Dry and mighty

Libya's wild border areas harbour the magnificent ruined remains of eight ancient Greek and Roman cities. Hamish McRae takes a historical tour

For most people Libya is still Gaddafi and Lockerbie, and there is certainly a portrait of Mr G in every public place. But now Libya has been rehabilitated, Mr G is our Prime Minister's new best friend. They took tea together in his desert tent. The country is opening up, and that is wonderful news for everyone.

For most people Libya is still Gaddafi and Lockerbie, and there is certainly a portrait of Mr G in every public place. But now Libya has been rehabilitated, Mr G is our Prime Minister's new best friend. They took tea together in his desert tent. The country is opening up, and that is wonderful news for everyone.

Quite aside from having an intriguing and in several ways admirable Arab culture, Libya is also the best place on earth to catch the feeling for the ancient world of Gladiator, Troy and Alexander. That is a world in which, if these films are any guide, we have suddenly become interested. The fact that the country has become much more welcoming to tourists makes this journey to a past age all the more agreeable and thrilling.

Libya was the place in North Africa where the ancient worlds of Greece and Rome met. In its western region lie the three great colonial cities of the Romans: Sabratha, Oea (now Tripoli itself and the only one continuously inhabited) and the great Leptis Magna, once the largest city in North Africa. To the east, by what is now Benghazi, are the five cities of the Greeks: Tocra, Barce, Tolmeita, the port of Apollonia and the most celebrated of all, Cyrene. The quiet comfort of Greek civilization contrasts starkly with the full-beam brilliance of Rome.

You can experience these contrasts in the most civilized of ways. You walk the streets of the ancients pretty much on your own. There is no sense of pressure, for Libya still has very few tourists - Tripoli, a city of nearly 2 million, has fewer than 1,000 hotel beds. You are shown round by a professor of archaeology or perhaps the curator of the museum, which gives you instant expertise. You have a guide as well, for one of the requirements of tourists is that they are sponsored by a local tour operator.

As a result, you find that you can begin to distinguish not just between Greek and Roman but also between the other layers of civilization that came before and afterwards: the Phoenicians, who started it all, and the Byzantines, who managed for a while to hold back the tide of the Vandals and all the other wreckers.

The archaeological side seems to have been done very well. On most sites only a small portion of the city has been excavated, and every year new discoveries are being made, which is tantalising. You ponder how much more there must be under those mounds over there. But the key elements of the cities have been unearthed and in some cases sensitively reconstructed.

You get a very good feeling for what it must have been like to live in the ancient cities. You can stride round the forum and the marketplace, sit in the seats of the theatre, read the imperial proclamations or pretend to squat on the communal marble loo seats. The pristine quality of these is a sharp contrast with the grottiness of the present variety. One of my few gripes about the Libyan stewardship of these sites is the extent to which public toilet standards have gone backwards over the past 1,900 years.

What you can see is merely a question of the time at your disposal. A week splits naturally into three days in Tripoli and three in Benghazi. The two cities are more than 600 miles apart and the sensible thing to do is fly between them. One day in Tripoli gives you time to see the stunning museum and the only significant remains of Oea, the triumphal arch of Marcus Aurelius. You should also catch a feeling for the old and mainly Turkish walled medina, as well as the more modern city. That leaves a day for Sabratha and one for Leptis Magna, both an hour-and-a-half's drive from the city.

You should go to Sabratha first for three reasons. There are more Phoenician remains here, plus a museum of these remains, which will help you to establish a time-frame in your mind. Secondly, its reconstructed theatre is perhaps the most beautiful single building in the whole of Classical North Africa, and acts as a taste for what is to come. And thirdly, for all Sabratha's delights, Leptis Magna has a wow factor that is unequalled. Seeing it first could spoil the rest. Leptis Magna is pure swank. It is not just that it was a big city for its time: at its peak it had a population of nearly 100,000, compared to Rome at around 500,000, London at 45,000 and Pompeii at around 15,000. It was also a flashy city, one that was designed to impress and intimidate - it was the Roman capital of Africa and it oozes power. Oea has its one triumphal arch and Sabratha none - Leptis has four. In the town is a huge theatre, while just outside is an amphitheatre that seated 16,000. Between this and the sea sits a circus big enough for 25,000, one of the largest outside Rome itself.

It has the grand baths of Hadrian, with a marble swimming-pool, the usual hot and warm rooms and huge furnaces to heat them. It has two forums, one built by Augustus, the other, larger, one by the African emperor Septimus Severus. He was born in Leptis (and incidently died in York, having rebuilt Hadrian's Wall) and wanted to make his forum even grander than the other. He succeeded in some style. His triumphal arch has been beautifully restored and is the first thing you see when you enter the city. He built a new pier for the port that is pretty much complete today, and you can also see the base of a lighthouse, supposedly a scaled-down version of the Pharos of Alexandria.

It is important to remember that all this was built on Greek foundations. Over in the Cyrenaica region, the Greek cities have not been so overlaid by Roman influences. In practical terms, access is more tricky because the key site, Cyrene, is a full three hours' drive from Benghazi. It is probably best to have one night at the new hotel in Apollonia, but Cyrene really is worth the effort. Its citizens did well for themselves, for the city is brilliantly sited high in the hills overlooking the sea. The theatre is perched on the hillside, with an extraordinary view of the coast to the port of Apollonia. The houses of the rich are sumptuous; the women's baths private and discreet - you can see the niches where they put their jewellery and clothes. The spiritual was catered for too. Up the hill, the temple of Zeus is larger than the Parthenon in Athens. Not bad for the 5th century BC. The other Greek cities are impressive in their own ways but Cyrene has an extraordinary charm. If Leptis is Dallas, Cyrene is Florence. Indeed, in several ways the Greek culture seems more impressive than the Roman. It is quieter, more civilised - and, of course, it came first.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) flies daily between Heathrow and Tripoli from around £425 return. Air Malta (0845 607 3710; www.airmalta.com) offers flights once a week via Malta from around £325 return and Afriqiyah Airways (0870 242 2267; www.afriqiyah.aero) flies direct from Gatwick. The Adventure Company (0870 794 1009; www.adventurecompany.co.uk) and Voyages Jules Verne (020-7616 1000; www.vjv.co.uk) both organise tours to Libya.

STAYING AND EATING THERE

Hotels, even the five-star establishments, are not up to European standards. Why a country that has great oranges at about 2p a kilo cannot serve fresh juice at breakfast is a puzzle, until you realise that the state owns the hotels. Food is fine but repetitive and alcohol has been banned by Mr G.

RED TAPE

The People's Bureau of the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (020-7589 6120) requires that all visitors are invited by a company and are a part of a group of a minimum of four people. Your passport must have a stamp with an Arabic translation and be valid for six months. If you have a stamp from Israel you will not be granted a visa. Several agencies can help with applications - your tour operator will be able to advise you.

Travcour (020-7223 5295, www.travcour.com) arranges visa applications for £40.

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