The ruined city of Djado

Ancient History: The Ruins of the City of Djado, a Hidden Wonder of the Sahara

Rediscovering the Sahara

Archeological discoveries often help dispel myths and misconceptions about different epochs and places. The city of Djado, an impressive abandoned fortress located in northern Niger, shatters the common perception of the Sahara desert. Most people usually depict the area as a vast, unstable territory riddled with political issues and coveted for its many resources. Yet, it becomes a wondrous fairytale land at the mere mention of the Djado plateau.

The Sahara desert, which encompasses ten North African countries, is the keeper of many archeological treasures. Vestiges of Ancient Egypt and cities like Timbuktu give us an insight into ancestral civilizations by preserving their unique architecture and ancient artifacts as tokens of their prosperous past. Djado represents yet another city able to give us the testimony of another time. But the ruins of such a mysterious city can only arouse curiosity about the people who used to live there.

Picture of the Djado plateau and its ruins
The Djado ruins seen from a low angle. Credits:

Djado, the forsaken city

Imagine being a merchant in the year 1032, seeking to trade some textiles for precious goods, such as salt. After travelling from Libya, you arrive at the threshold of a fortified city. The sight of impressive ksars on top of a 1,500 feet tall plateau, made of a maze of mud buildings, unfolds before you. The ksars seem to have grown straight out of the sand, yet sparse greenery surrounds the fort. This could be your experience as a merchant when coming to Djado city during the period of the Kanem-Bornu Empire.

The Djado forteress, nicknamed after its location, the Djado Plateau, is made of the traditional ksar constructions found in various places in the Sahara. Mauritania, the City of Timbuktu (Mali), or the Mosques of Agadez (Niger) are notorious for such architectural constructions. Ksars (or Ksour) are north-African fortified villages made of mud buildings. From an onlooker’s point of view, Djado might appear like an ethereal real-life sand castle, rising from the desert and casting a shadow on the Aïr mountains. But, back when the plateau was still brimming with human activity, a diverse flora adorned the city and its surroundings.

Bird view of Djado
Bird view of the Djado ksars. Credits:

The plateau was left deserted, in every sense of the term. Like a ghost town, Djado has ceased bustling with life: inhabitants have fled centuries ago. Much of its fauna has found new habitats or gone extinct.

Anthropology of the Djado people

The Djado plateau gets its notoriety from its double cultural significance in anthropology. Not only does it preserve the ruins of a fortress city. But, it also contains numerous artifacts dating back to prehistory. Indeed, one visit to Djado takes us on two different trips back in time. One lifts the veil on the very beginnings of human civilization, with its ancestral yet vividly realistic art. And the other suggests the extraordinary modernity of a people that lived thousands of years ago, until they had no other option but to flee.

Prehistoric art

Human presence in the Djado region dates back to the Neolithic period. In 2006, Unesco added the site to its World Heritage Tentative list, as it is full of archeological artifacts and historical monuments which hold huge cultural and anthropological significance. For one, the plateau and the Aïr Mountains display drawings and carvings dating back to around 12 000 to 6 000 BP.

Rock art of elephants
Rock art: mural composed of three elephants. Credits:

The depiction of a large wild fauna makes up for a significant part of the rock art imagery in Djado. Indeed, giraffes, elephants, rhinos, large bovids such as babulus, used to thrive in the territory before desiccation made the area less habitable. During that time, humans would hunt such animals using prehistoric weapons, such as axes and spears.

Example of rock art displaying man and animals.
Rock art of various animals and a human figure. Credits:

Early humans often depicted themselves alongside the animals they hunted, perhaps as a way to establish an order between people and beasts and assert their power. This perception of authority could have led to shaping our vision of our place in nature. Hunting scenes and drawings of animals have allowed archeologists to further understand what the Sahara used to look like before becoming the world’s largest hot desert.

Adorning the rocks of the Tenere desert are also intricate carvings depicting humans, animals and abstract patterns. Made with sharpened stones or metals, the carvings usually display regular patterns such as dotting, lines, or human figures.

Djado prehistoric carvings
Prehistoric carvings from the Tenere desert. Credits:

Decyphering the meaning of rock paintings.

Hand paintings regularly appeared on the walls of prehistoric caves, as though they were a testimony of human presence and a desire to leave one’s mark. Prehistoric hand paintings have long fascinated anthropologists and archeologists. They are found on every continent, sometimes with one or several missing fingers, as though different hand dispositions were meant to communicate secret messages.

Hand painting
Hand painting from Djado. Credits:

Decyphering such simple yet enigmatic drawings proved to be a difficult task for archeologists and anthropologists around the world. Was it simply a way to leave a mark? Or could it have been a way to depict a certain sense of identity? Some archeologists believe that hand printings were part of a ritual: could this art be allowing us to peak into the spiritual life of our ancestors?

Hand drawings or printings can spark strong emotions in the modern observator, as they connect us to our earliest form of humanity. Despite the thousand-year old gap and the lack of knowledge about their meanings, such art forms enable us to grasp the level of awareness of early humans.

Ksar infrastructure

No major excavating missions have been carried out in the ksars of Djado. Moreover, the desertification process has rendered access to the fortress particularly difficult. Fortunately, this lack of access had one silver lining: it preserved the fort from human-caused deterioration. Though dating back to the medieval era, the forteress has proved to be relatively resistant to climate variations. This has to do, in part, with the building process of ksars.

Ksar ruins that show an example of ksar architechture.
Ksar ruins. Credits:

The structure of ksars consists in using palm trunks as foundations, and covering them with adobe, a material made of rammed-earth. The use of adobe results in the creation of a very strong, long-lasting structure that generates minimal amounts of waste. Other than mud houses, Djado was also comprised of mosques, shops, granaries to store grain and possibly, bath houses. Many ksars had fortified towers which stood on the sides of a wide terrace used by peasants to dry grain. Like many similar cities in North Africa, Djado was built in a mountain range, the Aïr Mountains, a strategic placement to facilitate defense during conflicts. A single wall protects the entire complex structure.

The many tribes of Djado

With the discovery of such impressive architecture came a necessary yet difficult task: figuring out who built it. Various tribes have always lived with one another in the Sahara region. But that doesn’t mean cohabitation wasn’t difficult. In fact, feuds between different ethnic groups and rivalities over territories remain to this day a cause of conflict. The demographics of the area and its evolution into a history of struggle to obtain control over its resources.

The Garamantian Kingdom

Considering the current demographics of north-east Niger, many believe that the city was first founded and inhabited by the Amazigh (formerly called Berbers). Indeed, the area was previously occupied by a group of Lybico-Berbers, namely, the Garamantes. Based on a strong agricultural economy, the Garamantian kingdom ruled over a significant part of the Fezzan Region from approximately 117 to 138 AD. The Garamantes achieved great success in the field of agriculture thanks to their complex irrigation system. In order to get an abundance of crops, they used groundwater, a fossil resource, which they obtained by digging tunnels under the sand. But unfortunately, their biggest asset eventually turned into a weakness. As ground water depletion progressed, the Garamantian kingdom slowly headed towards its collapse.

Ruins of an ancient Garamantian city.
Ruins of an ancient Garamantian city, Libya.

Collapse of the Garamantian kingdom and climate variations

Some historians believe that their irrigation system caused, in part, the desertification of the area. This further proves that, contrary to popular belief, man-made climate change isn’t a new phenomenon: on the contrary, the rise of agriculture in early civilizations brought some of the first instances of resource overuse. Unfortunately, the fall of the Garamantian kingdom gives us a ominous insight into our own future, as we keep using and extracting non-renewable resources at the expense of our environment and, ultimately, our livelihoods.

Aside from relying heavily on their agriculture for economic prosperity, the Garamantes also traded goods such as salt and enslaved individuals, which were two of the main “products” traded in Djado. The Garamantes clearly held an important role in the Djado area. However, the Garamantian Empire fell long before the construction of the fortress city. Archeologists therefore believe that, though the builders of Djado’s ksars may have sought to replicate Berber traditional buildings, it is likely that it was mostly occupied by another ethnic group: the Kanuris.

The Kanuris and the Kanem-Bornu empire

The Kanuris are an ethnic group which had a significance economic and cultural impact on the history of Djado. The roots of this traditionally sedentary group go back to the medieval Kanem-Bornu Empire. Founded before 1000 CE, the Kanem-Bornu Empire encompassed what is now Cameroon, Chad and Nigeria. However, in its height, its rule extended over present-day southern Lybia and Eastern Niger. Like Djado, the city of Kanem was a major trading center, connected to other cities via the Trans-Saharan trade route. Their success in trade and salt processing enabled the Kanuris to achieve a great level of control over the area.

Map of Djado during the Kanem Empire
Map of Djado during the Kanem Empire.

The Toubou people

This makes the matter even more ambiguous. Some Toubous and Kanuris have claimed that another people, the Soos (or Soas), built the fortress city.  Lack of thorough research leaves this claim unsubtantiated. However, the Toubou people, a nomadic pastoralist people, have without a doubt inhabited Djado for a long period. Historically, Toubou people have often dwelled near oases. They could easily settle there with their cattle and cultivate a variety of grain, legumes and dates. To this day, they still have a presence on the seemingly deserted Djado plateau. In summer, they come back to the plateau to pick dates. Toubous settled in Djado after the premises were abandoned by the majority of the Kanuris. Some literature also claims that a group of Shuwa Arabs inhabited the forteress before it became deserted.

The Tuaregs

Even though the Tuaregs didn’t wield any control over the area, they still had a definitive presence in Djado, as shown by the several conflicts they had with the Toubous. The Tuaregs can be considered as the original inhabitants of the Tenere desert. Like their ancestors, some present day Tuaregs still cultivate a nomadic lifestyle. Notorious for their involvement of several conflicts in the Sahel, the Tuaregs have struggled to get recognition for their rights as well as for their cultural richness.

During its most prosperous period, Djado acted as a commercial crossroad. It attracted people from very diverse places, whether they came from the south, or from the Middle-East. There, merchants exchanged a plethora of goods. Gold, salt, clothes, wheat, alum were prized merchandise. And of course, enslaved individuals represented a large part of the traded goods.

Why did Djado’s inhabitants flee the plateau?

The mystery of Djado resides in its state of emptiness. Why would people flee such an important trade center and leave it to crumble away? The answer probably lies in the worsening of climate conditions. But several hypotheses have surfaced over the last decade.

First theory: a large-scale moskito infestation

The oasis of Djado attracted settlers due to its fertility. Surrounded by a reedy lake, Djado allowed for different types of vegetation to grow. Unfortunately, early on, Djado inhabitants had to deal with infestations of malarial mosquitoes. At some point, the infestation may have become too much of a burden. Inhabitants would have had no other option but to flee.

Second theory: a worsening of desertification

Eventually, desiccation of the soil may have become a threat to the inhabitants’ livelihoods. Indeed, for the Toubous, their lifestyle heavily depended on their livestock. With the desertification, vegetation grew rarer, which made grazing increasingly difficult. The dry and hot climate could have made Djado progressively more inhospitable and hard of access.

Image of dessiccated and cracked soil.
Dessiccated and cracked soil in Niger.

Third theory: intra-ethnic conflicts and village destruction

In the 12th century, conflicts between Toubous and Tuaregs reached a breaking point. Tuaregs regularly targeted Toubous with raids (called rezzous). For centuries, the conflict did not subside, even at the onset of French colonization. The frequent massacres and constant plundering could have led to the destruction of villages on the plateau.

Is Djado a mirror of the current situation in the Sahara?

The end of Djado’s prosperous era has many similarities with the current situation in the Sahara. Armed conflicts between enemy tribes still plague the area.  Usually, tensions arise from attempts to seize control over territories. The presence of coveted resources, such as oil, uranium and underground water attracts foreign oil companies and create an unhealthy competition. The situation has reached a dire point in the Djado region, so much so that tourists are advised against visiting the site.

Furthermore, the threat of climate change looms over the area. Every year, the desert eats up an additional 450,000 acres of the Sahel. As desertification takes over and famines and droughts affect more and more people, the future seems increasingly bleak. To add insult to injury, endangered species, like the Sahelian cheetah, are on the brink of extinction.

But, things are looking up in certain areas. The Sahara is striving to preserve its unique history and restore its environment. In the Sahel, farmers have initiated a collective process of natural regeneration. As a result, in 2005, 12 million acres of vegetation reportedly showed signs of regeneration. This process also succeeded in slowing down erosion and increasing soil fertility. Inhabitants of the Sahara and the Sahel have become increasingly involved in preserving their environment, while making sure that their history and traditions remain intact as well. Without a doubt, the spirit of Djado lives on in the Tenere desert.

2 thoughts on “Ancient History: The Ruins of the City of Djado, a Hidden Wonder of the Sahara

    1. Found out about this place while browsing google earth. Very interesting read. Also I think the 2nd theory is the most likely 😉

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