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A photo of a troglodyte cave house in Gharyan, Libya.

Want a Unique Underground Experience? Live Like a Modern Troglodyte at a Libyan Cave House Hotel

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Troglodyte (which means ‘cave dweller’) cave houses are a type of dwelling that may be found in certain parts of the world. In Libya, this unique type of house can be found in the Jabal Nasufah (meaning ‘Nasufah Mountain’), which is located about 100 km (62.14 miles) to the south of the country’s capital, Tripoli. These cave houses are reported to have been in existence for hundreds of years, and are still in use to this day.

The Start of Subterranean Living at Gharyan

The Jabal Nasufah is a mountain range located in the northwestern part of Libya. At one end of this mountain range is a plateau, on which there is a town by the name of Gharyan. This is one of the largest towns in the Jabal Nasufah and is perhaps best known for its underground cave houses. Incidentally, the ‘Ghar’ part of this town’s name is said to mean ‘cave’, an indication that these troglodyte dwellings are an important aspect of the town. As the Jabal Nasufah is composed mainly of limestone and marl, it is not too difficult for people to dig into the mountain rock to form their cave houses.

Entrance to a troglodyte cave house at Gharyan.

Entrance to a troglodyte cave house at Gharyan. (Photo Credit: temehu.com)

The troglodyte cave houses of Gharyan are reported to have first been made during the 16th century AD by Jewish refugees. In 1510, Tripoli was captured by the Spanish, which caused the Jews living there to flee from the city. Some of them migrated southwards into the towns of the Jabal Nasufah, such as Tigrinna, Banu Abbas, and Gharyan.  In Gharyan, the first Jewish community was established. The new Jewish residents of Gharyan began to build their dwellings in the town by digging into the mountain’s soft limestone.

Cave House Construction

The troglodyte cave houses of Gharyan come in different forms. Some, for example, are simple cave-like homes made by digging horizontally into the slopes of hills. Others are more elaborate, with a network of rooms clustered around a central pit serving as a source of light. These dwellings are produced by digging vertically into the ground, and then forming the adjacent rooms by digging horizontally underground. One of the advantages of such houses over conventional ones situated above ground is that they are kept insulated during the winter, and remain cool during the summer.

Central ‘pit’ area of Troglodyte building in Gharyan, Libya.

Central ‘pit’ area of Troglodyte building in Gharyan, Libya. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Centuries-Old Cave Dwellings

These cave dwellings are reported to be hundreds of years old and have been used by many generations. One of these troglodyte dwellings, for instance, is said to have been built in 1666, and has been occupied by the same family for generations. Still, not all of these cave houses have been inhabited for a continuous period of time. For example, the majority of Gharyan’s cave houses were abandoned during the 1950s. At that point of time, many Jews had left Gharyan for Israel, whilst others decided to live in houses above the ground. Some of these houses have been left empty, whilst others were turned into storage for goods, or even livestock. During the Libyan Civil War of 2011, many of these dwellings were reused by civilians escaping the shelling.

Troglodyte Tourism

There are those who are still fighting to keep these traditional dwellings alive. In fact, some are even converting these unique houses into tourist attractions, with the hope that this dying way of life may be preserved for future generations. One man doing so is Al-Arabi Belhaj, who, with his family, decided to open up their underground home to tourists several years ago. Prior to the war in 2011, foreign tourists could sleep in the rooms and eat food cooked by the family for 100 Libyan dinars. Following the war, however, the number of foreign tourists has dropped drastically. Nevertheless, tourists from within the country have come to visit, in order to gain a better understanding of their country’s heritage. In an article from 2013, Belhaj and his family are reported to have made plans to open a hotel by excavating more rooms in their subterranean home. In this way, they would be able to accommodate more tourists, especially foreign ones, which they hope will return to Libya when peace is restored in the country.

One house is accessed by descending down a tunneled passageway leading to a large circular pit.

One house is accessed by descending down a tunneled passageway leading to a large circular pit. (Photo Credit: temehu.com)

Top Image: A photo of a troglodyte cave house in Gharyan, Libya. Source: thenoblelibya/imgrum

By Wu Mingren

References:

Cruise Libya, 2017. Gharyan. [Online]
Available at: http://www.cruiselibya.com/sights-libya/gharyan/

Digital Heritage Mapping, 2015. Jewish cave homes at Gharyan, Libya. [Online]
Available at: http://archive.diarna.org/site/detail/public/1030/

Gumuchian, M.-L., 2013. Going underground: Libya's unusual cave dwellings. [Online]
Available at: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-libya-caves-idUSBRE9600DQ20130701

Joshua Project, 2017. Jabal Nafusah in Libya. [Online]
Available at: https://joshuaproject.net/people_groups/12306/LY

Mayen, N., 2012. Libya renovates ancient ‘cave houses’. [Online]
Available at: https://english.alarabiya.net/articles/2012/05/31/217783.html

Temehu.com, 2017. Gharyan. [Online]
Available at: https://www.temehu.com/Cities_sites/Gharyan.htm

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