Old Town of Ghadamès
Old Town Of Ghadamès
Cultural Libya Arab States

Ghadamès, known as the 'pearl of the desert', stands in an oasis. It is one of the oldest pre-Saharan cities and an outstanding example of a traditional settlement. Its domestic architecture is characterized by a vertical division of functions: the ground floor used to store supplies;then another floor for the family, overhanging covered alleys that create what is almost an underground network of passageways;and, at the top, open-air terraces reserved for the women. It is one of the oldest cities in the pre-Saharan region;it succeeded ancient Cydamae, a fortified city made an ally of Rome by Cornelius Balbus on his victorious expedition against the Garamantes in 19 BC.

Today it is a small oasis city situated next to a palm grove. None of the surviving buildings date from the protohistoric Berber period, or the period of Roman domination, yet a remarkable domestic architectural style distinguishes Ghadamès as a unique site among a series of pre-Saharan cities and settlements stretching along the northern edge of the desert from Libya to Mauritania. Roughly circular in layout, the historic city of Ghadamès comprises a cluster of houses. The reinforced outer walls of the houses on the edge of the city form a fortified wall. However, this rudimentary urban enclosure also incorporates, here and there, doors and bastions.

The basic units of the city are its houses, which have a minimum of two main floors. Access to the ground floor, which may be sunken, is by a single entrance door opens onto a narrow hallway leading to a rectangular-shaped room where provisions are stored, and, at the back, to a staircase. The staircase leads to a much more spacious upper level. Ground-level living space encroaches upon the blind enclosed passageways along the walls on the ground floor which open onto the city, forming arcades rather than actual streets. The first floor generally includes a raised attic and bedrooms, and sometimes a sitting-room;there may also be a second floor with a similar layout. At the level of the terraces (there may be three or four depending on the house) only the projecting portion formed by the raised attic rises above the roof, marked off by low enclosure walls.

The contradicting layout of this unusual city cannot be perceived as a whole. At ground level, the narrow, dark arcades cut off the main parts of the buildings, permitting virtually underground circulation;small, isolated family units are the salient feature of the upper floors. A kind of collective dimension is provided by the terraces, which form an open cityscape. However, they do so by separating the sexes: the terrace is the domain of women, and gives them a great deal of freedom, communicating between terraces;they make friends with neighbours and can even move about the 'roof' of the city. The covered arcades at ground level are generally reserved for men.

Ghadamès has conserved the original materials specific to this surprising urban structure: piséor clay brick walls, woodwork, masonry and palm-wood casings. Lime-washing of the walls inside and in large outdoor areas brightens the rooms and highlights the spartan decorations, windows and gypsum niches, paintings and objects.