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Ghadames, Libya’s Pearl of the Desert

Ghadames, Libya’s Pearl of the Desert


Ghadames is a large oasis town in the region of Tripolitania, which is situated in the north western part of Libya. This town sits on Libya’s border with Algeria and Tunisia, and is commonly referred to as the ‘pearl of the desert’. It has been suggested, based on archaeological evidence, that this area has been settled since the 4 th millennium B.C., and is one of the oldest pre-Saharan settlements. This is little wonder, as its situation near a water source in the middle of a desert would have made it an important spot for anyone seeking to settle in the area.

Written records about Ghadames only appear much later during the Roman period. During the 1 st century B.C., the Roman proconsul Lucius Cornelius Balbus was sent to invade Ghadames. During that period, Ghadames was known as Cydamus (from which its present name is derived from). A permanent Roman garrison was later established at the site during the reign of Septimius Severus. This was probably due to the need to protect Roman lands from the incursions of desert nomads to the south. The Crisis of the Third Century, however, drained the Roman economy, and the Roman garrison was forced to withdraw from Ghadames. In the following centuries, Ghadames became a Byzantine town, and subsequently conquered by the Muslim Arabs. From the latter period until the 19 th century, Ghadames played an important role in the Sub-Saharan trade due to its strategic geographical position.

The roof tops of Ghadames

The roof tops of Ghadames. Photo source: BigStockPhoto

Although none of the surviving buildings at Ghadames can be dated to its earliest phases, or even to the Roman period, it has an outstanding domestic architectural style that sets it apart from other pre-Saharan cities and settlements. To begin with, the layout of the Old Town of Ghadames is roughly circular in shape, consists of a tight cluster of houses, and a fortified wall is formed by the reinforced outer walls of the houses on the edge of the town. The houses, which are the basic units of Ghadames, have a minimum of two stories. The houses are accessed by a single entrance door that opens onto a narrow hallway. This hallway leads to a rectangular-shaped room in which provisions are stored. Also on the ground level are living spaces which encroach upon the enclosed passageways along the walls of the ground floor. These walls open up onto the town, forming arcades rather than actual streets. A much more spacious upper storey is accessed via a staircase at the end of the storeroom. This upper floor generally includes a raised attic and bedrooms. Some houses may even have a sitting-room. At the level of the terraces, only the projecting portion formed by the raised attic rises above the roof, and marked off by low enclosure walls. There is a certain contradiction in the layout of the town. On the one hand, the ground level of the town is dominated by narrow, dark arcades, and this is the domain of men. On the other, the terraces form an open cityscape, allowing much freedom of movement and communication, and this is strictly the domain of women.

A traditional house in Ghadames

A traditional house in Ghadames. Photo source: BigStockPhoto

Although the Old Town of Ghadames is no longer inhabited, its unique architectural features have made it a popular tourist destination. All this, however, changed in 2011, when Muammar Gaddafi was ousted in the Libyan Civil War. The instability that followed the war meant that foreign tourists no longer felt safe to visit Libya, as a result the tourist industry in Ghadames has been greatly affected. It is hoped, however, that the return of stability and security in the country will allow people to once again experience the Pearl of the Desert.

Featured image: The Old Town of Ghadames. Photograph by George Steinmetz, National Geographic.

By Ḏḥwty


African World Heritage, 2011. Old Town of Ghadames - Libya. [Online]
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Gumuchian, M.-L., 2013. Libya's desert "pearl" Ghadames awaits return of tourists. [Online]
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Suliman, A., 2014. Libya's 'pearl of the desert'. [Online]
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Temehu Tourism Services, 2014. Ghadames. [Online]
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UNESCO, 2014. Old Town of Ghadamès. [Online]
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Wikipedia, 2013. Ghadames. [Online]
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I love it! These houses are quite beautiful for how "simple" they are. The image from above is quite a sight! I wonder what the extensions on the roofs are for? Possibly inspired by... something?

Hopefully thing do settle down in Libya because I would love to see this one day.

dhwty's picture


Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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