Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Garamentes tunnel system watered early Libya

"Sometime before 1000 BCE, a group of nomads looked south of the narrow coastal strip and decided that if no one else was going to claim the desert, they would. They recognized that the sands and sun would kill anyone who deviated from a proscribed path of oases, and so determined that there was no need to use their resources in trying to defend a desert border; all they need to do was garrison the watering holes. In this manner – along a string of oases about 400 km long – the Garamentes were able to control the routes between Sudan and the Mediterranean coast, west to Mauritania, south to the Niger River, and eastward as far as Egypt.

Recent archaeology has shown the Garamentes from being far more than Herodotus' description of a tribe of numerous barbarians who were good at raising cattle; indeed, they became the Sahara's first culture to develop an urban civilization absent a perennial river – by 150 BCE, their capitol, Gerna (the modern Jarma Oasis) had a population or perhaps 4000, with another 6000 living in the immediate vicinity. Eight more major towns and numerous smaller settlements dotted their realm, and a decidedly city-based culture developed to exploit transiting caravans. According to some estimates, over 50,000 of their pyramidical stone tombs dot the landscape of their former territory.

Weird Historical Sidenote: For a glimpse into what the territory of the Garamedes looks like nowadays, check out this guy's photologue of a trip to Tassili National Park in Algeria. See if you can spot the petrified elephant.

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They were able to accomplish all this by means of an ingenious system of more than 1600 kilometers of foggares (tunnels), dug down to subterranean aquifers and used to supply irrigation systems on the surface, and through an effective means of written communication. The Garamendes' Phoenecian-based alphabet is still in use by some Tarureg tribes today, have largely been preserved through the good offices of multiple generations of desert-dwelling women.

Their elaborate tunnel system made the Garamedes overly reliant upon slaves, which led to the old conquer-or-perish motif that we see played out so often through history. They warred for control of trade (and for profit) with the kingdoms surrounding them, be they Nubian, Egyptian, Carthaginian, Greek, or Roman. These latter sent several punitive expeditions into the lands of the Garamedes, but the desert proved unconquerable; finally, the Romans gave up and signed a lasting commercial and military agreement with them at the end of the 1st century CE."