Left The Garamantian capital Garama is overlain by the ruins of a medieval oasis town. Dominating this town are the remains of the mudbrick kasbah an Islamic castle.
Garama An ancient civilisation in the Central Sahara
It is one of the most inhospitable places on earth. A sun-scorched furnace of rock and sand 700 miles from the coast: the Central Sahara. Summer temperatures can reach 55ºC. Average annual rainfall is less than half an inch. Sometimes it does not rain for years. Across a 250,000 square mile swathe of it – the Fazzan province of south-western Libya – just 79,000 people were recorded in 1964: one every 8km square. Yet in the middle of it, 2,000 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. Herodotus, the Greek historian and ethnographer of the 5th century BC, reported that the Garamantes spread humus over salty ground to cultivate it, bred cattle that walked backwards to graze because their horns were too long, and hunted ‘Troglodyte Ethiopians’ in four-horse chariots.
The Romans were not amused. They fought several wars against the Garamantes, sometimes crossing the desert to assault their heartland, and the enemy was demonised as ‘a wild tribe much given to plundering ... nomads who wandered from one inaccessible encampment to another’ (Tacitus). Other writers described desert-dwellers as ‘barely human’, and a black slave could be described as ‘Garamantian muck’ (faex Garamantarum). Stereotypes dominate the literature. ‘Ancient writers from the time of Herodotus to the end of the Roman period,’ explains David Mattingly, Roman archaeology professor at Leicester, ‘depicted the Garamantes as the epitome of a barbarian people, menacing the Mediterranean from their desert strongholds. 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. Mortimer Wheeler, writing in the 1950s, thought they were ‘predatory nomads, who, on their swift camels, were a proved menace from the deserts of the south’. Any evidence of achievement in their homeland – and early archaeological work had revealed some – was ‘difficult to dissociate ... from the phase of Roman contact’.
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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