Going underground: Libya’s unusual cave dwellings

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Deep inside Libya’s western Nafusa Mountains, some 10 meters into the ground, al-Arabi Belhaj is preparing mint tea in a somewhat unusual dwelling.

Sitting on colorful rugs on the floor and surrounded by clay pots, the 43-year old describes life in what used to be his home - a troglodyte cave house.

“This house was dug out in 1666 and generations of families have lived here. I was born here and there used to be eight families living together,” he said as he poured the tea from one pot to another to cool it.

“The women would go to the mountains to get wood and water before we the children would wake up. Then they would make tea together while the men looked after the animals.”

Belhaj spent the first 10 years of his life in this home, dug vertically into the ground by his ancestors, who excavated caves around a central squared courtyard. Each room housed a family with cooking areas - smaller caves - used communally.

Decorated with traditional Berber designs - colorful rugs, chests and pottery, each 10 meter-long cave, was split into three sections - the parents’ sleeping area, the children’s bedding and a living room.

A door made out of olive tree wood at its front, the home provided insulation in winter and allowed its inhabitants to keep cool during hot summers.

“The houses are now unoccupied as the families moved out in 1985,” Belhaj’s nephew Abdulrahman said. “But we still come here in the summer to cool down.”

Gharyan, some 100km south of the capital Tripoli, used to have hundreds such homes scattered among its rocky mountains. But many have been abandoned as their inhabitants have moved to more modern houses.

Belhaj and his family maintained theirs and opened it up to tourists several years ago. Before Libya’s 2011 war, foreign visitors would sleep in the rooms and eat home-cooked meals - usually couscous - for 100 Libyan dinars ($77).

They now plan to open a hotel next year, excavating more rooms within the caves, in the hope that foreign holiday makers will eventually come back to Libya provided security in the North African country - still awash with weapons - improves.

In the meantime, Belhaj relies on internal tourism.

“Now things have changed, we have more Libyans who are coming to visit,” Abdulrahman said.

“They want to see these old traditions.”

Keen to learn about the ancestral dwellings, he said families from Tripoli, Benghazi in the east as well as other cities usually visit during the weekend. Seeing such homes for the first time, many take pictures among the traditional rugs, clothing and pots that are laid out around the caves.

Others inspect old shoes that hang on the white walls inside the courtyard, which is decorated with potted plants and accessed via a tunneled passageway.

“We have to learn about our culture,” one visitor, who gave his name as Hassan, said as he toured the caves with his young children. “I am so proud when I look at this.”

Troglodyte houses can also be found in other towns in the Nafusa mountains and neighbouring Tunisia. During Libya’s 2011 fighting, many families fled to the caves to escape shelling.

With government plans to boost Libya’s oil-dependent revenues via tourism, Belhaj and his family hope their ancestral home can play a role in attracting visitors.

“This is history,” Abdulrahman said, of the dwellings.
“If you don’t have history, you don’t have any future.”

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