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Gheriat el-Garbia


Northern tower. Photo Marco Prins.
Northern tower
Gheriat el-Garbia: Roman fort in Libya, part of the Limes Tripolitanus.

If desert people (e.g., the Garamantes) wanted to attack the Roman empire, they had to travel through the arid desert and needed water. By fortifying the oases, the Romans effecively shut them out from their own world. Like Fort Gholaia (Bu Njem) and Gadames, construction of the fort at Gheriat el-Garbia was ordered by the emperor Septimius Severus (193-211). This line of fortifications is known as the Limes Tripolitanus.

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A panorama of Gheriat el-Garbia. Photos Marco Prins, panorama made by Robert Vermaat.
Map of Gheriat el-Garbia. Design Jona Lendering.
Map of Gheriat el-Garbia
The photo above shows a panorama from the northeast, seen to the southwest. In the background, from  left to right, the oasis. In the center the northeastern gate and the Cardo Maximus, the main road in the fort. All buildings within the walls are post-Roman, built by Berbers.

The fort controled an oasis (satellite photo) and the upper reaches of a little wadi that empties itself in the Wadi Zemzem. Gheriat el-Garbia was built on a hilltop that was almost impossible to attack. Unles en enemy would approach it from the northeast, he wouldl have to build a siege mole, which is rather difficult in the desert.

The northeast gate from the outside. Photo Marco Prins.
The northeast gate from the outside

The fort measured about c.185x135 m (24,800 m²), or double the size of the Bu Njem fort. The corners are directed to the four quarters of the compass. On the platform was a small well. Archaeologists have also identified cisterns in the northern corner of the ancient fort. The outer walls are almost entirely preserved, but the buildings inside did not survive. Berbers have reused them.

Gheriat el-Garbia was built by soldiers of the Third legion Augusta. This can be deduced from the shape of the towers of the northeastern gate, which are not square, as is usual, but five-angled. This can only be found in settlements of the Third, which was based in Lambaesis in what is now Algeria. Gates like this can also be seen in Theveste and Bu Njem.

Artwork on the northeastern gate. Photo Marco Prins.
Artwork on the northeastern gate

The photo to the left shows a detail of the artwork on the northeast gate (the only surviving part, in fact): two Victories and two eagles carrying a laurel wreath. There was also an inscription, from which it is clear that the fort was built in 201, when Anicius Faustus was governor. To the east (not on the photo) the remains of two (perhaps three) temples have been identified.

In the distance: signal tower. The large ditch in front is a quarry. Photo Marco Prins.
In the distance: signal tower. The ditch in front is a quarry.

About a kilometer from Gerhiat el-Garbia, to the northeast, are the remains of an ancient signal tower, which onve connected the fort with other military settlements. The tower is known to archaeologists as GG7 in the catalogue of Graeme Barker e.a., Farming the Desert (1996). Through this tower, Gheriat al-Garbia was in signalling contact with the centenarium of Gheriat esh-Shergia. The fort itself is known as GG1.

Watchtower. Photo Marco Prins.
Watchtower

Because there was water and wood, a bathhouse (GG16) could be constructed in the oasis itself. The remains have been identified about five hundred meters west of the fort.

After Antiquity, other residents started to settle in the towers of Gheriat el-Garbia; the Berbers who often allowed their cattle to live there, also built the mosque that is still visible.

Overview. Photo Jona Lendering. Cardo. Photo Marco Prins. North tower. Photo Marco Prins. The impossible approach. Photo Marco Prins.
Overview Cardo North tower The impossible approach
Northeastern gate. Photo Marco Prins. Northeastern gate. Photo Marco Prins. Northeastern gate. Photo Marco Prins. Southwest gate. Photo Marco Prins.
Northeastern gate Northeastern gate Northeastern gate Southwest gate
Cistern. Photo Jona Lendering. One of the towers. Photo Marco Prins. One of the towers. Photo Marco Prins. Gheriat el-Garbia: the mosque. Photo Jona Lendering.
Cistern One of the towers One of the towers The mosque, with the mihrab in its center
The oasis that had to be protected. Photo Marco Prins.
The oasis

There is some evidence that soldiers of III Augusta were sometimes sent abroad. The Römisches-Germanisches Museum in Cologne in faraway Germania Inferior shows a tombstone of a legionary from III Augusta, and we can be confident that this man must have visited Gheriat el-Garbia too. The fort may have been an outpost in the Libyan desert, the people belonged to a world that was much, much larger.

Literature

  • Graeme Barker e.a., Farming the Desert. The UNESCO Libyan Valleys Archaeological Survey (1996)
© Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2006
Revision: 12 April 2009
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