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:: LIBYA ETHNOGRAPHY ::

Libya map.

Total population: +/- 5,7 millions.
Saharan population: +/- 3 millions (53%).
Total population density: 3,2 hab/km2.
Saharan population density: 1,75 hab/km2.
Ethnics: A majority of arabs mainly in the north, berbers mainly in the south-west, a minority of toubous mainly in the south-east, and minorities of egyptians, subsaharans, bangladeshis, chineses and filipinos in the main cities.
Languages: Arabic, berber, english and italian.
Religions: 98% islamic and 2% christian.
Life expectancy: 77 years.

Libya, as many other parts of northern Africa, was occupied by the Ottoman Empire since the early years of the XVI century. In 1912 the ottomans were driven out by the italians, who started agricultural projects in the mediterranean areas near Tripoli and Bengasi. In 1940, the french and british took control on Libya, which immediately was involved in war when the germans invaded northern Africa to drive out the british from Egypt and get access to the oilfields in the Caucasus and support their war effort against the Soviet Union.

After the war, Libya became independent, but since 1970 it has been a closed and obscure country during decades of authoritarian regime. Though this country is the main exporter of oil in Africa and because of that it achieved the first position in richness in the african rankings, this is actually a country where the wealth is very badly distributed and a major part of the population lives in the poverty. In the recently emerged saharan cities, buildings look ugly and decayed, sidewalks are narrow, broken or inexistent, the road layout is outdated and many cars are in poor condition... These towns seem to be in worse condition than their algerian counterparts. Unlike in other neighboring countries, tourism in Libya is not well developed and this leads to poor employment opportunities. At least, the oil income has funded agricultural projects in the southern regions and the explotation and distribution of the underground fossile waters. Saharan towns in Libya are accompanied by dozens of square kilometers of both traditional and pivot irrigation crops.


In the following images, two views of the old town of Ghadames, surrounded by a stone wall and today almost unoccupied. However, many of the former neighbors return to their homes in the hottest days of summer to enjoy the coolness of the old buildings.

A street in the old town of Ghadames. Palms and houses in the old town of Ghadames.

Ghadames is one of the ancient towns in Libya and traditionally a settlement for the touareg community. Ghadames was in the past an important trading point between the southern Sahara and the mediterranean cities, occupied by the romans and later arab invaders. Along the history, the town has been conquered by berbers, romans, byzantines, arabs and ottomans. During the rule of the byzantines it became a christian town and finally the arabs brought the present islamism.

The old town or medina is designed to withstand the heat, being a labyrinth of narrow streets and vaulted tunnels under the buildings that are of two or three floors height, made from white washed adobe. The medina has two gates, one to enter to the south and another to exit. In the past times, they were only opened between the first prayer of the morning and the last one of the afternoon. Inside the medina there are several mosques and a small channel collects water from the oasis and directs it to a gallery with individual parts for hygiene and ablutions. There is also a fountain used as a water clock to indicate the time of prayers. The houses have many rooms on different levels. In such muslim cities, women had access to all housing, but only they had access to terraces and roofs, to prevent their male neighbors from observing them. Due to lower the water table by the use of pumps, some of which watered the palms have dried up and they are not so carefully maintained as they should be, although the foliage of the palms is still present in the old city with its charm.

In the new town live around 10000 people, being about 40% of them immigrants from Algeria and Tunisia, for both countries have their borders next to the town. Old and new towns are attached together but not mixed, and have similar sizes. A considerable palm garden lies within the old town, while the new town is lacking greenery. North and west of the town start the sand dunes of the Grand Erg Oriental while to the south and east extends the stony surface of the Hammada al-Hamra.

Left and center images: aspects of the medina in Ghadames; a narrow street leads to an old mosque and a barred window in a hanging room watchs upon a passage.

Right image: a young touareg woman from Ghadames. Today, berber culture is discriminated by the arabs, who don't want to allow the learning of the berber dialects.

A street in the old town of Ghadames. A passage in the old town of Ghadames. A targui girl from Ghadames.



The archaeological site of Garama lies about 30 km east from the town of Awbari. The site shows the remains of the capital town of an ancient berber empire whose citizens are known as the garamantes. The garamantes were a sedentary people of farmers that established several major towns in the Fezzan region, maintained by an irrigation system that exploited the fossile waters present in the underground. The construction and maintenance of this irrigation system was a labour made by slaves. The underground tunnels that they constructed to access the water deposited under the limestone layer that lies below the sands of the desert are known as foggara by the berbers.

This empire had its heyday between approximately 600 BC and 700 AC. The capital town could have a population of several thousands and trading with the carthaginians and romans settled in the mediterranean coast was habitual. This empire operated the trade routes between the mediterranean coast and the sahelian states of western and central Africa. The references about this empire come mostly from ancient roman and greek sources and from archaeological excavations. Ancient sources state that they had quarries of amazonite in the Tibesti mountains.

During a time they used to raid the roman settlements in the coast; the romans eventually grew tired of this situation and launched a campaign against them. The roman legions crossed 600 km of merciless desert and conquered fifteen of their settlements in 19 AC. Despite of that, the empire of the garamantes continued to grow and reached around 180000 km2 around 150 AC. Some centuries later the empire declined and fragmented, dissapearing in the fog of history. The most probable reason could be the depletion of their fossile water deposits.

The archaeological site of Garama.

Left image: a sunray crosses through a passage in the old citadel at Sabhah.

Right image: the satellite view shows the insignificance of the old citadel when compared in size with the new city of Sabhah built around it. The medina is enclosed within the city and the contrast between both is just demolishing. The agricultural revolution in southern Libya has greatly increased the population of the local towns. Many subsaharans have been attracted to live in this area. Today, Sabhah is the largest city in the central Sahara, with a population of around 130000 inhabitants.

A passage in the old citadel at Sabhah. Satellite view of the medina at Sabhah.

The image below shows the old ottoman fort in the town of Marzuq, a town with around 12000 inhabitants that lies in the northern edge of the Erg Marzuq. During six centuries this town thrived as the capital of the Fezzan region under ottoman rule and was an important point in the north-south trade route across the Sahara that started in Tripoli. After the ottoman period this town started to decline.

The old ottoman fort of Marzuq.

Ghat is a town of about 10000 inhabitants located near the Tadrart Akakus mountains, next to the algerian border and the Tassili-n-Ajjer plateau. In historical times, it was an important point on the transaharan trade routes and a major administrative center in the Fezzan region. Ghat was a stronghold for the Kel Ajjer targui confederation whose territory covered most of south-western Libya, including the towns of Awbari, Marzuq, Sabhah and Ghadames, apart from Djanet and Illizi in south-eastern Algeria.

Left image: a view upon the old city of Ghat.

Right image: the fortress built by the italians in Ghat is today a touristic attraction. The italians had a difficult time trying to conquest Ghat from the arab and berber senussies and eventually decided to built the fortress to better defend their positions.

A view of the old town in Ghat. The italian fortress in Ghat.

Libya Geography



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