Tripoli - National Museum
Libya's National Museum is a treasury of archaeological finds that reach back into prehistoric times.
What I love about museums like this is that everything in them belongs there - they are not the storehouses of loot (fantastic as the collections may be) that the great museums of Europe and the US can be. Everything you see in this museum has a story to tell about Libya itself and the total is a wonderfully coherent record of this ancient land.
The museum is very well laid out, with the galleries following a clear chronological progression from the earliest Neolithic cultures - represented by fabulously lifelike and endearing rock art from Jebel Akakus in the far south-western desert - through successive invasions and civilizations - Phoenician, Greek, Roman and Islamic. The upper floors house ethnographic displays of Berber and Tuareg life as well as the country's more modern history - though these particular galleries were closed when I was there.
Whilst the artifacts are extremely well displayed with very effective use of background colour, groupings of sculpture, placing of mosaics, etc, the signage is mostly in Arabic, so do take either a guidebook if you visit on your own, or listen to your guide if you are in a group and you want to know it all. It is so well laid out though that general interpretation is very easy and you may well find that the the brevity of description is more than balanced by beauty of the objects on display.
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Anything but green
Stay in Tripoli for more than a day or two and you will find yourself coming to Green Square quite often. The name is something of a misnomer - you won't find any lawns or even many trees here, though there are plenty of Libya's unadorned green flags flying This is where the old city meets the new.
Looking at the square with the harbour behind you to the north, two tall pillars topped with staues mark the entrance to the square (photo1), one one a Saracen warrior, the other a corsair ship. The castle (which houses the museum) occupies the north- west corner, whilst the entrance to the medina (the old walled city) is to be found in the south-west corner. In between these two gateways you'll see the simple wooden covered dais used by Colonel Ghaddafi and his officials to review the parades that are held here periodically - the small balcony on the castle wall was Mussolini's chosen spot . From this westerly axis the square stretches out into a vast space that, by day, is used as an enormous carpark, and by night as a place to stroll, take a carriage ride, maybe have your photo taken sitting on one of the gaudily decorated loveseats with a pretty little desert gazelle ( or a monster motorbike for the more macho).
South and east of the square, the streets will take you past a the seahorse fountain (photo 2)and into the early 20th century city with its legacy of colonial Italianate buildings - mostly white with green shutters - and shady arcades.
A new Grand Mosque
Tripoli's Grand Mosque started its life as a Roman Catholic Cathedral, built by the Italians in 1928 in a neo- Romanesque style in a new quarter of the city that is dominated by similarly Italianate style. Even after the Italians left and Libya became a Muslim monarchy it remained a Christian cathedral. It wasn't until the revolution of 1970 saw the country declared an Islamic Socialist state that the cathedral was converted to a mosque. The mosque has recently been completely restored and looks quite splendid with its gleaming facade of white marble and silvered dome.
The building remains something of a hybrid still, despite the crescent moons on the roof , the new porch built in front of the the main door, the new marble facade and the call of the muezzin drifting across the city from what was once the belltower. Built on a Christian axis that calls for the altar to face east to the rising sun, facing Mecca means the congreation must make diagonal lines across the carpeted floor. The whole square it sits on (now the Maidan al-Jezayir - Algeria Square) has a very European feel, especially in the colonnaded court to the side of the square with its tall white arcaded entry and its outdoor tables - a scene that really takes you back to Italy.
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Shabby and faded as much of it is, Tripoli's medina is still a great place to wander. With its mixture of Roman remains; Ottoman souqs, mosques and minarets; Arabic and Italianate houses graced by crumbling balconies and ornate doorways; busy streets and quiet alleys - there's much to catch the eye and tempt the shutter finger here. Wartime damage and years of neglect have left large parts in serious decline but recent years have seen an upsurge in restoration. Grand old buildings are being carefully rehabilitated and turned to new uses. There's an ongoing and really noticeable attack on the rubbish that not so long ago threatened to swamp the place, offending both the eye and nose of Western visitors.
It's not only the buildings that make this part of the city such an attractive place to visit. The people of the medina add to the scene - men in traditional toga-like Berber blankets or elegant grey Arab cloaks; giggly little children wanting you to take their photo; a wave from a friendly face above you; African tailors at their machines in the doorways of their small shops; a welcoming smile from a girl in a library; the courtesy of the elderly custodian of a mosque...
No, it's not beautiful, but it has a faded charm, and and, yes, there's poverty here , but there are no beggars and you can walk anywhere, not be hassled and not feel uncomfortable. In three visits to Tripoli, I've spent many hours here with MrL, and on my own. Unlike the medinas of Tunis and Morocco or Algiers Kasbah, Tripoli's medina may not be on a UNESCO World Heritage List but it seems to be beginning to revive itself slowly. Tourism seems set to expand rapidly in Libya and the medina will undoubtedly have a role to play as a major attraction but it has survived as the heart of the city for 2000 years or more, somehow I think it will survive this latest invasion.
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Let's start with the medina
Whether you approach Tripoli from the air or by sea, your first impression will be of a sprawling city of white and cream buildings - a few highrises standing up between apartment blocks with satellite dishes on almost every roof and balcony, palm trees and eucalypts offering spots of dusty green - a typical modern North African city in fact. And like so many other North African cities, this one has a ancient heart.
The walls of Tripoli's medina enclose a way of life that dates back centuries, through layers of history and rulers that have come and gone - Italians, Ottomans, crusading knights, Arabs and Romans have all left their mark here. Keep your eyes open as you explore the main thoroughfares and back alleys of the medina and you will find them all.
Huge arched gateways with wonderfully impressive doors lead into the medina at different points. The most massive section of the walls are to be found on the western flank (photo 1), opposite the city's tallest modern building - the Corinthia Hotel. It's here too that you will find the narrow western gate, small and tucked away at the top of a flight of stairs (photo2) that takes you up through the walls and brings you to the end of what was once one of the main Roman thoroughfares - the decumanus - now known as Sharia Hara Kebir. Take the opportunity whilst you're here to climb the stairs of the restaurant opposite the Gurgi Mosque, up to the rooftop terrace, for a panoramic view of the medina spreading all around - beyond the Roman arch to the harbour (photo3);across to the belltower of a Catholic church turned art gallery (photo 4); over the bubbled domes of the Gurgi Mosque to some of the other 37 minarets that pierce the medina's low skyline (photo5).
The Ottoman legacy
450 years of Ottoman rule wrought many changes in Tripoli, as the original Berber inhabitants suffered even greater oppression than that meted out to them by their Arab rulers in earlier centuries. The harsh rule of those years that saw Tripoli's Berbers withdraw to the hinterland of the Jebel Nafusa have however left their mark gracefully on the look of Tripoli. For most of that time, from 1551 until the latter years of the 19th century, the boundaries of the city remained within the mediaeval walls. These were the years that saw the building of most of the medina's 38 mosques, hammams, souqs and many of the medina's grandest houses. During these years the city was known as Tarabulus al-Gharb, Tripoli of the West, to distinguish it from another Ottoman-ruled Tripoli - that of Lebanon.
Looking up from the faded facades of streets of houses (photo 1), many with elaborately arched doorways decorated with tiles (photo 3), you'll see the green witch's hats of slender white-painted Turkish-style minarets (photo 2). Looking down from high vantage points , the bubbled roofs of mosques and hammams are distinctively Turkish too. As in most onetime Ottoman-ruled cities, there's a handsome 19th century clock tower (photo 4 - this one was erected by the Governor of Tripoli of the 1860s and 70s - Ali Riza Pasha. Some of the grander houses have been restored, put to a contemporary civic use and are open to visitors for a small fee - usually about 2 or 3 LD. An old funduq (hotel) near the Aurelian Arch has recently been restored, refurbished and reopened as a boutique hotel. Grave markers (photo 5) in the Karamanli Mosque sahn (courtyard) wear turbans that denote the wearer's status in the elaborately structured, and even more elaborately dressed, hierarchy of service to the Supreme Porte.
Outside the medina walls, in what is known as the New City, you'll find the beautiful Ottoman-built School of Islamic Arts and Crafts - but that deserves a tip all on its own, as do some of the other Ottoman-era buildings of the medina
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Local legend in Tripoli says that the city will stand as long as the great triumphal arch dedicated to the Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, and his brother and co-emperor, LuciusVerus, does. Well, it's been standing here since 163AD, surviving invasions, earthquakes and fires that have wreaked havoc on the city through the centuries. It shows its age, but the domed roof and the four massive pillars still stand, much of the marble facing is still intact and many of the bas-reliefs were restored and re-instated during the Italian colonial period.
The arch stands at the crossroads of the two main streets of the city - the cardo maximus (now known as Sharia Jama ad-Draghut) and the decamanus maximus (Sharia Hara Kebir) and was once the entrance to the city from the harbour. As well as statues of the two emperors (both now missing), the bas-reliefs adorning the arch include the figures of Apollo and Minerva, Oea's protectors. The goddess Roma is also there, as are figures of the emperors' armies and their captives.
The depth down to the little park around the base of the arch shows clearely the level of the Roman pavement below the city of today. A small lapidarium around the arch displays the remains of a small temple dating from about the same period that stood near the arch.
The arch is spotlit at night. The restaurant opposite the arch has both good food and an incomparable view, particularly once the fine weather sets in and tables are set out on the terrace.
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Building on the past
With its whitewashed walls and numerous minarets, Tripoli's medina looks like anyone's idea of a North African city. A bird's eye view gives a clue that its origins may well be older than someone approaching through one of the huge gates in the mediaeval walls would assume. From that bird's vantage point, three straight roads can be seen slicing through the maze of smaller lanes and alleys that surround them. Once these were the main roads through the Roman city of Oea - Sharia Jama ad-Draghut follows the line of the Roman Cardo Maximus, the city's main north-south street, whilst Sharia Hara Kebir delineates the Decumanus Maximus (the main east-west side street) and Sharia Homet Gharyan a lesser decumanus.
The symmetrical order of of the Roman cities may have lost its definition as wave after wave of invaders and change has washed through the city. The temples and forum, the agora and courthouse may be gone. houses - both grand and humble - have been built and rebuilt within the massive walls, creating densely populated neighborhoods that were easy to defend in times of trouble. Centuries of building and rebuilding have subsumed the Roman past but you don't need to be a bird to discover evidence of the city's Classical antecedants. Although only one major monument remains, there are just a few less grandiose reminders that once this was a Roman city.
Walk down Sharia Jama ad- Draghut ( the Cardo Maximus, remember?) and where it crosses Sharia Homet Gharyan ( the southern Decumanus) you'll find a Roman pillar embedded in the buildings on each corner of the crossroad. This is Al-Arba'a Asaht - the Roman Columns Crossroad (photo1). You'll find more pillars on other buildings on other corners in the medina too (photo 3). The roof of the Nakhil Mosque - the city's oldest - is supported by similarly truncated pillars too (photo 2). Part of the Roman seaward road lies near the northern wall , there are mosaics in the museum, and that's about it - until you come to the Arch of Marcus Aurelius ....
The souqs of Tripoli's medina may be small and somewhat less romantic than those of Morocco or Aleppo, but they have their own charm and, most appealing, you can wander at will through them without encountering any hassle or hard sell.
The main entry to the medina from Green Square takes you through the massive arch of Bab al- Mashiya (photo 1) and straight into Souq al-Mushir. Right at the start, you'll find a small tourist souq (photo 2), filled with carpets and dusty heaps of pottery jars, embossed leather and Tuareg silver - all sorts of things to catch the eye. You can poke around happily among the stock here without being pressured to buy. Back in the main street this souq is mainly given over to household goods. Turn to the side streets and covered passages and you'll find yourself in a North African world of colour and tradition.
Souq al-Rabaa dazzles the eye with exquisite beaded organza and bolts of elegant striped silks in glass-fronted cabinets under its vaulted roof (photo 3), galabiyyas hang in rows in the shops of Souq al-Turq (photo 4)- the long, covered souq running parallel to Souq al-Mushir - along with handsome braided waistcoats and stacked boxes of crisp white shirts. You'll also find spangled velvet suits and white satin cloaks waiting for a bride among more general wearing apparel for men and women and household textiles.
Gold for a dowry (photo 5) fills the windows of the shops of Souq al-Sagha and Souq al-Attara whilst the streets themselves are packed with barrows of the shoes and toys, cheap clothing and other other everyday items of an ad hoc market whilst old ladies in all-enveloping white burnouses sit on the pavement selling bunches of herbs or a piece of their bridal gold.
Remembering which souq is which isn't important. The medina here is too small to lose yourself , so just enjoy the scene as you wander around then make your way to Maidan Issu (Jesus Square) for a glass of tea in the sun by the clocktower before you head off to explore some more.
The Red Castle
When Oea's last ragged remnants of the once-mighty Roman Empire fell under the sword of Islam in 643CE, the stage was set for nearly a thousand years of Arab rule. The new rulers renamed the city at -Tarabulus and set about rebuilding the now ruinous city in their own style. Its location led to it becoming an important - and wealthy - centre of trade between the Levant, Europe and sub-Saharan Africa. In 1046 new walls were built on foundations of the old Roman ones, parts of which are still standing, but it is the castle dominating the entry to both the medina and the port that is the outstanding monument of this period.
Assai al-Hamra (hamra means red in Arabic) stands on the site of the original Roman fort. Building began on the castle as soon as the Arab conquest was complete, and continued for centuries. The castle's present external appearance owes much to a short period of occupation by European knights - first the Spanish, and then the Knights of St John of Malta in the 16th century - who greatly increased the castle's defences, and placed a bas relief of the Christian St George and the Dragon high on this Arab castle's wall (photo2). The interior apartments are mostly the work of the city's Libyan Arab rulers of the 18th and 19th century. Once completely moated, the castle now has water along the northern facade only (photo 3).
Like all great castles, this one was really a self-contained city complete with vice-regal apartments, administrative offices, a court with its own prison, shops, workshops, mills, a mint and more. With many a bloody deed and much intrigue, it maintained an important role in the city's administration until well into the 20th century, a place to be avoided if at all possible bythe ordinary people of Tripoli. Today tourists and school children come to visit the National Museum housed in one corner of the huge complex, and to visit the areas that are open to the public - including the old prison cells, some private apartments and a couple of attractive courtyards (photo 4).
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Sabratha, the smallest, of the cities that constituted Roman Tripolitania, is more ruinous (photo 1) than Leptis but not completely subsumed by time as is Tripoli itself. A massive earthquake in 365AD damaged the city and, being built of sandstone rather than limestone the ruins have weathered more. It also gets fewer visitors - we virtually had the place to ourselves on our visit. Generally speaking, it's a very open site. There's an amazing amount of the original flooring well as lots of the marble facing on some walls - including the very splendid octagonal latrine at the seaward baths. Life must have been quite idyllic here - for the ruling class at any rate.
There's a glimpse of the Punic city that predates the Roman city in the Mausoleum of Bel (photo 2) that stands out quite clearly as you move through the north-western sector of the site. It may be a reconstruction - the original was dismantled by the Byzantines and the stones used in the city wall - but it is well done and is very striking.
You'll find the usual features of any Roman city here - Cardo Maximus, Forum, Civil Basilica, Senate, various temples, several baths ( the seaward baths are in particularly good condition and their location, overlooking the sea, is splendid), and a magnificent theatre. The ampitheatre, as is usual, lies at some distance from the centre of the city.
The outstanding feature of Sabratha is its theatre. A skilful reconstruction has the theatre's facade stands to its 3-storeyed full height, the beautiful carvings all in situ around the great curved stage and, although much of the seating is gone, it can, and does, accommodate audiences of 1500 for performances in an unrivalled setting of sea views and ancient stone.
The real glory of Sabratha lies inside the museum. Wonderful mosaics (photo 4) are displayed here, all taken from city buildings, public and private. One, the 'Peacock mosaic", is of such intricacy and delicacy it's hard to believe it is made of millions of tiny tesserae
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A special school
One Ottoman-era building that lies outside the Medina is well worth seeking out. The long, low, pale yellow facade of Tripoli's School of Islamic Arts and Crafts stands out among the white Italianate buildings of the New City. Take a walk through its arched doorway and you'll find a traditional arcaded courtyard complete with large shady trees and a cool fountain (photo 3). A wide staircase leads to an upper floor (photo 1). With its elaborate ceilings (photo 5) and wide balconies it looks for all the world as if it was once a grand private house, but this was never the case.
The school was built in 1898 on land that was once an old cemetery outside the city walls. Some of the land was used for the school itself, the rest provided the income to fund the school. The government paid the teachers and instructors' salaries and allocated a small percentage of the tax from oil and halva to the schools funds. In the Islamic tradition of endowing institutions for the benefit of the poor, local citizens donated the money for the buildings and it is said that every woman in Tripoli who could gave a piece of gold to the fund. Its purpose was to offer poor and orphaned boys the education in science and modern trades that would enable them to earn a living. The school enrolled its first pupils in 1901 and more than 100 years later it still takes its students (photo 2) from poor families. The boys were taught the trades of carpentry and furniture-making, ceramics (photo 4), leatherwork, weaving, tailoring and metalwork. Classes for girls were opened in 1903, teaching rug-making, embroidery and other womanly skills.
The school is still an independently operated charity - funded by donations and by the rent from the shops on its September 1st Street frontage. Trade skills are still taught , along with regular school subjects. Girls no longer attend though computer classes are offered to girls and boys in the summer break. Showcases in the entrance display the students' work, which is for sale.
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...and a synagogue
Partially restored in 1999, the Tablets of the Law and Stars of David on its facade but locked and with its windows sealed, Tripoli's last remaining synagogue stands a mute reminder of the city's once large and prosperous Jewish community, one of the oldest in North Africa. Jews began living in Tripolitania over 2000 years ago, and by the 1930s they made up some 25-30% of the city's population, worshipping in 44 synagogues scattered around the city.
The 1930s saw the fortunes of this ancient community begin to change forever as Mussolini introduced restrictive laws. With the arrival of the German army in 1942, Jews were evicted from their homes, many were sent to labour camps whilst others were force marched across the desert where they perished. Pogroms in the years of British occupation following the war brought more tragedy - death and the destruction of several synagogues. Changing attitudes and the establishment of the Jewish state in Israel meant all who could emigrated so that by the time Ghaddafi staged his coup no more than 500 Jews remained in the city. The confiscation of Jewish property under the revolution was the last blow and by 1974 all but a tiny handful had left. Now there are no recognized Jews living in the city, or in all Libya.
Bab al-Jedid in the south-west corner of the medina walls once led out of the Jewish quarter to the Jewish cemetery. The habitable houses that remain in the old Jewish quarter in this part of the medina are now occupied by poor immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa and synagogues have been turned into mosques. A beautiful Jewish school dating from Ottoman times has been restored and now houses the city's archives. And the last synagogue? No-one knows what will happen to that ...
Although it is a fair way out of Tripoli, Gharyan can be visited in a day and it is almost always included in tourist itineraries so it's hardly "Off the Beaten Track" - hence its inclusion here as "Thing to do" in Tripoli.
Two things bring people to Gharyan - the troglodyte houses, known as dammous, and pottery - vast quantities of which are laid out along the roadside on the Tripoli side of the town in open-fronted shops. Both are worth the trip out of the city.
The dammous were the ingenious solution to the problems posed by both the ferocious heat of a Libyan summer (though Gharyan's elevated situation does help to alleviate that a little) and the frequent raids from opposing tribes. Dug down deep into the ground (photo 1), with rooms opening off a central courtyard some three storeys below ground level, all that showed at the top was a low doorway in a small mound. This leads into a narrow tunnel with stairs descending through the earth to come out at the bottom into a courtyard shaded by the high straight walls all around. Suirprisingly spacious bedrooms (photo 2), kitchen, living rooms and storage areas all opened off the central court (photos 3 and 4).
No-one actullay lives in the dammous these days, though some do offer tourists the opportunity to spend a night in one. I must say, the accommodation did look somewhat less than inviting, though whiling away an hour over glasses of mint tea and chat wasn't hard to do.
Gharyan pottery (photo 5) is famous throughout Libya. The stalls on the way out of town are hard to resist. Even if, like me, you like to travel light and pass on the bigger pieces, there are plenty of charming smaller items, little bowls in all sorts of shapes - ideal for a few olives or some bread-dunking olive oil - and miniature versions of the big lidded pots that make perfect sugar bowls or such.
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Walking with Romans
Without a doubt, the great Roman city of Leptis Magna - once the greatest Roman city in all North Africa - is a must-see on every visitor to Tripoli's list. Abandonment rather than successive rebuilding on the same site has left the city in a wonderfully intact state and the excellent and sensitive work done by way of restoration makes the city an absolute joy to visit. From the moment you walk down the steps towards the magnificent triumphal arch of Septimus Severan, the "Grim African" emperor who was born here, you cannot help but be caught up in the magic of this place. Nothing about it lets you down. Even on the busiest day (and a busy day in Leptis is probably something akin to the quietest day for decades in most major European sites unless there's a cruise ship in port) the city is big enough absorb all its visitors and leave plenty of quiet spots for you to imagine yourself back into the world of this beautiful place.
The great set pieces of any Roman city are there - the baths (Hadrianic), the Forums (the "new" Severan and the "old), the basilica ( Justinian's conversion of the Temple of Dionysius), Nymphaeum, Cardo Maximus, the Senate, theatre (photo 1) and market (photo 2) , temples and arches, splendid carvings (photo 3) and the information a guide will give you about each and everyone of them will be exhaustive (and exhausting) but the real joy of Leptis is to walk the streets alone and think yourself back in time to when this was a thriving, bustling, and important, city.
Be sure to visit the massive amphitheatre (photo 4) and imagine the roar from 15000 throats as gladiators and wild beasts clashed here. Make your way too down to the intimate Hunting Baths, it wil almost certainly be closed but you can squirm your way up to a window and look down into the room below to see the vivid fresco of a leopard hunt that gave the baths their name.
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