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The Mystery Behind the Eye of the Sahara

posted on: Aug 2, 2021

The Mystery Behind the Eye of the Sahara
The Eye of the Sahara from space. Source: India Times

By Evan Ploeckelman / Arab America Contributing Writer

Situated in the nearly empty desert of northern Mauritania, the Eye of the Sahara, known more formally as the Richat Structure, has fascinated scientists ever since its complete discovery in 1965, millenia after its discovery by local inhabitants. While theories abound about how the structure, which is 25 miles, or 40 kilometers, in diameter and made of two concentric rings, scientists believe they have a sound theory about how the structure itself was formed.

Discovery of the Eye

The Mystery Behind the Eye of the Sahara
Source: NASA

The shape of the Eye was first discovered in 1965 by the NASA astronauts onboard the Gemini IV mission. They were looking for possible impact craters from meteors, and this was one spot that caught their attention. While the structure had technically been discovered earlier, with archaeological remains of Homo erectus found nearby and the nearby location of a Mauritanian village, Ouadane, these astronauts were the first to actually see the full structure because it is too large to see in its entirety from the ground. 

At first, scientists assumed that the site was a crater caused by a meteorite impact. However, scientists could not find any melted rock at the site, which would have formed due to the heat caused by the proposed impact. As such, the likelihood that this was a crater was low.

Origin Theory of the Eye

Scientists have an alternative theory for how the Eye of the Sahara was formed. They believe that the structure was formed nearly 100 million years ago, when the shifting of tectonic plates due to the breakup of Pangaea caused molten rock to move toward the surface. However, it did not immediately break the surface, causing a bulge, or dome, to appear on the surface of the Earth. This created fault lines in the area and also changed the limestone that was originally present there to a type of rock called breccia, which is still present there today. Breccia is formed by broken pieces of rock being cemented together by some other force, like the heat of molten rock. 

Shortly after its formation, the structure exploded in a volcanic eruption, breaking the rock in the very center of the structure. The rest of the structure eroded over time, with the different concentric rings, 3 kilometers and 7-8 kilometers from the center respectively, being made of different types of rock that eroded at different speeds. Over time, this formed the Eye structure that we see today.

Alternative Theories

While the scientific consensus on the Eye of the Sahara is settled, people have proposed many wilder theories about the origin of the structure. Some claim that it was the location of Atlantis, as the concentric rings reflect Plato’s description of the city. While the Sahara was at one point more lush than in current times, we have no real evidence to show that any large city occupied this place. Others have suggested that aliens formed the structure, but again, there is no evidence of this and no real reason to consider it as we have scientifically sound theories as to its formation.

Visiting the Eye

The Mystery Behind the Eye of the Sahara
Ouadane, the nearest town to the Eye. Source: UNESCO

Visiting the Eye of the Sahara is not an easy trip. To visit, one needs to get a Mauritanian Visa and a sponsor. Then, one must make travel arrangements to see the Eye of the Sahara because it is in an extremely remote location compared to the major cities of Mauritania, such as Nouakchott. Many tourists visit by plane or hot air balloon because it is easier than traversing the desert terrain. Visitors can also stay at a hotel within the eye or in the nearby town of Ouadane, a World Heritage Site and ancient trans-Saharan trade stop, with its historic old town, souqs, and mosque. The town also has a small modern area with more amenities.

Because of the remote location of the Eye of the Sahara and the difficulty in visiting it, the structure is under little danger from destruction by human forces. However, with the increasing aridization of the Sahara, increased sediment could enter the structure, burying many of the features of the structure. Furthermore, as erosion continues, the rocks forming the Eye will continue to disappear, meaning the structure will inevitably become smaller over time. Additional conservation measures by scientists and the Mauritanian government may be needed to preserve the integrity of the structure for future generations.

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