This time last week I was deep in the Sahara, exploring a completely mesmerising oasis town. Ghadames, on the Libyan- Algerian border, made me feel like Alice in Wonderland, drawn deeper and deeper through the twisting lanes of a mysterious rabbit-hole that in this case once housed thousands of people. Beautifully constructed from whitewashed mud-brick with palm-wood ceilings and doors, occasionally decorated with intricate geometric patterns, this secret town metaphorically blew me away.
Luckily the sandstorm that very nearly DID blow us away on our 8-hour drive south from Tripoli decided to stop by the following day. This left limpid blue skies, clear light, deep shadows and blissful early summer temperatures in the early 30s. Hard to beat. But, as I said, it was the labyrinthine structure of the medina that seduced, semi-deserted as the inhabitants were moved out to a modern town in 1986. The supreme irony is that their cheap and stuffy concrete apartment blocks are light-years away from the intelligent architecture of this old town.
Built centuries ago to withstand the climatic extremes of the desert, its sinuous, covered streets incoporate benches, niches and archways, occasionally lit by a skylight or by an opening onto a small square flooded with Saharan sunlight. Coolness therefore rules in this semi-underground universe while temperatures outside shoot up to 50 degrees in high summer. Equally, the twisting lay-out of the streets thwarts any desert wind loaded with sand that otherwise would blast its way through.
Berber decorative tastes start here with subtle carved plaster relief on arches and walls – white on white. Inside they become far more extreme. It seems three-quarters of the medina houses are still maintained by their owners who blanket their interiors in a dizzying assortment of vividly coloured textiles, murals, family mementoes, brass pots and mirrors (both the latter designed to reflect the light entering a single opening in the ceiling).
I learned that the women’s domain was not inside these beautiful rooms but upstairs on the flat roof, another world entirely of brilliant light, big skies and interconnecting terraces – with only limited shade under an awning or in a tiny kitchen. Yet again, the women lose out in this traditionally macho Islamic world.
Nonetheless up there I got a clear sense of the lay-out of the old town revealed in the intricate pattern of roofs, each with upturned finials and irregular low walls, silhouetted against the surrounding date-palms.
As this was Friday, there was a constant flow of men (no women) from the new town coming to the mosques, all still perfectly maintained and scrubbed.
In a couple of semi open-air tea-rooms locals languidly chatted and sipped tea, while sub-Saharan workmen bent double over wheelbarrows continued with renovation – a sign that at least someone cares about this treasure although the slave mentality continues.
As Ghadames was once a lucrative crossroads of the Trans-Saharan trade routes, its spring, gardens and palm-groves were carefully nurtured – and, in parts, still flourish today.
By late afternoon, post-siesta, a newly rebuilt pool area suddenly became a playground for local teenagers to dip and dive. In the background loomed an oddity – a gently crumbling hotel used by Sophia Loren and John Wayne in the late 1950s while filming the totally forgettable Legion of the Lost (heard of it? me neither). Word has it that theirs was an emotionally tumultuous collaboration – but that’s history, or is it yet another myth?
Like its remote equivalent across the Sahara in Mali, Timbuktu, Ghadames specialises in legends, myths and exotic extremes – perfect material for tourist brochures. Yet surprisingly few tourists drift through. Most I encountered were Italian or French, both nationalities revisiting their former colonial stamping-ground. In contrast, a few years ago I found more renowned Timbuktu to be a sad, neglected place, semi-commercialised for waves of tourists, unfriendly as a result, and with little historical interest other than its beautiful mud mosque and of course the exceptional library – now dispersed. Even the surrounding sand dunes were speckled with litter. Read my post about it here
Meanwhile the easy-going and welcoming Ghadames population – whether Berbers, Tuaregs, Moroccans or sub-Saharan Africans (and even Vietnamese road-builders) – struggle to find a place in our world, despite the fact that their ‘green’ architecture is exactly what hip architects of the west are aiming to recreate.
And then I was reminded that the caravans that plodded across the desert exchanged not only ostrich-feathers, ivory, precious stones and essences, but also slaves – in Ghadames this ‘currency’ lasted right up until 1914. And the end of that trade spelt its decline. Just deserts?