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Kingdom of the Sands Volume 57 Number 2, March/April 2004
by David Keys

How a Saharan slave-trading people made the desert bloom

During the past six years, an archaeological survey in the Fazzan area of southern Libya, led by David Mattingly of the University of Leicester, has revealed that a remarkable, yet obscure desert civilization known to the Romans as the Garamantes constructed almost a thousand miles of underground tunnels and shafts in a successful bid to mine long-buried fossil water.

Descended from Berbers and Saharan pastoralists, the Garamantes were likely present as a tribal people in the Fazzan by at least 1000 B.C. They first appeared in the historical record in the fifth century B.C., when Herodotus noted the Garamantes were an exceedingly numerous people who herded cattle (that grazed backward!) and who hunted "troglodyte Ethiopians" from four-horse chariots.

Archaeologists had excavated parts of the Garamantian capital, Garama, in the 1960s. But prior to recent investigations, most scholars still thought of the Garamantes as little more than desert barbarians living in one small town, a couple of villages, and scattered encampments. The research, however, now suggests that the Garamantes had about eight major towns (three of which have now been examined) and scores of other important settlements, and that they controlled a substantial state. "The new archaeological evidence is showing that the Garamantes were brilliant farmers, resourceful engineers, and enterprising merchants who produced a remarkable civilization," says Mattingly.

The success of the Garamantes was based on their subterranean water-extraction system, a network of tunnels known as foggaras in Berber. It not only allowed their part of the Sahara to bloom again--it also triggered a political and social process that led to population expansion, urbanism, and conquest. But in order to retain and extend their newfound prosperity, they needed above all to maintain and expand the water-extraction tunnel systems--and that necessitated the acquisition of many slaves.

Luckily for the Garamantes--but less so for their neighbors--Garamantian population growth gave the new Saharan power a demographic and military advantage over other peoples in Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa, enabling them to expand their territory, conquer other peoples, and acquire vast numbers of slaves.

By around A.D. 150 the slave-based Garamantian kingdom covered 70,000 square miles in present-day southern Libya. It was the first time in history that a nonriverine area of the Sahara (or indeed any other major desert) had produced an urban society. The largest town, Garama (in what is now called the Jarma Oasis), had a population of some four thousand. A further six thousand people probably lived in suburban satellite villages located within a three-mile radius of the urban center.

Thanks to their aggressive mentality and the slaves and water it produced, the Garamantes lived in planned towns and feasted on locally grown grapes, figs, sorghum, pulses, barley, and wheat, as well as on imported luxuries such as wine and olive oil. "The combination of their slave-acquisition activities and their mastery of foggara irrigation technology enabled the Garamantes to enjoy a standard of living far superior to that of any other ancient Saharan society," says archaeologist Andrew Wilson of the University of Oxford, who has been surveying the foggara system. Without slaves, they would not have had a kingdom, let alone even a whiff of the good life. They would have survived--just--in conditions of relative poverty, as most desert dwellers have done before and since.

In the end, depletion of easily mined fossil water sounded the death knell of the Garamantian kingdom. After extracting at least 30 billion gallons of water over some 600 years, the fourth-century A.D. Garamantes discovered that the water was literally running out. To deal with the problem, they would have needed to add more man-made underground tributaries to existing tunnels and dig additional deeper, much longer water-extraction tunnels. For that, they would have needed vastly more slaves than they had. The water difficulties must have led to food shortages, population reductions, and political instability (local defensive structures from this era may be evidence for political fragmentation). Conquering more territories and pulling in more slaves was therefore simply not militarily feasible. The magic equation between population and military and economic power on the one hand and slave-acquisition capability and water extraction on the other no longer balanced.

The desert kingdom declined and fractured into small chiefdoms and was absorbed into the emerging Islamic world. Like its more famous Roman neighbor, the once-great Saharan kingdom became, little by little, simply a thing of myth and memory. Along with the rest of the world, Berbers living in the Fazzan today have all but forgotten their ancestors. The kingdom's legacy has faded so dramatically that local residents believe the vast water-extraction system--the pride of the Garamantes--is the handiwork of Romans.

David Keys is the archaeology correspondent for the London newspaper The Independent. More information on the Garamantes can be found in The Archaeology of Fazzan (2003), published by the Society for Libyan Studies, London and the Department of Antiquities, Tripoli. The Fazzan project's website is

© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America