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Ghadames: Libya’s Saharan Secret

Ghadames, an oasis town in the heart of the Sahara desert is on the edge of Libya, close to both the Algerian and Tunisian borders. It is an extremely special place and a source of pride for many Libyans, having been dedicated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1986.

The predominant reason for this recognition is the unique “old town.” A labyrinth of interconnected rooftops and narrow dark tunnels, contrasting the brilliant white-washed walls which make the old town an architectural spectacle.

Local guide Mohammed tells me, “growing up in the old town as a child you quickly have to commit to memory the numerous tunnels and passages, determining which are true and which are dead ends. It stimulates a healthy memory!” 50 years on, Mohammed can still navigate the old town maze by heart as I blunder around behind him, barely able to see my hand in front of me. The stark contrast of dark and light, as well as the bright white buildings play tricks on the eyes and it’s easy to become quickly bedazzled by this unique walled town.

Moving into one of the traditional dwellings, one is immediately hit with a burst of colour which starkly contrasts the white outer walls. Traditional Ghadamesy colours are utilised, predominantly red with complimentary yellow, green and orange. Some front doors are also decorated with these colours to denote that its inhabitants have undertaken the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.

Each of the rooms within the uniform 4 story houses has a designated purpose, whether it’s wheat storage or rooms for washing the dead before burial. The high roofs and light colours make the houses intensely cool as a relief to the outside Saharan heat. As light is rare within the old town, mirrors are strategically hung on the walls throughout the houses to cleverly reflect light into each room. As one moves up the house to the rooftop you are greeted by a silent city. The roofs of all of the houses in the old town are connected by narrow walkways. Traditionally only women could roam the rooftops, acting as lookouts for Saharan caravans and news as well as being the primary location for them to socialise with one another.

The people of Ghadames are largely Amazigh Berbers and the old town of Ghadames has been inhabited since Roman times. The last family voluntarily withdrew from the old town in the late 1990s, due to a lack of water and electricity. The old town now stands as a monument to what was a feat of architectural engineering for a Saharan oasis town.

The new town, although very different, has its own charm. Unlike the capital, Tripoli, it has a distinct lack of high-rise buildings. Instead, a large central mosque dominates the skyline and a few bustling shopping thoroughfares bring the small community together. The new buildings are, however, in line with the old town style subtly mimicking the triangular rooftop motifs.

At the weekends there is a mass exodus of locals from the town into the Sahara desert. The majestic sand dunes stand like soft mountains as 4×4’s expertly glide through them. Amongst the dune bashing youngsters, families and children can be observed picnicking and catching up with friends as the heat of the desert sun wanes.

Another short journey into the eastern desert leads you to the “Ayn Dubaan” or “Flies Eyes” lakes. Two huge naturally occurring lakes sit side-by-side and can be vividly seen when flying over Ghadames. One of the lakes is now fairly shallow but the other is still very deep and locals often venture out there to cool off. The sight of the two lakes is no doubt enough to make any Saharan trekker believe themselves to be perceiving a mirage.

Whilst watching the sunset in the desert, my friends and I were witness to the traditional baking of bread underneath the heat of the sand, to be enjoyed with sweet mint tea. As we sipped our drinks a local wistfully told me, “I remember when tourists from all corners of the earth used to come here. It was wonderful.” Ghadames has always been a thoroughfare for travellers, be it trans-Saharan trade caravans to modern day backpackers. She is right, there is something in the air here which puts the intrepid explorer at ease. As a single, female in Libya travel is not always a pleasure, but here, breathing in the Saharan air, my friends and I feel extremely comfortable. There is a distinct absence of fireworks, shooting echoes, litter or cars hooting. The town is peaceful and as we meander around the streets, we are greeted with shy smiles from locals.

Ghadames feels as though it’s a million miles away from the capital. Its inhabitants participated in the revolution that led to the downfall of Mu’ammar Ghadaffi in 2011 and remnants of unfinished business still remain. The most poignant of which is the ongoing tension with the semi-nomadic Tuareg. The Tuareg were viewed by locals as siding with Gaddaffi forces during the revolution. In return the Tuareg feel discriminated against and collectively punished for the actions of a few. Tensions remain high and a trip to Ghadames cannot be blind to this serious ongoing issue. The Tuareg who fled Ghadames during the revolution are now effectively treated as internally displaced people within Libya. The large Awal Valley camp just 60km from Ghadames has housed them for the last 3 years. Although talks have been initiated by the central government to resolve the dispute and encourage reconciliation, progress remains slow.

Normally a tourist town sends “bona-fide” travellers in the other direction, in search of paths less trodden. But in Ghadames where so much of their life blood relies on a prospering tourism sector and to an extent, on the good PR of the wider country, I can’t help but hope that the pretty postcards that are gathering dust in the local supermarket get sold.

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