The First Towns in the Central Sahara

By Mattingly, D. J.; Sterry, M. | Antiquity, June 2013 | Go to article overview

The First Towns in the Central Sahara


Mattingly, D. J., Sterry, M., Antiquity


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Introduction

Towns or cities are a defining characteristic of most complex polities. A multitude of definitions have been put forward, some favouring checklists of urban traits (most importantly Childe 1950; cf. Talbert 2000; M. Smith 2003; M.E. Smith 2009), others emphasising the roles of towns within landscapes and people's lives (Yoffee 2005), some contrasting rural and urban identities (Cowgill 2004) and some that dismiss the idea that there are defining features (A.T. Smith 2003). Of particular importance has been work in sub-Saharan Africa that has introduced ideas of towns as agglomerations and heterarchy (S. McIntosh 1999; R.J. McIntosh 2005). There is, however, increasing awareness that urban societies are not an inevitability, but one of many variations, with versions distinct to their ecologies. To investigate these requires substantial exploration and, most likely, excavation of both the urban centre and its hinterland.

There are still regions of the world and periods of time where this baseline of knowledge is just being reached, with new additions to the list of societies diagnosed as urbanised. More useful in these cases is Yoffee's view that cities were "supernova" that re-routed and utterly changed patterns of everyday life, creating new landscapes of urban-rural interactions (2005: 61-62; contra Morley 2011: 151). A search for cities in archaeologically blank parts of the world must therefore look for settlements that are distinct from all other settlement forms, generative of new forms of social life, and that show clear evidence of interactions with a hinterland.

The aim of this paper is to demonstrate that within the Libyan Sahara, before the historical expansion of trans-Saharan trade in the Islamic period, there existed a remarkable system of settlements supported by intensive oasis agriculture. Within this system there was a small number of large and distinct sites that should be considered as urban. This has significance both in the context of debates about Saharan states and the urbanisation of neighbouring areas of Roman and sub-Saharan Africa.

Urbanisation in the Sahara

The archaeology of Saharan oases remains poorly documented and the assumption has tended to be that they were settled primarily in the Islamic era (Lydon 2009; Austen 2010). A major result of recent fieldwork in Libya has been the demonstration that many oases supported sedentary populations as early as classical antiquity (Mattingly & MacDonald 2013).

Early urbanisation is well-documented in surrounding areas (Mattingly & MacDonald 2013). Along the Nile the first cities emerged from the late fourth millennium BC, and by the first millennium BC can be traced as far south as the kingdom of Meroe. Along the north African coastline in the first millennium BC, the Phoenicians and Greeks established a string of colonies. There were also early urban developments in the indigenous kingdoms of Numidia and Mauretania. In sub-Saharan Africa the cities of the Middle Niger date back at least to 400 BC and this date may yet be pushed back further (McIntosh 2005). In the Sahara itself little evidence has hitherto been recognised for pre-Islamic cities. However, along its northern edge in Tunisia, Algeria and Libya there were oasis centres that received Roman garrisons or attained urban status under Rome. The Saharan interior is largely unknown due to a lack of archaeological investigation within the oases, but this picture is changing, at least within central Libya.

The Garamantes were a Libyan people known to Greco-Roman writers (Mattingly 2003). Their heyday appears to have been in the period 300 BC to AD 500, but their overall rise and decline spans the first millennia BC/AD. Sources speak of a kingdom, and archaeological evidence suggests that at their greatest power they controlled an area of the central Sahara covering around 250 000[km. …

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