The Pearl of the Desert: Libya's Enduring Berber Town of Ghadames

This secret oasis in Libya is a treasury of 4,000 years of heritage...

By Layla Raik


Amidst miles and miles of nothing but the mystical dunes of the Tripoli area of Libya’s Great Sand Sea, lies a small town that echoes the many mirage fables we’ve been told. The historical oasis of Ghadames has been long labelled by explorers as the pearl of the Great Sand Sea - a nickname we can only deem suitable considering the absolute wonder of the town.

Previously an integral centre of the region’s caravan trading routes, the town now holds a population of nearly 10,000 citizens, most of whom are Berbers. Its historical area - an intricate labyrinth dating back to the 4th millennium B.C. - is an uninhabited UNESCO world heritage site only visited by curious tourists, primarily those interested in Tuareg and Berber cultures.

Surrounded by a 7km long wall, the town has seven entrances, each belonging to one of the seven clans that ruled the area. Each entrance leads to a roof street (certainly perfect for secret moonlit romances), which in turn leads to the district’s main square. Each district then contains its own mosque and Quran school, an addition developed after the town’s conversion to Islam in the 7th century.

To battle the desert heat, the city is built entirely out of the traditional mud, lime, and palm tree trunks, with covered alleyways that maintain a subtle breeze minus the scorching sun. The rooftops, far above the gazes of the town’s men, were reserved for women to roam freely, whilst the lower floors were shared by the rest of the community.

The tangled alleys and closely packed buildings are an ode to the close links maintained by the seven clans throughout their reign, and also good news for wanderers who don’t love heat strokes as it enables them to wander the oasis freely, enjoying the enchanting Amazigh symbols carved on the walls as the ghosts of the past guide you (it is a little spooky).

Worth a two-day trip, we recommend you travel to the oasis by car from Tripoli, so that you can enjoy the oasis’s sister desert towns on the way.


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