Arts, Culture & Media

Libya's Pearl of the Desert


Ghadames panorama (Photo: Wiki Richard Bamier)

For our Geo Quiz we're searching for an oasis town. An underground spring or a source of drinking water comes in handy in the middle of a desert.

Player utilities

Listen to the Story.

The Libyan town we want you to name is such a place, a watering hole that became an important transit point for ancient camel caravans.

This town is in southwestern Libya about 200 miles south of the capital, Tripoli. That puts it right where Libya borders Algeria and Tunisia.

The ancient town is home to a rich multi-cultural mix of clans and ethnic groups including Berbers and Tuareg, and its architecture reflects that heritage. In 1986 it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Can you name this Libyan town nicknamed the "Pearl of the Desert"?
The "pearl of the desert" refers to Ghadames – home to about 10,000 to 12,000 people. It's a mix of many cultures, including Arabs and ethnic Tuaregs. The two groups have lived together peacefully in the town for centuries.

But Libya's revolution has driven a wedge between them.

Marine Olivesi reports from Ghadames.

Walk though the covered alleyways of Ghadames' old town, along the whitewash houses of mud-bricks and you find yourself in a sun drenched palm tree garden.

"Gorgeous isn't it? Here you can see a very good example of the mud bricks, they're doing renovation," a local tour guide says.

Ghadames has been recognized as a UN World Heritage site. Three countries intersect here: Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria, and at least as many cultures. Arabs mixed with Libya's indigenous people, the Amazigh, and with the Tuaregs, the nomadic people of the Sahara. Arab merchants needed Tuaregs to guide them in the desert, and so began a 1000-year-old relationship.

Yacoob Dawi is the Director of Cultural Affairs and Civil Society at the local council. Dawi says that over time, Tuaregs settled around Ghadames: "We are living together, we are studying together, when they're making celebrations… Everything, we are doing everything together, without any problems. "

And together in February 2011, they rose up against Moammar Gaddafi's regime. Dawi describes a video from that time, when dozens of locals stormed the office of the secret police. "They're announcing, it is the end of you, dictator! This is your end!"

Dawi says Tuaregs took part in the riot. But their support ended when the regime chose a Tuareg leader to crush the uprising in Ghadames. Most Tuaregs here sided with their tribal leader. In August 2011, rebel forces entered Ghadames and liberated the town without a fight. Dawi says a month later pro-Gaddafi forces, including several Tuareg leaders, mounted an offensive to try to take it back: "They didn't give us any warning. They attacked us suddenly."

Arab-Tuareg relations had been strained since the start of the uprising, according to Tuareg community leader Mohamed ag Mama. But this was the last straw. He says after local fighters pushed back the pro-Gaddafi assault, they turned their anger on Tuaregs living here. "They burnt my house. They burnt my car. But I didn't do anything to justify any of this. "

Ag Mama, along with about 200 Tuareg families, fled Ghadames the next day. He has never gone back. Local officials in Ghadames concede that they were some isolated acts of retribution against Tuareg militiamen though they say Tuareg families were never forced out. But Tuaregs insist their community has been scapegoated.

Even Tuaregs who fought against pro-Gaddafi forces like Moussa Farj Gmama. He helped liberate the town. He says Tuaregs weren't the only ones who collaborated with the regime in Ghadames, but they were the ones who got blamed. Moussa left Ghadames six months ago, after numerous threats. He and a dozen other families settled about 30 miles to the north, on a stretch of desert land. They live under traditional Tuareg tents made of rugs and carpets.

One group elder says he spent half his life roaming the Sahara, so he's used to this lifestyle. He says, "It's harder for the younger generation, who are accustomed to more modern comforts." Mohamed Amoud Amma, who's 34, says this is just temporary anyway. Not that he plans on moving back to Ghadames. None of them do. But he points to the foundations of houses they're building, saying: "We want to build a new city. Maybe after one month, we change and go to the new house here. "

Mohamed jokes and invites me to come back next year to see the skyscrapers sprouting up the sand. Behind the jokes though, it's obvious some of the Tuaregs here still struggle to make sense of it all. "It's just better this way," Mohamed and others keep saying as if to convince themselves. "We live at peace now – on our own."