I was very excited to read in the Guardian about the Garamantes. I had not known of the Garamantes before reading the article, and I am always excited to discover a new civilization. The Garamantes were a pre-Arabic, Berber, urban civilization in the Saharan desert of Libya. Beaumont’s article captures well the significance of the civilization, emphasizing the basic fact that they were a major, settled, agricultural civilization that existed in the desert–primarily through underground irrigation systems that required extensive slave labor to build. It seems to me that understanding them is also important then for understanding the history of slave labor as a social institution. Although I would not want to put the blame for the institution of slavery on North Africa, the early modern trans-Atlantic slave trade can trace it roots via Arabic traders back to North African and trans-Saharan civilization.
According to Beaumont, Gaddafi’s regime was not very supportive of study of this civilization, as this ancient history did not necessarily fit into his vision of the Libyan nation and its heritage. I’m also very interested in the way political and social forces shape our knowledge of the past. When I am teaching my two historical surveys on religion (History of Eastern and History of Western), and to some extent when I teach single-semester World Religion or Modern World History survey, one thing I want students to understand is the way that economic, social, and political forces shape our knowledge. For example, our resources for the study of ancient Christianity and Judaism far exceed those available for my students to explore Hinduism. There are still major Hindu texts that do not have good scholarly translations. This is in part because the history of the study of religion emerges from the study of Christian history and theology, but also because we still have a majority of our resources dedicated to the study of Christianity, which provides a bias in coverage for knowledge related to the history of Christianity over other religions. This is not necessarily a critique, but the reality that scholars engage in a particular type of labor, and so our knowledge will be steered by the quantity of resources used to support different aspects of that labor.
This kind of discussion is important have students think about as they begin their studies of religion. Most of them have made the choice to study religion because they think its study is of merit. Most are not necessarily going to engage in that study professionally in the long run. However, they may–in whatever their pursuits–gain an understanding of the importance of building a social and economic framework that supports that kind of study and so support its study in their lives after college. It is also important for them to understand that our various biases in understanding and encountering other peoples, whatever our personal background and our own personal openness, are also material biases that run deeper then individual consciousness. The Garamantes and the history of Libyan civilization seems to provide exactly the kind of thing that would be useful to reference in class discussion or lecture to help explore this point.