Ghadames, known as “the pearl of the desert,” is so well-suited to the Sahara’s extreme temperatures that its former residents keep returning.
We arrived in Ghadames after driving for hours through endless scrub, navigating mountains, a billowing sandstorm, camels, and rusted car wrecks. The soaring white-and-ochre walls of this palm-fringed town seemed out of place 600 kilometres south-west of Tripoli, deep in Libya’s barren region of Tripolitania.
Although the name Ghadames has been known for at least 2,000 years, its current compact structure was developed by Muslim Arabs in the 7th Century, after which it expanded over the centuries. This oasis town, known as “the pearl of the desert” and perfectly designed to combat the desert winds and harsh climate of the northern Sahara, is one of the Sahara’s greatest architectural showpieces and a spectacular example of environmental planning. With temperatures reaching more than 40 degrees Celsius (they peak at 55 degrees Celsius in summer and fall below zero in winter), my guide Manshour and I immediately entered the labyrinth of dark, shadowy passageways. As we walked through the sinuous zinqas (palm-wood-roofed alleyways), shafts of sunlight streamed through occasional skylights, providing illumination and ventilation. “The number [of skylights] reflects the importance of the street, assisting orientation, and they also keep the temperature around 20 degrees Celsius,” Manshour explained. “The curved passages are designed to prevent sand gusts from blowing through.”
The inner walls were sun-dried mud bricks that glowed white with a protective layer of limewash. This clay, sand, and straw mixture was layered above stones that insulated them from moisture. Dr Susannah Hagan, an expert on green architecture and emeritus professor of architecture at the University of Westminster, later explained why this building technique is so clever: “The secret is in the walls: thick earthen or stone walls that delay the sun’s heat from penetrating a building’s interior during the day and radiate that heat back to the cold sky at night,” she explained. “By morning, the walls had cooled sufficiently to restart the protective cycle.”
She continued, saying: “The use of available building materials skillfully [achieves] maximum comfort with minimal means. This means coolness without air conditioning and warmth without heating in the desert.”
We continued on, passing simple palm trunk doors, some studded with brass, as well as low arches, curved alcoves, and dakkar – built-in benches – that are ideal for lounging and usually indicate a nearby mosque (there are 21 of them, though only a handful are still in use, and only on Fridays). The arches were sometimes incised, chiselled, or painted with delicate paintings (a hand of Fatima, a star, intricate geometries), which added to the mystery and allure.
We arrived at the medina’s heart, two arcaded squares surrounded by massive mulberry trees. Slave markets were once held here, according to Manshour. Indeed, it was this centuries-long trade of Sub-Saharan men, women, and children that spurred the town’s economic heyday – and ultimately brought it down when the practise was outlawed in the 19th century. Long before its demise, however, this caravan crossroads thrived spectacularly as a hub of itinerant traders exchanging exotic goods like ostrich feathers, gold, ivory, civet, brass, and pewter, as well as weapons and horses. Ghadames is strategically located at the intersection of Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya today, and it was from here that the loaded camels would plod west to Timbuktu. South to Ghat and Bornu; north to Mediterranean ports. The town became a major crossroads for civilisations, and its Berber (Amazigh) inhabitants, the Ghadamisa, were revered.
Thus it thrived until the abolition of slavery, nominally subservient to Ottoman rule and with brief interludes of Italian and French occupation in the early twentieth century. Muammar Gaddafi ordered the construction of a new town next door in the 1980s due to a lack of water and modern sanitation.
Today, Old Ghadames has no permanent residents, but its environmental superiority to the new town’s concrete apartment blocks attracts a steady trickle of Amazigh and sub-Saharan locals, who return to enter its mosques and tea-rooms and enjoy its cool beauty during the hot summer.
They also come to tend to many of the 121 family gardens, which are irrigated by a complex system of channels fed by artesian wells and the legendary Ain al-Faras spring. I admired the town’s crenellated external walls while sheltering beside the gardens in the shade of date palms and fruit trees. The natural ochre colour of the mud bricks was edged in white and topped with triangular openings and ornate finials. Both are typical of Saharan architecture found throughout the Maghreb. Manshour told me, laughing, that the pointed finials are there to keep djinn (evil spirits) from landing on the rooftops.
Back in the cool maze, we entered one of the few public private houses. Stairs rose from the ground-level storerooms to the tamanhat (living room). It was an epiphany. In contrast to the white minimalism of the streets below, this room was a riot of riotous colour, texture, and decoration: geometric wall paintings in brilliant scarlet, sumptuously patterned cushions and rugs, cupboards and niches containing dusty family memorabilia, and dozens of wall-hung copper pots and mirrors, both designed to refract available light. When Manshour opened a trapdoor in the ceiling, a flood of sunbeams descended.
A final flight of steps led to a large roof terrace and yet another architectural eye-opener: an astounding jigsaw of low parapets, finials, steps, and walkways connecting each home to its neighbour and ever onwards across the medina.
This elevated world, Mansour explained, was the domain of the women, who would spend their days cooking, sewing, and socialising while acting as lookouts for approaching caravans, as per local Islamic custom. Some people would even sleep there on hot summer nights.
As the sun beat down mercilessly on this luminous white geometry framed by tufted green palms, The best deal appeared to be reserved for the men in their cool, shadowy underworld. The beauty, intelligence, and complexity of this remarkable abandoned town, lost in the depths of the Sahara, but still enjoyed – intermittently – today, were shared by both men and women.
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