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Garamantes


Garamantian chariot. Rock painting at Tina Nivin (Libya). Photo Jona Lendering.
A Garamantian chariot on a rock painting from Tina Nivin.
Garamantes: name of a nation of desert dwellers in the Fezzan (southwestern Libya, near modern Germa.

Country and Ethnogenesis

The country of the Garamantes, although situated in the Sahara desert, consists of four fertile areas:
  • in the north the Wadi ash-Shati with the Wadi az-Zallaf, where the main town is Adri;
  • in the center the Wadi Irawan and Wadi Al-Ajal (a.k.a. Wadi al-Hayat), where the main cities are Jarmah (derived from Garamantes) and Sebha;
  • in the west, the Wadi Tanezzuft, where the main towns are Ghat, Barkat, and Fewet;
  • and in the southeast the Wadi Barjuj, to Ghadduwah, Zuwaylah, and Murzuq.
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One of the "royal tombs". Museum of Germa (Libya). Photo Jona Lendering.
One of the "royal tombs" (Museum of Jarmah)

The country has not always been a desert. Between about 10,000 and 6,000 BCE, the country was more like a savanna, and there were perennial lakes. There were people living here, who are known as the makers of the "Wild fauna" art, named after the animals represented (e.g., Wadi Mathendous). Tools were made of flint stone. The sixth millennium, however, witnessed great droughts, and the area was completely abandoned. The lakes disappeared, leaving large fields of salt - one of the main articles of future Garamantian trade.

The story repeated itself after 5,000 BCE, when the monsoon brought rain from equatorial Africa to the north. There were new lakes, new people with better tools, and there were new artists; their rock carvings are known as "pastoral". Between 3,500 and 2,000 BCE, however, the monsoon started to retreat and the vegetation gradually disappeared, a process that probably was sped up by overgrazing. The lakes disappeared again, prompting humans and animals to move to the habitable niches and to the edges of the desert. Among these niches were the four fertile areas mentioned above.

The people living there, the Garamantes, had access to water -Lake Ubari is one of the surviving lakes- and were to become famous as cattle breeders and salt traders. However, for centuries, we hardly hear about them, because they were living in isolation, beyond the Gebel as-Soda. Only when the horse and the dromedary had become domesticated, after c.1500 and c.200, was contact made with other civilizations. This is the age when the Berber languages appear to have spread to the west, which proves increased trade contacts.

Cattle breeders and salt traders:
desert people, shown on Mausoleum C of the southern necropolis of Ghirza
(Museum of the Jamahirjia in Tripoli)
Zinchekra. Photo Jona Lendering.
Zinchecra

Lifestyle

The oldest capital of the Garamantes appears to have been Zinchecra, situated on a mountain spur south of the Wadi Al-Ajal. It was inhabited from 900 BCE to the first century CE, but was replaced by Garama, three kilometers to the northeast. Between the two towns are the tombs of Al-Hatia, which resemble little pyramids, and are believed to be royal mausoleums. However, this hypothesis has not been without criticism.

Reconstructed Garamantian chariot; National Archaeological Museum, Tripoli (Libya). Photo Marco Prins.
Reconstructed Garamantian chariot (National Archaeological Museum, Tripoli)

The Greek researcher Herodotus of Halicarnassus (fifth century BCE) describes the country as follows:

There is a hill of salt, a spring, and a great number of fruit-bearing date-palms, and the men who dwell here are called the Garamantes, a very great nation, who carry [humid] earth to lay over the salt and then sow crops. ... Among them also are produced the cattle which feed backwards, because they have their horns bent down forwards, and ... cannot go forwards as they feed, because the horns would run into the ground. Except for this, and the firmness of their hide, they do not differ from other cattle. With their four-horse chariots, these Garamantes hunt the Cave-dwelling Ethiopians, who are the swiftest of foot of all men.
[Histories, 1.183]

The ruins of this second capital, Garama, have been found beneath the medieval caravan city, and must have covered at least 20 hectares. This city dates back to the beginning of the fourth century BCE, and archaeologists have found temples, a market, houses, and baths, some of them built of natural stone. This city was surrounded by a giant wall and a ditch.

Botanical samples have shown that the inhabitants produced wheat, dates, olives, grapes, and several other crops, which were irrigated by foggaras (or qanat). The center of the city was, it seems, the camp of the army; it was not only used to control the oases along the roads to Lake Chad, but also to fight against the desert tribes in the east and northwest. Archaeologists have also discovered cemeteries with, taken together, about 120,000 graves, which corresponds to a city of about 10,000 people, comparable to Pompeii.

Herodotus' reference to chariots has been confirmed archaeologically, and it seems that the desert tribes could at times be very aggressive indeed. The territories of the Punic ports in the far north, like Sabratha, Oea, and Lepcis Magna, were at times threatened. These conflicts, however, were never extremely serious, because the Garamantes did not want to settle down on the coastal plains; besides, the people of the desert and the Punics needed each other. There were nomads traveling back and forth with their herds; in the winter and spring, they were in the south, but in the summer, they moved to the north, where they worked as wage workers on farms, gathering olives. Their dromedaries were used to plow and the manure was quite useful too.

Two jars. Archaeological Museum of Germa (Libya). Photo Jona Lendering.
Two olive oil amphora from Tripolitana (Archaeological Museum of Jarmah)

There was some trade as well. Dairy products and meat were bartered for cereals and oil. Ivory, gold, other products from Sub-Saharan Africa, and of course salt were exchanged with the products of the urban artisans. There was also some exchange of knowledge. The stories that were told in the Mediterranean ports about the golden apples of the Hesperides contain information about the female warriors who guarded the gold of the Senegal river.

The Garamantes and Rome

At the end of the second century BCE, the Romans appeared on the scene, taking control of the Punic ports, and although they were, as the crow flies, 700 kilometers north of Garama, their arrival had an enormous impact, because the Romans were not the kind of people who acquiesced to the perennial raids of the nomadic Garamantes. According to the Roman poet Lucan, the first conflict took place when the Garamantes joined the Numidian king Juba I during the war between Julius Caesar and the Senate (Pharsalia, 4.669ff). Juba's army defeated the Roman commander Curio, but was in turn defeated by Caesar.

The execution of the Garamantes in the Amphitheater of Lepcis Magna. Mosaic from the Villa of Dar Buc Ammera, now in the National Archaeological Museum, Tripoli (Libya). Photo Marco Prins.
The execution of the Garamantes in the Amphitheater of Lepcis Magna. Mosaic from the Villa of Dar Buc Ammera.

The Garamantes in Juba's army may have been a group of nomads, but the Romans now realized that the Garamantian threat could be serious, and in 19 BCE their general Lucius Cornelius Balbus marched against the Phazanians and Garamantes (Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 5.43-46). The war may have been very difficult, but on his return, Balbus could afford a splendid triumph; he also constructed a theater on the Field of Mars. It is possible that this attack on the Garamantian homeland caused great upheavals, which resulted in the abandoning of Zinchecra and the transfer of the royal residence to Garama.

Another conflict took place in 15 BCE, when the governor of Cyrenaica, Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, attacked a group of Garamantes that had joined forces with the Marmarides, a tribe living east of the Garamantian heartland (Florus, Epitome, 2.36). The next campaign was 22 CE, when Garamantes - probably nomads, perhaps the official army - joined Tacfarinas' war against Rome (Tacitus, Annals, 3.74). In 69, Garamantes were in the army of the city of Oea, which attacked Lepcis Magna (more...). It is possible that the execution of Garamantes taken captive during a punitive raid is shown on a mosaic in the Dar Buc Ammera villa.

We are not informed about conflicts in the second century, but Rome still regarded the Garamantian threat as serious. In 203, three forts were built (Ghadames, Gheriat al-Garbia, Bu Njem), to keep the nomads away, and in 400, the Numidian rebel Gildo could recruit Garamantes (Claudian, The Consulate of Stilicho, 1.260). Again, we do not know whether they were nomads moving between Garama and the north, or soldiers of the official army.

Head, made of iron. Archaeological museum of Germa (Libya). Photo Jona Lendering.
Bearded head, made of iron (Archaeological museum of Jarmah)

It would be wrong, though, to conclude that the Garamantes and Romans were always at each other's throats. The Romans needed gold, salt, slaves, ivory, and exotic animals for their gladiatoral contests (e.g., ostriches and rhinoceroses); the Garamantes needed metal, ceramics, olive oil, and other products that were found by archaeologists. Usually, the relations were good, and the Bu Njem ostraca suggest that there was an understanding that runaway slaves from the Roman cities who reached Garama, were returned (ostracon 71). The Garamantian warriors had become tradesmen, and it is indicative of the now friendly relations that the Romans believed the Garamantes to be descendants from no less a forefather than Apollo (Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, 9.125), and that the city converted to Christianity in 569 (John of Biclar, Chronicle a.III Justini imp. = Mommsen, Chronica Minora 2, p.212, 4-5).

Decline

It may have been the close tie between Garama and the Roman cities that caused the end of the desert city. When the Vandals conquered Sabratha, Oea, and Lepcis Magna, the demand for the Garamantian products fell, and Garama seems to have suffered. Another factor may have been that the level of the groundwater in the land of the Garamantes dropped, making it more difficult to maintain the qanat system. Nevertheless, the city was still alive when the Arabs conquered it in the mid-seventh century.

Arrowheads, about 3000 BCE; Musée des Antiquités nationales, St. Germain-en-Laye (France). Photo Marco Prins. Garamantian inscription from Oubari. Museum of Jarmah (Libya). Photo Jona Lendering. The "royal tombs". Museum of Germa (Libya). Photo Jona Lendering. The landscape between Germa and Ghariat. Photo Jona Lendering.
Arrowheads, about 3000 BCE (Musée des Antiquités nationales, St-Germain-en-Laye) Garamantian inscription from Oubari (Museum of Jarmah) The "royal tombs" of Al-Hatia The landscape between Jarmah and Gheriat.
Inside one of the "royal tombs". Museum of Germa (Libya). Photo Jona Lendering. Sacrificing table. Archaeological Museum of Germa (Libya). Photo Jona Lendering. Roman terra sigillata. Archaeological Museum of Germa (Libya). Photo Jona Lendering. Two jars. Archaeological Museum of Germa (Libya). Photo Jona Lendering.
Inside one of the "royal tombs" of Al-Hatia (Museum of Jarmah) Sacrificial table (Archaeological Museum of Jarmah) Roman terra sigillata (Archaeological Museum of Jarmah) Two jars (Archaeological Museum of Jarmah)

Literature

  • D.J. Mattingly, The Archaeology of Fazzan. Volume 1, Synthesis (2003)
  • E. M. Ruprechtsberger, Die Garamanten. Geschichte und Kultur (1997)
© Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2009
Revision: 24 May 2009
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