1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Air (country)

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AIR, or ASBEN, a country of West Africa, lying between 15° and 19° N. and 6° and 10° E. It is within the Sahara, of which it forms one of the most fertile regions. The northern portion of the country is mountainous, some of the peaks rising to a height of 5000 ft. Richly wooded hollows and extensive plains are interspersed between the hills. The mimosa, the dum palm and the date are abundant. Some of the plains afford good pasturage for camels, asses, goats and cattle; others are desert tablelands. In the less frequented districts wild animals abound, notably the lion and the gazelle. The country generally is of sandstone or granite formation, with occasional trachyte and basaltic ranges. There are no permanent rivers; but during the rainy season, from August to October, heavy floods convert the water-courses in the hollows of the mountains into broad and rapid streams. Numerous wells supply the wants of the people and their cattle. To the south of this variegated region lies a desert plateau, 2000 ft. above sea-level, destitute of water, and tenanted only by the wild ox, the ostrich and the giraffe. Still farther south is the fairly fertile district of Damerghu, of which Zinder is the chief town. Little of the soil is under cultivation except in the neighbourhood of the villages. Millet, dates, indigo and senna are the principal productions. The great bulk of the food supplies is brought from Damerghu, and the materials for clothing are also imported. A great caravan annually passes through Air, consisting of several thousand camels, carrying salt from Bilma to the Hausa states.

Air was called Asben by the native tribes until they were conquered by the Berbers. The present inhabitants are for the most part of a mixed race, combining the finer traits of the berbers with negro characteristics. The sultan of Air is to a great extent dependent on the chiefs of the Tuareg tribes inhabiting a vast tract of the Sahara to the north-west. A large part of his revenue is derived from tribute exacted from the salt caravans. Since 1890 Air has been included in the French sphere of influence in West Africa.

Agades, the capital of the country, which has a circuit of 3 1/2 m., is built on the edge of a plateau 2500 ft. high, and is supposed to have been founded by the Berbers to serve as a secure magazine for their extensive trade with the Songhoi empire. The language of the people is a dialect of Songhoi. In former times Agades was a place of great traffic, and had a population of about 50,000. Since the beginning of the 16th century the prosperity of the town has, however, gradually declined. F. Foureau, who visited Agades in 1899, stated that more than half the total area was deserted and ruinous. The houses, which are built of clay, are low and flat-roofed; and the only buildings of importance are the chief mosque, which is surmounted by a tower 95 ft. high, and the sultan's residence, a massive two-storied structure pierced with small windows. The chief trade is grain. The great salt caravans pass through it, as well as pilgrims on their way to Mecca.