The deep central Sahara, in the African country of Niger, is a land almost beyond human reach. Any traveler heading south from the Mediterranean coast is faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
Huge, towering dunes block the route south. Relentless heat and harsh winds sap all energy and the vista appears almost lifeless.
But, for those who penetrate to the harsh interior of the great desert, a seeming miracle waits to be found. Here amid the sand-choked canyons on a high desert plateau lies the ruins of a great fortified city, abandoned to the desert.
This city, named in modern times for the Djado plateau it is found on, is almost completely mysterious. Some of the structures seem familiar and are recognizable from other neighboring cultures. Others stand mute, their purpose unknown.
These ruins are around 800 to 1000 years old, and come from a time when this part of the Sahara was much wetter, forested and fertile. We know something of the people who lived here in the more recent past. But who built it, we cannot say.
The Construction of Djado
The fortress city of Djado is what is known as a “ksar”. These traditional north African fortified settlements dot the landscape, and generally take the form of a series of houses built around central food storage, with an emphasis on defense.
Ksars such as Djado were made out of the trunks of palm trees covered by adobe mud, dried by the desert winds to an iron hardness. But what sets Djado apart from most such ksars is its great size. Rising from the desert, the great fortress dominates the surrounding landscape.
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The Kanuri people of the mid Saharan desert were the last known inhabitants of this city, which may have been built by their ancestors. But there is no evidence of this, and the Kanuri are not known for such monumental construction: they may have inherited a city built far earlier by an unknown culture.
As the region became more arid over the last 500 years the settlement became uninhabitable, and was abandoned. Today it is extremely inaccessible and only limited archaeological work has been undertaken at the site, a ghost town reclaimed, and preserved, by the great desert.
But ksar construction is well suited to variances in temperature and the harsh desert conditions, and so the abandonment of Djado did not mean its destruction. Isolated from the world and built to withstand these conditions, much of the great city survives to this day.
The Abandonment of Djado
The tipping point which caused the Kanuri people to abandon Djado seems to be the lack of a clean water supply. As the lush landscape turned into desert the water turned brackish, and the environment became too harsh for human inhabitants to sustain.
By this time, the economic motivation for maintaining a settlement at Djado had long vanished. Located in an often-disputed part of central Africa, surrounded by great kingdoms, the city stood on a natural trade route.
Due to their favorable position and the much more amenable climate in the past, the Djado plateau had seen human habitation stretching back much further than the city itself. Humans had lived on the plateau for as much as 60,000 years, leaving rock art and other signs of their presence.
Early pastoral agriculture is also in evidence at the site. Goats and sheep were herded here as early as 7,000 BC, with the first permanent settlements being built here at this time. Cattle were introduced around 4,000 to 3,500, a thousand years before the great pyramids at Giza.
The area is known for its rock art, which often depicts animals no longer found in the region (Albert Backer / CC BY-SA 3.0)
The many rock paintings that are found within the Aïr Mountains of the region date from 3,500 BC to 2,500 BC. These portray a very different landscape to that seen today: a lush world thick with vegetation and with many animals.
The Sahara used to support a Savanna ecosystem with giraffes, elephants, and other large animals. This area is now largely uninhabited, with many abandoned towns and forts that are still visible as empty ruins in the desert. As per the census of 2011, Djado was recorded to have a population of only 1,495 people.
Lost to the Desert
Access to the great city today is full of challenges. This part of the world is very unstable and the tribes who inhabit the area are in fierce competition for the limited resources. It is possible that future excavations may shed more light on who built this grand city, and we may begin to understand this lost culture of the Sahara.
They were certainly accomplished city builders, creating a fortress far larger than most in the heart of northern Africa. Their walls stood tall and proud and many of the original buildings remain largely intact, only missing their rooves.
The Kanuri people, who were said to be the last inhabitants of Djado, are now residing in the nearby desert village of Chirfa. But they return to their ancestors’ site on a yearly basis to harvest the dates that somehow still grow around the ruins.
The Kanuri are a remnant of the great Kanem empire, a great civilization who ruled the central Sahara from around 700 to 1300 AD. It could be that this civilization built the fortified city of Djado.
But the origins of this empire are obscure, and very little is known about the early centuries of their reign. It is not clear whether Djado was founded during this period, and indeed it could be even older than the Kanem.
If the Kanem built Djado, excavations at the site could reveal much of this enigmatic culture and offer insight into their earliest years. But if they merely inherited Djado, then we may find something entirely new, preserved and hidden by the desert.
Top Image: The fortress city of Djado has endured the worst the Sahara can throw at it. Source: Holger Reineccius / CC BY-SA 3.0.
by Bipin Dimri
Wikipedia, 2022. Djado Plateau. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Djado_Plateau#Djado_City
Sahara Overland, 2020. ‘D’ is for the Lost City of Djado. Available at: https://sahara-overland.com/tag/djado/
Bah, J, 2021. Ancient History: The Ruins of the City of Djado, a Hidden Wonder of the Sahara. Available at: https://www.yoair.com/blog/ancient-history-the-ruins-of-the-city-of-djado-a-hidden-wonder-of-the-sahara/
Rough Guides, 2019. The Mysterious Ruins of Djado, Niger. Available at: https://www.roughguides.com/articles/the-mysterious-ruins-of-djado/
Ferrebeekeeper, 2018. The Ruined City of Djado. Available at: https://ferrebeekeeper.wordpress.com/2018/08/01/the-ruined-city-of-djado/
Rey, S, 2015. Ancient City of Djado In Niger, Africa. Available at: http://solarey.net/ancient-city-of-djado-in-niger-africa/