Libyan Garamantes Flourish as Farmers and Traders Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Garamantes harnessed the water beneath the Sahara, through networks of underground canals called foggara, to supply oases, where they carried on farming.

Summary of Event

The Garamantes were an ancient people who inhabited the Sahara Desert from around 500 b.c.e. to 200 c.e. They lived in three large cities—the capital of Germa (ancient Garama), Zinchera, and Saniat Gebril—and in about twenty other settlements in the Fazzan, a region in the southwest of Libya. The remains of the Garamantes’ settlements have been uncovered by archaeologists who believe the Garamantes were not nomadic people, as described by ancient historians, but were, in fact, an advanced civilization adept at building a 3,000-mile (4,840- kilometer) network of irrigation canals (foggara in Arabic) buried under the desert sands. The Garamantian canals tapped into aquifers beneath the surface of the Sahara and carried the precious water via low-grade gravity to nearby oases. In these oases, the Garamantes grew foodstuffs such as cereals, grapes, olives, and dates in quantities significant enough to allow them to survive, enlarge their settlements, and expand their control over the Fezzan.

Historians know very little about the Garamantes and their way of life. Scholars differ about their origins, with some maintaining that they were Berbers (a people of northern Africa linked through language) who made their way into the Sahara in the first thousand years b.c.e. Other scholars believe the Garamantes originated from a Neolithic people who lived in northern Africa when it was covered by lakes and inland oceans. Archaeologists have examined rock paintings of humanlike stick figures hunting animals and existing alongside cattle to support their claim that the Garamantes evolved from a nomadic people who hunted to survive to a settled people who raised and herded cattle. Because livestock need reliable water supplies to survive, scholars believe that the Garamantes had access to such reserves.

At some point in their history, the Garamantes developed a method of constructing many hundreds of underground irrigation channels. In northern Africa, these desert irrigation channels are called foggara; in other areas of the Middle East they are called qanat. Where the Garamantes learned the technology of desert irrigation channeling is still a mystery, although scientists suggest they may have acquired the technique of oasis farming from the Egyptians and other peoples to the east. More puzzling is why and when the Garamantes abandoned the foggara and with them their settlements. Falling water levels in underground aquifers could be one reason.

Ancient historians, beginning with the Greek Herodotus (c. 484-c. 425 b.c.e.), depict the Garamantes in a variety of ways. In book 4 of his Historiai Herodotou (c. 424 b.c.e.; The History, 1709), Herodotus describes the salt hills of the Libyan interior and the streams which flow from them. The Garamantes, according to Herodotus, are one of several tribes who

are the last inhabitants of Libya on the side of the desert, living as they do, more inland than the wild-beast district. . . . The Garamantians, a very powerful people . . . cover the salt with mould, and then sow their crops. . . . The Garamantians have four-horse chariots, in which they chase the . . . Ethiopians.

In his Naturalis historia (77 c.e.; Natural History, 1938-1963), the Roman writer Pliny the Elder (23-79 c.e.) recounts their hostile behavior during the military conquest by Lucius Cornelius Balbus the Minor in 19 b.c.e. In Ab excessu divi Augusti (c. 116 c.e., also known as Annales; Annals, 1598), the Roman historian Tacitus (c. 56-c. 120 c.e.) recalls how the Garamantes raided cities on Libya’s Mediterranean coast.

Knowledge of the Garamantian way of life has grown slowly during the modern era. The Italian archaeologist Giacomo Caputo excavated in the Fezzan during 1930’s. His work led to the discovery of sixty thousand tombs. Another archaeologist, Mohammed S. Ayoub, excavated the area around Germa from 1962 to 1966. He uncovered cemeteries and what he believed to be the foundations of a royal palace. From the late 1960’s through the 1970’s, Charles Daniels excavated around the oasis of Wadi el-Agial, one of three oases in the Fezzan. His work revealed more burial grounds as well as irrigation systems. Daniels’s work suggests that humans had been making use of the oasis for at least the past twelve thousand years.

Archaeological work continues at sites such as Germa, the hilltop fortress of Zinchara, the oasis of Saniat Gebril, and the burial ground of Saniat Ben Howedi. Germa was the capital of the Garamantes and has been called a metropolis by ancient Roman writers. It is believed that Germa started out as a settlement of mud-brick buildings in or before the fourth century b.c.e. Stone buildings date from around the first or second century c.e. During this time, trade between the Garamantes and the Mediterranean region was at its height. The Garamantes had turned from making war on their neighbors and the Roman occupiers of Libya into an important trading partner with the Rome. Goods traded by the Garamantes included salt, gold, ivory, and slaves.

Taking off where Daniels’s work ended, present-day archaeologists believe that the Garamantes tapped into desert groundwater (deposited when the Sahara experienced plentiful rain) and transported it via canals to their oases. In one oasis, Wadi al-Agial, the inhabitants were able to irrigate approximately 300 square miles (777 square kilometers) of soil.

The Garamantes were at the mercy of their changing environment and adapted accordingly. When groundwater levels fell below the underground canal system, the Garamantes drove hundreds of wells into the Sahara to tap the lowered water level. They must have been successful in harnessing their diminishing water supplies because the Garamantes were able to support a state with a population of fifty thousand at the height of their power in the second and third centuries c.e. As the Sahara became increasingly dry, however, the Garamantes’ civilization declined. By the sixth century c.e., it had all but disappeared. Small settlements continued to survive clustered around oases fed by wells.


The Garamantes succeeded in harnessing the water beneath the Sahara through a system of underground canals which allowed them to irrigate oases, where they carried on farming. They may have learned the technique of building these foggara from other ancient peoples such as the Egyptians. The Garamantes thus made use of the scarce resources of their dry environment to build a thriving civilization. The key factors of their civilization were the foggara, oasis settlements, a capital noted for its size and building type, and numerous burial mounds.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ayoub, M. S. “The Royal Cemetery at Germa. A Preliminary Report.” Libya Antiqua 3/4 (1966/1967): 213-219. An account of archaeological findings that led to increased knowledge about the Garamantes’ way of life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brett, Michael, and Elizabeth Fentress. The Berbers. Cambridge, Mass.: Basil Blackwell, 1996. The Garamantes are covered in the first chapter as an early Berber people. Illustrations and maps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Daniels, C. M. The Garamantes of Southern Libya. Stoughton, Wis.: Oleander Press, 1970. An archaeologically based study of Garamantean history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lhote, Henri. Les Chars rupestres saharien: Des Syrtes au Niger, par le pays des Garamantes et des Atlantes. Toulouse, France: Éditions des Hésperides, 1982. Although written in French, this book contains pictures of Garamantean rock paintings and petroglyphs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mattingly, D. J., et al. “The Fezzan Project, 1997: Methodologies and Results of the First Season.” Libyan Studies 28 (1997): 11-26. Archaeological findings about the Garamantes.

Categories: History