Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Garamantes of the Libyan Desert

The Romans who ruled North Africa had frequent troubles with people they called "Garamantes," who lived in the Sahara Desert but sometimes raided coastal areas in modern Libya. Settlements of these people have long been known along the fringes of the Mediterranean zone, and three towns near the border of the Roman empire have been investigated by archaeologists. It was assumed, though, that these people were limited to the borders of Mediterranean civilization; after all, to the south was only 500 miles of desert waste, so where else could they live?

But the Sahara, as we understand more and more, is a dynamic thing, growing and shrinking across the millennia, and many areas now sandy waste were once grassy savannah. British archaeologists working in southwestern Libya have explored a large group of archaeological sites in what is now an uninhabitable area. The sites were first found from satellite photographs, then explored by vehicle and on foot. The main remains in some areas are the underground tunnels, they used to bring water from oasis springs to their fields. The map at the top shows what was once a thriving oasis community, the former fields in green, fortified farms with black lines showing their mud-brick walls, and a mud brick fort. More than 100 fortified farms have been identified. The photograph above shows one of the forts. These settlements have been dated to between AD 1 and 500, and the investigators believe that they were inhabited by Garamantes:
The findings challenge a view dating back to Roman accounts that the Garamantes consisted of barbaric nomads and troublemakers on the edge of the Roman Empire. "In fact, they were highly civilised, living in large-scale fortified settlements, predominantly as oasis farmers. It was an organised state with towns and villages, a written language and state of the art technologies. The Garamantes were pioneers in establishing oases and opening up Trans-Saharan trade," Professor Mattingly said.
If this is correct, it explains why the Romans were never able to completely subdue the Garamantes. When their towns along the southern fringe of the Mediterranean world were attacked, they probably retreated to desert oases where the Romans would have been hard put to follow them.

This rock painting, in the Libyan desert, is believed to show a chariot of the Garamantes.

Sometimes when I ponder human settlements in what are now barren deserts I feel terribly sad. It would be awful to watch your home turn from oasis to desert. These things seem to happen quickly, in a matter of decades or even years. One year your wells yield enough water for you and your flocks, and the next they do not. I suppose that at first people would tough it out, thinking this was only another temporary drought, but after a while -- three years? five? -- they would not longer be able to sustain themselves, and they would have to move on.

1 comment:

leif said...

it's surprising to me that the ancient puebloan people of the four corners area in the US took so long, apparently, to relocate to less drought-stricken areas. the evidence points to at least two generations of slow diaspora.