Ancient Arab and Middle Eastern History

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Bedouin sheikh
The Middle East is the source of three of the world’s great religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — and the home of the ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures, The Seven Wonders of the World were in the Middle East and the first alphabet, first writing, first school, first calendar and the first code of laws originated there. The world oldest inhabited city (Damascus) is there as well as most of the places mentioned in the Bible.

The word Arab appeared in pre-Islamic poetry to describe the Semitic-speaking tribes of the Arabian Peninsula. The use of the word Arab in the Koran is connected primarily wit the pastoral Bedouin tribes of the region.

The horse arrived in the Sahara around around 1650 B.C. when the Hyksos conquered northern Egypt by chariot. The camel arrived in the Sahara around 200 B.C. A bas-relief from the Sumerian city of Ur — dated to 2500 B.C. — shows four onagers (donkeylike animals) pulling a cart for a king.

Culturally the Arab world is divided into two spheres — the Middle East and North Africa — with Egypt serving a the junction between the two.

Books:”History of Arab People” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “Islam, a Short History “ by Karen Armstrong (Modern Library, 2000); “ Arabian Sands, Marsh and Mountains” by Wilfred Thesiger; “Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted People” by V.S. Naipul (Random House, 1998) with essays on Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan and Malaysia. Kenneth Pollack’s “Arabs at War” is regarded as a classic study.

Near East, Middle East, North Africa, Maghreb and Levant

These days many people think of the Middle East as embracing the Arab countries of Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Yemen, Oman, and Iraq. Some people also include Cyprus, Turkey, Israel and Iran, and a lesser degree Afghanistan, which are all not Arab. Sometimes Libya is included in the Middle East but is generally thought of being in North Africa. Sometimes Sudan and Mauritania are included but they are generally thought of being in Africa.

The term “Near East” was traditionally used to describe the region between the eastern shores of the Mediterranean to present-day Afghanistan. The term was commonly used to describe the region until the 1960s, when it started becoming more fashionable to use the term Middle East. The French and the U.S. State Department (2003) still use the term Near East. The United Nations uses the terms Near East, Middle East and West Asia.

If the North African countries of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia are included the Middle East describes an area that stretches from the Atlantic coast of northern Africa to Afghanistan, a distance of around 5,600 kilometers and encompasses around 350 million people. Often the term Middle East is shortened to Mideast. West Asia sometimes used to the area between Afghanistan and Turkey.

The Near East is a Eurocentric term that was first used in the mid 19th century to distinguish it from the Far East which was defined in the 1852 Oxford English Dictionary as “the extreme eastern regions of the Old World. The term Nearer East was used before Near East. The first recorded use of the Middle East was in Catholic World magazine in 1897.

The primary ethnic groups of the Middle East are the Arabs, Turks, Iranians and Israelis (newly evolved from ancient Hebrews and Jews from around the world) . The Middle East includes two cradles of civilization — Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt — and is the birthplace of the three great monotheist religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

North Africa is used to describe the countries of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. Often Egypt is left out even though it is part of Africa. The Levant is the area between the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia. Referred to in the Bible as the “land flowing with milk and honey,” it usually refers an area occupied by modern-day Israel, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya make up the Maghreb region of North Africa. Maghreb (also spelled Maghrib) literally means “the West” or “west of the setting sun” in Arabic. It refers to the western side of the Arab world and includes all of North Africa. It usually refers Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria and sometimes also Libya and Mauritania.

Arab World and Muslim World

Modern Levant
The word Arab appeared in pre-Islamic poetry to describe the Semitic-speaking tribes of the Arabian Peninsula. The use of the word Arab in the Koran is connected primarily with the pastoral Bedouin tribes of the region.

The Arab world describes the countries in the Middle East and North Africa where the majority people speak Arabic and belong to the Arab ethnic group. It excludes Israel, Turkey and Iran, which are dominated, respectively, by Jews, Turks and Persians, but includes the Maghreb countries of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, which are sometimes not regarded as part of the Middle East. The Arab world is made up of nineteen countries: Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Chad, Egypt, Sudan, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Yemen, Oman and Iraq. There are also significant Arab populations in Iran, Turkey, East Africa, South America, Europe, North America, Southeast Asia and Australia.

The Muslim world refers to the countries whose populations are made up predominately of Muslims. These include the countries of the Middle East, the Maghreb countries plus non-Arab countries with majority Muslim populations such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Djibouti, Somalia, Niger, Senegal. Some Sub-Saharan African counties, particularly in West Africa and to a lesser extent East Africa, have large numbers of Muslims.

Themes in Arab History

ancient Levant
The history of the Middle East has been shaped very much by the region’s hot climate and lack of water. Tribalism has also been a major presence in the region. People separated by distance and environment evolved into and created different tribes that managed to endure despite the rise and fall of kingdoms and empires and inter-tribe conflict.

Muslims and Arabs tend to be “keenly aware” of their history — which their religion, media and schools constantly remind them of — and feel that events that happened centuries ago have a direct bearing on their lives today.

Islam helps to unify people over a large geographical area that stretches from Morocco in northwest Africa to Indonesia in Southeast Asia. It also helps to unify people over a long period of time. Some places in the Arab and Muslim world were unchanged for more than a thousand years and have only become exposed to the outside world in the past half century or so with television and radio.

The history in Muslim regions has been shaped by the relations between Islam and the state. With Islam, many historians argue, the bonds between religion, government and the military have been stronger and more impervious to change and reform than in the West.

Arabs and Muslims have a history of bitterly fighting among themselves. They have also on occasion fought against people in the West, particularly in the Crusades in the 11th century, Turkish expansion in the 15th century and colonialism in the 20th century. There were also long periods when Christians and Jews lived peacefully under Muslim rule.

Although Arabs are unified by language, religion and many cultural elements, they have been divided politically since the early Islamic period. The history of the Middle East is primarily the history of its cities. Until fairly recently most of its population was made of peasants who worked land either owned by themselves or controlled by absentee urban landlords.

Ancient Arabia

Arabs are relative latecomers to the Near East. They are first mentioned in the mid 9th century B.C. as a tribal people subjugated by the Assyrians. The Arabian Peninsula has a rich, largely unexplored ancient history. It is peppered with ancient kingdoms linked caravan routes that carried frankincense to the Mediterranean that attracted the attention of Romans among others. Ancient Arab peoples — such as the Nabateans, Lihyans and Thamud — interacted with Assyrians and Babylonians, Romans and Greeks.

A 300,000-year-old tool site has been found at Dawadimi, about 300 kilometers west of Riyadh. At that time Arabia was considerably greener and wetter than it is now and supported elephants, giraffes ad rhinoceros. Around 15,000 years ago Arabia dried out. Around 7000 years ago people lived along the Persian Gulf. Based on pottery found at sites there, these people are believed to have arrived from Mesopotamia.

Taima is an ancient city in northwest that was founded ny a neo-Babylonian king around 800 B.C. It embraces a palace, 10-kilometer wall and a well that still provides water. Qaryat al Fau (110 miles north of Najran) is a city that existed around the same time on the edge of the Empty Quarter. Extensive excavations here have revealed a market palace, wall paintings, bronze statues, rich tombs full of inscriptions and evidence of trade with the Egyptians and Assyria.

Coastal towns developed on trade routes and fishing areas but sources of water and food were not large enough to allow ports to develop into cities. The Lihyanites of the Kingdom of Dedan in northwest Arabia carved lion reliefs above sandstone tombs in 600 B.C.

By 1000 B.C., southern Arabia had evolved significantly as a result of steady contact with the outside world via the trade routes that spanned the region. Exports in frankincense and myrrh brought wealth and global connections to present-day Bahrain, Yemen, Oman, and southern Saudi Arabia. While the Persians and Romans fought to control the Near East, Arab society benefited from the exchange of ideas that came with the camel caravans. Multiple religions were present in the region, including Christianity, Judaism, and various polytheistic paganisms. [Source: Library of Congress, September 2006 **]


Jericho — the Biblical city of Joshua, trumpets and falling walls — is regarded by some as the oldest city in the world. Established around 7,500 B.C. in an arid valley 600 feet below sea level in Palestine near the Dead Sea., ancient Jericho was home to 2000 to 3000 people that survived on plants that thrived in a fertile area around an oasis. Strains of wheat and barley and obsidian tools have been discovered that came from elsewhere. Ancient Jericho had an elaborate system of walls, towers and moats. The circular wall that surrounded the settlement had a circumference of about 200 meters and was four meters high. The wall in turn was surrounded by a 30-foot-wide, 10-foot-deep moat. The technology used to build them was virtually the same as those used in medieval castles. [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

Located near a permanent spring a few miles west of the Jordan River and excavated by Kathleen Kenyon, Jericho is certainly one of the world’s oldest fortified settlement but whether it qualifies as a city is a matter of some debate. There are indications of settlement after 9000 B.C.. This settlement grew to city-like status by 7000 B.C. The archaeological site is situated in the plain of the Jordan Valley two kilometers northwest of modern Jericho city. It is a large artificial mound, rising 21 meters high and covering an area of about one acre.

In 7000 B.C., Jericho encompassed of about eight to ten acres and was home to estimated two to three thousand people. It was inhabited by people who depended on collecting wild seeds for food. It is appears that they did not plant seeds, but harvested wild grains using scythes with flint edges and straight bone handles and used stone mortars with handles for grinding them. Some people lived in caves, while others occupied primitive villages with round huts made from sun-dried bricks. They buried their dead with jewelry in graves made out of rock.

The early inhabitants of Jericho dug out canals to bring water from nearby sources to where they lived and perhaps to irrigate land with wild plants they harvested for food. They constructed huge two-meter-thick walls around their villages. Inside the main fortified settlement was a circular stone tower, nine meters in diameter, and ten meters high, built for protection and requiring thousands of man hours to build. The people of ancient Jericho practiced the domestication of animals, and weaving mats, as well as animal hunting, and perhaps, agriculture. They used spears and flint-capped arrows. They also used hatchets to cut tree branches. Some inhabitants expanded from their settlements in search of new homes outside their boundaries.

The Archeological Museum of Jordan has a stunning collection of 9,000-year-old sculptured heads from Jericho. Consisting of on an actual skull with plaster skin and sea shell eyes, each head is different. Some archeologists claim they were sealed "spirit" traps," designed to keep the soul from wandering around. Jericho.

History of Tell es-Sultan (Ancient Jericho)

According to UNESCO: “Tell es-Sultan, the ancient city of Jericho, is the lowest (258 m below sea level) and the oldest town on earth. It grew up around a perennial spring, Ain es-Sultan, in an area of fertile alluvial soil which attracted hunter-gatherer groups to settle down, and to start a process of plant and animal domestication. Archaeological excavations carried out in the mid-20th century evidenced 23 layers of ancient civilizations at the site. The earliest remains date back to the Natufian period, 10th-8th millennia BC. By the 8th millennium B.C. Jericho became a big fortified town surrounded by a stone wall supported by a massive round tower. These are the earliest urban fortifications known in the world, later several times replaced. Their early date took the history of urbanity and domestication back several millennia at the time of their discovery in the 1950s. The Neolithic population ofJerichodeveloped a complex society where house construction, crafts, such as weaving and matting, and mythological and social conception of burial and religion were practiced. The Neolithic houses were built with dried mud bricks: the initial round shape of their construction developed into the rectangular form. [Source: UNESCO ==]

plastered skull from Jericho

“During the Early Bronze Age, Tell es-Sultan was a fortified town and one of the most flourishing Canaanite City-States in Palestine. It lasted more than a thousand years before being demolished by nomadic groups in the last centuries of the second millennium BC. Afterwards, the site was rebuilt again at the beginning of the Middle Bronze Age, and surrounded by a mud brick wall that lasted until 1580 BC, when it was violently destroyed by fire. However,Jerichowas probably scantily re-occupied in the late Bronze Age, since few remains of this period were found. Throughout the Iron Ages, Tell es-Sultan was re-occupied again, especially in the 7th century BC, a phase which lasted until the end of Iron Age II (586 BC). Thereafter, the tell was no longer occupied, although Byzantine remains were found on its eastern side close to the spring of Ain es-Sultan. The surrounding area, however, today’s Jerichoand environs, was continuously occupied in a fluctuating history over the last two and a half millennia. ==

“Numerous religious events and beliefs are associated with the site and area. For example, the spring of Ain es-Sultan is biblically called Elisha’s spring, in which the prophet (Elisha) made the water at Jericho healthy. Luke narrates that Jesus visited Jericho more than once; on one such occasion (19:1.4), “Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. Now a man named Zacchaeus was trying to get a look at Jesus, but being a short man he could not see over the crowd. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him”. High above the site, perched on the cliff facing the west, is the monastery of the Mount of Temptation, traditionally built at or close to the place where Jesus, fasting for 40 days after his baptism, was offered by Satan the kingdom of the world in exchange for his homage. ==

“The archaeological methodology applied to make these discoveries is also regionally significant. It involved the use at Tell es-Sultan of techniques associated with the English archaeologist, Mortimer Wheeler, developed by him in the 1930s and passed on to his associates and students such as Kathleen Kenyon. She followed his precepts at Tell es-Sultan with large, deep, horizontal trenches designed to expose stratigraphy rather than merely find ‘remains’ or objects. Thus the wall and tower, and indeed the evidence of domestication, were found in a secure cultural and chronological context. The well-preserved trenches remain as witnesses to the development of archaeological research methods inPalestine. Visitors can still see some of the layers in which lies the history of the tell. ==

Ain Ghazal

Ain Ghazal, an archeological site in Amman, Jordan was one of the largest population centers in the Middle East (three times larger than Jericho) from 7200 to 5000 B.C., a period in human history when sem-nomadic hunters and gathers were adapting to farming and animals herding and organizing themselves into cities. Ain Ghazal means

Ain Ghazal statue

Ain Ghazal covers about 30 acres. The people were farmers and hunters and gatherers. They used stone tools and weapons and made clay figures and vessels. They lived in multi-room houses with stone walls and timber roof beams and cooking hearths. Plaster with decorations covered the walls and floors. They are meat and milk products from goats, grew wheat barely, lentils, peas and chickpeas, hunted wild cattle, boar and gazelles and gathered wild plants, almonds, figs and pistachios.

Mysterious human figures unearthed at Ain Ghazal, are among the oldest human statues ever found. Made of lime plaster and dating back to 7000 B.C., the figures were about 3½ feet tall and have bitumen accented eyes and look like aliens from outerspace. Scholars believe they played a ceremonial role and may have been images of gods or heros.

The figures were discovered 1985 by the driver of a bulldozers clearing the way for a road. The statues were made of delicate materials — so delicate they whole site was unearthed and shipped to a Smithsonian laboratory where the figures it took ten years to assemble the figures.

The figures come in two types: full figures and busts. Both types were made by forming plaster over a skeleton made of bundles of reed wrapped in twine. Facial features were probably made by hand with simple tools made of bone, wood or stone. The plaster technology that was used was fairly advanced and required heating limestone to temperatures if 600̊ to 900̊C

Archeologists working in Ain Ghazal found what they say may be the world's oldest known game. The game board, a limestone slab, has two sets of circular depressions and bears a striking resemblance to games played in the Middle East today with counting stones. The slab was found in a house, and because it seemed to serve no utilitarian or ceremonial function archeologists concluded it most likely was a game board. [National Geographic Geographica, February 1990].

Mesopotamia, Indian and Middle Eastern Trade

seal from the Indus Valley

The Persian Gulf lies between two of the major breadbaskets of the ancient world, the Tigris-Euphrates area (Mesopotamia, meaning "between the rivers") in present-day Iraq and the Nile Valley in Egypt. Mesopotamia, a part of the area known as the Fertile Crescent, was important not only for food production but also for connecting East to West. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, Persian Gulf States: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1993 *] Rivers provided the water that made agriculture possible. Agriculture, in turn, enabled people to settle in one area and to accumulate a food surplus that allowed them to pursue tasks besides growing food, namely, to create a civilization. They chose leaders, such as kings and priests; they built monuments; they devised systems of morality and religion; and they started to trade.*

Mesopotamia became the linchpin of ancient international trade. The fertile soil between the Tigris and the Euphrates produced a arge surplus of food; however, it did not support forests to produce the timber necessary to build permanent structures. The region also lacked the mineral resources to make metals. Accordingly, the early inhabitants of Mesopotamia were forced to go abroad and trade their food for other raw materials. They found copper at Magan, an ancient city that lay somewhere in the contemporary state of Oman and, via Magan, traded with people in the Indus Valley for lumber and other finished goods.*

Trade between Mesopotamia and India was facilitated by the small size of the Persian Gulf. Water provided the easiest way to transport goods, and sailors crossed the gulf fairly early, moving out along the coasts of Persia and India until they reached the mouth of the Indus. Merchants and sailors became middlemen who used their position to profit from the movement of goods through the gulf. The people of Magan were both middlemen and suppliers because the city was a source of copper as well as a transit point for Indian trade. Over time, other cities developed that were exclusively entrepôts, or commercial way stations. One of the best known of these cities was Dilmun.*

First Arabs

Qanat intern
Agricultural and pastoral people have inhabited the southern edge of the arid Syrian steppe since 6000 B.C. The first Arab civilization emerged in the fertile, watered highlands of Yemen at the end of the 2nd millennium B.C. The first Arabs were a nomadic tribe of pastorialists who lived almost entirely off their herds of goats, sheep and cattle. They were Semitic pagan nature worshipers that wandered the deserts in Arabia, lived as Bedouins, and spoke a number of Arabic dialects. [Sources: “History of Arab People” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “Islam, a Short History “ by Karen Armstrong (Modern Library, 2000)]

By about 850 B.C. a people known as the “A’raab” — ancestors of modern Arabs — had established a network of oasis settlements and pastoralist camps. They were one of many stock-breeding societies that lived in the region during that period and were distinguished from their Assyrian neighbors to the north by their Arabic language and later by the use of domesticated camels for trade and warfare.

The Middle East at the time of the first Arabs was a time of chaos. The Bronze Age was ending and the Iron Age was emerging. The Middle East was patchwork of rival kingdoms that included the Israelites, Jebusites, Amorites, Hittities, and Philistines. Yemen had its own people, which spoke a language different than Arabic. The Babylonians, Assyrians, Phoenicians and Egyptian were the major powers in the region.

Different sects dominated at different times and the region fell under the rule of Assyrians, Petra, Palmrya, Persians, Greeks and Romans. The central region was occupied by Bedouins and a few trading and oases towns.

Punt, a mysterious fabled land south of Egypt, supplied Egypt with myrrh, ebony, ivory, gold, spices, panther skins, live baboons and other exotic animals and frankincense. The exact location of Punt is still unknown. It may have been in modern-day Somalia, Yemen or Oman. Traders crossed the Eastern desert and sailed from the Red Sea to get there. Much of what is known about Punt is based on reliefs found on the wall of the Deir el Bahri temple, built around 1490 B.C. in western Thebes. The reliefs show trade between rulers of Punt and emissaries of Queen Hatshepsut.

Bronze Man from ancient Yemen

The Bible said the Queen of Sheba ruled over one of five ancient kingdoms that flourished in a region called Arabia Felix, which may have included Ethiopia. The Queens of Sheba lived in the time of Solomon in the 10th century B.C. Trade in frankincense and myrrh were the mainstays of the Arabia Feleix economy. According to the Biblical scripture 1 Kings 10:1-13, the Queen of Sheba visited Jerusalem when Solomon was king, arriving “with a very great train, with camels that bore spices, and very much gold, and precious stones...there came no more such abundance of spices as these which the Queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon.” Solomon returned the gesture by giving her precious objects and the satisfaction of "very desire she expressed" before she returned to her "own land."

Development of Arab Culture

Arab culture was governed by the Bedouin tribal ethics, which included honor, hospitality, pride courage, family, loyalty and the law of vendetta . Power was rooted in strength and the ability to form . Wars and raids between nomadic tribes and settled communities were common and were celebrated in Arabic literature that evolved in the 6th century B.C. Not much is known about the Arabs in ancient times because they were mostly illiterate and other cultures didn’t write much about them. [Sources: “History of Arab People” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “Islam, a Short History “ by Karen Armstrong (Modern Library, 2000)]

Over time three main groups emerged: 1) the nomadic Bedouins; 2) farmers that tended date palm trees and grain fields around oases; and 3) traders and craftsmen in the small towns. Some people combined more than one way of life. Over time armed, camel-riding Bedouins and merchants united and controlled the oasis towns and the trading routes and dominated the farmers and craftsmen. The established bases in oasis towns were organized along tribal lines.

The Arabs largely occupied the fringes and the areas between the great empires of Mesopotamia, Persia, Egypt, Greece and Rome. By the time of Christ they occupied large portions of what is now Arabia, Iraq and Syria. Their power and reach was to an extent a product of the fact they were able to operate semi-autonomous states within the larger Persian, Roman and Byzantine empires.

Early Arab Religion and Language

Pre-Islam Arab god
Early Arab religion was localized and unorganized and revolved around the worship of local nature gods of things like the sky, water and trees. Many people believed that good and evil spirit took the form of animals and their equivalent of shaman had supernatural powers. [Sources: “History of Arab People” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “Islam, a Short History “ by Karen Armstrong (Modern Library, 2000)]

One of the primary unifying forces of the early Arabs was the development of a common poetic language that over time replaced the varied Arabic dialects. Spread along the caravan routes to oasis towns throughout the region occupied by Arabs, the language was used by poets of different tribal groups in the oasis towns and may have evolved from the rhythmic language used by shaman to cast magical spells. The poems conveyed with the poetic language were odes to desert life and epics passed down orally and recited public by poets, who were applauded for their improvisational skills and said to have never given the same reading twice.

The earliest Arab writing, in Aramaic script, has been dated to the A.D. 4th century. Later a unique Arabic scrip was produced. The early forms of writing were used in trade and accounting. They were not used for a while, as best as can be ascertained, to write down poetry.


The Garamantes were ancient people that inhabited the Sahara. Descended from Berbers and Saharan pastoralists, they first appeared around 1000 B.C. and were described by Herodotus in the 5th century B.C. as an exceedibly numerous people who herded cattle and hunted “troglodyte Ethiopians” from horse chariots. The Garamantes produced one of the largest totally desert-based kingdoms ever before dying out. At their height around A.D. 150 they controlled an area of 70,000 square miles in southern Libya, with a capital in Garama.

The Garamantes were a tough and aggressive people. They had to be to prosper in the middle of the Sahara. They took slaves to keep their empire going and penetrated as far south as Nigeria to collect slaves. Some slaves were obtained as tribute. Other were obtained in slaving raids. Rock art from the period depicted men in two-wheeled chariots with weapons.

Garamantes traded with the Romans and other people in northern African and the Mediterranean. They imported wine, olive oil and luxury good. and exported slaves and served as middlemen for gold, amazonite, carnelian and ivory being taken from Africa to the Mediterranean. Judging from the jewelry and high quality glassware and statuary and baths and temples unearthed in Garamantes region they did quite well for themselves.

Garamantes produced rock engravings of horsemen accompanied by as yet undeciphered inscriptions in Libyco-Berber, a writing system that dates to the 3rd century B.C. The rock art was often placed at the foot of massive escarpments. They worshipped many Egyptian gods, with the primary god being Ammon (the god of the desert) and his son the bull-headed deity Gurzil. Some members of the elite were buried under small pyramids.

Garamante Water Mining

The Garamantes made the desert bloom using system of underground wells, shafts and tunnels similar to the qanats in Iran, Afghanistan and western China. They built over a 1,000 miles of tunnels, which are known in Berber as “foggias” . The shafts were 10 meters apart and up to 40 meters deep, with an average depth of about the 10 meters. In fields nurtured with these wells they grew grapes, figs, sorghum, barely, pulses and wheat.

The Garamantes wells and tunnels — the largest ever built outside Iran — were dug by a workforce of between 1,000 and 2,000 slaves. The fact they were underground kept the water from evaporating. It was difficult, arduous and dangerous work. In places where the shafts and tunnels were dug in gravel and sand there was always the danger of cave ins. No doubt many people died. In places where holes where dug through limestone the work was not as dangerous but no doubt it wasn’t much fun chisel away at rock with hand tools under the hot Saharan sun.

The Garamantes tunnel system mined fossil water rather than redirecting water from a lake or river. They borrowed the technology from the Persians when they introduced it to Egypt to tap into water laden sandstone aquifers, The Garamantes civilization lasted as long as the water supply estimated at 30 billion gallons lasted. When the water ran out in A.D. 4th century the civilization collapsed.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia , National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, especially Merle Severy, National Geographic, May 1991 and Marion Steinmann, Smithsonian, December 1988, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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