of rain a year and many years none at all.

"That," Mattingly notes, "is an awful lot of people in the hyperarid landscape of the central Sahara."

An archaeologist at the University of Leicester, he's become a slave to the desert: "I've been working in Libya for 30 years, and from the start I was wowed by the landscapes." Many others have known this fate. They become addicted to brilliant light and uncluttered horizons. Where most see a wasteland, others find clarity.

Hugh Clapperton, a Scottish explorer, plunges into the desert of southwestern Libya between 1822 and 1825. He is the point man of an empire, the face of steam power, spinning jennies, and the British fleet. On November 7, 1824, he is crossing the dry ground when he comes upon a female slave left "to perish on the road today, her head was terribly swelled & unable to walk & insensible." Clapperton finds one of the master's servants huddled by the woman, "waiting by her until she died, not to bury her but to bring away the few rags she had on."

She cannot ride a camel; she is too weak to hold on. He thinks if he lingers, he will die too.

The wind is cold, he notes.

He rides on.

This is the Sahara of dread. A waterless sea of sand and stone, where scorpions infest, vipers slither, and the sun has no mercy. Libya is big—a slab of sun the size of Italy, France, Spain, and Germany—and almost all of its six million people live huddled on the Mediterranean coast. To truly understand the region, we must turn our backs on the sea and look south. Ninety-five percent of Libya is desert, 20 percent is dunes, and not a single perennial river runs through it. The Libyan Sahara holds the world's heat record (136°F) and can chill the bones on a winter night.

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