Gharyan’s unique underground houses were carved into the mountainside centuries ago, and many lie abandoned, but residents of the Libyan city hope 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 city in 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 take away, he said.
Carved deep into the arid Nafusa Mountains some 700 meters (2,300 feet) above sea level, the house would have been protected from the scorching summers that bring temperatures up to 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit).
It would also have remained warm throughout the often snowy winters.
The bedrock of the region has a consistency that has allowed the subterranean habitation, known as the damous, to last for centuries without collapsing.
Some of the buildings are over 2,300 years old and ancient Greek historians have mentioned their existence, according to historian Youssef al-Khattali.
The area also has burial sites dating back to Phoenician times, he added.
Today, Belhaj says he is the owner of the oldest underground house in Gharyan, a town where many residents have family records and title deeds dating back centuries.
The maze of rock-cut rooms around the courtyard once housed up to eight large families, he said.
He was the last person to be born there, in 1967.
In 1990, like many people looking for more comfortable accommodation with running water and electricity, the family left the house, but remained the owner.
Now Belhaj has renovated it and turned it into a tourist attraction.
While the late dictator Muammar Gaddafi allowed tourists to visit the country on organized tours, visitors have been rare since his fall in a 2011 uprising that sparked a decade of chaos.
But the region’s Berber villages have continued to attract domestic tourists, and Belhaj hopes a return to relative stability could open the door to more visitors from Europe and beyond.
It charges an entrance fee equivalent to one dollar for Libyans, or two for foreigners.
While some come for a cup of tea and explore the building, others stay for lunch or spend the whole day there.
Damous structures were once common over part of western Libya and eastern Tunisia, across a border drawn only in 1886.
“The same tribes extend from Nalut to Gabes,” said historian Khattali, referring to towns on the Libyan and Tunisian sides.
Their sites were carefully chosen and the buildings painstakingly excavated by hand to prevent them from collapsing in the process.
In 1936 they caught the attention of the Italian colonial power, appearing in a tourist guide.
And they weren’t just used as homes.
“First there were underground dwellings for humans and their animals, then there were buildings intended as places of worship,” Khattali said, referring to synagogues and churches that were mostly converted earlier. later in mosques.
Some were also used as tusks, he said.
“There are still traces of fortifications in some parts of the mountain, including the remains of watchtowers.”
The buildings “were designed to be versatile, and they stood the test of time,” Khattali said.
“That’s why they are so important in the history of Libyan architecture.”