A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Libya's Future May Be Murky, But its Past is Becoming Clearer: Rediscovering the Garamantes

The future of Libya is murky at best, with conflicts among the victorious former rebels, uncertainty about future stability and the role of radical Islamists, and a lack of direction now that Qadhafi is gone. But if the future is unclear, the Libyan past seems to be opening up some new vistas.

Lately there have appeared a spate of reports on recent archaeological discoveries related to the Garamantes, an ancient culture  which flourished in the Libyan desert throughout classical times. The theme has largely been, as is the case with this Guardian article, that Qadhafi's lack of interest in this aspect of Libya's history delayed archaeological exploration, despite the fact that, as this article notes, satellite photography has revealed the existence of a number of lost cities in the desert, which have not yet been explored.

Here's an account of earlier archaeological findings. Archaeologists have previously located the ancient Garamantes capital of Garama, shown here.

More pictures here.The Garamantes have previously mostly been known from classical sources. Herodotus mentions them twice,somewhat inconsistently: the first time, (IV, 174) he says they "avoid all intercourse with men, possess no weapons of war, and do not know how to defend themselves," but in another place (IV, 183) he says:
The Garamantes hunt the Ethiopian hole-men, or troglodytes, in four-horse chariots, for these troglodytes are exceedingly swift of foot—more so than any people of whom we have any information. They [I think he means the troglodytes here]  eat snakes and lizards and other reptiles and speak a language like no other, but squeak like bats.
The Garamantes have cattle that graze backwards, You can always count on Herodotus.

Pliny and other Roman writers mention them as a trading people on the edge of the area controlled by Rome, and sometimes hostile.

Modern archaeological exploration has shown that they were apparently a slave-based society engaged in the earliest form of the trans-Saharan trade, and that they built a string of cities in the Sahara through the exploitation of underground fossil water resources and the use of irrigation canals and tunnels known in North Africa as foggara, similar to the qanat or falaj irrigation familiar to those who know the Arabian Peninsula or Iran. When the fossil water was eventually exhausted, the civilization declined, though archaeologists believe it lasted longer than the classical authors had implied.

While Qadhafi made much of the Arab and African identities of Libya and also celebrated Ancient Carthage (he named a son Hannibal), he was never interested in such other ancient peoples as the Garamantes, perhaps because of his insistence that "Berber" (Amazigh) culture was some sort of invention of imperialism and that the Berber languages were dialects of Arabic, an opinion Qadhafi shared with no one else in history. Wikipedia suggests that the very name Garamantes (which is what the Greeks called them) derives from a Berber word meaning "cities."

One hopes that whatever new government eventually emerges will welcome further archaeological investigation of this and other ancient cultures in Libya.


David Mack said...

Thanks for this. Not just Qadhafi but most Libyans care little about their country's pre-Islamic history. A pity, especially since one of the sons of Libya (Septimus Serveris) became one of the more distinguished Roman emperors.

Michael Collins Dunn said...

And, to round this out, in AD 202 Severus conquered Garama, capital of the Garamantes: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Septimius_Severus