Imazighen are one of three main groups inhabiting modern Libya, and one of the most ancient. Their agricultural villages were centred around reliable water sources in the desert regions, and constructed from mud brick, stone and date palm timber, adhered with gypsum mortar, until a few decades ago. Now several small Berber communities are preserving their Medinas (old cities) for cultural heritage and tourism purposes. The most famous of these is Ghadames, with Ghat (way out in the deep Sahara desert, near the borders of Algeria, Libya and Chad) a close rival. I was not able to reach Ghat this time, but we stopped in a few others to study the BerberÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s vernacular architecture (ie, “folk” architecture). Within these sites, the most important structures were undoubtedly their fortified granaries.
We saw three very different structures over the last couple of days in Western Libya, in the Berber communities of Qasr al-Haj, Nalut, and Kabaw (aka Kabao). All of these are essentially a community bank vault, food storage facility, and architectural wonder in mud brick. Each was built in the best defensive position in the area – high up over the town, or backing onto a cliff edge. They all possess a great sense of humanity in their design – clay smoothed back by human hands, based entirely on human proportions, unadorned and rough at the edges but beautiful for their simplicity, purpose, and the nature of their materials.
Qasr al-Haj was made by a wealthy religious leader, and contains 144 rooms, one for each sura of the Koran. It is perhaps the most elegant of these structures – a perfect circle with two-storey blank walls outside, with an interior dominated by an empty courtyard used to host markets. The higher ring of dark, small chambers can be accessed by a pathway around the inner upper storey, which looks out over the vast flat desert plains and dramatic mountain range to the south-east. Each door is sealed with a sturdy arrangement of three planks of date palm wood, locked with a deceptively simple wooden key mechanism.
Nalut hosts the most complex granary in Libya. It may have began with a design like Qasr al-Haj, a simple ring of food vaults, but increasing population pressures led to the creation of more storage units. So another outward-facing hill of vaults was built in the centre area, like a giant muddy sandcastle, four stories high, and the outer walls were built progressively higher as more chambers were stacked on top. Occasionally sections of the outer wall were rebuilt (mud structures will crumble, even in the dry desert), giving locals the opportunity to fold walls like a tesseract (zig-zag, or the way an intestine folds) to make even more space for vaults. The whole effect now is a labyrinthine spiral of turbulent ups, downs, sideways, overhead and perpendicular chambers. There are numerous hanging baskets to raise or lower commodities to the least accessible locations, and thick branches sticking out to enable agile climbers to reach any opening. It is a site for excellent but challenging photography, all light earthy tones contrasted with the clear blue sky, and plenty of opportunities to explore shadow and perspective.
The last granary was Kabaw, which also requires the most needed restoration work. That said, you can do things here that OH&S requirements would completely prevent in Australia for a cultural heritage site! This was somewhere between Qasr al-Haj and Nalut for design, being a four-storey ring of uneven and asymmetrical vaults with a clear space in the centre, occupied by a white stone tomb. It has the wild and organic quality of Nalut, with more of the order and spaciousness of Qasr al-Haj. Most distinctly, it hosts vaults underground, beneath the open courtyard space. This was designed as a reaction to increased population, just like Nalut, but they built down instead of up. I followed the very nimble local guide through the tiny chambers in pitch darkness, seeing the huge ceramic vessels used for storing olive oil and other liquids, designed to be too large to remove from their tiny doorways.
The final highlight of singular buildings was another subterreanean construction – a Berber underground house in Gharyan. Basically, this is an 8m deep pit, like the foundation of a high rise office building. Rooms shared by several families are dug out to the sides, meeting in the central atrium. The whole arrangement is hard to see from a distance (great for security) and remarkably stable for fluctuating climates.