Sam Bowker: The Grand Tour Diary (2005 - 2006)

This is the archived journal of a 2005-2006 'Grand Tour' around the Eastern Mediterranean and along East Africa, written by Sam Bowker, whilst in search of his PhD topic.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Libya - Ghadames

Dedicated to Mahmoud, who grew up in this stunning city while it was still alive.

Ghadames is located far from most regions of interest, within viewing distance of the Algerian border, and an inch or two on most maps from Tunisia.

It was a long day of driving through the utterly open and flat desert plains that stretch for vast distances into the Sahara. We passed along roads streaked with wind-blown rivers of sand, crumbling clay castles, and thousands of colossal electricity towers striding single-file into the horizon. Finally, the lights of Ghadames coloured the horizon just after the last sunlight disappeared.

Ghadames (Gha-dar-mez) is an ancient settlement, datiung back maybe 4500 years. This makes it one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on earth - and "city" is a fine description for this place of a few thousand inhabitants. It is by far the most cosmopolitan place for several days walk by camel. It's history is that of the caravanseri - trading teams on camels, carrying goods across the Sahara from Europe to the southern tip of Africa, and from Morocco to Anatolia and on through the Silk Road. Many were run by operators based in Ghadames, and this provided the community's wealth. This was aside from the reliable oasis water, ingeniously divided amongst farmers by a system that also became a unique standard for time measurement. The only real export of the city itself was embroidered slippers, now made by just one family for tourists and worn by locals only on festival days.

The old city is now a UNESCO maintained ghost town. No-one lives here any more, mainly because the buildings are too fragile to install a sewerage system of any kind (sun-baked adobe bricks that take up to six months to make and can stand for centuries in the desert become just plain old mud if you add water). It is breathtakingly beautiful.

Posters and images of the covered alleys adorn postcard stands and tourist info sites throughout Libya. It's very like a Santorini of the Sahara - every new corner produces a photogenic scene. And it's very very white, where gypsum is used to whitewash the outer walls, contrasting with the dusty and mud-brown tones of the vacant streets and incomplete buildings. The arches used to support the higher floors (most of the city is 3 or 4 stories high) are often in a Hand of Fatima style, and niches (installed comparatively recently) echo these indigenous forms. The uppermost heights feature a uniquely African triangular filial on each corner, and the roof level of the city was in fact a second city reserved for women. This way, by walking from rooftop to rooftop, they could cross the entire city without being seen by men or encountering the scum of the streets.

I am yet to review the images I have taken thoroughly, but there are several standouts already. Most are repeated views of the shadow-striated alleys, lined like what you quilters out there would call a crazy log cabin block in black and white. (Yes, I know quilters are reading this, very quietly sneaking away from Mum's blog... and no I'm not a quilter). They are haunting, hard to navigate, mesmerising and truly a world heritage treasure.

(The hotel we stayed in was designed to emulate the streets of the old city. We only realised this in retrospect. The first night we just wondered why we were placed in rooms ten minutes walk from the lobby when we were the only guests. After exploring Ghadames the layout of the corridors, the arches, the skylights, and the completely empty rooms, all made sense.)

The interior of a Ghadames house was a riot of red crosshatched wall paintings, mirrors to immerse the room with sunlight, and bronze bowls nailed to walls for both more colour and more reflected light. Colourful modern textiles lay about the floor of the central tall room, where we reclined over a communal bowl of couscous and camel, which tastes very like lamb. Once again, this is a scene deserving of photographs.

The local museum was modest, but very lovingly brought together. Labels were updated by handwritten annotations, and items on display seemed to still belong to locals. It was an excellent introduction to the old city, located in a former Italian barracks from the days of their Libyan occupation. The Italian Occupation weighs as heavily in the collective history of modern Libya as the WWI campaigns do for Australia.

That evening we visited a patch of tremendous sand dunes right beside the Algerian border. Dad and I climbed to the summit of the highest dune by ourselves to watch the sunset over the sprawling empty plains below, and counted the white border posts. No green flash this time. I ran back down the slope of the dune, leaving massive footprints in my wake, reliving the camping trips my family took to Wadi Rum in Jordan when I was much younger.

I was shaking Saharan sand from my shoes all the way to Benghazi.


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