By Scott Corrales (c) 2001
A visit to the fantasy aisle of any secondhand bookstore in the country will almost surely yield a treasure trove of yellowing pulps with lurid color covers from the 1930's and 1940's. These aging flights of fancy usually pit sinewy heroes against demons or fell beasts, usually in exotic, eldritch settings. Edgar Rice Burroughs sent his famous "Tarzan" character to Opar, a legendary African kingdom while H. Rider Haggard exposed his adventuresome character, Allan Quartermain, to the tender mercies of She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed in the shifting sands of Egypt. A generation grew up reading about the daring escapes and close calls of a number of fantastic characters as they made their way through an Africa of the mind, filled with lost cities and the remnants of ancient civilizations.
But after we've replaced the well-thumbed paperbacks on their dusty shelves and banished all thoughts of escapism from our minds, we are left to ponder the question of "lost kingdoms". Were there ever any, and if so, what became of them? Do the remains of great kings, proud queens and mighty heroes lay forgotten under the sands of the vast Sahara, or else in the hearts of nigh-impenetrable rainforests?
Garama, The City Under the Sands
"Men dwell there called Garamantes, an exceeding great nation who sow on earth which they have laid on the slat...these Garamantes go in their four-horse chariots chasing the Ethiopians". Herodotus, The Histories, IV.183
In its heyday, Imperial Rome controlled all of Europe to the east and the south of the Rhine and the Danube (with the addition of Trans-Danubian Dacia later on), Asia Minor and the Levant, and North Africa from modern Morocco to Egypt. Beyond these borders lay roaming barbarian tribes, petty client kingdoms (the Bosporians) and hostile Empires (the Parthians). Roman Africa, the Empire's granary and the birthplace of poets, philosophers and emperors, stretched far deeper into the Sahara than is commonly shown in history book maps, bringing it into contact with desert tribespeople and the kingdom of the Garamantes, who shall be referred to as Garamantians for purposes of this work.
It would seem as though the unquiet ghosts of the Garamantians struggled to make themselves felt by modern man for a very long time indeed: In 1914,italian archaeologist Salvatore Aurigemma stumbled across a fascinating Roman mosaic in the modern Libyan village of Zliten, to the south of the ancient port of Leptis Magna. The mosaic showed a young woman being devoured by a leopard as two other victims await a similar fate. These sacrificial victims are depicted as having acquiline noses, straight hair and beards which identified them as Garamantians. Almost 20 years later in 1933, French archaeologist Pierre Belair discovered the mind-bending number of 100,000 tombs in the vicinty of Garama.
Known by its modern appellation--Germa--the ancient Garamantian capital city of Garama is located in the region of modern Libya dubbed the Fezzan, an arabiscised rendering of "Phazania", the ancient world's name for the region. The Garamantian realm, according to the historian Herodotus, was "a kingdom larger than Europe" defended by warriors "who chased the Ethiopian troglodytes" for sport in their battle chariots. Images of these vehicles have survived the passing of centuries on the stone walls of canyons and desert massifs, particularly Djebel Zenkekra. Images stretching even farther back into the historical record can be found at this location: 7000 years of it, even as the Sahara became less and less hospitable, with grass growing too scarce to support horses and cattle. The Garamantians and their four-hourse chariots belong to the period marked between 1250 and 1000 B.C.E., and have been identified by some as "Peoples of the Sea" who assaulted Pharaonic Egypt from the Eastern Mediterranean. When their plans were thwarted, this warlike culture may have settled in Phazania, west of Egypt.
The Garamantians also receive a curious mention in a 16th century book called Reloj de Principes and written by Spanish chronicler Antonio de Guevara (1480-1545). Chapter 22 of said work bears the title "Of how the Great Alexander, after defeating King Darius in Asia, went on to conquer Great India and of what happened with the Garamantes..." Guevara places the Garamantians in the "Ripaean Mountains" of India, saying that "these barbarian peoples known as the Garamantes" had never been conquered by Persians, Medes or Romans (sic) because of their poverty and the lack of material rewards to be gained by a military adventure. But Alexander the Great, renowed among all conquerors for his innate curiosity, sent an embassy to exact tribute.
Citing Lucius Boscus's De antiguitatibus grecorum, Guevara adds that the Garamantians "had houses that looked the same, that all the men wore the same type of clothing, and that no man had greater wealth than his fellows."
Was the Garamantian kingdom as large as Herodotus suggested? The indefatigable Henri Lhote, famous for his work with the Tassili pictograms, managed to find depictions of war chariots in the Hoggar Mountains nearly a thousand miles away from Phazania. In the summer of 2000, a multidisciplinary archaeological team from the British universities of Reading, Newcastle and Leicester confirmed a three thousand mile long natural irrigation network connected to underground water supplies had been positively identified, confirming the fact that the Garamantians had controlled an empire of over 70,000 square miles which featured three major cities (modern Germa, Zinchecra and Saniat Gebril) and nearly two dozen lesser settlements. The irrigation network allowed for expanded food production and the maintenance of a sedentary population of some 50,000 souls. The new discoveries have also spurred a revision of the historical tables: the first towns would have appeared around 500 B.C.E, and the Garamantians would have become a significant political entity around 100 B.C.E., eventually disappearing around 750 C.E. with the onslaught of Islamic conquerors into the area. British newspaper The Independent quotes the team's leader, University of Leicester archaeologist Prof. David Mattingly, thus: "Our research is revealing that, with human ingenuity and against all the odds, the people of the world's largest desert were able to create a prosperous and successful civilization in one of the dryest and hottest wildernesses on Earth. The Romans liked to think of the Garamantes as simple barbarians. The new archaeological evidence is now putting teh record straight and showing they were brilliant farmers, resourceful engineers and enterprising merchants who produced a remarkable civilization." Mattingly was perhaps referring to the citadel at Aghram Nadarif ("city of salt" in the Berber language), measuring 460 feet by 160 feet, which featured imrpessive walls and watch towers. It has been suggested that this outpost was the transshipment point for salt coming from the Mediterranean and on its way into tropical Africa in exchange for gold, ivory and exotic animals to be slain by the gladiators of Rome.
A Real Queen of the Desert
In the oasis of Abelessa, not far from Tamanrasset, one of the Sahara's best known spots, thanks to the Paris-Dakar Rally, holds another of the desert's mysteries: the ruined fortress of Tin Hinan, whose architecture does not resemble the crude structures raised by the desert dwellers. Archaeologists are still at a loss to identify the builders of this city, but in 1926, a Franco-American archaeological team managed to discover a rectangular chamber filled covered with soil, which in turn concealed six slabs of considerable size. Beneath these stone behemoths lay the remains of Tin Hinan, the legendary queen considered by the Tuareg to be the founder of their people.
The legendary queen's mummy was covered in the tattered remains of a leather outfit. Tin Hinan wore seven sivler bracelets on one arm and eight on her left arm; a ring and a leaf-shaped dagger covered her chest area. Her right foot was surrounded by spheres of antimony and the rest of her body was surrounded with pearls of various colors.
James Wellard, author of The Great Sahara, cites one Dr. Leblanc of the University of Algiers School of Medicine as having described the queen's mortal remains thus: "A woman of the white race...the formation of the skeleton strongly recalls the Egyptian type as seen on the pharaonic monuments, characterized by height and slimness, wideness of shoulder, smallness of pelvis and slenderness of leg." This forensic opinion launched speculation about Tin Hinan's origin. Were her remains, in fact, those of Antinea, the legendary last queen of Atlantis? Sober-minded historians prefer to believe that Tin Hinan's fortress could have been an advanced outpost of the Roman Army, perhaps even a customs entrepot or warehouse, guarding the trans-Saharan trade routes.
A Forgotten Alphabet
It is almost a matter of honor that any chronicle on the Sahara desert, regardless of the aspect being discussed, include at least a passing mention of the Tassili-N-Ajer petroglyphs. These remarkable images portray the ancient inhabitants of the Sahara engaged in actitivities crucial for their survival, such as hunting and agriculture, or in social and spiritual activity such as dancing and worship. These 10,000 year-old images were first made known to the world in 1956, when they were displayed in Paris's Musee de l'Homme. The Tassili images created a sensation when they were first displayed, and would later provide high-octane fuel for Erich Von Daniken's theories of extraterrestrial visitation in prehistoric times. This speculation was centered around a number of disturbing images which do not resemble the stylized hunter-gatherers of ten millenia ago: bipedal figures wearing what appear to be modern, single-piece outfits, their heads covered by one-eyed "helmets". Anthropologists have been quick to dismiss any suggestions that prehistoric artists were representing visitors from another world, suggesting instead that the images represent shamans wearing ceremonial outfits represeting certain gods or elemental forces.
The Tassili-N-Ajer saga began to unfold in 1933, when two officers of the French Foreign Legion--Lt.Col. Brenans and Col. Carbillet--became the first contemporary Europeans to set foot in the Tassili plateau, which had been considered off-limits by desert tribesmen. Setting out from Fort Polignac, the two officers entered the Ighargharen Gorge and discovered the seemingly endless succession of paintings. Their superiors in Paris informed the Musee de l'Homme and an old Sahara hand, Henri Lhote, was dispatched to investigate. Fighting his way through the brambles and thorny desert "vegetation", Lhote was startled by the profusion of white kaolin and iron oxide images showing giraffe, antelope and elephants--creatures that called the then-verdant Sahara home.
In the fullness of time, a team of artists, photographers and archaeologists would return to Tassili to fully document--on enormous rolls of canvas--the full extent of the desert fastness's holdings. But the world remembers only two features of the hard work of these French scientists: their discovery of the Great Horned God or God of Sefa (a flat-headed, horned figure that towers with outstretched arms over a multitude of animals, dancers and "floating" characters) and the disturbing "roundheads" in their modern clothes.
Perhaps one of the least-known aspects of the Tassili-N-Ajer petroglyphs has been the discovery of an "alphabet" that hails back to an age where writing was supposedly unknown. Pierre Colombel, who has followed the footsteps of Henri Lhote in analyzing the desert images, has worked on an image involving hunters surmounted by glyphs consisting of regular geometrical shapes and dots, which roughly resemble the "writing" found on the haloes of Australia's enigmatic Wondjina figures. According to Colombel, the message could be something as insignificant as a hunter bragging about his prowess with the lance or a significant legacy to our times which shall forever remain undecipherable.
Mystery of the Veiled Nomads
After the conquest of the Fezzan by the victorious armies of the Omayyad Caliphate, the Garamantians and their works vanished from history. Some historians have seen them as the progenitors of the mysterious veiled desert nomads known as the Tuaregs, who bear no physical resemblance to other Berber peoples, who appear to have arrived from the deep Sahara in the 5th century as the Roman Empire disintegrated. However, there exist other traditions pointing to a far older origin for these desert dwellers.
In her book The Ancient Atlantic (Amherst Press, 1969) L.Taylor Hansen's included a purely anecdotal account which linked the Sahara's Tuareg tribesmen to a secret tradition probably going back to the Garamantians and their lost realm. Citing a chance encounter with a man of Arab descent in Mexico City, Hansen details the existence of a tribe of Tuareg "warrior women" who allegedly still exist in the Sahara, sporting the arm-daggers adn short swords used in antiquity, as well as shields with a pitchfork-shaped device representing "the three high peaks of the Hoggar" under which there supposedly exist underground galleries filled with petroglyphs similar to those at Tassili, depicting aurochs and other prehistoric animals. Hansen's interlocutor advised her that the Tuaregs believed that their people had come from the ocean,and that the name they gave themselves meant "people of the sea".
Hansen pressed her anonymous source for more information on the subterranean galleries allegedly occupied by the modern Tuareg and was given the following information: A European explorer engaged in a survey of the Hoggar mountains was startled to come across a rough opening in the stone closed off with metal bars. Peering downward, the explorer realized that it was a ventilation shaft of some sort. Fear of alerting Tuareg raiders, however, kept him from casting a stone down the shaft in order to ascertain its depth.
The story becomes even more fantastic when the anonymous interlocutor tells Hansen that under the miles of underground torch-lit galleries can be found a "beautiful artificial lake" around which the ancient writings of the Tuaregs' forebears are preserved--allegedly extending as far back as the Flood.
We can feel free to accept or reject, Hansen's story about the Tuaregs and the mighty works of their forebears, but one detail in her conversation with the stranger is extremely intriguing: the man mentions that the Tuaregs trace their descent back to the ancient Greek hero Heracles, better known to us under the Latin designation of Hercules.
French author Louis Charpentier suggests in his Les Geants et les Mystéres de Sont Origines (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1968) that the character of Herakles does not refer to a single hero of superhuman strength, but is a name which has a similar meaning as "paladin" or "champion". The Herakles related to North Africa and the Sahara in particular would have been the one detailed to exterminate the giant Antaeus and bring the Golden Apples from the Hesperides. Mighty Antaeus, writes Charpentier, was wedded to Tingis, the daughter of Atlas--both of them North African place names--and ruled a kingdom surrounding the Triton--the inland sea which supposedly occupied the northern Sahara and whose name survived well into Roman times (it survives today as the salt desert known as Chott al-Djerid, the location where the first installment of Star Wars was filmed in 1976). To bolster his argument, Charpentier points to the burial place of the giant Antaeus at Charf, a mound to the south of modern Tangier, a place excavated by Roman legionaries whose efforts under the hot sun were apparently rewarded by a large find of ancient bones.
Could the Tuareg indeed be descended from this eldest of lost kingdoms, claiming one of the best-known mythical figures as a forebear?
The belief in long-lost kingdoms enshrouded in lianas and guarded by leopards and poisonous reptiles is sometimes too great to resist--even eminently rational scientists occasionally give in to its siren's call.
Italian geologist Angelo Pitoni, a consultant on the acclimation of tropical plants and vegetables to Mediterranean climates for the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), succumbed to "lost kingdom fever" after performing his duties in the African republic of Guinea. His interested was ignited in 1991 by the totally fortuitous discovery of some enigmatic statues in war-torn Sierra Leone, followed by a totally unexpected find: a giant statue in the mountains of Guinea, known to locals as "the lady of Mali". In an interview with journalist Carmen Machado, Pitoni explained that the statue is located to the north of the city of Conakry and close enough to the country's border with Mali. The geologist estimates the "lady of Mali" to be some twenty thousand years old, gauging this through the displacement of a rock fault. Pitoni also speaks of caves in the area which contain very old mummies that are zealously guarded by the locals and their possible "Atlantean" origin.
The geologist bolsters his belief by means of an extraordinary object: a strange crystal found in Sierra Leone diamond fields and which resembles a pure turquoise similar to some found on the pectorals of Egyptian priests. Analyses performed on this "Stone of Heaven", as he calls it, revealed that it is different from any other gemstone known to man: seventy-seven percent oxygen, twenty per cent carbon and limestone, with silica and trace elements. While a deep, sky blue in color, fragments of the stone are perfectly transparent.