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African Kingdoms

North Africa


Garamantes / Mande of the Fezzan
c.400 BC - AD 400

The Garamantes amount to a lost Saharan civilisation, one that is little known today. Even the only name for them, Garamantes, or Mande of the Fezzan, is Greek. This warrior culture flourished from about 1100 BC between areas of southern Libya, in the Fezzan (south-western Libya, near modern Germa), and sub-Saharan Africa, centred on the middle of the Sahara itself. Inhabiting an area around the busiest of the ancient trans-Saharan crossroads, the Garamantes were settled around three parallel areas of oases known today as the Wadi al-Ajal (Fazzan), the Wadi ash-Shati, and the Zuwila-Murzuq-Burjuj depression with its capital at Jarmah (a derivation of 'Garamantes').

Coming to prominence around the fourth century BC, the Garamantian civilisation was unique. Its foundation is believed to have marked the first time in history in which a riverless area of a major desert was settled by a complex urban society which planned its towns and imported luxury goods. Indeed the sophistication of Garamantian building design, not least of its fortifications, may have been copied by the Romans, some of whose forts in North Africa are strikingly similar in appearance.

While Herodotus is not always the most reliable of chroniclers of the ancient world, he mentions them in his Histories, describing them colourfully as herding cattle which 'grazed backwards' and hunting Ethiopians from their chariots. However, he seems to have been spot on with his description of the Garamantes as a 'very great nation'. The very existence of the desert culture, however, was based on their use of underground water extraction tunnels, known as foggara in Berber, one of the peoples from whom the Garamantes were descended. The construction of these tunnels was highly labour-intensive, requiring the acquisition of large numbers of slaves. The Garamantians relied heavily on slave labour from sub-Saharan Africa to underpin their civilisation. Indeed, it is believed that they traded slaves as a commodity in exchange for the luxury goods that they imported in return. There were caravans of hundreds of camels every year carrying all sorts of trading goods. Eventually, this reliance on a very necessary underground water supply and its interlinked high demand for slaves would be their undoing.

In 2011, while the ongoing civil war eventually ousted the dictator of modern Libya, Colonel Gaddafi, new research made use of satellite imagery which suggests that the Garamantes built more extensively and spread their culture more widely than previously thought. Hundreds of new villages and towns were identified. They were tenacious builders of underground tunnels, mining fossil water with which to irrigate their crops. Occupying an area of some 402,000 square kilometres (250,000 square miles), the Garamantes are now known to have practised a sophisticated form of agriculture, occupying villages which were laid out around square forts or qasrs.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from The Garamantes and Trans-Saharan Enterprise in Classical Times, R C C Law (The Journal of African History, Vol 8, No 2, 1967), from The Garamantes of Central Sahara, Raymond A Dart (African Studies, Vol 11, Issue 1, March 1952), from The Histories, Herodotus (Penguin, 1996), and from External Link: Saharan and trans-Saharan contacts and trade in the Roman era, Dr Caitlin R Green.)

c.900 BC

The earliest capital of the Garamantes appears to be Zinchecra, which is first occupied around this time. It is situated on a mountain spur south of the Wadi Al-Ajal. The Garamantes themselves are a tribal people at this time, and probably pursue a way of life that is mostly nomadic.

c.400 - 200 BC

The civilisation of the Garamantes reaches a peak around this time, and a new capital is soon founded at Garama (Jarmah). The construction of water-mining tunnels reaches its apogee, as does the trade in sub-Saharan slaves to keep the water supply running smoothly. Village and town construction also reaches a peak, and the extinct lakes of the Sahara, dry now for almost six millennia, are mined for their salt content. The Garamantes become famous salt traders. However, the subsequent rise in population will eventually put an ever-increasing strain on the limited water supply.

Garamantes underground paintings
The Romans knew the Garamantes as the Fezzan, or south-west Libyan desert Phasania, and it was they who left behind these underground wall paintings

96 - 30 BC

To the north, Cyrene becomes part of the Roman republic in 96 BC. In 37 BC it is restored to the Ptolemies by Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony), and his daughter by Cleopatra VII of Egypt is made queen in Cyrene. This arrangement lasts for just seven years before Egypt is permanently incorporated within the republic and subsequent empire. Romans are now a fixed feature on the northern edge of the Garamantes' territory.

49 - 46 BC

The arrival of the Romans in the north has a definite impact on the Garamantes. According to the Roman poet Marcus Annaeus Lucanus (Lucan), the first conflict takes place when the Garamantes join the Numidian king, Juba I, during the war between Julius Caesar and the Senate. Juba's army defeats the Roman commander, Curio, in 49 BC, but a retaliatory strike by Caesar defeats the Garamantes in turn.

19 BC

The Garamantes who had served in Juba's army of 49 BC may have been nomads, but Roman attention is now focussed on them. Pliny the Elder records in his work, Natural History, that General Lucius Cornelius Balbus marches against the Phazanians and Garamantes, probably causing a good deal of upheaval. It seems to be about this time that the older capital at Zinchecra is abandoned and the royal residence is moved to Garama. Various skirmishes occur over subsequent years, probably between Rome and Garamantes nomads.

AD 24

Writing at the end of the first century AD, the historian, Tacitus, mentions the Garamantes assisting the Numidian rebel, Tacfarinas, raiding Roman coastal settlements.

Around the same time, archaeology has shown a significant degree of interaction taking place from at least this century through until the seventh century AD. This interaction is thought to have been primarily driven by a trans-Saharan trade in slaves that is largely organised and controlled by the Garamantes of the Libyan Sahara.


The Garamantes appear to outgrow their ability to exploit the environment around them. They have extracted an estimated thirty billion gallons of water through the foggara system of subterranean tunnels during the six centuries of their peak. Around the fourth century, the water starts to run out, and to dig deeper and further in search of it requires more slaves than the Garamantes' military power can successfully deliver. From this moment their civilisation is doomed to decline.

A relative decline in trading across the Late Antiquity period is thought to mirror the failure of the Garamantes' underground irrigation systems. The process of Garamantes decline may well be complete by the time of the first Arab incursions into the region in the mid-seventh century and may also contribute to the recorded political instability in the northern Sahara and along the Roman frontiers during the same period, most notably heralded by the arrival of the Vandali.

Excavation at Germa
Archaeological remains discovered at the Garamantes' capital city near modern Germa revealed an impressive building (lower left) with stone footings and columns, and a broad set of steps leading up to the entrance (External Link: Creative Commons Licence 2.0 Generic) (click or tap on image to view full sized)

429 - 439

The Vandali and Alani migrate from Iberia into Roman North Africa. Once there, they carve out a kingdom over the course of a decade, taking the cities of Carthage and Utica in 439. The subsequent loss of Roman trade probably harms the Garamantes and possibly even sounds their final death knell as a civilisation.

Some scholars contend that the use of the water mines continues to around AD 700, but by then the civilisation has long since passed its peak. It does get a mention in the period between 565-570 though, when the Eastern Roman province of North Africa is making attempts to proselytise the Garamantes.

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