Ghadames, Libya

Figure 1 – Roofs in Tatarfara

Ghadames, “the Pearl of the desert”, is an oasis in the Libyan Sahara, 550 km southwest of Tripoli near the meeting place of the borders of Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. Ghadames became known as an important stage on the trans-Sahara trade route.

The development of the city is deeply linked to this strategic position. It flourished over the centuries and declined with the disappearance of trans-Sahara trade.

History of Ghadamès

Paleolithic and Neolithic implements have been discovered near Ghadames.

Lucius Cornelius Balbus the Younger defeated the Garamantes, a Saharan Berber people, in 19 B.C. and established a roman garrison in Ghadames. The city was called Cydamus and the roman garrison became permanent under Legitimius Severus as an advance post with troops from the Third Augustan Legion (Legio III Augusta).

In Byzantine times (4th – 5th centuries), Cydamus became an episcopate with a church and a bishop.

The Arab conqueror Uqba Bin Safi occupied the city with a detachment of cavalry in 667.

During the 7th century, Ghadames was ruled by the Muslim Arabs and the population quickly converted to Islam. From the 8th century onwards, Ghadames was established as an important trading point for caravans.

The Italians arrived in Tripoli in 1911 but did not occupy Ghadames right away, they only settled there from April 1913 to November 1914, then from February to July 1915 and more permanently from February 1924 onwards. Italians troops left Ghadames before the arrival of General Leclerc in January 1943.

The city was first attached to the territory of Fezzan and was administrated by the Tunisian Protectorate from January 1949 to July 1951. But after the proclamation of independence of Libya in December 1951 and the Franco-Libyan treaty of August 1955, the French left Ghadames. The city was then attached to the province of Tripoli in the spring of 1957.

Figure 2 – Darar Endoalo Square

Figure 3 – Alley in Tasko

The importance of the Trans Saharan Trade

All the historical texts mention the Trans-Saharan trade as being the essential activity of Ghadames. The authors dwell on the comings and goings of caravans, on the remarkable aptitude of traders who were encountered as far away as Timbuktu.

Caravans coming from the South brought slaves, gold, leather and hides, ostrich feathers, ivory and incense. On the return journey they carried cotton goods and cloth, sugar and various products manufactured in Europe. Trade mainly benefited the noble who also owned gardens, herds and slaves.

In the middle of the 19th century, Henri Duveyrier, a French explorer, writes about the beginning of the decline of trade after the abolition of slavery.

In 1910, Pervinquière, a geologist, reports that the trans-Saharan trade has turned away from Ghadames. Today the trade does no longer exist as the towns of the Mediterranean Sea do not need the products of the Sudan region anymore. Paradoxically, the artisans, once famous for their hides, have almost disappeared, lacking raw material.

In the 1970’s, the Libyan government built new housing outside the old part of the town and people progressively abandoned the old city. However, many inhabitants return to the old part of the town during the summer, as its architecture provides better protection against the heat.

Fig. 4-View of the roofs

Fig. 5 – View of the roofs

The Old Town of Ghadamès

The old town of Ghadames is entirely made of mud, lime and palm tree trunks and is completely covered. The basic units of the city are its houses, which have a minimum of two main floors. Access to the ground floor, which may be sunken, is by a single entrance door opens onto a narrow hallway leading to a rectangular-shaped room where provisions are stored, and, at the back, to a staircase. The staircase leads to a much more spacious upper level. Ground-level living space encroaches upon the blind enclosed passageways along the walls on the ground floor which open onto the city, forming arcades rather than actual streets.

The first floor generally includes a raised attic and bedrooms, and sometimes a sitting-room. There may also be a second floor with a similar layout. At terraces level (there may be three or four depending on the house) only the projecting portion formed by the raised attic rises above the roof, marked off by low enclosure walls.

This ancient design is typical of the Sahara region. The mud houses maintain a cool town in the summer and heat the cold nights. The roof of the town also acts as another cityscape with open streets and lanes, exclusively used by women to go from one house to another.

In 1986, the old city of Ghadames was added to the World Heritage list of the UNESCO.

Fig. 6 – View of the roofs

Fig. 7 – View of the roofs

Fig. 8 – Omran Mosque

Fig. 9 -Jarassan

Fig. 10 – Ainal Faras

Fig. 11 – Ainal Faras

Fig. 12 -Amanej

Fig. 13 -Bushata

Fig. 14 –Alley in Jarassan

Fig. 15 – Jarassan Gate

Fig. 16 - Alley

Fig. 17 -Mazigh

Fig. 18 – Tasko, Alley near Taadouin Square

Fig. 19 – Alley in Mazigh near Tandarin Mosque


  • Satprem Maini, Optimisation of Adobe Production, Mission Report, November 2008
  • J. Despois, Ghadamès, Encyclopedia of Islam
  • Mukhtar A. Huda, Ghadames Tourist Guide
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