Libya’s Fezzan region the Unseen Sahara
Fezzan is a remote region in Libya, where ancient societies thrived and collapsed as the rains came and went. Sahara is a place of eternal destructions which gives us a picture of dunes and blue sky. We are amazed by its dazzling beauty, but forget that it is one of the great record keeping places on earth. We are able to study the past, from the sand, the rocks, the heat and the dry winds. These tell us about the abrupt climatic changes and also about the growth and fall of humanity.
A team of scholars headed by David Mattingly start with the Desert Migrations Project, and they take us to prehistory with their untiring work. They go up the dunes almost hundred feet high, and they have opened a new way to see this desert. Fezzan is a region in the southwest part of Libya and it is called the beating heart of the Sahara. It is an inaccessible place full of sand seas, mountains, wadis, plateaus, oases and mysteries. In the period between 500 BC and 500 AD an estimated number of 100,000 people thrived in Fezzan doing farming, while this area receives less than an inch of rain a year, and some years, none at all.
An archaeologist from the University of Leicester, who has been working in Libya for 30 years, was amazed by the landscapes of Fezzan and he’s become a slave to the desert. The brilliant light and the clear horizons are an addiction, where most people see it as a wasteland or barren land while other find clarity in them.
A Scottish explorer, Hugh Clapperton, goes deep into this desert in the south-western Libya, between the years 1822 and 1825. When he was crossing the dry desert ground on the 7th of November 1824, he came upon a female slave, who was left to perish on the road. Her head was terribly swollen, and she was unable to walk and unconscious. One of the master’s servants was sitting together with her, waiting for her to die, so that he could take back the few rags that she had on. The servant when questioned says that, she cannot ride a camel, and she is too weak to hold on, that if he takes her along, he too might die. The wind was cold and Hugh Clapperton rode on.
This is the fearsome Sahara, with a waterless sea of sand and stone, infested by scorpions, vipers move around and the sun scorches with no mercy. Libya is the size of Italy, France, Spain and Germany put together. Its population of almost six million people live in the Mediterranean coast. Ninety five percent of Libya is a desert, while twenty percent is dune. There is not a single river that runs through Libya. The Saharan Libya hits the world’s heat record of 136 degree Fahrenheit, while a winter night can chill the bones.
Ibrahim al-Koni, a leading novelist in Libya has quoted a Sufi song in his book The Bleeding of the Stone:
The desert is a true treasure
for him who seeks refuge
from men and the evil of men.
In it is contentment,
in it is death and all you seek.
The history of Fezzan reveals the life of people, who have been struggling for thousands of years against the change in environment, and trying to adapt accordingly. In the modern days, we accept that the past is a record which details the shifts in climate, the great migrations and the rise and fall of nations. We act and believe as if the present is the final chapter of the Sahara, but a very long tale is presented to any visitor of the Sahara which keeps reminding that the present chapter is thin and fragile.
Mattingly and his group in their investigation, find the Ubari sand sea where there are many tiny gem coloured lakes. Some are purple and some orange, and the colour comes from the minerals and algae which are dried up now. These remind us of olden days when groundwater lay close to the surface than it does today. When there was abundant rainfall 200,000 years ago, LakeMegafezzan was glittering with water in the sunshine. It was almost the size of England. Also ancient channels stand a testimonial that rivers ran in the middle of the desert. But in Sahara, climate has always been changing, which means in the dry weather, the lakes became small, and the number of plants reduced. Then when the moisture times returned, the lakes were filled and parts of Sahara got transformed to savannah. The same happened to humans, who thrived and lived in abundance like the plants, after a rare rain and when dry times came back they collapsed.
These waterways which existed long ago in the past have been located using radar images taken from space. They then actually steer their Land rovers to these spots and have been able to locate mineral residues from ancient lakes and springs, and have also discovered stone stools, arrowheads, fireplaces, graves and other clues that proved human activity in the past. The earliest modern humans lived about 130,000 years ago and they were either hunters or gatherers. They then left that place completely when rains decreased substantially about 70,000 years ago. But then again, rains returned and people moved in again. This movement or migration of people back and forth in and out if northern Africa due to change in climate is called Saharan pump. The desert rocks have scratches which prove the existence of animals like lions, elephants and rhinos which are water dependent creatures. So this again reveals truth about wetter Sahara.
About 5,000 years ago, when rain stopped again and when the lakes disappeared, the people stayed back. Art works from the rocks prove that they had changed their lifestyle from hunting to raising livestock. There was a rise in the society, where they began building towns and started agriculture. This is the Garamantian civilisation. They flourished in a much like present day’s Sahara climate. They were assumed to be nomads by many scholars. But excavations at their capital city Garama (modern day Jarmah) and the land survey done by Mattingly’s team show that they were sedentary people living by oasis agriculture. They constructed an advanced irrigation system that helped them grow wheat, barley, date palms and olives. Foggaras are underground canals that helped them tap groundwater and direct them to fields without loss to evaporation. This went on for hundreds of years, when finally this fossil water stored up in wet times started to give up and the civilisation collapsed.
For some Sahara seems to be a barrier, breaking apart Africa into two parts. But for people who lived in Libya for thousands of years, it has been a corridor through which gold, ivory and slaves came to the north from sub Saharan Africa, and olive oil, wine, glass and other goods from Mediterranean flowed south. It might have also been one of the pathways that the olden day’s people followed when they left the eastern part of the continent. It is also assumed that the early humans expanded beyond sub Saharan Africa into Eurasia, where they migrated along the river Nile, and across the Sinai or red sea. Fezzan may also have been part of a long migratory corridor which would have led modern humans to the shores of Mediterranean or across the Sinai.
Fifteen hundred years after the fall of the Garamantes, the Libyan government is now building the Great Man-Made River, a series of huge aqueducts to mine ancient underground water reserves below the Sahara and use them to make the desert bloom. The water being pumped was deposited tens of thousands of years ago, in much wetter times. Already the water table is declining because of the pumping. The project has an estimated life span of only 50 to 100 years, a blink of the eye in this region. The last chapter of the Fezzan is yet to be written.