Garama is the lost capital of the Amazigh Garamantes civilization, situated along one of the busiest Trans-Saharan trade routes. The Garamantes were an Amazigh people who shepherded goats between highlands and oases in southern Libya.The site of the nearly-vanished city is located in modern-day Libya, in the country’s southern Fezzan region, 150 km west of Sabha.
Today, the location is an archeological site. At its peak, Garama was home to more than 4,000 people and suburban villages, within 5km, that hosted an additional 6,0000 people.
Garama’s culture and development were truly one-of-a-kind; it was the first urban agglomeration located in a desert that did not develop in a river system. It had a complex urban society, well-planned neighborhoods, sophisticated architecture, and luxury goods from all over Africa.
Photograph of the ruins of Garama by Toby Savage
The remains of the ancient city of Germa (known as Garama in antiguity) can be seen in this aerial photograph taken during excavation works.
Since pre-history the Sahara Desert has been creeping ever further north toward the Mediterranean Sea, and over hundreds of years the Garamantes’ invaluable oases were surrendered to the desert. This tragic state of affairs spurred the Garamantes to find another way to survive.
The desperate situation resulted in experimentation. Fortunately, necessity is the mother of invention, and the people of Garama discovered an aquifer and a way to utilize it. The Garamantes were able to tap this source of underground water to supply their civilization. Likely having drawn inspiration from irrigation systems in Persia and Egypt, the Garamantes were later able to develop sophisticated water pumping systems and underground channels. The underground channels, called foggaras, were used to tap the aquifer at the base of an escarpment and move the water out to where the Garamantes needed it.
A diagram of the Foggaras
In the Garamantes’ water pumping system, the mother well was tapped and a channel was created to usher the water where it was needed, with access shafts spaced evenly from the source.
These channels were typically not larger than five feet high and two feet wide, and were accessible for maintenance via vertical shafts spaced roughly 30 feet apart along the length of each channel. While the channels were narrow, they were numerous, with around 600 of them supplying the land of the Garamantes with water that was not only safe to drink, but was also plentiful enough that it was used to irrigate wheat fields.
This irrigation system allowed the Garamantes to endure otherwise inhospitable conditions, but it was difficult and time intensive to construct. The introduction of such a complex irrigation system may have encouraged many Garamantes to gradually leave their nomadic ways, and instead settle into an urban existence. They first established Garama, which would be their capital, and eventually expanded by building villages and towns near the city.
Garama had a prosperous economy, due in part to its sitting on one of the busiest trade routes in Africa. Given its precarious position in a drying desert, Garama relied heavily on this trade, exchanging its goods with merchants from as far away as Rome and Mali. The goods that the Garamantes imported included wine, olive oil, and oil lamps.
In terms of local production, the Garamantes mined the Sahara’s extinct lakes for useful minerals and high-quality salt coveted by foreigners. Meanwhile, the farmers, relying on their masterwork irrigation system, were able to maintain food security, growing grapes, figs, barley, and more. Additionally, according to the ancient historians Strabo and Pliny the Elder, the Garamantes mined the mineral now known as Amazonite in the Tibesti Mountains, which lie in modern-day Chad. Given the prevalence of slave trading in the region, it is likely that Garamantes took part in this market as well.
When Garama was founded around 400 BCE, the transition from nomadic to urban living necessitated new rules and governance structures. Through the conquest of villages nearby, Garama grew from a strong, but rather isolated city, to the capital of a wealthy trading kingdom.This kingdom developed a hierarchical structure of authority, with Kings reigning at the highest levels of power.
Several different factors played a part in the decline of Garama and the Garamantes civilization. Their success and associated population growth eventually put enormous strain on the city’s decreasing water resources. This put pressure on the irrigation network and therefore the food supply, as well as straining the supply of drinking water.
Garama also fell victim to historical circumstances. The Roman Empire’s conquest of North Africa motivated the Garamantes to join the Numidian King Juba I in his war against Rome. The Garamantes raided Roman settlements to the north, avoiding pitched battles against the latter’s superior forces. While the Garamantes were able to win some engagements, Rome ultimately won the war. The Roman Emperor Septimius Severus captured Garama in 202 CE, defeating the Garamantes. The city would persist for a time, but the Roman invasion signaled the start of the decline of the civilization. By the time the Arabs invaded the region in the mid-seventh century, Garama was already well past its heyday. Historical documents say that after the invasion, the king of the Garamantes was dragged away in chains. It seems that any remaining greatness in the kingdom was dragged away with him.
Le Nuove Province Italiane, 1912
This 1912 map of Libya shows the area of North Africa which has been known as Libya since 1911, but was under Roman domination between 146 BC and 672 AD. Garama was one of the cities that fell to Emperor Septimius Severus.
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