Lady of Garian-An Unconventional Map of The North African Coastline

The first time I became fascinated by a map was over 50 years ago. My father, an army engineer in Taiwan, took a job assignment as a telecommunications engineer in Libya. My mom and I joined him in 1964 soon after I was born. This “temporary” job lasted twenty years, and the first part of my upbringing and education took place there.

My mom and I visiting the “Lady of Garian.” circa 1967

Libya was relatively under-developed in the 1960’s. Oil was discovered in its desert in the 50’s, making it a rich country looking for skilled workers from all over the world to help it develop. While dad worked for the Libyan army, mom and I mostly stayed close to Tripoli. Every once in a while, we would take car trips as tourists to other towns and cities in Libya. It felt like a tremendous luxury having a car back then because most people didn’t own cars in Taiwan where we came from. Living in Libya and being able to drive a car felt like a privilege indeed. We’d go to visit ancient Greek and Roman ruins as well as Berber towns further south in the desert.

One of the places we visited was Gharyan (Garian), a small city located 80 km south of Tripoli. The main tourist attraction there was a mural named “Lady of Garian”, located in an old Italian army building. Painted on one of the walls inside the army building was a large representation of a naked woman, lying on her side, American pin-up style. I was told by some adult at the time that the upper torso of the woman is shaped roughly like the contours of the North Africa coast, and points on her anatomy are marked with names of North African towns, such as Cairo, Alexandria, Tripoli, Derna, etc.

The fact that this giant painting of a woman was actually a map, albeit an inaccurate one, fascinated me. I was maybe three or four years old at the time. Even though I barely knew anything about cities, and maps, and where we were located relative to the world, the painting made a lasting impression on me. Later in my life, every time I look at maps or study cartography, my mind goes back to that image of “Lady of Garian.”

It was many decades later that I started to research that image to find out about its history. By then, thanks to the internet and people sharing content, I was able to discover that the “Lady of Garian” was drawn by Clifford Saber, a volunteer American ambulance driver with the British 8th Army that fought across North African during World War II against the German forces. Saber was an artist who diligently sketched and painted the desert and coastal scenery. He also documented army life and with his paintings. He created the mural to help boost the morale of his fellow servicemen, finishing it in 1943, while his unit was housed for a few days at the barracks in Garian.

Saber eventually returned to the United States and in 1959, published “Sketchbook of a Desert Rat ” with Sketkchbook Press. This is a compilation of his writings and drawings documenting his journey with the British army. The book is occasionally available on Ebay, which is where I got a copy of the out-of-print book. It is a beautiful piece of military history illustrated by a contemporary of the desert war. In the book, Saber included a photograph of the Lady of Garian and talked about how it came to be.

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