Libya's lost kingdom
The road from Sebah to Ghat (the main access route to the Jebel Akakus) passes through a string of small towns, the largest of which is Germa. Apart from being the biggest of the towns in the Wadi al-Hayat, the town, as it appears from the road, doesn't seem to be any more than yet another sleepy outpost with perhaps a few more amenities than the others along the way. But the appearance of today's Germa belies a fascinating past for here was the centre of an empire that, whilst no real threat to Rome, was certainly an irritant that warranted expeditions being sent out, first in unsuccessful attempts to crush and finally to seek an alliance with these lords of the desert.
They were the Garamantians, and Garama (the ancient name for Germa) was their capital. Little remains of their empire today beyond thousands of burial sites in the hills around Germa. The excavated areas in the desolate ruins (photo 1) of the mediaeval Islamic city that was built over Garama and cemeteries of pyramid tombs (photo 2) along the roadside are the most easily accessed remains of a successful desert culture that lasted here for hundreds of years. Known for their skill as horse breeders, cattle herders and warriors - the Garamantians controlled the caravan routes through this region and grew wealthy on the flow of trade out of Africa. Italian archaeologists have uncovered some substantial remains in the old city (and left the detritus of their work behind them - photo 3) - notably the sandstone foundations of large house and the area of the market square but mostly the old city is a crumbling maze of mudbrick walls and narrow alleyways, the relics of an Islamic city that prospered here and was only abandoned finally in 1937. The palm trees in the oasis immediately around the city are dying and in the fields beyond (photo 4) that huge modern sprinklers have replaced the "foggara" - the stone-lined underground irrigation channels that enabled the Garamantians to grow the crops needed to sustain a large population.
Lakes? In the desert?
That's the reaction of everyone when you tell them about the Ubari Lakes, extraordinary bodies of water that are to be found lying amid the barren dunes if the Ubari Sand Sea. These lakes fulfil the quintessential vision of a desert oasis - a calm, still body of water rimmed with palm trees and reeds and surounded by wave after wave of golden dunes. Lying in the southern reaches of the sand sea, there are about 20 of them scattered over a relatively small area not too far from the Sebah-Ghat road, with 4, Um al Maa, Mandara, Mavo and Gebraoun, being particularly accessible. Most tours will visit at least two of them - however many you aim to see, they are a sight not to be missed.
Formed by small geological faults that allow fossil water to well up to the surface, all but one are extremely salty - almost as saline as the Dead Sea. Swimming in Umm al Maa is possible but beware of small nicks or abrasions - they'll sting like anything, and you will feel very sticky and uncomfortable when you come out, so make sure the bush shower at the lake has water in it before you take a dip.
We visited Um al Maa and Mandara on our way out to the Akakus and intended to visit Mavo and Gebraoun on our way back to Sebah - severe dust haze following a desert sand storm put paid to that idea!
Many of the lakes, Mandara included, are drying up. Mandara's water level has dropped dramatically in recent years and there were only small pools of water lying well out in the black mud of the lake floor. Interesting, but not the beautiful sight we had been expecting. We made a brief stop there and then set off across the dunes to Um al Maa. Despite all the tyre tracks in the fish-fash (the fine dune sand), when we got to the lake we had it all to ourselves. It was breathtaking - the reflections in the mirror-still water as perfect as anything you could imagine. It was hard to tear ourselves away.
Fruits of the desert
Barren and dry as the desert is, there is still vegetation to be found there. A small variety of plants have managed to adapt themselves to the meagre traces of water available to them. The dunes are all but totally devoid of vegetation (watch out for tiny dics with a surprisingly sharp thorns though that seem to be everywhere in some spots however, even though there are no plants as such to be seen - they're a real hazard for bare feet) but along the lines of the wadis there can be quite a variety of plants - desert melons (photo 1), horribly bitter but life-sustaining nonetheless, the lilac-flowered sodom apple (photo 2) even managing to bear fruit though neither camels nor goats will eat it, and the latexy sap is poisonous - so don't go picking a sprig . Acacia trees provide shade and firewood (photo 3) - I was surprised at just how much wood our driver managed to gather whilst we were out there - whilst a surprisingly wide variety of low-growing desert shrubs (photo 4) provide grazing for the few nomad families (photo 5) who still live here and shelter for the animals and insects that also make the desert their home.
The final era
The Garamante people who dominated the Fezzan in the last years of the pre-Christian era introduced the camel along with the horse. First as a beast of burden and increasingly a mode of human transport as the desertification of the region increased, the camel came to be the defining creature of the last period of Saharan rock art. The Camel Period began circa 200BC, continued for the next 2000+ years and has only recently given way to the very last stage of the art of the Akakus - the Toyota Period.
Increasingly crude in their execution, paintings (photo 1) and carvings (photo 2) of camels are to be found all through the Akakus. If the protective measures for the ancient works are a success, and graffiti is kept at bay, will the example of "Toyota art" in photo 3 be considered a unique work by the archaeologists of the future?
Akakus Art 101: Introduction
Scattered on rock faces, hidden under overhangs, the rock art of the Jebel Akakus is an marvellous body of work that not only spans a period of some 10000 years but also tells the story of the changing face of the Sahara, from a time that saw elephant, giraffe, hippo and other megafauna roaming what must have been a lush savannah where man lived as hunter -gatherers through succeeding eras of human development and climatic change to the stark, barren landscape we see today.
The rock carvings and paintings found here are generally considered to fall into five historical eras, beginning with the most wonderfully observed and rendered illustrations of animals that are thought to date from 10000-6000BC. The condition of many of them is remarkable, due no doubt to the extreme aridity of their surroundings.
Look closely at the photo here and you will find three distinct periods spanning 10000 years or more. The dominant figure of the ox (photo 2)with huge horns (a wild buffalo) is the earliest and dates from the first period, known as the Wild Fauna Period. The stylized triangular human figure (photo3) dates from the Horse Period (c. 1000BC-1AD) while the camels (photo 4) appeared sometime after 200AD.
One of the great things about the Akakus art is how accessible it is - at present. Whilst 3 of the sites we visited can only be viewed from behind low barriers, most of it is right there - you could (but you don't!) touch it, put your face right up to it. This will, must, change as ever-increasing tourist numbers will, sadly but inevitably, place the precious works at risk. Two days spent in the area enabled us to see an extraordinary amount, an unforgettable gallery such as we had never seen before.
Wheels and writing
As with any civilization, the introduction of the wheel and the arrival of the horse brought huge changes to the Saharans of the Jebel Akakus. Now it was possible to cover large distances, to move people, animals and belongings quickly. Depictions of chariots (photo 1) and carts (photos 2)appear on the rocks and the era is known as the Horse Period (1000BC - 1AD). Paradoxically, as life became more sophisticated, the skill of the artists continued to decline. Human figures are reduced to much simpler forms (photo 3) and have lost much of the animation and spirit of the previous period. By the transition into the next (and last ) period, they are no more than stick arms and legs, two triangles for the body and a circle for the head.
Writing (photos 4 & 5) appears - characters known as "tifinagh" - these an early form of Tuareg alphabet that can be written vertically, horizontally, from left to right or right to left. These characters bear a close resemblance to the contemporary Tuareg writing, also known as "tifinagh" ,that is used by the Tuareg and Berber people of North Africa today but few in Libya claim to be able to read the old inscriptions.
As is common in academic circles, there are divided opinions about the age of the earliest rock paintings and petroglyphs but by now we have entered the age of written history and this period of the Akakus can be precisely identified by the events of neighboring civilizations - the arrival of the horse in Africa, the Phoenecians, the Roman conquest of the fertile lands to the north. We know the region of the Fezzan was drying out, but oases and fossil water deposits sustained the cities and towns of a civilization known as the Garamantes who controlled the caravan routes and trade out of Africa and who harassed the Romans with raids that took them as deep into Roman territory as Leptis Magna on the coast of the Mediterranean. By the end of this period, the Jebel Akakus and the land around it had begun to look much as it does today.
Wind and rock
Over countless years, the sand-filled winds of the desert have created some extraordinary rock formations in the Jebel Akakus. Huge natural arches (photos 1 and 2) carved out of the sandstone, gravity defying pillars of black basalt (photo 3), a trio of massive rocks that look for all the world like some giant's loaves of bread left to prove in the sun (photo 4) are just some of the striking formations that are to be found in the desert. This landscape of wind-blasted rock is known as the hamara (photo 5).
By the time things had moved on to what is now known as the Pastoral period (6000-2000BC), the region of the Jebel Akakus must have been an idyllic place. People were living in settled communities, cattle were domesticated (photos 1) and there was time for ceremony and ritual in people's lives (photo 2 shows a man blowing a horn, other in dialogue). Wild animals still roamed the savannah.(photo 3). By this time, the artists appear to be losing some of their skills, figures are sketchier - though still very animated (photo 4).There was trouble in paradise too - paintings show battle troops and skirmishes, spears and bows and arrows, confrontation (photo 5). The large storage jar in this painting, and others, also tells us this was a time of plenty.
There is a wealth of such information of the lives of these pre-historic people in these paintings. Their importance to mankind cannot be stressed too highly. In combination with similar works in the Tassili des Ajjers, across the border in Algeria (see JLBG's wonderful pages on this region) they paint an detailed picture of life in the region in a time when what is now desert was a fertile place, and of the changes brought about as civilization evolved and the climate changed. Since they were first discovered in 1850 the have been considered among the finest works of rock art anywhere in the world. More than 1300 individual sites have been discovered in the Akakus so far - the Black Plateau of the Mesak Settayat has thousands more, though they are nearly all petroglyphs, not paintings. As a tourist you are only going to see the very tip of this mountain of work, but even that is an extraordinary experience - one that has whetted my appetite for another visit.
- Historical Travel
The first depictions of man in the Akakus paintings is referred to as the Round Head Period and covers the period 8000-6000BC. Faded and indistinct as many of them are, there's a charm to these figures that I found very endearing, with their almost abstract forms and strange large headdresses. Hunters and gatherers in the early stages, familiar with the wild animals of the savannah, by the end of the period there are indications that cattle have been domesticated (photo 3) and dogs are clearly being used in the hunt (photo 5). Life is becoming more ritualized - one tiny scene (photo 4) shows a woman being dressed in an elaborate netted costume - is she a bride, and don't you love the dress and stance of her attendant? Her counterpart can be seen in marketplaces all over Africa today. There's a definite dialogue and exchange going on in another miniature scene (photo 2).
Human figures are almosts always depicted in paint, and most of the figures are very small. When first discovered by Europeans, their condition was extraordinarily fine. It didn't take long for this to begin to change, as unsupervised early tourists performed incredible acts of vandalism - splashing the paintings with water to bring out the colour for clearer photographs, chipping small images out of the rock, applying silicone in an attempt to lift the image from the surface(truly - I have a photo of that one - the silicone forever impregnated into the rock). The introduction of mandatory permits and guides for everyone entering the Akakus has gone a long way to stop such appalling behaviour. The tricks of digital manipulation of photos also means you can now take your photos and bring out the details more clearly should you feel they need it.
The vivid imagery and animation of the paintings and carvings recognized as the oldest works in the Akakus, those of the Wild Fauna Period (10000-6000BC) is absolutely extraordinary. These are living, breathing animals - the graceful, swaying motion of giraffe, heads poised on long necks and slender legs caught perfectly; a charging elephant - ears flapping and trunk swinging - so full of vigour and beautifully observed; an ostrich at full stretch; the unmistakable rear end of a hippo, a wild bull with its head turned, horns at 3/4 view captured exactly in just a simple line - these people, whoever they were, were masters at their art, their use of perspective and ability to create impressions of depth and movement unmatched for millenia.
Take the time to read something about what you are going to find when you visit the Akakus - your appreciation of both the artistic merit and historical importance of these works will be greatly enhanced if you do, especially if you are travelling independently or without a qualified guide. Your Tuareg driver/guide will know where to find the works but probably will not have the necessary language skills to explain their significance even if he has the knowledge.