The Garamantes were an ancient Berber civilization that thrived between 500 BC and 700 AD in present-day Libya. Renowned for their advanced underground irrigation and urban centres, they controlled trans-Saharan trade routes, linking the Mediterranean to Sub-Saharan Africa.
The Garamantes rose to dominance in the mid-2nd century CE, marking their territory across a vast 180,000 km2 (70,000 sq mi) in the Fezzan region of southern Libya. But their success wasn’t just built on power and conquest, it was anchored in something far more fundamental – their ingenious qanat irrigation system (Berber: foggaras). This system gave life to a prosperous agricultural economy that supported a vibrant society with a sizeable population.
But the Garamantes didn’t just stop at farming, they went on to develop the first urban society in a major desert without the aid of any rivers. And they did so with unparalleled finesse, crafting a bustling town called Garama, complete with a population of four thousand and a suburb with another six thousand inhabitants.
Their kingdom grew into something magnificent, unmatched by any other ancient Saharan society. Their standard of living was a marvel to behold, setting a precedent that would be unmatched for centuries to come. For far too long, the Garamantes were thought to be a tiny and insignificant tribe, but archaeological discoveries of the 1960s showed that they were a brilliant and remarkable civilisation.
A land of scorching heat, where the sun beats down relentlessly, and not a drop of rain can be found for years on end. It’s the last place one would think to find a once-great civilisation, yet there it was, nestled in the barren African desert, 700 miles from the Mediterranean coast.
For 3,000 years, this forgotten society thrived in the harshest of environments, defying the odds and shaping the course of ancient Africa. And though it may have been lost to time, its impact lives on, a testament to the indomitable spirit of those who called this unforgiving land their home.
The Sahara Desert before the Garamantes
The Sahara desert, which covers approximately 90% of Libya was covered in green vegetation around 10,000 yeas ago. This region had temperate Mediterranean climate, a variety of wildlife as well as having lakes and forests.
Archaeological discoveries suggest that the coastal area of Libya was inhabited by Neolithic people around 8,000 BC. They were probably attracted to the climate as it enabled their society and culture to grow by domesticating cattle and grow crops.
Evidence of prehistoric Libya can be seen in mountain regions of Jebel Acacus thanks to the rock paintings. These paintings illustrate that the Sahara Desert had grasslands, rivers and a variety of wildlife such as crocodiles, giraffes and elephants.
The Piora Oscillation, which was a sudden wet and cold era that happened around 3,900 to 3,000 BC. This led to an intense aridification which meant that the once green Sahara quickly transformed into a desert, due to changes in the climate.
Origins of the Garamantes
It is believed that the Berbers spread into Libya in the late Bronze Age. The earliest tribe were in Southern Libya (Germa). The Geramantes became an established tribe in Fezzan around 1,000 BC.
In the annals of history, the Garamantes were a fierce and formidable people, whose name struck fear into the hearts of their enemies. Their first appearance in written record dates back to the 5th century BC, when the great Greek historian Herodotus chronicled their exploits.
He spoke of a mighty nation, who tamed the desert with their bare hands, farmed the land to feed their people, and hunted cave-dwellers of Ethiopia with four-horse chariots. But their greatness was not without consequence, for even the mighty Romans felt their wrath.
The renowned historian and senator, Tacitus, recounted the tales of the Garamantes raiding the Roman coastal settlements, their armies marching with the precision and skill of a well-oiled machine. And yet, even as they faced the might of Rome, they stood their ground, defending their homeland with all their might. For the Garamantes, war was a way of life, and their army was a testament to their strength and resilience.
Lifestyle of the Garamantes
The Garamantes, masters of the unforgiving desert, left behind a legacy that still astounds us today. In the heart of the world’s largest desert, they built an empire that spanned 70,000 square miles, a testament to their incredible tenacity and strength.
Their cities were wonders to behold, towering above the sand dunes like beacons of hope in an otherwise barren wasteland. The elites lived in stone-built mansions, the very epitome of luxury and comfort, while the common people made do with humble mud-brick dwellings.
Yet even these simple structures were marvels in their own right, with two or three rooms, a hearth, and a well to sustain them in the midst of the arid desert. And amidst it all, grand buildings rose up, monuments to the Garamantes’ incredible ingenuity and vision.
There was the temple, with its columned porch and broad steps, a place of worship and contemplation. And then there was the courtyard, lined by pilasters and surrounded by a colonnade, a place of beauty and serenity. And even the Romans, masters of engineering and construction, would have been impressed by the bath-house, with its fragments of hydraulic cement, marble, and hypocaust tile.
It was a society ruled by a flourishing elite, whose intricate mouldings and painted walls spoke of their wealth and power. For the Garamantes, nothing was impossible, and their empire was a testament to their indomitable spirit and unwavering courage.
By 150 AD, they became a major regional power and their kingdom covered around 180,000 square kilometres. It is believed that the Garamantian kingdom had a standard of living which was superior to any other Saharan society in that time period.
According to Nikita et al. (2011), the Garamantes’ skeletons suggest they were not a society engaged in constant warfare or laborious activities. The lack of significant physical differences between the upper limbs of males indicates that they were not consistently involved in construction or battle. Surprisingly, life in the harsh Sahara did not require the same level of exertion as one might expect.
Despite this, the Garamantes were still skilled farmers, merchants, and manufacturers. They cultivated figs, grapes, wheat, and barley for their diet and traded wheat and salt for olive oil and oil lamps. The caravan trade was their primary source of income, and they controlled it expertly. Garamantian caravans carried valuable goods such as gold, semi-precious stones, ivory, salt, and wild animals for the Roman cities on the Mediterranean coast. Evidence of metalworking and textile production attests to their skill as craftsmen. They worked with iron, bronze, and likely gold and silver, as well as semi-precious stones like carnelian and amazonite. In fact, they may have even mined amazonite in the Tibesti Mountains.
The rocks and ruins left behind by the Garamantes indicate that they also had their own unique spoken and written language. The ancient Garamante script is derived from the pure Libyan Abjad script and has similarities with Egyptian hieratic script.
The Graramantes Irrigation System
Garamantes discovered a secret that transformed their society. The Sahara was once wetter than what it is today. While the sands around them lay barren and dry, the Garamantes knew of an underground source of water that was sealed off in rock formations known as “aquifers”. This water, which they called “fossil water”, became the key to their success.
Using their knowledge of the underground location and path of the water, the Garamantes developed an ingenious irrigation system inspired by the methods of the Egyptian and Persian civilisations. They dug long underground channels known as “foggaras” that allowed them to tap into the trapped water in the aquifers and release it into the valley.
The water flowed continuously into the oasis, nourishing the desert soil and allowing the Garamantes to grow a variety of crops such as figs, grapes, dates, olives, wheat, barley, sorghum, and millet. It was a miraculous feat that transformed the barren desert into a thriving agricultural society.
The foggaras were not easy to build, requiring the cutting through sand, gravel, clay, and even huge rocks. But the Garamantes persisted, digging channels that were usually narrow, less than 2 feet wide and 5 feet high, and many were several miles long. They dug a total of about 600 foggaras, extending underground for hundreds of miles.
Their society grew and expanded due to their complex qanat irrigation system. This supported their large population and agricultural economy.
Thanks to their system of mining fossil water, they became the first urban society that was not dependent on a river system whilst being based in a major desert. They had a population of around 4,000 in their biggest town, Garama with another 6,000 living in suburban areas.
Downfall of the Garamantes
The fate of the Garamantes civilisation was sealed by an unfortunate turn of events. Their close relationship with the Roman cities became a curse when the Vandals came to power and captured the Roman cities of Sabratha, Oea, and Lepcis Magna. The demand for the exquisite products of the Garamantian trade routes dwindled, and the once-prosperous city of Garama began to crumble. The people of Garama were left to suffer the devastating consequences of a distant conflict they had no part in.
Another possible cause for the decline of the Garamantes was the worsening of the climate conditions and their overuse of unrenewable fossil water. However, the city of Garama was was still alive when the Arabs conquered it in the mid-seventh century.
Think Africa. “The Garamantes: The Civilisation that Mined Fossil Water from the Sahara for 1000 Years.” Think Africa. Accessed March 13, 2023. https://thinkafrica.net/the-garamantes-the-civilisation-that-mined-fossil-water-from-the-sahara-for-1000-years/.
Livius.org. “Garamantes.” Livius.org. Accessed March 13, 2023. https://www.livius.org/articles/place/garamantes/.
Wikipedia contributors. “Garamantes.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Accessed March 13, 2023. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Garamantes.
Mattingly, David. The Garamantes and the Origins of Saharan Trade. Published online by Cambridge University Press, 17 November 2017.