The Tunnel Kingdom in the Saharan Desert
Updated: Jul 24
The Sahara is an inhospitable desert marked by the occasional oasis that allowed trade caravans to connect distant lands. Despite the climate, a group of people known as the Garamantes managed to create a civilization that lived far above the means of many of their contemporaries in modern southern Libya.
To understand how this was possible, you have to first know that the Sahara wasn't always a desert. In fact, between 10,000 and 6,000 BCE it was more like a savanna with lakes. During this time the region was inhabited by a group of people known for their "Wild Fauna" rock carvings. Some of the more unique examples of this art were done on petrified trees! The Wadi Mathendous offers one of the best locations to view this ancient art. The animals are often dramatically larger in scale than the humans in the carvings which has lead some to speculate that it was the artists way of capturing the fear they felt from the animals in their hostile environment. Climate change however caused the savanna to turn into desert while the lakes turned into salt fields. The people living in this area would be unheard from until the domestication of horses and dromedary.
Out of this extreme desert though emerged a fascinating culture. The Garamantian civilization is named after their most impressive accomplisment, their second capital city, Garama - modern Jarma. The Garamantian is generally considered to have existed from 400 bce to 600 ad.
Their first capital, Zinchecra, was located on a spur on a mountain and was founded around 900 bce. The capital was moved to Garama 3 KM to the northeast. This move does not seem to be a coincidence.
Most of what we know (excavations have only recently begun to be conducted) is from foreign accounts from Romans and Greeks. This certainly means that one should remember how disparagingly the Romans often talked about peoples that were not Roman when considering the accuracy of some accounts.
Rome's first encounter with these people came as adversaries on the battlefield. During the war between Julius Caesar and the Numidian King Juba, the Garamantes joined forces with King Juba. After the defeat of the Numidians, Rome set its' sight on punishing their allies: the Phazanians and the Garamantes. The creation of the new capital Garama coincides with this Roman invasion and defeat.
However, it is the building of Garama that solidifies their place in history. When the water receded thousands of years earlier due to climate change, there were pockets of water trapped between layers of limestone. As it happened, Garama was located in the Wadi Ajal, a depression running East-West for 100 miles that is 2 to 3 miles wide that held just this type of sealed underground lake. The lakes that didn't turn into aquifers? They were now salt fields, ready to be easily mined for Garama's wealth.
Using a qanat irrigation system (Foggaras in Berber) inspired from Persia and Egypt, they dug tunnels underground to tap into this underground source of water. Almost 1,000 miles of underground tunnels were dug with shafts sometimes reaching 130 feet in depth that tapped into the aquifer. This allowed water to flow constantly into the oasis, providing enough water to furnish a vibrant agricultural community in the middle of the desert!
Using this system of irrigation, Garamentian was able to emerge as a regional power in the second century AD. Current research indicates that they had 8 major towns, 3 of which have been excavated. Their largest city, Garama, is estimated to have held a population of 4,000 with an additional 6,000 living in the surrounding area. There are small pyramids that have been discovered in this area that are believed to be royal mausoleums.
According to the Roman, Herodotus, the Garamantian were "a very great nation who herded cattle, farmed dates, and hunted Ethiopian cave-dwellers who lived in the desert with four-horse chariots." Not only did The Garamantian dominate the trade routes through the Sahara through their control of the oasis's, they dominated it through their capturing of slaves. In addition to being a primary export, slaves were vital to maintaining the extensive Foggaras tunnel network. Many of these channels were less than two feet wide and less than five feet tall.
Excavation of Garama shows a stratified society, meaning that economic inequality was definitely present. Wheat, salt, and slaves were traded with Rome in exchange for wine, olive oil, lamps, and Roman tableware. Certainly many were left out of the wealth but the elite of Garama lived a prosperous life relative to the average 2nd century AD human.
The Garamantian slowly declined with their aquifers supply of water. The last things we hear about the Garamantian are from the Byzantine Empire whose sources state that the Garamantian King converted to Christianity in 569 AD. It is believed that at this point they were a vassal of the Byzantine Empire. The last reference to the Garamantian Empire come from Muslim sources who state that the Garamantian KIng was dragged away in chains during the Islamic expansion into the area.