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

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The Roman Fort of Qasr Banat in Libya - The Limes Tripolitanus

Qasr Banat, fortified farm entrance

The Limes Tripolitanus

The Limes Tripolitanus was a frontier zone of defence of the Roman Empire, built in the south of what is now Tunisia and the northwest of Libya. It was primarily intended as a protection for the tripolitanian cities of Leptis MagnaSabratha and Oea in Roman Libya.

The Limes Tripolitanus was built after Augustus. It was related mainly to the Garamantes menace. Septimius Flaccus in 50 AD did a military expedition that reached the actual Fezzan and further south.

The first fort on the limes was built at Thiges, to protect from nomad attacks in 75 AD. The limes was expanded under emperors Hadrian and Septimius Severus, in particular under the legatus Quintus Anicius Faustus in 197-201 AD.

Anicius Faustus was appointed legatus of the Legio III Augusta and built several defensive forts of the Limes Tripolitanus in Tripolitania, among which Garbia and Golaia (actual Bu Ngem) in order to protect the province from the raids of nomadic tribes. He fulfilled his task quickly and successfully.

Former soldiers were settled in this area, and the arid land was developed. Dams and cisterns were built in the Wadi Ghirza to regulate the flash floods.  The farmers produced cereals, figs, vines, olives, pulses, almonds, dates, and perhaps melons. Ghirza consisted of some forty buildings, including six fortified farms (Centenaria).

With Diocletian the limes was partially abandoned and the defence of the area was done even by the Limitanei, local soldier-farmers. The Limes survived as an effective protection until Byzantine times.  Emperor Justinian restructured the Limes in 533 AD.

From 665 to 689, a new Muslim Arab invasion of North Africa was launched.  The limes fortifications played little part.

Roman Limes System

The Limes Tripolitanus

Qasr Banat (Qasr Isawi)

Qasr Banat was built by the Romans, who called these buildings centenaria. They were built in the mid-third century, when the Third legion Augusta had been disbanded and the people along the desert frontier (the Limes Tripolitanus) had to start to defend themselves. Because the centenaria were built according to standard designs, the Qasr Banat farm looks a lot like the one at Gheriat esh-Shergia. 
It is situated on a steep hill along the Wadi Nefud, close to the confluence with another wadi. The dams in the wadis are ancient. In the neighborhood, you will also find a well that is often frequented by modern shepherds; there is a white, more recent sanctuary of a Muslim saint about 400 meters east of it. In this direction, you can also see the ancient quarry, where the stones were cut to build the centenarium.
The centenarium remained in use for centuries; in the area surrounding it, you can see medieval walls and several buildings that have, in the meantime, collapsed. The walls of the centenarium, however, has survived in nearly perfect condition.
The nearby mausoleum, which is even better preserved, consists of two rooms. It it of the "temple type" that is also known from Ghirza's northern cemetery. In the lower room, the people were buried, you can still see traces of the ancient decoration. One of the common themes is the fish, which is in this arid zone a predictable symbol of eternal life; it is interesting to notice that the nomadic tribes of the Libyan and Egyptian desert still a very common motif. The upper room was probably used for picknicks; the people gathered, commemorated their ancestors, had a drink, and poured a libation through a hole in the ground, into the room with the tombs.
Qasr Banat, mausoleum

Byzantine North Africa

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.

Much of the area was conquered from the Romans and the Vandals set up their North African kingdom from 435 to 534.  

Emperor Constans II
The last Roman Emperor
of Tripolitanus

As part of the re-conquest of Africa the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian organized an anti-Vandal revolt with the support of Byzantine troops from Egypt and Cyrenaica.  Tripolitana once again returned to Roman rule.

An interesting side note, the historian Procopius (500 – c. AD 565) recorded that an Imperial official was brought from Libya to work in Constantinople.  The official spoke only Latin and naturally had difficulty with the many Greek speakers in the capital.  

This small story tells us a great deal about a still flourishing Latin-Roman civilization in North Africa.

New garrisons were stationed in the Libyan cities. 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 Roman frontier zone, or Limes Tripolitanus, was designed to protect settlements and cities from desert raids coming from the south.  A Muslim invasion from Egypt was not expected.

In 642–643, the Arabs had seized Cyrenaica and the eastern half of Tripolitania, along with Tripoli

By 698 the Islamic province of Ifriqiya was born. The province would cover the coastal regions of what are today western Libya, Tunisia, and eastern Algeria. Thus ended 800 years of Roman Africa.

Qasr Banat
The purple marker on the left is the fortified Roman farm of Qasr Banat.
The bluish marker on the right by the trees is the 

Qasr Banat, well and sanctuary of a local saint.

Qasr Banat, centenarium

Qasr Banat, surrounding wall

Qasr Banat, mausoleum, lower room



Anonymous said...

are those photos recent ones ?

Anonymous said...

It is worth noting that a form of African Latin lasted into the 12th century (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/African_Romance). What a shame that it didn't come down to our own time.

Gary said...

The photos are no doubt a few years old. No one is going to Libya these days.

Anonymous said...

ga ... gar
you right
nobody going to Lybia these days safe subsaharan refugees from lousy local rulers , moneygrabers , that thrive on people misery , plumdering natural resources for themselves ga ... gar