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Libya – The Ancient Chariots of Libya

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Text and photography by David Adams

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Libya is Africa’s last great unknown. A vast desert country veiled from the West by fear, prejudice and misunderstanding. Two thousand years ago, though, it was home to the richest cities in Africa; command base for the Greek and Roman empires whose armies swept through North Africa. DAVID ADAMS embarks on a desert adventure to follow the dusty wheel tracks of ancient Rome’s ‘chariots of fire’ – the first wheeled vehicles to explore the Sahara. He discovers exoticism, brilliance and treasure in the wilderness.

The Sahara, one of the most unforgiving deserts on Earth, stretches like a dry, rolling sea across ten countries. Once there were no borders: North Africa (except Egypt) was all one place, known by one name – Libya. More than two thousand years ago when the armies of ancient Rome entered its endless deserts, they found a place of terror and mystery, a land as unknown to them as contemporary Libya is to the Western world.

I had long wanted to follow in the tracks of the chariots on a journey to the ends of the ancient Roman world to discover something of modern-day Libya. However, visas for photojournalists are rather predictably hard to come by, and if you are a Western, English-speaking photojournalist – well, just don’t bother asking. In London alone there were more than one hundred and twenty applications for journalists and film crews and none of them were being granted. Inexplicably, after only a few weeks wait and no fuss, I was granted access.

Though more than ninety percent desert, Libya has the longest Mediterranean coastline of any country. When the first Europeans arrived on these shores, they found a place of plenty, the seas rich with fish and the land fertile and warm – the perfect place to establish a foothold from which to explore the rest of Africa. It was the Greeks who first colonized Libya, but it was the Romans who left the most indelible mark. On the shores of the Mediterranean they built a city to rival anything in Europe, Leptis Magna (Libdah), and it still stands today – the best preserved of all Roman cities; including, arguably, even Rome itself.



Instead of arriving there by local bus, like the Libyan school children who seem to have the run of this remarkable site, I chose to arrive in the manner of those ancient conquerors. Before dawn I’d put-putted out across a turquoise sea in the fishing boat of Ali, Jamal and Mohammed, three Berbers brothers who make their living in a manner unchanged since the days of the Greeks. In a lifestyle that is pure Mediterranean, like generations before them they learned to catch octopus before they could read. One by one they pull the line of two hundred pots up by hand, checking each vessel for the bundle of tentacles and suckers squeezed inside for sanctuary. Upending the pot, the fishermen blow through a small hole in the base, which seems to annoy the octopus so much that it prefers to run the gambit of the brothers’ flailing clubs, rather than stay inside a moment longer. Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, everybody up to present day Berbers, have been doing it the same way because, as Ali assured me, “it’s the best way to catch an octopus”.

The brothers beach me at a quiet little cove beneath the ruin of Leptis Magna’s once great lighthouse and I stroll across the silted port towards the city – from the port a great thoroughfare leads towards the market and the theatre. Exploring these ruins, it’s easy to imagine what life would have been like here at the time of Christ. Located at the end of the North African Trans-Saharan trade routes, Leptis quickly became rich, trading in slaves and ivory, gold and wild animals and like all cities of the empire, it had its Circus Maximus, its gladiator’s arena.

Indeed the amphitheatre at Leptis’ was the most famous in the whole empire outside Rome’s own Coliseum. Even two thousand years after the slaughter and hysteria, it is still a powerful place. Standing out in the centre evokes an unsettling feeling, put a few stone blocks back in place and Ridley Scott’s Oscar-winning movie Gladiator could easily have been filmed here.

However even more popular than the hand-to-hand fights of the gladiators were the chariot races. Stretching for a kilometre down the coast is the chariot arena. Now if you remember the movie Ben Hur, with fifteen or twenty chariots hurdling around an arena, well this was the African version – a spectacle that would rival any sporting event today. But the chariot provided more than just entertainment. It was a war machine; it was the vehicle in which the Romans sought to conquer North Africa.

Said to be a haven for terrorists and Islamic extremists, Libya is regarded by many as a rogue nation, up there with Afghanistan and Iraq. As I neared Tripoli I felt sure that the architect of the Libyan Revolution, Muammar Gaddafi, ruled over a backward and medieval world.

The truth is rather different: modern buildings are everywhere and, like Rome, all roads seem to lead to the great square – the centre of a vibrant, modern city full of restaurants, shops and coffee houses. Libya is Italy without the alcohol. Overlooking this vast space are the walls of the old city, the street plan seemingly unchanged since the days of the charioteers.

It’s here that I meet my translator, Najat and she is very much the female face of modern Muslim Libya. She’s educated, wears jeans instead of an ankle-length dress, wears make-up instead of a veil and is free to meet me alone. Under the watchful eye of a ubiquitous Gaddafi photo in one of Tripoli’s defiantly traditional coffeehouses, we plan our trip south. Like the rest of the Arab world, the coffeehouse is still a male preserve. Najat may be a new age girl, but Libya is still a very conservative place, especially outside Tripoli, and she has never been to its conservative heart – the desert.

A hundred miles out of most other African capitals, and you’d be driving on dirt tracks. But oil wealth means that roads in Libya are often better than those in the West. However, two thousand years ago the charioteers heading into the Sahara wouldn’t have had it quite so easy. Almost nothing was known of this unique and hostile land and that mystery caught the imagination of the Europeans.

Writing 200 years before the Romans arrived in the second century BC, the Greek historian Herodotus gives us the first recorded glimpse of this ancient land, to which apparently Jason and his Argonauts were blown by a northern storm. Herodotus’s Libya was a place of legendary warriors, charioteers and mysterious people lost to history: the Adyrmachidae, Gilligammae, Asbystae, Auschisae, Nasamonians and many more.

As you head south there is a marked change in the landscape, as the fertile north melts into the heat haze of the vast barren interior. On the very edge of the sands Ghadames was the most southerly outpost of the Roman Empire, for a Roman soldier two thousand years ago it was the ends of the earth. Literally at the ‘edge of empire’, the minimum requirement to get out of this ‘hell on earth’ was to lose an eye, and that’s exactly what they did – they dug out their own eyes so they could go home.

Today Ghadames is ‘haven’ rather than ‘hell’ for the traveller, the old city remaining intact thanks to a UNESCO World Heritage Listing. Built to cope with the environment, every wall, alcove and opening is carefully designed for climate control. When temperatures outside swelter, the inhabitants go about their business in comfort in the cool tunnels and alcoves, temperatures remain a constant comfortable 18 degrees Centigrade. While outside, summer temperatures can still build to over 50 degrees Centigrade, only to plunge to below freezing at night.

For centuries the Berbers, the great traders of North Africa, stored and protected their goods in this fortified city / warehouse. Like a set out of Star Wars, the honeycomb recesses stored perishable produce such as olives, oil, cheese and salted meat which they traded with the great Trans-Saharan caravans that emerged from the sands carrying slaves, animals and ivory. However a haven of a different kind existed on the roof tops. A no-go zone for men, the women of Ghadames raised their children and did their daily chores safely above the prying eyes of men. But then, as now, they looked down on a world dominated by men.

In an event peculiar to Ghadames, Sufi mystics, an ancient order of monks, still gather every Islamic holiday as they’ve done for centuries, to chant phrases from the Qur’an over and over to communicate directly with the Prophet and bring good fortune to the community. As they dance I recall this place has a darker history, this very square was once a slave market. Many of the slaves that made Leptis Magna and Rome’s other African cities rich came from Ghadames and the descendants of those slavers still control these lands.

The territories of the Tuareg cover a vast area of the central Sahara, spreading across the borders of Libya, Mauritania, Niger, Algeria and Mali and though they may no longer deal in slaves, they’re as fiercely independent as ever.

Now, as in Roman times, anyone who travels further south than Ghadames has to enter their territory on their terms. A few hundred miles further south there’s a city buried in the sand that suggests that the chariot and Rome’s influence went much further south into the Sahara than history records.

At the oasis of Sabha, is one of the largest camel markets in North Africa. At any one time, there are upwards of 25,000 camels here, most of them brought in from Sudan. Traditionally, this market supplied the beasts of burden for the great camel caravans that criss-crossed the Sahara.

Today, most of the animals are sold for meat. We’ve stopped to replenish supplies and not surprisingly, the modern uncovered Najat quickly becomes something of a curiosity. However any notion you might have about female Tuareg being the subjugated partner is far from the truth. Despite the almost legendary warrior reputation of Tuareg men, Tuareg society is matrilineal. Women own the family tents, only women are allowed to learn and write the Tuareg language, and all hereditary rights are passed to the first-born daughter.

We are invited to witness a ‘little camel haggling’ by one of Najat’s admirers, Mohammed Ali, who has been buying and selling camels since he was a boy. He’s made the three-month’s return trip to Khartoum more than 40 times and yet he’s never seen an uncovered woman from Tripoli here before. A reputedly wily trader, Mohammed Ali knows to the last pound of flesh what they’re worth. An animated, seemingly angry and impossible to follow tirade of Tuareg and Arabic follows with the caravan leader, and then the deal’s done. It’s a timeless scene, and one that could easily have been witnessed by charioteers that came this way in Roman times.

With wide, slightly deflated tires and powerful engines, today’s four-wheel-drive chariots can cover great distances quickly in relative comfort. But could traditional chariots with wooden wheels really have negotiated the dune of the Sahara? And where would the drivers have found the food to feed their horses?

What’s likely, is that for much of the time they didn’t have to travel across the dunes at all, instead they were able to follow any one of the Sahara’s interconnecting wadi systems (hard-packed valleys which could well have supported the chariots and their crude wheels). Wadi el-Hyet, which means the valley of life, is one of the largest and it ran through the centre of an empire that spread across 70,000 square miles of desert.

Lain buried for centuries under the ruins of countless later cities, the secrets of this desert Atlantis are now being revealed by a team of archaeologists from Britain and Libya. With team leader Professor David Mattingly from Leicester University, I scramble through the ruins of an ancient city now being excavated: Garama, the Garamantian capital, from another world, the remains of its jagged mud bastions resemble a film set from Star Wars or Planet of the Apes.

Herodotus again speaks to us through the ages: “From Thebes to the pillars of Hercules lies a waterless desert. Here, live the Garamantians. They hunt in chariots. They eat snakes and lizards and speak a language like no other, but squeak like bats”

Mattingly explains that the Greek and Roman descriptions of the Garamantes as “a backward, barbaric and nomadic people” were a common stereotype of the time that has led to a deep misconception of the ancient Saharans.

We have long imagined them as essentially nomadic, however at their peak the Garamantians made the desert bloom, constructing a 3,000-mile network of irrigation canals linked to underground aquifers to carry their most precious resource. “Oasis living is all about sedentary living and organized agriculture”, says Mattingly, “and they also had very developed metallurgy – advanced technology that would have enabled them to build and maintain chariots and weapons of war.

Mattingly leads us to the lowest levels, the ancient foundations of Garama and at the centre we stroll across the intricate paving of a Mediterranean-style temple. With a little imagination, one could see the stately columns rise to support the great shelter of ceiling that would have protected the pantheon of Roman gods from the Saharan sun. So was ‘this’ the end of the Roman world, was this as far as the chariots traversed the sands?

Then another tantalizing mystery, as we part: Professor Mattingly tells us of ancient paintings somewhere in the remote mountains that separate Libya from Algeria – paintings of war chariots in full flight.

The Sahara in Southern Libya is actually a collection of deserts, everything from immense seas of sand and stony wastes to rugged mountains. It hasn’t rained in the Akakus Mountains for thirty years and so about the last thing you’d expect to find in such an environment is a crocodile! However on the walls of wadis and escarpments are the images of animals that belong a thousand mile to the south in the rich savannas and deltas of Sub-Saharan Africa. What is trackless desert today was once a lush stream of lagoons watering a rich land full of zebra, buffalo, ostrich, rhino and giraffe. How do we know? Well approximately five thousand years ago, the humans who came here to fish and hunt recorded their world.

However since then the Sahara has been drying up, through the centuries the water table steadily dropping. Not surprisingly very few people remain, though Ali Akbar and his family have stayed on, each day they make the fifteen-kilometre trip to the one and only well. Ali’s watched as his neighbours and friends have all literally left for greener pastures. So, why does he stay? It’s because he’s the self-appointed guardian of the treasure trove of rock art scattered through the mountains above his home.

In the comfort of his Bedouin style tent, we drink tea and discuss the possibility of finding and filming his treasures. However after a pot or two, he politely declines to show us, as he fears they might be ruined. Except for Government officials they remain off limits. We all agree that this is a sound policy, however could he make an exception? He refuses to budge, although he has no problem with us looking for ourselves, although he says there’s no guarantee of finding anything.

The Akakus can only be described as the monument valley of Libya. Over the millennia the sands of the Sahara have swept in amongst the jagged ranges, mesas and crags, softening their forms to create a surreal realm, a gigantic sea frozen in full fury against mighty cliffs. The huge range is a maze of high-walled interconnecting valleys and blind canyons where many have perished simply because once inside, they couldn’t find their way out. Our fuel is running low, so we can’t afford to spend a lot of time searching. Our guide, Mansor, decides to take us to a cave system he knows about, although he’s never seen a chariot there – but then again, he’s only ever explored a tiny part of it.

In these incredible mountains, figures constantly loom up out of the landscape, echoes of the people who once called this place home. In a magnificent cavern above what once was a river valley, we gaze up at two humanoid figures painted, according to Mansor, between six and eight thousand years ago. A man and a woman, they hold hands through eternity, below them in the red sandstone, smooth holes worn by grinding grain, a tangible connection to the families that lived here.

That night we prepare for the long haul back to Tripoli, apart from only having enough fuel for the return trip, we’re also running low on other supplies. Around the fire Najat, Mansor and I talk of the journey and the incredible wealth of Libya. Najat vows to return to the desert that has given her a very different view of her country. However both of them feel disheartened about how Libya and Libyans are seen by the outside world.

“People forget”, says Mansor, “that a country and its people are not defined by the actions of their governments”. But he’s glad that tourism is beginning, “and so they can see the truth, so they can see how this country is living. It’s not as they used to think!”

As the vehicles are loaded, Mansor scours the map one last time. Before we leave, we’ve got the time for one final attempt to find the paintings we’ve come all this way to see. A two-hour trek from our camp, there’s another cave system.

Under the lee of an ancient overhang, we find the world I’ve been looking for – the public records of forgotten societies recorded on stone. The intricate drawings show the animals they hunted, the landscape, the clothes they wore, their rituals – the minutiae of their daily lives, a history book of what was happening two and a half thousand years ago. There are cattle, camels (a recent arrival in the desert at that time), a group of hunters and warriors and then we find what we’ve been looking for – a chariot in full flight. Pulled by two horses, their legs are almost a blur of movement and the chariot curiously is drawn from a perspective above the war machine.

What is unclear is whether the drawing was a sign, like their brand, made by the charioteers saying, ‘beware this is our territory’. Or whether it was painted by a person who had never seen a chariot. Out of the sands come five or ten of these terrifying war machines, cutting down his warriors and laying waste to his world. The artist, in fact, was recording the arrival of a fearful unknown technology into his world.

The only problem is that these artworks were most likely painted more than two and a half thousand years ago, centuries before the Romans and the Greeks even came to Libya. I started out in the tracks of the Roman chariots, and ended up finding evidence suggesting even earlier charioteers. So if they were not Romans, who were they? Were they the Garamantians – warriors of a great civilization that once flourished in the heart of this ancient desert? Or were they someone else, another civilization as yet unknown? Perhaps the answer still lies out there somewhere in the sands.