Old Town of Ghadames


Ghadames is an old oasis Berber town in northwest Libya. According to Temehu there is evidence that this town dates back to Paleolithic times. The Old Town of Ghadames is an example of one of the oldest pre-Saharan cities.  Ghadames is known as the pearl of the desert due to white buildings in the middle of the dark desert sand. These buildings are of particular interest because they are made entirely of mud. This design allows for cool temperatures in the heat of the day, as well as retaining heat during the frigid nights.

The  structures of the Old Town of Ghadames are not typical. The first floors are used as a storage space, the next floor is for family living. Most interesting however, is how the rooftops are used. There are approximately 1,300 houses in Ghadames and all of the rooftops are connected. The purpose of this kind of architecture steams from religious beliefs. The interpretation of Islam of those living in Ghadames believe that women should not be seen by any men that are not part of their family. Therefore the women used the rooftops as streets to travel throughout the town without being seen by the men who use the streets on the ground level.

This site is a UNESCO world heritage site because it falls under criteria v. Which means that the site is an example of of a traditional human settlement, land-use, or sea-use which is representative of a culture (or cultures), or human interaction with the environment especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change. ICOMOS brought this site to the attention of UNESCO in 1986. During prior years it became apparent that people were leaving the city of Ghadames at an alarming rate.

This video from UNESCO provides an excellent tour of what the mud buildings look like internally and externally.  

Endangering Factors


The mass exodus of Ghadames was due to the state of the buildings in the city. Being one of the oldest inhabitable cities in the Sahara it is understandable that the houses were starting to fall apart. The environment within the city was deteriorating and houses were falling apart, which caused many to leave. Another factor that contributed to the drop in population was the main water source in the city ran dry. Not only was the water shortage a health concern, but also it resulted in Date trees dying. These Dates were a commodity that people sold and traded resulting in economic stability. Without a means of income families were forced to move to neighboring towns.  Due to a lack of water and economic stability in the area the last family to leave did so in the early 90’s.


UNESCO wanted this city to be preserved as a testimony of an early human settlement. While the city was no longer inhabited, Libyan authorities put efforts forth to make the city a popular tourist attraction and a source of revenue for surrounding areas. By making this site a tourist attraction it was hoped that enough money would be made and deterioration could be staled. Furthermore, by making Ghadames a tourist attraction it was hoped that deviants would be detoured from coming to the city to vandalize it.  This effort was successful for awhile. Unlike some other sites in danger, tourism actually helped this site as well as the economy in surrounding areas without putting the site in danger. A former tour

guide, Taher Ibrahim stated that there used to be 30,000-35,000 tourist visit the Old Town of Ghadames during peak season. He continued by saying, “I used to take the tourists to all the beautiful sites in the old city, they used to love it. They are no longer coming now but when they return, I will be here.” Tourism has declined in recent years due to the Civil war that broke out in 2011 in Libya. Tourists are scared to travel to an unstable region. And while the lack of tourist revenue has not devastated Ghadames it has left the area very vulnerable.

Instability/ Conflict

As with any war, there are many casualties and widespread violence. In 2011 Civil War broke out in Libya after a group call the anti- Gaddafi forces came out against the leader of Libya (Gaddafi) and his controversial policies. As expected tourism took a nose dive. International tourist do not want to take a vacation in the middle of instability and conflict. As stated in a Reuters article,  residence are not dependent on tourists visiting Ghadames to make an sustainable income. However, the economy in the region is in a clear downturn. Not only has conflict in the region effected tourism, but also destruction from the instability has made its way into the Old Town of Ghadames. In September of 2011 there was a raid of Pro Gaddafi forces that battled Anti Gaddafi forces for several months. This siege left about a dozen dead and multiple wounded. The presence of this kind of destruction is very troubling to a World Heritage site. Places like the Old Town of Ghadames is a non renewable resource, in the event that it was destroyed due to conflict in the region, it is something that can never be recreated. For this reason the site was put on UNESCO’s list in danger world heritage sites. In many areas surrounded by conflict it seems controversial to spend time, money, and effort protecting heritage sites when there are more immediate dangers. Protection of these sites are important however, because archaeologist can learn so much about our past from them. Protection of these sites are never guaranteed during conflict, yet an effort should be put forth to try to preserve them for future generations.

Global Issues

According to Nature, the biggest issue that archaeologist are facing in Libya is the fact that fieldwork was still going on prior to the start of conflict in the region. Archaeologist are responsible for educating the public about past humans, something that is very prevalent in Africa. Particularly in the desert, much can be learned about past climates as well as human movement. However, for the safety of archaeologist, fieldwork has been put on hold due to unrest in the region. The Libyan Civil War effects us on a global scale because other cultural heritage site have already been damages or even destroyed, for example, the Karamanli mosque was destroyed as a result of conflict in Libya. When important site like this are destroyed we can no longer learn about past societies who used/built the artifacts. In regards to the Old Town of Ghadames, this site is an example of a traditional settlement, and much can still be

learned about the movement of people from this site, but only if it stays in tact. Again this effects us on a global scale because past research has indicated that a majority of modern humans descended from somewhere in Africa. While these commonalities are very far in the past, it still represents cohesion among the human race. Of course no one can say when fieldwork will resume in the area, because no one can predict when the region will be stable, but as Sabloff states in his book, warfare is not innate human behavior. And as we have learned from the past, most conflict arises over inadequate allocation of resources and wealth. Both of these issues were present during Gaddafi’s reign, which contributed to the unrest (Sabloff 2008).

According to Savino di Lernia a writer for, fieldwork in Libya will be paused for many years to come. he believes that getting funding for extensive excavations as well as getting enough archaeologist to come to the unstable region is highly unlikely. This may mean that many potential discoveries about human past, climate change, societies, etc. will go undiscovered and possible be destroyed during warfare. That is why agencies like UNESCO are so important, because right now fieldwork is not plausible, but it is still important to put forth effort to preserve site so eventually we can learn and grow from the discoveries.


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Libya’s desert “pearl” Ghadames awaits return of tourists. Reuters. Electronic Documents., accessed Dec 4, 2016.

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6 thoughts on Ghadames

  1. I find the mud huts and their tie to religion interesting. Is there anything in place at the site of Ghadames to protect the it from possible destruction from conflict?

    1. One thing that I found in my research as well as in other students presentations was during a lull in the conflict, it is possible to go into the sites and document the artifacts present, by taking detailed notes as well as pictures. This way in the event that they are destroyed before the conflict is resolved at least we have a small idea of the material that was present there.

  2. Looking great! Be sure to proofread for typos. The link “buildings destroyed due to conflict” links to a google image search rather than a particular article. Be sure that your link goes to a specific reputable site, and that the site appears in your bibliography.

  3. Your site is similar to mine in regards to the threats! It a new perspective of how tourism can be seen as a good thing in hopes to bring in money for restoration. I found it interesting about the rooftop travel that women utilized to not be seen by men!

  4. My site is also in Libya. Has the town been personally affected by the conflict going on in this area yet? As in damage done to the buildings themselves? My site has not been physically damaged from the conflict besides the increase in human activity around the area.

    1. The town of Ghadames was actually completely abandoned in the early 90’s, so civilians have not been harmed in this area due to the conflict. However, during the raid that occurred in 2011, around 10 people were killed and about 70 were wounded. It was unclear from the reading I did if the buildings themselves were damaged.

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