Along the 29th parallel: desert, caravans, castles

The desert

The Libyan-Nubian desert is the north-eastern part of the Sahara Desert in the territories of Libya, Egypt and the Sudan. It is bordered to the north by the Mediterranean, to the east by the Nile and to the south by the Tibesti mountains in Chad and the Darfur mountain chain and Khartoum Plain in Sudan.
The Libyan desert covers an almost rectangular area of around 1.1 million square kilometres, extending about 1,100 km from east to west and about 1,000 km from north to south. The central part of this desert is extremely arid and some areas can go two or three decades without rainfall. There are no rivers and, apart from the few oases, there are no human settlements. Even the routes or trails are few and far between.

The 29th parallel and its history

The 29th parallel north of our planet Earth is one of those lines along which human history has left deep traces. The memories of events have partly been turned to dust by Ghibli sandstorms – that “spin the sky into a skein of wool yarn,” as Mario Tobino put it in his poem, The Libyan Desert – and images from the past are blurred. From the most ancient times, a caravan route connecting Egypt in the east to Fez in the west ran along the 29th parallel.

It was used by merchants with their camel trains transporting goods: on these journeys their main staple food were dried dates, capable of surviving intact even for months under the desert sun. Dried dates provided life-preserving nourishment and energy during the desert crossing. It was along this trade route that Arab penetration of western North Africa unfolded between the 7th and 11th centuries.

The Al Jufrah Oases over the centuries

Over the centuries caravan routes changed the destinies of entire geographical regions. Al Jufrah was located in a strategic position, along the 29th parallel, at the crossroads of the east-west routes and the trans-Saharan routes connecting the south to the Mediterranean.
From Fezzan and the desert regions further south, the black slaves would be driven through Sokna towards Misrata, where they would be bartered for the cereals harvested along the fertile coastal plain and for other products of the craftsmanship of the northern cities. Caravan routes were feasible only if they could rely on oases along the route.
In turn, the oases developed and flourished thanks to trade, which – alas – all too frequently was mainly slave trafficking. Men and camels would replenish their water supplies and rest in the shade in these havens that still dot the routes. Over the centuries the near miraculous supply of water in the oases – such as Al Jufrah – convinced travellers, merchants and, later, Arab conquerors and Islamic missionaries, to stop and spend more time in these areas. Some settled permanently.

The history of mankind has a bizarre way of producing uncanny analogies. One of these is undoubtedly the physical similarity between the settlements that developed in the Al Jufrah region of the Libyan desert and the medieval fortified towns characterizing Carolingian Europe. On the tip of the only high ground, standing out in a seemingly infinite flat rock and sand horizon, a fortress would be built, from which to keep watch and organize defence if enemy forces were approaching. The dwellings for the people were built around the rulers' fortress, and the entire settlement was surrounded by walls with watchtowers. Roads departed from these citadels towards other centres. The villages of Sokna, Waddan and Zellah, the oldest in the Al Jufrah region, were originally designed in this manner and still today display remnants of the citadels of that period.