Libya’s Oldest Mud City is Critically Endangered

Ghadames, tourism, earth architecture, mud buildings, Libya, Sahara, travelGhadamès is one of the oldest habitable medinas in the Sahara, and it is made almost entirely out of mud. Built in the seventh century and listed as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1986, this clustered clay settlement in Libya epitomizes everything that makes earth architecture so worthwhile.

In the summer, according to the locals, these are the only houses anyone can stand to live in since they are protected against the relentless sun. And in  winter, when temperatures in the desert drop down to nothing, the clay and straw walls absorb and hold daytime heat. In the last few decades, the oasis town became completely reliant on a steady stream of tourists, and now that the revolution is over, at least one man wants them back. 

Ghadames, tourism, earth architecture, mud buildings, Libya, Sahara, travel

We recently met a Libyan businessman in Madrid who specializes in purchasing and selling construction materials. When we talked to him about Green Prophet, he insisted that we visit Ghadamès.

So we did – at least in cyber space.

Each house in the ancient settlement, which sits in Libya’s dusty southwestern corner, has multiple levels. The first is used for storage, the second for day-to-day living and the third typically spills out into a warren of narrow, covered walkways aerated with small perforations.

The flat rooftops form an entirely new level that is reserved strictly for women, who use them to travel from home to home.

But the town of 10,000 inhabitants is in danger of passing into obscurity.

Gaddafi introduced new houses to the periphery, though they depend on air-conditioning to stay cool, along with new roads, and essentially left the old city to fend for itself.

“In 1990,” according to Temehu, one of the most organized tourism groups in the country, “a feasibility study was presented to UNDP by the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat), to the effect that if conservation work did not start in the next few years, Ghadames, a world heritage site, would become an archaeological site.”

Ghadames, tourism, earth architecture, mud buildings, Libya, Sahara, travel

Once it opened up to tourists, survival seemed imminent since money was pumped into the local economy (although this also created an unhealthy dependence on tourism for survival.) But then the Arab Spring swept through the region, bringing with it a host of unanticipated consequences.

Last September and again in May this year, Gaddafi loyalists attacked the earthen compound, raising alarm among those organizations who have fought to hard to protect it.

“I am deeply concerned by information that the Libyan city of Ghadamès has been the target of rocket attacks,” UNESCO’s Director-General Irinia Bokova said in May. “I call upon all those involved to refrain from hostile acts that could cause additional damage to this outstanding city, inscribed on the World Heritage List.

The bombing may have stopped, but foreigners still have no incentive to wander back to the medina.

Tourism traffic to one of Libya’s most valuable architectural gems, according to a recent Guardian story, clocked in at about  25,000 annual visitors before the Libyan revolution. It has since trickled to a standstill.

And after the last wave of violence that ended in the deaths of American Ambassador Chris Stevens and five others, nobody is likely to book a fast flight to Libya any time soon.

Images via Wikipedia

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