Hundreds of Roman settlements and cities bear witness to an unprecedented period of prosperity for Northern Africa during the period. They point to a time when the population and production of North Africa was unmatched.
The Romans created a rich agricultural economy between the lesser atlas mountains and the coast. Its yields caused the African farm to become synonymous with prosperity and wealth and fed both the Roman population at home and a growing population in Africa. Olive trees were cultivated in great abundance with one account that the Romans even planted them on either side of their roads. Further south, they built terraced pastures. The region was converted into a garden.
Today many of these ruins lie in the middle of desolate landscapes devoid of trees or abundant life and I want to know why and whether this land can be restored
The Romans were met with a semi-arid, challenging landscape, some accounts put years between rainfalls at times) and yet they turned it to production.
The Romans compensated for the dry environment through engineering: with watercourses, systematic storage, conveyance, and distribution of water as well as with cisterns, and reservoirs. They made clever use of their groundwater resources and spread out from the oases with a complicated irrigation network. It is worth noting that, when repaired, these irrigation channels still function and could sustain new agriculture on their own.
Archaeological evidence suggests that prosperity in the region continued into the 6th and 7th centuries long after the rest of the empire had fallen. As the rest of the empire decayed, Northern Africa enjoyed a golden age and became a bastion of late classical civilization until it finally fell.
Finally, how did the Roman achievements collapse so thoroughly and see North Africa reduced from centuries of prosperity to a relatively primitive area. It is worth noting that the regional climate has not changed appreciably, the rivers of Algeria and Morocco still carry the same volume of water that they did in Roman times and periodic droughts have not changed. Overall there is no reason why North Africa cannot support the same population it did nor any reason why it could not be as productive again. All that is necessary is human ingenuity in this challenging environment.
The degradation of North Africa has resulted from human factors. Specifically, the collapse was due to changing attitudes on land use resulting from the Arabic conquest of the area. Where the Romans and their indigenous subjects were sedentary agriculturalists, the Arabic newcomers were traditionally nomadic pastoralists out of the desert who lacked the knowledge to preserve the Roman engineering that sustained the region. The two most important factors here were the their attitudes towards trees, which were rapidly cut down for heating and construction, and their overuse of grazing animals, mainly goats and sheep with 15-50 per family. This caused a very rapid decline in the environment from about the 8th century until the 12th when it settled to more or less the state it is in now.
The destruction of grass, scrub, and trees had a cascading effect. Increasing run off, decreasing supplies of groundwater, critically lowering the water table, disrupting the distribution of surface water, and eroding water courses has left the region sapped. In large part the impoverished state of North Africa can be attributed to its environmental degradation.
We know that the present state of North Africa is man made. We know that the impoverished state of the region is not set in stone and for a long time it was one of the richest regions on the planet. This can be achieved again but only with human intervention to counter the destructive actions of the past and constant management of some sort to counter the inherently challenging environment.
Gaius Sallustius Crispus described Africa before effective Roman occupation, “as unfavorable to the growth of trees because of lack of water, both from sky and springs”. The region can be remade, it just needs a little just the same as it did when the Romans first looked on it.
Rhoads Murphey, “The Decline of North Africa since the Roman Occupation: Climatic or Human?”, 1951
Brian-Ward Perkins, “The Fall of Rome: and the End of Civilization”, 2005
Henri Pirenne, “Mohammed and Charlemagne”, 1937
H.V. Canter, “Roman Civilization in North Africa”, The Classical Journal, 1940
W.C. Lowdermilk, “Conquest of the Land Through Seven Thousand Years”, 1948