Situated approximately 600 km from the shores of the Mediterranean Sea in Libya, right at the border between Tunisia and Algeria, lies Ghadames. This ancient town is the testament to the enduring significance of urban planning and vernacular architecture in the heart of the Sahara Desert.

Located in the pre-Sahara between the Great Erg sand sea and the Al Hamada el-Hamra stone plateau, the settlement is constructed around the Ain al-Faras spring (locally called ghusuf).

Ghadames (Berber: ʕadémis; Arabic: غدامس, Libyan vernacular: ɣdāməs, Latin: Cidamus, Cydamus) with its labyrinthine alleys and honey-hued architecture, transports its travelers on a journey into the past through history, culture and traditions of the the trans-Saharan routes. Beyond its picturesque facade, Ghadames holds secrets of survival and adaptation, reflecting the ingenuity of its inhabitants against the backdrop of an unforgiving desert landscape. Over countless centuries, this historic city has thrived as a vital hub for culture and trade, owing much to its remarkable qualities.

COORDINATES     30°08'01.1"N 9°29'47.3"E

Ghadames Map

Origins and Early History

Ghadames, often referred to as the 'Pearl of the Desert,' holds a prominent status among Saharan cities. The ancient Berber settlement traces its origins back to the 4th century BC.

Its historical significance spans millennia, serving as a pivotal center for caravan trade within the trans-Saharan network. Occupied since at least the late first millennium BC by indigenous Phazanii peoples, Ghadames has witnessed the interplay of various cultures and religions, from the Garamantes and Romans to Byzantines, Christians, and the Islamic conquest.

The Berber tribes who founded Ghadames were drawn to its natural springs and fertile soil, which provided essential resources for survival in the harsh desert environment.

The city's rich heritage is evident in its archaeological remnants, including Roman-period defenses and impressive mausolea, highlighting its wealth and importance. Meanwhile, Ghadames' Old Town maintains its medieval mud architecture and handicraft traditions, with multi-story dwellings providing privacy for women on upper terraces and communal spaces below for men and children.


photo by Giulio Aprin


Roman Influence

During the Roman period, Ghadames flourished as an important outpost along the Limes Tripolitanus, the southern frontier of the Roman Empire. The Romans recognized Ghadames' strategic significance and established fortified settlements to protect their interests in the region. Ghadames became a thriving center for trade, with goods such as gold, ivory, and spices passing through its markets.


photo by Giulio Aprin


Islamic Era

In the 7th century CE, Ghadames came under the rule of the expanding Arab Islamic empire. The Arab conquest brought Islam to the region, shaping the city's cultural and religious landscape. Ghadames emerged as a center of Islamic scholarship and trade, attracting merchants, scholars, and travelers from across the Islamic world. The city's strategic location continued to make it a vital link in the trans-Saharan trade routes, facilitating the exchange of goods and ideas between North Africa and the Sahel.


photo by Giulio Aprin


Medieval Prosperity

By the medieval period, Ghadames had become a flourishing oasis town, renowned for its skilled craftsmen, vibrant markets, and unique architecture. The city's compact layout, with interconnected houses and narrow alleyways, provided protection against desert raids and served as a refuge for travelers crossing the Sahara. Ghadames' wealth and prosperity reached its zenith during the Ottoman era when it served as a key trading post for caravans laden with goods from West Africa and beyond.


photo by Giulio Aprin


Structure of the Town

A maze of whitewashed walls and shaded alleyways, Ghadames' architectural marvels reflect both its historical significance and its inhabitants' mastery of desert living. The compact layout, with houses interconnected like pieces of a puzzle, served as a fortress against the scorching sun and swirling sands. Intricately carved wooden doors, adorned with geometric motifs, open into cool, shadowy interiors, offering respite from the desert heat.


photo by Giulio Aprin

The urban fabric of Ghadames is predominantly concentrated to the southwest of the oasis, forming a sprawling conglomerate of houses. The clustering of inhabitants based on lineage has delineated seven distinct sectors or areas of settlement, each exhibiting unique characteristics shaped by tribal affiliations.


photo by Giulio Aprin

The houses are tightly built together and are interconnected by covered lanes and alleys, resembling dimly lit tunnels and passages, thus earning Ghadames the moniker of the "subterranean city". These passageways establish a hierarchical network of communication lines. Main pedestrian alleys typically measure between 1.5 to 3 meters in width and benefit from adequate lighting provided by regularly spaced light wells every 15 meters, facilitating natural illumination and ventilation.


photo by Giulio Aprin

Yet, these passages transcend mere thoroughfares; they represent the city's resilience against nature's fury. Their sinuous curves serve a practical purpose, deflecting the relentless onslaught of desert sandstorms that could otherwise engulf the city in a suffocating blanket of dust.


photo by Giulio Aprin

This interplay of light and shadow engenders varying pressure zones, inducing airflow from areas of high pressure to those of low pressure. Consequently, hot air is displaced by cooler, humid air within the shaded passages, a vital urban planning solution particularly relevant in desert locales. Narrow dead-end alleys branch out in different directions, granting access to individual houses or clusters, with the width varying between structures.


photo by Giulio Aprin

photo by Giulio Aprin

Innovative Building Techniques

Surviving in the Sahara requires more than just resilience; it demands innovation. Ghadames' architectural heritage stands as a testament to human ingenuity in utilizing local resources to overcome environmental challenges. Mud-brick construction, renowned for its natural insulation properties, played a crucial role in maintaining comfortable temperatures within homes. Additionally, intricate wind towers captured and channeled cool breezes, providing natural ventilation throughout the city.

The city's ingenious water management system, comprising underground tunnels and cisterns, ensured a sustainable supply of water amidst the arid surroundings, sustaining life in this desert oasis.


photo by Giulio Aprin

With temperatures soaring to a scorching 55 degrees Celsius during summer and plummeting below zero in the winter chill, Ghadames' urban landscape reflects human ingenuity in harmony with the harsh desert environment. Imagine navigating a maze of cool, shadowy passages winding through the city's heart, adorned with graceful arches and covered in palm wood to shield against the relentless sun. These are the zinqas, the lifelines of the city, guiding its inhabitants through the labyrinthine streets with ease.


photo by Giulio Aprin

Adobe (sun-dried mud brick) stands as the primary building material, along with local abundant resources such as stones, gypsum, lime, and palm trunks and leaves. Traditional construction skills further enhance the utilization of these materials.

The foundation of structures is laid with stone, while walls are predominantly crafted from adobe. Arches and vaults find their form in gypsum-bound "spongy" stones. Roofs are fashioned from palm trunk beams, halved lengthwise, and layered with palm fronds, thin palm leaves, a compacted earth layer, and finished with a coating of gypsum plaster.


photo by Giulio Aprin

Interior wall surfaces are meticulously plastered with gypsum and whitewashed with lime, mirroring the treatment of select exterior walls, street facades, notable buildings, door and window frames, parapet caps, and corner finials. External wall surfaces, however, may either be plastered with adobe mortar or left in their natural state.

The gathering, preparation, preservation, and seasoning of building materials receive careful attention, as does the manual construction process. This labor-intensive endeavor fosters social cohesion and minimizes time and labor expenses, underscoring the communal nature of construction in Ghadames.


photo by Giulio Aprin

But it's not solely the materials that render these homes remarkable; it's the ingenious design that sets them apart. Thick walls of earth or stone act as a natural buffer against the searing heat of the sun, maintaining cool interiors even on the hottest days. As the sun sets, the heat absorbed by these walls during the day dissipates into the cool desert night, ensuring a comfortable temperature indoors without the need for modern conveniences like air conditioning or heating.


photo by Giulio Aprin

Private Residences

In traditional Ghadamès houses, emerging from the ground-level storerooms, a staircase ascended towards the tamanhat (living room).
A revelation of aesthetics. In contrast to the minimalist white of the streets below, this space burst with an explosion of hues, textures, and embellishments: vibrant scarlet geometric wall paintings, opulently patterned cushions and rugs, cabinets and alcoves holding relics of family history, and an array of copper pots and mirrors adorning the walls, strategically positioned to catch and reflect available light. This spectacle multiplied as the hidden trapdoor in the ceiling gets opened, allowing sunlight to bounce into the room.


photo by Giulio Aprin

Adjacent to the main room lies the "kubba," a ceremonial chamber reserved for specific occasions such as the first night of marriage or for use by a widow following her husband's passing. A staircase ascends the main room's wall, leading to bedrooms and storage areas on the second floor. The roof of the main room doubles as an open-air family terrace, while the kitchen and a summertime sleeping area are also located on the rooftop.


photo by Giulio Aprin


photo by Giulio Aprin

Walking up to the rooftop, past a basic kitchen and a shaded courtyard, a final set of steps reveals a sprawling terrace, unveiling yet another architectural marvel: an intricate puzzle of low walls, ornamental spires, stairs, and pathways linking each residence to its neighbors and extending across the medina.

This elevated realm belonged to the women. Constrained by local Islamic tradition to using a single main thoroughfare below, they spent their days engaged in domestic chores, sewing, socializing, and keeping watch for approaching caravans. Some even sought refuge there during sweltering summer nights.


photo by Giulio Aprin


photo by Giulio Aprin

The Pivotal Role of Women

In the ancient city of Ghadames the role of women takes on a profound significance, particularly in the absence of men who leave for extended periods for trading expeditions or pilgrimages.

When the men of Ghadames embarked on their journeys across the desert, which can span months or even years, the responsibility of maintaining the household and ensuring the well-being of the family falls squarely on the shoulders of the women. This includes not only managing the day-to-day affairs of the household but also making important decisions in the absence of their male counterparts.

A curious anecdote tells that in the event that the father of the family was forced by force majeure to stay on the road for a longer time than expected, the woman could support herself and the family by selling some of those cups hanging on the wall made of copper which have always held value in history.


photo by Giulio Aprin


The Mosques

Ghadames has over 20 mosques among its six neighborhoods in the old town. One of the biggest mosques is Atiq mosque, which is made of mud brick and has minimal ornamentation. In the beginning, it was built in 1258/666 AH.

The Atiq Mosque, also known as the Old Mosque of Ghadamès, holds historical significance within the Nalut Region of northwest Libya. Dating back to the Islamic conquests of the seventh century AD, the mosque underwent multiple restorations and expansions over time. Despite complete destruction during World War II, it was faithfully reconstructed while preserving its original architectural charm.

Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986, the Atiq Mosque stands as a testament to Ghadames' cultural heritage and serves as a cherished place of worship within the Old Town.


photo by Giulio Aprin



photo by Giulio Aprin



For centuries, Ghadames thrived as a vital nexus along the trans-Saharan trade routes, where caravans laden with gold, salt, and spices converged in a vibrant tapestry of commerce and culture. The city's markets bustled with activity, offering a kaleidoscope of goods from distant lands, while its skilled artisans crafted exquisite textiles, ceramics, and jewelry coveted far and wide. Today, while the rhythms of trade may have evolved, Ghadames' economy remains rooted in its heritage, with tourism, agriculture, and small-scale industries driving prosperity amidst the shifting sands of time.


photo by Giulio Aprin

The conservation of Ghadames has been threatened and still is by conflict situations, torrential rains, and fires. Past years of unrest in the region led to damage through looting and attacks. Torrential rains erode mud-brick structures and flood the city, causing damage and loss of artifacts. Fires, especially during dry periods can devastate historic buildings and spread rapidly. Urgent measures are needed to safeguard and preserve the incredible Ghadames' cultural heritage against these threats.


photo by Giulio Aprin

Despite facing numerous adversities, Ghadames endures and remains a symbol of pride for its people. Though they may no longer inhabit it, they fondly recall its history and grandeur, cherishing its legacy.


photo by Giulio Aprin





  1. Griselda Stancati
    February 15, 2024 / 12:30 am

    Wow this is incredible
    Love reading all these articles
    Keep them coming

  2. Khaled
    March 12, 2024 / 1:43 pm

    Thank you for sharing this i am from Tunisia and i never thought that Libya is pretty like this

    • Giulio
      March 12, 2024 / 3:01 pm

      Hello Khaled, one of my goals is to share with the world the true beauties and deep value in culture and landscape of the remotests areas of the world; the desert regions with a focus on the Sahara are my current subject of interest. The Sahara was divided only few years back but was once a truly diverse and rich world of mixing cultures and societies.
      While many of the countries in the Sahara, including Tunisia are seeing the results of modernisation I think we should never forget the importance of places like Ghadames or Ghat or Germa in Libya, as many other amazing places and location in Tunisia, Algeria, Mali, Niger, Sudan, Egypt, Morocco, Mauritania and Chad. History is beautiful if shared.

      Thank you so much for taking the time to read the articles.
      There will be more in the near future. Stay Tuned

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