Topics Classical. It is one of the most inhospitable places on earth. A sun-scorched furnace of rock and sand miles from the coast: the Central Sahara. Average annual rainfall is less than half an inch. Sometimes it does not rain for years.
Across a , square mile swathe of it — the Fazzan province of south-western Libya — just 79, people were recorded in one every 8km square. Yet in the middle of it, 2, years ago, was an urban civilisation with a written language, pyramid tombs, irrigation, agriculture, and armies of chariots and cavalry: the Garamantes. Until recently, we knew virtually nothing about them. Some ancient writers told strange stories about a mysterious people of the desert. The Romans were not amused. Stereotypes dominate the literature.
Consider the epithets used to describe them: numerous, savage, fierce, indomitable, outermost, panting, naked, miserable, tent- or hut-dwelling, scattered, promiscuous, lawless, receivers of booty, light-armed, given to brigandage, black. The almost universally negative tone of these terms must be recognised for what it is — a mixture of preconception and prejudice.
With limited evidence — and prejudices of their own — modern archaeologists often followed the ancient sources in denigrating the Garamantes. Nomadic barbarians half-civilised by Rome? In fact, the ancient sources were not consistent. They sometimes referred to things that did not fit the stereotype — kings, chariots, agriculture, luxury trade goods, a great city in the desert — clues that the Garamantes were something more than desert raiders. Clues, in fact, to a lost civilisation.
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Plan of the buildings excavated in ancient Garama. The city in the Classic Garamantian phase AD comprised monumental architecture and stone-built elite houses as well as the traditional mudbrick buildings of the common people. An urban civilisation The capital city was Garama modern Jarma. Serious research began here in the s under Charles Daniels, the pioneer of scientific archaeology in the Fazzan, but he died prematurely in with much work unpublished.
For both Daniels and Mattingly, Garama was a main focus, and excavation here has revealed much about the Garamantian capital. The site today is dominated by a mudbrick kasbah — an Islamic castle — evidently of 14th or 15th century date. When European travellers first reached Garama in the 19th century, they found an Ottoman Turkish overlord using the kasbah to store his date harvest.
Around the kasbah are the still-standing remains of a medieval caravan city, and beneath this lies a complex sequence of deposits 15 feet deep extending back in time to about BC. Excavating here in the s, Daniels found a group of Garamantian buildings at the core of the site, and these, unlike their mudbrick Arab successors, had been built of quality ashlar stonework. At least two buildings were monumental.
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One, a temple, approached via a broad set of steps and a columned porch, may have been dedicated to the Libyan desert god Ammon — best known from the famous oracle site in the Siwa Oasis, where Alexander the Great, visiting between campaigns, became convinced he was the son of Zeus. A second grand building nearby comprised a colonnaded courtyard whose narrow entrance was flanked by two engaged pilasters. Also, from fragments of hypocaust tile, hydraulic cement, marble veneer, and painted wall-plaster, it seems there must once have been a Roman-style bath-house on the site.
Garamantian houses were usually of mudbrick. They interpreted these as low-status houses or workshops, or a combination of the two. Though mudbrick architecture could be elaborate — including fluted columns of moulded and painted mud — stone-footed buildings made a stronger statement about status. Comparative plans of excavated houses dating to the Classic Garamantian period AD , when Garama was an urban centre and the capital of a desert empire. The two examples here are from Zinkekra a and Garama itself b.
The houses of the common people were made entirely of mudbrick and had more irregular plans c. The period of stone building was short. Before and since the Classic Garamantian period, all building at Garama has been of mudbrick. Excavations by the Fazzan Project at Garama in revealed two further examples of low-status, mudbrick buildings of the Classic Garamantian period.
That to the north comprised two linked rooms. This was entered by a door in the southern side of the main room, where a well and a hearth with u-shaped surround were located.
The building to the south was truncated by earlier excavations, but the plan appeared to be similar. It comprised at least two rooms and had a hearth, though there was no sign of a well. Presumably these buildings were workshops, houses, or, perhaps most likely, some combination of the two. Garamantian cemeteries also reveal a stratified society, and possibly one that was divided into separate tribes with distinct cultural practices.
Over 60, graves have been located.
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While most were buried in simple cairn or shaft graves, some had elaborate monuments. These might be in a Romano-African style, being square, stone-built mausoleums, often decorated with free-standing or engaged columns. Where, in the middle of the Sahara, was the wealth coming from? Traders of the desert Garama is located in the Wadi Ajal, a sinuous east-west depression some miles long and 2 to 3 miles wide.
To the north lies the Dahan Ubari, a great sand sea swelling upwards from the wadi, and to the south, the Massak Sattafat hamada, a barren rock plateau raised up on a towering escarpment. The sand and rock deserts on either side are wholly inimical to life; only the wadi can sustain it. Along its length, field surveys have located some Garamantian sites.
Many are cemeteries, but, in addition to Garama, there seem to have been several small towns and about 50 villages and hamlets in the Classic Garamantian period. Four thousand people may have lived in Garama itself, with another 6, in suburban satellite villages close by, and perhaps as many as 50, in the wadi as a whole. This, however, was not the full extent of Garamantian territory. Garama and the Wadi Ajal were at the centre of a wider Garamantian empire. Much of the wealth came from control of the caravan trade.
Trees and vegetation were then planted on the tomb mound such that it resembled a hill. Thieves from northeast melted the coffin and took its copper. A shepherd looking for his lost sheep burned the place, the fire lasted 90 days and could not be extinguished.
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Later observers witnessed the excavated site. Afterward, a shepherd lost his sheep which went into the dug tunnel; the shepherd held a torch to look for his sheep, and accidentally set fire to the place and burned the coffin. BBC News. Retrieved 3 December Conservation of Ancient Sites on the Silk Road. Getty Publications. Retrieved 11 July Louis Mazzatenta.
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