A long time ago, in what feels like another galaxy altogether, I had the opportunity to spend 72 hours in Tripoli, Libya. Libya has not been far from front page news for quite some time, for reasons that put it off the tourist trail for years to come – from the Anti-Gaddaffi uprising that started in 2011, to the descent into civil war in 2014 tot he rise of Islamic State later the same year – it isn’t getting any easier for Libyans on the ground.
Having made it through customs late on a Friday night, and loosing my dry hand wash to an official, who insisted it was because, with such a high alcohol content, it posed a risk that I might drink it, therefore flouting the alcohol ban in place (I can’t even begin to imagine…), our adventure started in earnest.
Day one was reserved for exploring Tripoli. We really only had time for the basics – a wander around the Medina, a visit to the Arch of Marcus Aurelius and a visit to the Jamahiriya Museum (complete with it’s three story high cut-out of Gaddaffi, and his green Beetle surrounded by 2000 year old statues carved from single blocks of marble). It is the people who have left the longest impression of that first day – those who were curious about why I was visiting and the students at the Madrasa that invited me inside and showed me how they write suwar from the Qur’an on paper, and the wash it away, preserving the water that contains the words of Allah. I could have stayed a week, exploring the corners of such a fascinating city.
Day two took us outside the city to Sabratha. Centred on a large theatre that retains it’s three storey backdrop, the site was popular that day with families visiting to picnic amongst the ruins, or next to the sea. We wandered the ruins and the little museum until sundown – and then sat in the theatre enjoying an (alcohol free) beer before heading towards a local hostel to stay the night. In a scene worthy of comedy, the hostel had not only no idea we were booked to stay, but had only one locking room. The one I was eventually allocated required a fair amount of furniture shifting to wedge the door shut for the night, and some nifty arranging of t-shirts to offer a little privacy. Feeling a little sweaty and weary, turning on the shower produced nothing but a cloud of mosquitos! After pretending to sleep for 5 hours, there is nothing more welcome than running into the surf of a pretty cold see to make you appreciate the things you take for granted every day!
As a delicious literary aside, Max Mallowan, the archaeologist husband to Agatha Christie was based here in 1943. During his posting here however, his role was actually to oversee the distribution of grain in the region!
Our final day brought a trip to Leptis Magna. Expanded to be a sprawling city by Septimius Severus, this is one of the most extensive roman cities I have ever visited. It sticks int he mind, despite the passing years, because of the mix of everyday buildings (the grocers shop, with a built in cooling method) with the over-the-top celebratory architecture, such as the Arch of Septimius Severus, smack bang in the middle of a beautiful cross-roads, still paved with huge flags of stone. At it’s peak, it rivalled Alexandria and Carthage. But it expanded at exactly the wrong time, and with trade on the decline, much of the city remained barely used. Discoveries at Leptis Magna happened on and off in the 20th & 21st centuries, but it’s current state is listed as in danger. I can only imagine that the ruins, mosaics and statues have suffered greatly over the years, and without intervention will not be available to future generations. But, with so much human life in the balance, it is hard to argue that it can be any kind of a priority for the country.
Wandering around Leptis Magna, something that had been niggling at me, finally feel into place. At every site we had stopped at, there had been a man wandering around with an empty water bottle looking for somewhere to fill it. Of course, it was the same man, and it was his job to follow us around and make sure we didn’t get into any trouble! Whenever we stopped at a restaurant or at a shop, it was only take about 5 minutes for the owners to suggest another venue for us, more suited to tourists. Looking back, I wish we had persisted – I am sure the experience would have been more interesting! Hey ho! Being young and reasonably green meant we did as we were told! On our last day backing Tripoli, without the excuse of finding water, our secret policeman was easy to spot on every corner, smoking, looking nonchalant and standing out like a sore thumb!
A side note of the archaeology. In 2016, both Sabratha and Leptis Magna were entered onto the list of archaeological sites in danger. They both remain there to this day. They were such places of beauty, already abandoned by archaeologists when I visited – although they were nominally managed as tourist sites. Other Libyan sites on the list include Cyrene, Ghadames and Tadrart Acacus.
Maybe one day, this crazy world of ours will be calm enough for me to visit again. Until then, I’ll have to be content with my photos, my memories and of course, my recipe for Libyan Soup.