Dedicated to the military history and civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire (330 to 1453)

"Time in its irresistible and ceaseless flow carries along on its flood all created things and drowns them in the depths of obscurity."

- - - - Princess Anna Comnena (1083–1153) - Byzantine historian

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Fort of Gheriat el-Garbia, Libya

Gheriat el-Garbia - Roman/Byzantine fort in Libya. 
Above is one of the fort towers.  The area of North Africa which has been known as Libya since 1911 was under Roman domination between 146 BC and 670 AD. 

Gheriat el-Garbia
Roman/Byzantine fort in Libya, part of the Limes Tripolitanus.

If desert people (e.g., the Garamantes) wanted to attack the Roman Empire, they had to travel through the arid desert and needed water. By fortifying the oases, the Romans effecively shut them out from their own world. Like Fort Gholaia (Bu Njem) and Gadames, construction of the fort at Gheriat el-Garbia was ordered by the emperor Septimius Severus (193-211). This line of fortifications is known as the Limes Tripolitanus.

The fort controlled an oasis and the upper reaches of a little wadi that empties itself in the Wadi Zemzem. Gheriat el-Garbia was built on a hilltop that was almost impossible to attack. Unless an enemy would approach it from the northeast, he would have to build a siege mole, which is rather difficult in the desert.

Map of Gheriat el-Garbia

ليبيا يا بلادى   ANCIENT LIBYA

The fort measured about c.185x135 m (24,800 m²), or double the size of the Bu Njem fort. The corners are directed to the four quarters of the compass. On the platform was a small well. Archaeologists have also identified cisterns in the northern corner of the ancient fort. The outer walls are almost entirely preserved, but the buildings inside did not survive. Berbers have reused them.

Gheriat el-Garbia was built by soldiers of the Third legion Augusta. This can be deduced from the shape of the towers of the northeastern gate, which are not square, as is usual, but five-angled. This can only be found in settlements of the Third, which was based in Lambaesis in what is now Algeria. Gates like this can also be seen in Theveste and Bu Njem.

Northern tower

The photo below shows a detail of the artwork on the northeast gate (the only surviving part, in fact): two Victories and two eagles carrying a laurel wreath. There was also an inscription, from which it is clear that the fort was built in 201, when Anicius Faustus was governor. To the east the remains of two (perhaps three) temples have been identified.

About a kilometer from Gerhiat el-Garbia, to the northeast, are the remains of an ancient signal tower, which onve connected the fort with other military settlements. Through this tower, Gheriat al-Garbia was in signalling contact with the centenarium of Gheriat esh-Shergia.

North tower

Because there was water and wood, a bathhouse  could be constructed in the oasis itself. The remains have been identified about five hundred meters west of the fort.

After Antiquity, other residents started to settle in the towers of Gheriat el-Garbia; the Berbers who often allowed their cattle to live there, also built the mosque that is still visible.

There is some evidence that soldiers of III Augusta were sometimes sent abroad. The Römisches-Germanisches Museum in Cologne in faraway Germania Inferior shows a tombstone of a legionary from III Augusta, and we can be confident that this man must have visited Gheriat el-Garbia too. The fort may have been an outpost in the Libyan desert, the people belonged to a world that was much, much larger.

Artwork on the northeastern gate.
Two Victories and two eagles carrying a laurel wreath

The Limes Tripolitanus

The Limes Tripolitanus:   frontier zone of the Roman Empire in the west of what is now called Libya.

The area of North Africa which has been known as Libya since 1911 was under Roman domination between 146 BC and 670 AD. The Latin name Libya at the time referred to the continent of Africa in general. What is now coastal Libya was known as Tripolitania and Pentapolis, divided between the Africa province in the west and Creta et Cyrenaica in the east. In 296 AD, the Emperor Diocletian separated the administration of Crete from Cyrenaica and in the latter formed the new provinces of "Upper Libya" and "Lower Libya", using the term Libya as a political State for the first time in history.

The frontier civilization of the Limes Tripolitanus survived the Roman Empire, although with some difficulty, because the cities went into decline. However, the rural areas managed to cope with the change. In the fifth century, the Tripolitanans had to fight against a new enemy: the Vandals, a European tribe that had fought itself a way through Gaul, Hispania, and Numidia and had settled in Carthage. For the first time since the Tripolitana had been conquered by the Romans, it became a real war zone. Riders on horse had to fight against warriors on dromedaries.

Emperor Septimius Severus
Born in Lepcis Magna (Khoms, Libya)

In 533, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian sent an army to restore the African provinces to the Empire.

New garrisons were stationed in the three cities, where the sixth-century walls are still visible. The centenaria remained and some of them even became real palace villas called castra, like the one at Suq al-Awty, where a visitor can not only see the remains of the boundaries of the ancient fields, but also the ruin of a Byzantine church.

In April 534 AD, the old Roman provincial system along with the full apparatus of Roman administration was restored, under a praetorian prefect.

During the following years, under the smart general Solomon, who combined the offices of both magister militum and praetorian prefect of Africa, Roman rule in Libya was strengthened (Theodorias was refounded), but the fighting continued against the Berber tribes of the Sahara.

Solomon achieved significant successes against them, but his work was interrupted by a widespread military mutiny in 536. The mutiny was eventually subdued by Germanus, a cousin of Justinian, and Solomon returned in 539. He fell, however, in the Battle of Cillium in 544 against the united berber tribes, and Roman Libya was again in jeopardy. It would not be until 548 AD that the resistance of the Berber tribes would be finally broken by the talented general John Troglita. The last Latin epic poem of Antiquity, the de Bellis Libycis of Flavius Cresconius Corippus was written about this struggle.

Successively the province entered an era of relative stability and prosperity, and was organized as a separate exarchate in 584 AD. Eventually, under Heraclius, Libia and Africa would come to the rescue of the Empire itself, deposing the tyrant Phocas and beating back the Sassanids and the Avars.

But that was the last Roman achievement: in 642 AD Moslem Arabs started to conquer Libya. The Arabs succeeded in temporarily driving the Byzantines out of Tripoli in 645 AD, but they did not follow that conquest with the establishment of a permanent Arab presence in the city.

No further raids were conducted until 661, when the new Umayyad dynasty under Mu'awiya ushered in a new era of Muslim expansion. An official campaign to conquer North Africa began in 663, and the Arabs soon controlled most major cities in Libya. Tripoli fell again in 666 AD, and this time the Muslims ensured their control of their new lands by not immediately retreating to Egypt after the conquest.

In 670 AD all Libya was in the hands of the Arabs: Roman Libya was no more.

Leptis Magna en Lybie, il y a 1800 ans

The olive oil production increased and appears to have been larger than ever and the countryside was wealthy, making the Tripolitana an almost natural target for Laguatan and Islamic expansion.

The regime change did not intervene with the economical or social structures. The linguistic change was small: many people still spoke Punic, and for them it was easy to learn Arabic. The centenaria/castra from now on being called qasr, pl. qsur. Except for a new religion, the predesert civilization that was based on careful water management and constant vigilance remained the same.

It was only in the eleventh century, when two Arabian dynasties, the Zirids and the Fatimids, were involved in a major war, that the system collapsed. After the garrisons had been transferred from the cities to the front, nomads of Banu Hillal tribe could capture the qsur. The agricultural production declined rapidly, the cities were no longer fed, and the remaining town dwellers abandoned Lepcis Magna and Sabratha to settle in Oea, which was from now on known as Tripoli.

The twelfth-century Sicilian geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi writes:

"Until recently, the Tripolitana was well-exploited and covered with fig trees, olives, dates palms, and other fruit trees. But the Arabs have completely destroyed this prosperity. The peasants were forced to leave the country, the orchards were destroyed, and the canals were blocked."

What had for eight centuries been a wealthy province of the Roman, Byzantine, and Muslim empires, now became a desert again. The decline of the population meant that there was no one who could destroy the ancient cities, the qsur, the watchtowers, the forts. They were simply left as they were, until nine centuries after the collapse, the first archaeologists started to study them.

The excellent state of preservation makes the forts of the Limes Tripolitanus unique. Another reason is that there are few places on this planet where you can see the immense power of a Roman emperor. To protect his home town, Septimius Severus changed an entire ecosystem, and the result lasted for more than eight centuries. For this display of power, world history offers no parallel.

Libya's ancient Leptis Magna now a ghost town 

Leptis Magna Reconstructed

Leptis Magna


Wikipedia - Limes Tripolitanus

Wikipedia - Roman Libya


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