Early 20th century Tripoli
Just southeast of the Martyrs Square you walk into Tripoli of the 20th century with an strong Italian touch. The white buildings, arcades, huge arches with open air cafés, green parks and squares have a totally other atmosphere than the old madina at the other side of the Green Square.
The Grand Mosque at the Maydan al Jaza'ir was once the city's Cathedral built in neo- Romanesque style in 1928 by the Italians. First in 1970 the cathedral was converted into a mosque. At the same square you can find arcaded buildings and the postoffice.
Between the Maydan al Jaza'ir and the Martyrs Square along the Shari'a Awwal Sebtambar you can find the ornamented arches of Galleria del Bono. In the shadow under the arch is an open air café on the marble pavement.Related to:
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50 years ago, workmen digging in a field on the slopes of the Jebel al Akhdar made a discovery which set the archaeological world abuzz. Two Byzantine churches in close proximity was a major discovery in itself, but, even better, further excavation revealed a fabulous mosaic pavement set with 50 panels depicting subjects that ranged from to-be-expected Christian motifs and images of plants, birds and animals drawn from nature to quite extraordinary depictions of pagan gods and mythical beasts - the very last thing you would expect to find on the floor of a church of this period! Most exciting of all was a panel, one of several of architectural images, of the legendary lighthouse of Alexandria - one of only a handful in existance.
Grouped into sets and placed around the walls of a museum built especially to house them, they can be seen clearly but, looking at the photos taken when they were first discovered, it does seem something of a shame that they had to be removed from their original setting on the floor of what is now known as the Eastern church.
The museum also displays - on the floor - another large mosaic from the same church.
The church beside the museum - the mosaic floor of which is still in situ though it bears no comparison to the mosaics in the museum - is the Western church. The Eastern church is a short walk away down a shady path.Related to:
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The Greek Pentapolis
The eastern region of Libya, known as Cyrenaica, lies directly south of Greece and it was from north to south that the first colonisers from Europe ventured sometime in the 7th C BC.
The evidence of their success as settlers lies in the ruins of the cities they left behind. Barce, Tocra, Ptolemais, Apollonia and, grandest of all, Cyrene, were their cities. Collectively known as the Pentapolis, such was their wealth and importance that the Greeks divided their known world into three parts - Asia, Europe and Libya. These were not the only Greek cities in North Africa, there were several other smaller places but little very remains of them and generally it is the Pentapolis cities that are the main focus of a visit to the region.
Barce has totally disappeared, but the remains of the others are certainly splendid enough to hold their own against Roman Leptis Magna and Sabratha on the other side of the country, and as Greek rule gave way to Roman, and Byzantium followed Rome, more layers of history were added.Related to:
Scratching the surface
Ptolemais (modern Tolmeita), some 37km east of Tocra is a much bigger site and it's here you begin to get some idea of how rich and important the cities of Libya's Greek colonies were. Founded sometime in the 7th century BC, Ptolemais was the port for Barce, and although all traces of Barce have entirely disappeared, there is enough evidence from the scale of Ptolemais and the many beautiful artifacts housed in its museum to tell us Barce must have been splendid indeed.
When Romans repalced Greeks, Ptolemais continued to thrive even surviving a major earthquake in 365AD that saw the other cities of the Pentapolis largely destroyed. Ptolemais survived to become the region's main centre for another hundred years or so only to fall into decline in the 7th century AD with the arrival of the Arab invaders.
It's a big site, well over 2 square kilometres, but only about 10% of the site has been excavated so be prepared for a lot of walking over open ground and down tree-shaded avenues as you make your way around. Although the layout of the city now is essentially Roman, with (unusually) 2 cardos running north and south crossed by the east-west decamanus (the main streets of all Roman cities), the excavations include a beautiful Greek Odeon (a small theatre used for performances of dance and music - the name lives on in its use for cinemas), Greek temples in the vicinity of the agora and a Byzantine church as well as two really lovely Roman villas.
Most impressive of all, however, are the underground cisterns below the raised terrace of Roman Forum that replaced the Greek agora. Lit by small light holes set into the pavement of the Forum, they are a parallel series of cavernous connecting chambers, constructed first by the Greeks and enarged by the Romans, to hold the city's water supply brough down from the mountains some 25km away by an aqueduct.
Archaeological work ceased at Ptolemais many years ago and there are no plans currently in place to do any more.Related to:
Where to go?
Planning where you want to go and what you want to see is essential if you are taking any sort of tailor-made tour in Libya. You don't have to concern yourself with this if you're booking a set tour , the itinerary will be laid out clearly and you go where they go. If you want any sort of individual tour however you must make sure everywhere you want to go is included in the itinerary given on your visa application as your visa alows you to visit only the sites specified before arrival. It is really important to understand that you must specify the exact cities and sites you wish to visit before you arrive in the country. Once the itinerary is set you cannot make changes to it.
You must do your homework, decide on the places you want to visit and confirm the itinerary before you apply for your visa as it cannot be changed later. Your travel agent will be happy to help you plan your trip to ensure you get the tour you want. Ad hoc stops along the way are fine and once you're at a site or in a town you can do what you like whilst you're there, but what you cannot do is change the overall plan.
So .... where do you start?
The three main areas of Libya visited by tourists are Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and the Fezzan.
Centred around the capital, Tripoli, Tripolitania lies in the west. This is where most visits to Libya start, with a flight arriving at Tripoli airport. The main sites of interest are Tripoli itself, the magnificent Roman cities of Leptis Magna and Sabratha, and the Berber hilltop towns of the Jebel Nafusa that rises up behind the coastal plain.
Cyrenaica lies to the east, with Benghazi (Libya's 2nd largest city, 1000km from Tripoli) as its point of entry. The Greek settlers who arrived here in the 7th century BC have left a legacy of magnificent cities scattered across the green mountains and lovely coastline that lies between the barren lands that border the Gulf of Sirte and stretch across the Western Desert and into Egypt.
Travelling into the Fezzan takes you into the deep heart of the Sahara - a world of fantastical landscapes of rock and sand, towering dunes and magical lakes. The days bring you to a vast gallery of prehistoric art of astounding carved and painted images marking the passage of thousands of years of life in the desert whilst nights are spent camping out under skies of a clarity and brilliance unlike almost anything you can imagine.
Along the way and between the sights, there's the face of 21st century Libya to discover - bustling cities; sleepy provincial towns; new hotels and office blocks and crumbling medinas; crazy drivers and curious school children. Every day brings something new and unexpected. Whatever your preconceived ideas about the country are when you arrive, one thing is sure - by the time you leave many of them will have been completely turned on their head.Related to:
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Anyone who thinks of Libya only in terms of endless desert and the smattering of Roman ruins - albeit very important ones - on its north-western shores is in for a huge surprise should they venture into the mountain regions behind the eastern city of Benghazi. This is the Jebel Akhdar, the Green Mountains, a world of lush meadows and thickly forested deep ravines spreading from the heights down to a really beautiful stretch of Mediterranean coastline.
Cyrenaicans hold their historic and cultural individuality dear, cherishing their local customs, their dialectic and culinary differences, their role in resisting the forces of Fascism. Tourism is in its infancy - hotel and restaurant facitities are adequate but a certain level of tolerance is required at times , and getting here isn't all that easy. However, the inconveniences pale beside the rewards - not the least of which are the pleasures of exploring some of the world's great Classical ruins and feeling you have them all to yourself.
A tour of Cyrenaica will almost certainly start at the gateway city of Benghazi, modern, bustling, second to only Tripoli in size and commercial importance. From here, a 600km long journey will take you east, via ancient Greek ruins that rival any you'll find in Greece itself, lonely early Byzantine churches in the most beautiful settings, small local museums displaying finds that any great institution would count among their treasures, market towns and miles and miles of empty road until at last you reach Tobruk, almost on the Egyptian border and scene of one of the greatest sieges of all time. It's a great journey.
A tale of two cities
Smallest and least impressive of the remaing Greek cities of the Pentapolis, Tocra,founded in 510 BC, was established to serve as a port for Cyrene, the great inland city further to the east. Romans and Byzantines continued the expansion of the city into the 5th and 6th centuries AD but the local soft sandstone that was used as a the main building material, whilst easy to work, was unable to withstand erosion from salt winds and the numerous earthquakes that have struck the region through the centuries. Little remains to be seen today - a suggestion of some of the city's major buildings and some extensive lengths of city wall. The most impressive structure is the Turkish fort, built by the Ottomans on the site of a Greek temple, and used by the occupying Italians into the mid-20th century.
The pleasure of visiting Tocra lies in the observation of small details - scattered columns, faded mosaic floors, the names of Greek youths carved into the gymnasium walls, the tranquil setting and the lovely views of the Mediterranean from the fort. With its rather hapahazard excavations and deserted atmosphere, it's easy enough to feel you're really discovering the place for yourself.
Diminished by time as Tocra is, Benghazi's Classical past has completely disappeared. The Greeks founded the city of Berenice on the fine harbour in the 3rd century BC, and Romans and Byzantines followed the Greeks. All this was annihilated long ago and the Arab and Turkish towns that stood here through to the 20th century suffered hugely in WW2. More damage was wrought when 1986 saw the city targeted by American missiles - and now, with sanctions over and oil money flowing into the country's coffers, it's the developers who are raising the dust - there are roads coming up and buildings coming down all over the city as Libya races to catch up with the 20th century.
May 2011 - The above passage describes what we found on our visit to Cyrenaica in 2009. In just the last few weeks, Benghazi has become the centre of the upsrising against the Ghaddafi regime. What the outcome will be is as yet unknown. Tocra will no doubt continue to exist as it has for centuries, though it will be a while before the site's dashing guardian, Abdullah Elafi, can share his passion for the ancient city with any tourists or visitors who come his way. Benghazi, on the other hand, will no doubt rebuild once more, as the city has done so many times before.Related to:
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Al Bayda is a small, deeply religious town, 180km east of Benghazi. It has possibly the most attractive location of any of Libya's cities, in the foothills of the Jebel Akhdar range, just 32km inland from the Mediterranean. It is also renowned for its pleasant, mild climate, and temperate fruits such as apples and pears are grown in the area.
In the early 1950s, King Idris used it as his administrative centre and it was planned to be the new capital of Libya. The small city itself, which has a population of 120,000, has few tourist attractions, other than a couple of big, modern mosques and Omar al-Mukhtar University, which was originally the Islamic university and still looks like a mosque. The main east-west highway passes through the centre of the city and it is flanked by some rather plain-looking blocks of flats.
There are several budget hotels in the town and it makes a good base for exploring Jebel Akhdar, Wadi al-Kuf, Qasr Libya, Cyrene and Appolonia.Related to:
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The first half of the 20th century saw great deeds of heroism and fortitude played out in the defence of freedom in the deep wadis and desert wastes of eastern Libya, first by local warriors who took on the invading Italians and then the should-have-been-defeated Allies who turned rout into victory as they held out against the numerically far superior German army at Tobruk.
You need to be a fairly determined pilgrim to make it to the quiet places where the memorials to these heroes are to be found.
Omar al-Mukhtar, the leader of the Sanussi rebels who defied the Italians was finally captured and executed. There's nothing grand or imposing about his memorial - it's just a fading portait on a sign hanging from the rusting iron girders of a Bailey bridge deep in the base of the Wadi al-Kuf. You need to take a detour from the main road to drive through the valley - the majority of those who drive this way each day speed over it, across the modern bridge and on to their destination. Those who do come - and many Libyans do more than once in their lives - do so in a spirit of homage to the elderly man whose white beard and quiet face bely the fierce determination and fighting spirit that earned him the name "Lion of the Desert" and a place in history as Libya's most honoured hero.
Just 22 years after al-Mukhtar's death, the small but strategic town of Tobruk, almost on the Egyptian border, was the setting for some of WW2's fiercest fighting and the scene of a bitter siege that lasted 240 days. Having advanced relentlessly across North Africa, Rommel's Afrika Korps seemed invincible as they swept into the eastern seaport of Tobruk and they fully expected the Allied troops trapped there to crumble before their onslaught and constant air raids. Instead of surrendering, the Allies - Australian, British, Polish, Czech, Indian, Canadian, South African and New Zealanders, dug themselves into a line of trenches and tunnels encircling the town and, for the next eight months waged a war that brought the enemy to a state of complete exhaustion and the first major Axis defeat of the war.
The graves of the 12,000 servicemen who lost their lives in the battles here bring pilgrims to Tobruk these days and the words of Albert Schweitzer carved into the German memorial speak for them all - "The graves of dead soldiers are the greatest messengers of peace" - and those who come here usually visit all the cemeteries - Commonwealth, French and the German, no matter what their nationality.
Cyrene - Temple of Zeus
The Temple of Zeus, built in the 5th century BC, is Cyrene's crowning glory. With its massive sandstome columns, it was one of the most impressive temples in the Ancient Greek world, even bigger than the Parthenon in Athens. On the main altar, where animal sacrifices were offered, there was a seated statue of Zeus. The temple was rebuilt by the Romans between 27 BC and 14 AD and again in 120 AD during the reign of Emperor Hadrian. It was reconstructed by Italian archaeologists in the 20th century.
The temple is hidden in dense woodland on a hilltop on the other side of the gorge from the Forum and Agora. A winding road leads up to it from the northern exit of the Sanctuary of Apollo.Related to:
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Leptis Magna - further afield
The site at Leptis Magna is huge and a short visit will only give you time to make your way through the "city centre" where, as in any modern city you will find the great public buildings - in the case of Roman cities of antiquity - the baths, Senate, market, temples, theatre and such. Here at Leptis they have been beautifully restored and inspire both admiration and awe both for their grandeur and for the dedication of the teams of archaeologists and their workers who have brought them so vividly to life for us. What makes Leptis so special though is its wealth of other buildings and the survival of so much of the rest of the city. You'll need the time to walk some distance to the harbour and out to where the great lighthouse once stood. To see the amphitheatre and the circus you will really need transport - it's two kilometres around by road!
It's only by making your way to these places though that you begin to appreciate the scale of Leptis Magna - both the spread of the city and its importance.
The early silting of the harbour may have closed it to much Roman shipping but the result of that is that it remains in a fine state of preservation and although only the foundations of the lighthouse remain, it's thought that it once stood almost as high as the great Pharos of Alexandria along the coast in Egypt.
The amphitheatre was built to seat some 16,000 spectators and 25,000 people could cheer the charioteers in the circus - one of the largest in all the Empire. The circus is little more than a depression in the ground nowadays with a scattering of masonry but the ampitheatre is still very impressive as is the huge arch and connecting the passage between the two.Related to:
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Cyrene was founded, in 631 BC, by settlers from the island of Thera (Santorini) in Greece. Named after a spring, Kyre, which the Greeks consecrated to Apollo, the city was the seat of Cyrenaics, a famous school of philosophy in the 3rd century BC, founded by Aristippus, a disciple of Socrates. The spectacular ruins include the Temple of Zeus and the Temple of Apollo. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Admission 3 LD + 5LD per cameraRelated to:
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Apollonia was the port for Cyrene. In the Byzantine period it became an important religious centre. The highlights are its Christian basilicas, with their cipolin columns, the Ducal Palace, Roman Baths and Greek Theatre.
The ruins are in a very exposed location on the windswept coast of the Mediterranean, so be prepared for strong winds and sunburn.
Apollonia is 18km to the east of Cyrene. Admission is 3 LD plus 5 LD for a camera.Related to:
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I am an expat working in Libya and although just a beginner diver still a diver. I did my first dive for this summer with Arebi Diving Center and I recommend them. You can check their web site www.diveinlibya.com to get a better idea, or contact them on tel:+218913201089.
- Diving and Snorkeling
I doubt that anything can prepare you for your first sight of one of Libya's famed Dawada Lakes, set like beautiful jewels in the stark dunes of the Idehan Ubari - the Ubari Sand Sea. To come over the crest of a dune and see these pristine waters, reflecting their rim of palms and reeds, the surrounding dunes and the sky in absolute mirror stillness is quite breathtaking. To do so with not another soul around has to be one of life's great privileges.
There are some 20 lakes altogether, scattered over the southern reaches of the Ubari. Thought to have been formed by small geological faults that allow fossil water to well up to the surface, all but one are extremely salty - rivalling the Dead Sea in their salinity. Obviously the plants that grow around their edge have adapted to this as the vegetation is really lush. Nearest to the Sebah-Ghat road are Um al Maa, Mandara, Mavo and Gebraoun.
We visited Um al Maa and Mandara on our way out to the Akakus and intended to visit Mavo and Gebraoun on our way back to Sebah - the severe dust haze following a desert sand storm put paid to that idea!
Like several of the other lakes, Mandara is suffering. Its water level has dropped dramatically in recent years and there were only small pools of water lying well out in the black mud of the lake floor. Interesting, but not the beautiful sight we had been expecting. A brief stop to buy a silver fox and gazelle from the display set out by a small group of Tuareg who had set out their wares there and we were off across the dunes to Um al Maa There were loads of tyre tracks in the fish-fash (the fine dune sand) but when we got to the lake we had it all to ourselves - even the Tuareg souvenir sellers hadn't arrived for the day. It was perfect. Absolutely perfect.Related to:
When our KLM flight was cancelled on 21 Feb 2011 we were put in the Corinthia Bab Africa Hotel, and...more
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