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Map of the Roman empire under Hadrian (ruled 117-38 AD), showing the location of the Garamantes kingdom, in the desert regions south of the Roman province of Africa proconsularis (Tunisia, Libya)

The Garamantes were a Saharan people of Berber origin who used an elaborate underground irrigation system, and founded a kingdom in the Fezzan area of modern-day Libya, in the Sahara desert. They were a local power in the Sahara between 500 BC and 500 AD.

There is not much information about the Garamantes, not even the name they used to call themselves; Garamantes was a Greek name which the Romans later adopted. Most of what we know comes from Greek and Roman sources, and recent archaeological excavations in the area, though large areas in ruins are still unexcavated. Another important source of information are the abundant rock art, many of which depict life prior to the rise of the realm.


Garamantian life

In the 1960s, archaeologists excavated part of the Garamantes' capital (modern Germa, about 150 km west of modern-day Sebha) and named it Garama (An earlier capital, Zinchecra, was located not far from the later Garama.). Current research indicates that the Garamantes had about eight major towns, three of which have been examined as of 2004. In addition they had a large number of other settlements. Garama had population of some four thousand and another six thousand living in villages within a 5 km radius.

The Garamantes were farmers and merchants. Their diet consisted of grapes, figs, barley and wheat. They traded wheat, salt and slaves in exchange for imported wine and olive oil, oil lamps and Roman tableware. According to Strabo and Pliny, the Garamantes quarried amazonite in the Tibesti Mountains.

The discovery of the "Black Mummy" by Professor Fabrizio Mori at the Uan Muhuggiag suggests that there may have been a long tradition of mummification in the region.

Archeological remains

The ruins include numerous tombs, forts, and cemeteries. The Garamantes constructed a network of underground tunnels and shafts to mine the fossil water from under the limestone layer under the desert sand. It was built around 200 BC to 200 AD. The network of tunnels is known to Berbers as Foggaras. The network allowed agriculture to flourish, but it required the use of slaves to maintain.


The Garamantes were probably present as tribal people in the Fezzan by 1000 BC. They appear in the written record for the first time in the 5th century BC. According to Herodotus, they were "a very great nation" who herded cattle, farmed dates, and hunted the "Ethiopian Troglodytes", or "cave-dwellers" who lived in the desert, from four-horse chariots.[1] Roman depictions describe them as bearing ritual scars and tattoos. Tacitus wrote that they assisted the rebel Tacfarinas and raided Roman coastal settlements. According to Pliny the Elder, Romans eventually grew tired of Garamantian raiding and Lucius Cornelius Balbus captured 15 of their settlements in 19 BC. After a Roman punitive expedition in 70, the Garamantes were forced into an official relationship with Rome and might have become one of the Roman client states.

Near East in 600ad, showing the location of Garamantes before the Arab conquest.

By around 150 the Garamantian kingdom (in today's central Libya (Fezzan), principally along the still existing Wadi al-Ajal), covered 180,000 square kilometres in modern-day southern Libya. It lasted from about 400 BC to 600.

The decline of the Garamantian culture may have been connected to worsening climatic conditions. What is desert today was once fairly good agricultural land and was enhanced through the Garmantian irrigation system 1,500 years ago. As fossil water is not a renewable resource, over the six centuries of the Garamantian kingdom, the ground water level fell.[citation needed] The kingdom declined and fragmented.

Byzantine records claim that the king of Garamantes made a peace treaty with Byzantium in 569 and accepted Christianity. Later Muslim records say that in 668 the king of Garamantes was imprisoned and dragged off in chains. The area was eventually absorbed into the Muslim sphere of influence.


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  • Belmonte, Juan Antonio; Esteban, César; Perera Betancort, Maria Antonia; Marrero, Rita. Archaeoastronomy in the Sahara: The Tombs of the Garamantes at Wadi el Agial, Fezzan, Libya. Journal for the History of Astronomy Supplement, Vol. 33, 2002
  • Raymond A. Dart . The Garamantes of central Sahara. African Studies, Volume 11, Issue 1 March 1952 , pages 29 - 34
  • Karim Sadr (Reviewer): WHO WERE THE GARAMANTES AND WHAT BECAME OF THEM? The Archaeology of Fazzan. Volume I: Synthesis. Edited by DAVID J. MATTINGLY. London: Society for Libyan Studies, and Tripoli: Department of Antiquities, 2003. (ISBN 1-90097-102-X) Review in The Journal of African History (2004), 45: 492-493
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