Libya’s underground homes wait for tourism revival

tourism - April 21, 2022

GHARYAN, LIBYA (AFP) – Gharyan’s unique underground houses were hewn into the mountainside centuries ago, and many lie abandoned, but residents of the Libyan town are hoping tourism can help restore their heritage.

“My great-great-great-great-great-grandfather dug this yard 355 years ago,” said Al-Arbi Belhaj, who owns one of the oldest houses in the mixed Berber-Arab town south of Tripoli.

His ancestor would have used a tajouk pickaxe to chip away at the ground before loading the rubble into a woven date-palm gouffa basket to carry it away, he said.

Dug deep into the arid Nafusa mountains at around 700 metres above sea level, the home would have been protected against the scorching summers that bring temperatures up to 45 degrees Celsius.

It would have also stayed warm throughout the often snowy winters. The region’s bedrock has a consistency that allowed the underground dwelling – known as a damous – to last for centuries without collapsing.

Some of the buildings are over 2,300 years old, and ancient Greek historians mentioned their existence, according to historian Youssef al-Khattali.

The area also has burial sites dating back to Phoenician times, he added.

Today, Belhaj said he is the owner of the oldest underground home in Gharyan, a town where many residents have family records and property deeds dating back centuries.

The warren of rooms dug into the rock around the courtyard once housed as many as eight large families, he said.

He was the last person to be born there, in 1967.

In 1990, like many people seeking more comfortable dwellings with running water and electricity, the family moved out of the home, but they kept ownership of it.

Now, Belhaj has renovated it and turned it into a tourist attraction.


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