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“A Grand Tour”

December 2008

Libya offers an unrivalled window into the halcyon days of the ancient Roman and Greek worlds. In recent times Libya has reinvented itself in the eyes of the international community.


As Christmas 2008 drew near it was time to leave behind those dreaded festive activities and escape to some sunshine with a reasonable dose of culture thrown in for good measure. Libya had always seemed to me to be an interesting destination but it is only in the last few years that it has become practical to visit. Tourism in Libya is in its infancy, so whilst most of the sites visited were practically deserted and blissfully free of hoards of tourists getting in front of my camera, the general infrastructure of the tourist industry was not up to the standard of other more visited countries.  This made my holiday far more enjoyable and enabled me to mingle with genuine locals.


A Brief History

For most of their history, the people of Libya have been subjected to varying degrees of foreign control. The early inhabitants of Libya were the Berbers who were the indigenous people of North Africa. The first major power to turn its sights on Libya were the Phoenicians: a powerful seafaring people who were active throughout the Mediterranean by the 12th century BC. By around the 10th century BC they had established major colonies in the country which formed part of a chain of safe havens between the Levant and Spain. The next foreign power to dominate the area was Carthage, founded in the 8th century BC, by the 4th century BC it controlled most of the North African coast line. Next on the colonising scene were the ancient Greeks, they established a number of semi-autonomous city states along the eastern coastline of the country. Alexander the Great passed through Libya in 331 BC on his way to greater conquests. The next controlling influence on the area was the mighty Roman Empire. In the 1st century BC Rome annexed Libya from the then waning Greek control. These last two powers, the Greeks and Romans, are the ones that have left the most enduring influence and legacy, still visible in Libya today. In the 6th century AD the Islamic wave swept over and engulfed Libya. Although numerous dynasties were to come and go, the Arabs were to maintain control of the country until the Ottoman Turks arrived in the 16th century.  In 1911, amid the European wide scramble for African colonies, Italy invaded Libya. Italy’s occupation ended during the course of the Second World War. On 24th December 1951 Libya gained full independence with King Idris as monarch. The next major event in Libyan history occurred on the 1st September 1969 when an obscure group of military officers seized power in a coup. Their leader was a 27 year old colonel by the name of Muammar Al Qadhafi.

Sand dunes at Ghadames - border of Libya, Algeria, and Tunisia.

The Journey

The trip started somewhat inauspiciously with some visa problems at passport control in Tripoli: from then on the holiday ran smoothly. The city of Tripoli was founded in around the  5th  century BC by the Phoenicians. Today the modern city is a boom town that prospers from its oil wealth and Libya’s new found friendship with the west. Tripoli’s Jamahiriya Museum houses one of the finest collections of classical art. There are rooms dedicated to the various periods of Libyan history such as: the Greek period; the Roman period and the prehistoric period. There is a gallery devoted to the years of Libyan resistance to Italian occupation, and galleries devoted to revolutionary Libya and Colonel Qadhafi himself. The most impressive gallery is the one containing a huge collection of Roman mosaics.


Next, a walk around Tripoli’s ancient medina: a collection of ramshackle buildings; hidden courtyards; private houses; and mosques. The House of Yusuf Karamanli dates from the beginning of the 19th century and was a private residence. Today this exquisitely restored house has been converted into a museum. One of Tripoli’s most recognisable landmarks is the Arch of Marcus Aurelius: this is the last remnant of the city’s Roman past when the arch stood proudly at the crossroads of the two great Roman roads of the city. The arch has some wonderfully specious bas-reliefs and carvings of Apollo and Minerva. Late afternoon we leave Tripoli and head for the fortified granary of Qasr Al Haj. This spectacular example of Berber architecture is wonderfully preserved. The circular enclosed building, built in the 12th century, was used to store the harvests of the surrounding area. Standing in the middle of this structure is breathtaking: blink and you feel as though you are on the set of a Star Wars movie. A ledge, 1 metre wide, circles the upper level and a walk around this gives an adrenaline pumping overview of this site. Our overnight stop was in the tiny village of Ruhaybait where we stayed in a cosy troglodyte guesthouse.

Next morning: Nalut. Our destination was another granary, but this one was very different from the granery visited previously. This ancient troglodyte granary, built in 1240, has the feel of a small fortified village. The multitude of storage rooms, instead of facing onto an open courtyard, overlook narrow thoroughfares, rather like a small village. The rest of the day was spent on the road, passing into the Sahara Desert to finally reach our destination of Ghadames: one of the most ancient towns in the Libyan Desert.


Ghadames was an important staging post in trans-Saharan caravan trade routes. Today, this palm fringed oasis with its old town of sun-baked clay brick buildings is designated a Unesco World Heritage site. The compact old city has narrow roofed alleyways that connect the main streets and houses, thus facilitating “streets” that run along the rooftops. The men travelled along the lower streets, whilst in daylight hours the women were required to walk along the upper streets. Today, the old town is all but deserted although some houses have been revitalised and are open for visitors. A walk around this atmospheric and unique style of Saharan architecture is like a trip back in time into a lost era.


Lunchtime at a local eatery was a chance to try a true Libyan delicacy, camel and couscous. It was truly delicious, and no, I did not have the hump afterwards. In the late afternoon we travelled out of town into the Sahara desert, a chance to stretch our legs and climb some picturesque sand dunes. Then it was just a matter of waiting as we watched an incredible sunset at the junctures of the borders of Libya, Algeria and Tunisia. In the evening we were fortunate enough to have our dinner arranged in a traditional house in the old city. Eating a fantastic meal in an evocative atmosphere was a wonderful experience. On leaving to return to the hotel the desert landscape quiet still, with zero light pollution. The sky above was crystal clear and covered with a carpet of millions of stars. It was one of those seminal moments where you just lay down on your back and look up at the sky in total awe and amazement.


The following day we endured a long journey on the road driving through a flat and barren desert. Our only stop was at the ruined town of Tarmeisa. This abandoned and ancient stone village sits on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Sahel el Jefara plain affording the most dazzling all round views. Our overnight stop was in Yefren, and the hotel was brilliant: Situated high up on the mountain side it overlooks a vast coastal plain that seems to stretch on endlessly. After a long day on the road, sitting down on the hotel terrace and watching the  sunset was pure heaven.


We departed the scenic Yefren and headed for the ancient city of Sabratha. There have been settlements on this site since the 5th century BC, but the ruins visible today date from the Roman period. These ruins, seventy five per cent of which are still buried below ground, are situated in a seafront location and are amongst the most beautiful of any of the Roman cities in the Mediterranean. The jewel in the crown of Sabratha is a theatre. Built around AD 190 it was the largest theatre in Africa and could seat up to 5000 people. Exquisite floral carvings, 108 fluted Corinthian columns and numerous delicately carved panels depicting various divinities make this structure a masterpiece of the craftsman's art. The wonderful amphitheatre, un-restored and overgrown, can be found a short distance away from the main site: it oozes atmosphere. The arena measures 65 metres by 50 metres and could seat up to 10,000 spectators. Late afternoon we catch an internal flight to Benghazi.


With the weather being appropriately dull, overcast and drizzling, we make a sombre visit to the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery. Dedicated to the fallen Allied soldiers killed in World War II, it is yet another poignant reminder of the futility of war. Here are a couple of the dedications that caught my eye:


“To our beloved son Cecil. You are in heaven’s sunlight. God is with you and us.”


“Manners maketh the man. Here lies the earthly remains of a real gentleman.”


One thing, that stands out more than any other, is the age of the deceased: mostly in their mid-twenties. It brings home the reality of a tragic waste of life; the loss of a generation.

The magnificent Temple of Zeus built in the 5th century BC at the ancient Greek city of Apollonia

Feeling somewhat mellow, we move on to the ancient site of Ptolemais. Founded in the 4th century BC, this Hellenistic city, of which currently only 10% has been excavated, requires plenty of imagination on the part of visitors. There are tumbled down stones scattered everywhere making the major intact sections seem even more impressive. Probably the most memorable part of the site is the museum. This contains some fantastic mosaics, raised column pieces and sarcophagi. The features in the museum are the statues unearthed on the site including a sensuous statue of Venus clad in a wet clingy diaphanous robe: the craftsmanship is exquisite. Our final stop of the day was at Qasr Libya. This small museum contains some remarkable mosaics that were unearthed in the adjacent church. The vibrant panels, laid around AD 530, were discovered in 1957. Amongst the 50 panels is a unique depiction of the famous Pharos Lighthouse of Alexandria - one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Our overnight stop was in Susa and after a long day on the road I felt a nice relaxing bath would be in order. The water in this part of the world comes out of the taps, orange in colour: a weird experience, like having a dip in a tub full of tango.

After a good rest, we left on a long three-hour drive to Tobruk: a town synonymous with the North African campaign of World War II. From 1940 to 1942 the Allied forces fought a devastating territorial war along the coast of Libya and Egypt. Much of the fighting was centred on the city which was under siege for eight months. The defeat here, of Germany’s Afrika Korps, was to be a major turning point in the course of the war for the Allied forces. Nothing remains of old Tobruk which was reduced to rubble. Today, in its place is a modern bland city that resounds with memories from the past. In modern Tobruk any car driver wishing to supplement the income from their regular work displays a florescent plastic tube out of their car window: this indicates that they are now a taxi and ready for hire – one for the taxi drivers' union, methinks. The main reason for visiting Tobruk is to pay homage to the past through the various war cemeteries scattered around the fringes of the city. There are several Commonwealth, as well as the French and German cemeteries. Here are a few headstone inscriptions that are evocative of the visit.


“Evening shadows fall, I am all alone. Comes a longing in my heart, you my son come home”.  A Evans  6th June 1941  Aged 29.


“The stars shine on the grave, of one we loved but could not save”. J A Pope  6th February 1941 Aged 41.


“In God’s time we’ll see the face we loved so well, one day our hands will clasp and never say farewell”. J P Nish  22nd November 1942  Aged 21.


These words are a sombre and poignant reminder of Libya’s not so distant past. Reading those words, even now, brings a lump to my throat


The next day we leave the hotel early and walk the short distance to the ancient ruins of Apollonia. Most of what remains today dates from the Byzantine period (5th-6th centuries). This wonderful site is situated along the beach. The highlight of is the plunging Greek theatre. The views from the upper stalls are spectacular and the early morning light made photography a dream. We next drive to the ancient site at Cyrene. Founded by the Greeks in the 7th century BC, it is the second most important site in Libya. Cyrene is a great site to visit. It's spread out over a vast area with voluminous amounts of sympathetic restoration: carried out mainly by the colonizing Italians. The main feature of this site is the Temple of Zeus, built in the 5th century BC, which is larger than the Parthenon in Athens: it measures 32 metres by 70 metres. Each ancient site we visit is more impressive than the one before. Each in isolation would be an adequate enough reason to visit, and yet the final and most renowned site of Leptis Magna is the last one left to visit. It’s supposed to be the most spectacular of them all. We make the long drive back to Benghazi in anticipation of an early return flight to Tripoli.


Up early the following morning at 4.45am and bleary eyed at breakfast. The sun is shining and Leptis Magna awaits us. This is the first of our two allocated days to explore the site. The weather is beautiful and the light is perfect for photography. Leptis Magna was founded originally by the Phoenicians around the 7th century BC, although little remains today from that time. The city came under the influence of the Roman Empire around the 2nd century BC and became the largest and greatest Roman city in Africa. Leptis emerged as a city of immense power: attested to by the vast array of monumental buildings adorning the site. Successive Roman emperors bestowed buildings and monuments upon the city. Leptis was built mainly from limestone and this made it more resistant to earthquakes and the ravages of time over the last 2000 or so years. What remains today are wonderfully well preserved ruins, which intact enough to be able to visualise the city at its zenith.

Exquisitely carved Medusa head in the Severan Forum at the ancient Roman city of Leptis Magna

The tour opens with the biggest ‘wow factor’ you can imagine. Enter the site and you're immediately confronted by the Arch of Septimius Severus. It was built at the beginning of the 3rd century to commemorate the emperor’s visit to the city. The arch consists of four massive pillars supporting a grand domed roof, superbly carved panels and friezes that variously adorn the structure. A plentiful supply of water at Leptis facilitated the building of the Hadrianic Baths around AD 130. These buildings were the centrepiece of Roman social life and originally clad in marble with delicate mosaic floors. The list of wonderful monuments at Leptis is impressive: monumental arches; the Nymphaeum; the Severan Basilica; the Market; and the Theatre. One of my favourite buildings was the Latrines: guaranteed to put a smile on your face as well as provide great photo opportunities. As was Roman custom, the latrines were communal: the seats being long slabs of marble.  Now in the winter the marble would feel pretty cold, so legend has it that the wealthy classes would get their slaves to “warm up” the seat for them in advance … there’s decadence for you.


Such is the scale of the site that the two days we spent here is barely enough to do it justice. What is astonishing is that this site is almost devoid of tourists: most of the time we had the entire place to ourselves, as was the case for most of the sites we visited in Libya. The country has yet to be discovered by mainstream tourism. On the downside, the site is littered with remnants, stones, columns, capitals, etc., left where the colonising Italians last put them back in the 1930’s. Very little preservation work has been done since then. Large weeds and saplings grow out of the joints of the stonework and these will eventually crack the joints apart. It is a sad state of affairs for the future of such magnificent structures, although on the selfish side I am privileged to have seen this site unhampered by railings, cordons or ‘no entry’ signs. Not to endure large groups of tourists, to have free access and to take unhindered photographs, was indeed a true pleasure.


The Leptis Museum contains an expansive collection of beautiful artefacts from the Leptis site which includes statues, busts, pottery and a history of Leptis through the ages. For me the pinnacle of my trip was a towering two-storey high kitsch painting of His Holiness, The Colonel, which dominates the centre of the museum.


Up early again on our last day to catch the flight back to London. We leave Tripoli at 18 degrees centigrade and arrive in London, freezing, at 2 degrees. Even the brass monkeys have their thermals on.

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