Libya’s ‘pearl of the desert’
Ghadames, an oasis town in northwestern Libya, is famed for its labyrinthine walled settlement.
Often termed the “pearl of the desert”, Ghadames is a large oasis town in the northwest of Libya, near the Algerian and Tunisian borders.
Ghadames is famed for its Old Town, a walled settlement constructed of narrow tunnels where the light and dark play tricks on the eyes. The town’s former inhabitants, predominantly Amazigh Berbers, were forced to memorise and distinguish real routes from dead ends in order to navigate their way through the labyrinthine town.
The Old Town, designated a UNESCO-protected world heritage site in 1986, is thought to have been settled since the year 3000 BC. Once under Roman rule, Ghadames was under the control of the Ottoman Empire circa the sixteenth century, and a large Ottoman consulate still stands there today.
The vast maze of interconnected rooftops is the defining feature of the Old Town. Traditionally, only women were permitted on the rooftops, going about their daily work and acting as scouts for incoming caravans on the trans-Saharan trade routes.
The last family left the Old Town in the 1990s due to a lack of water and electricity, and most inhabitants have now settled in Ghadames’ new city.
The director general of UNESCO called upon the Libyan authorities during the country’s 2011 revolution to ensure the protection of Ghadames. The town now remains a popular and unique tourist attraction.