North Africa was once a prosperous part of the Roman Empire — called the "granary of the world" Much of it now is desert. The destruction of North Africa has some lessons for us today. IN SPITE of what one might think of the virtues or ills of ancient Rome, a central fact must be recognized by all: The Roman Empire was blessed with some of the fairest portions of land on the earth.
In the first Christian century, the regions of Asia Minor, Syria and Palestine were at the height of prosperity. Egypt raised great quantities of food for the population at Rome. Gaul (France) and Spain were wonderfully productive countries. But above all, in its abundance of agricultural land and in its production of quality food, North Africa stood unrivalled!
Here were beautiful snow-capped mountains, thickly covered with enormous trees of spectacular girth. Romans knew nothing of a like grandeur anywhere in the world. The productivity of the soil was remarkable. Pliny, the natural historian, called this region, "the granary of the world." Every plant which grew elsewhere in the Empire grew here, but always with far greater yield and size than anywhere else.
And animals? The region of North Africa was like one gigantic game reserve. There were great numbers of elephants in the mountains and valleys. Hippopotami and rhinoceroses bathed in its rivers. Virtually every animal that we now associate with eastern and southern Africa had its home in this beautiful setting. It was like one big National Park providing Rome with almost every need.
North Africa Today The mountains are still here. So are some of the finest soils on earth. And, there is still beauty in the region, but it is a North Africa altogether different from that of Roman days. The magnificent trees which astonished the ancients ARE GONE — not a single specimen of those giants is left for anyone to admire. The elephants and many other animals, once so prolific in the area, have disappeared completely. Some of the other wilder animals maintained an existence a little longer, but the last lion in the region was finally killed in 1922. And too, the grain fields which at one time waved in the wind, like the vast areas of Kansas, are now mostly desert.
The whole character of the land has changed. It is nothing like it once was. And the pitiful fact is that the land needn't have become this way at all.
Who is to blame for the destruction of this former paradise? Not surprisingly, it was MAN — mostly the Romans themselves — who brought about the change.
The Roman Plunder The spoilation of North Africa was already happening in the First Century of our era. Pliny upbraids the Romans, especially the nobility, for their destruction of the natural environment to satisfy their own greed for luxury. He mentions how wealthy Romans were ransacking the forests of North Africa, indiscriminately killing off the elephants in order to make bedsteads and trinkets with the tusks of ivory. The killing of a few might have been acceptable, but to exterminate them was a crime against all future generations.
The story concerning the other varieties of animals of North Africa is equally distressing. Before the Roman domination, animals were so abundant in certain regions that men found it difficult to work the land in peace and security. But "civilization" began to thin them out. There was nothing basically wrong with this, but how far do you carry the thinning?
When Rome built its amphitheatres and brought in the gladiatorial shows, they wanted animals — thousands of them. These were easily found in North Africa. The Emperor Augustus stated with pride how he gave the people 3500 African animals to be killed for their entertainment in twenty-six of his Roman festivals.
The killing of North African animals was not a sporadic affair. They were being rounded up and sent to the amphitheaters, almost without interruption, from the last of the second century before Christ until at least the fifth century after Christ. The slaughter was enormous, and most of it was for the entertainment of the masses. The carnage wasn't stopped until every elephant, rhinoceros, hippopotamus and a host of other animals (many varieties known only to North Africa) disappeared from that area forever — killed off by the hand of man.
And the trees? No one really knows how many varieties of trees grew there. Some were "tall as the heavens," with smooth glossy trunks without a knot to be seen in their boughs. These giant specimens made other trees in the rest of the Empire seem puny by comparison.
But did they last long? The Romans needed lumber for ships, cooking, furniture and for heating the public baths. Those trees, which could possibly have been ranked with the Redwoods of California, were not left to be admired by people of later generations; they were more useful as lumber and firewood. Not a single one remains!
"What a Man Sows, He Reaps" The Meaning for Us The effect upon North Africa was disastrous. With the destruction of trees on the Atlas Mountains, the rains began to wash off topsoil from the slopes. Away from the mountains, much of the timber was cut down to make room for the cereal crops for which North Africa became famous. (Whereas in earlier times the Romans practiced excellent agriculture — they understood the importance of having varied animals on farms, the use of legumes, proper crop rotations and the value of verdant pastures — in the later Empire many of the sounder principles were neglected.)
Farming finally degenerated under the later Empire to a kind of monoculture system. Yields began to decline and much of the topsoil became exhausted. This, together with large-scale deforestation, left the soil exposed to the mercy of the weather. The desert, which existed along the southern borders of the fertile areas, began to creep northward. Lands which were once used for crops became poor pasturage for cattle. But soon even the cattle gave way to sheep and goat grazing.
As Professor Ellsworth Huntington has written: "Sheep and goats eat not only grass, but seedling trees, and thus prevent the growth of new forests. Where they pasture in abundance the soil is badly trampled, and is no longer held in place by roots. Hence it is washed away by the winter rain, leaving the hillsides barren and ruining the fields in the lowlands" (The Fall of Rome, ed. Chalmers, p. 58).
And what do we see today?
"Large areas of the 'granary of Rome' in northwestern Africa are now a desiccated wilderness. The great amphitheatre at El Djem (in Tunisia), with seats for 60,000 people, stands in the desert surrounded by a few small Arab villages. The important city of Timgad has been abandoned since about 250 A.D., while beside it is the clearly marked channel of a now vanished river" (Murphy, Asso. Amer. Geog. vol. XLI, no. 2, p. 120).
"The Romans had at least 2,500,000 acres OF WHAT IS NOW FULL DESERT colonized and under cultivation in South Algeria alone" (Wellard, The Great Sahara, p. 85). In fact, Colonel Baradez of the French Air Force, who spent the years 1946 to 1949 aerially surveying the desert of South Algeria, found in the desert remains of roads, forts, castles, observation posts and irrigation ditches along a frontier 1500 miles long. And with his aerial photographs he was able to identify the ancient sites of hundreds of villages and farming communities where today there is nothing but desert and eroded rocks. There are so many ruined areas to be seen, that Wellard estimates it will take historians and archaeologists hundreds of years to investigate them all.
North Africa, a place to be envied in the Roman world, now has the desert covering half of it — not necessarily shifting sand dunes, but nevertheless DESERT! And what is saddening is the fact that most of this encroachment by the desert was caused by man himself.
The Romans began to disturb nature's ecological balance with their killing of animals, felling the huge forests and adopting ruinous farming techniques. True, the later invasions of the Vandals, the Byzantines and especially those of Islam played their part in the deterioration of North Africa, but Rome itself began the trend.
It is disturbing to realize that man never seems to learn his lesson until it's too late. The late Romans, no doubt, were sorry about the irreversible damage their ancestors had done to North Africa and tried desperately to stem the tide of disaster that was facing them. They built aqueducts to bring water from remote areas when the streams began to dry up. They devised many ingenious engineering projects to keep the land producing as it always had. But with the later wars, when the Empire was in its dying throes and when millions of sheep and goats were being put onto the land, North Africa went under and the Sahara began to win.
"Oh, if only the trees were back," said one Berber to us in Morocco. Yes, where are the trees? There are still some to be seen in the higher mountains, but even in the last hundred years, where there once were forests of Argon trees, only a patchy few can be seen. Most have been cut down. Though it is now illegal to fell trees without special permission, it will take generations to build up the land to anything resembling what it once was.
The Meaning for Us But what can the lesson of North Africa really mean to us in America, Europe, Australia and other parts of the world today?
First, let us admit that basically we, by nature, are no different from the Romans. Let us not be too harsh in our censure of them. We have our own destroyers of environment today. Did not our "Buffalo Bills" almost exterminate the herds of bison on the plains of America and Canada? And if government legislation were not now in force, would our fine stands of giant redwood trees (among others) be with us today? Are not our rivers, our oceans and even the very air we breathe being polluted beyond redemption by our own generation? Can something be done to save our environment before it's too late?
The old expression "All roads lead to Rome" is a familiar one. But let us remember, Rome fell — and fell hard.
It is a sad commentary on man's 6000 years of history that he does not reflect on the past mistakes of others but, rather, is overcome by the same blunders as his predecessors.
Should we not learn the lesson of North Africa, once the envy of the world, and put a stop to the ruination of our environment before a greater Sahara overtakes us?