Travel: Sun, sea, sights - and Colonel Gaddafi

Discovered by the Phoenicians, developed by the Romans, adored by the Greeks - Libya is a sensation you may never see. By Jeremy Atiyah

DON'T blame Colonel Gaddafi for seeking attention. Stranded half- way between classy Tunis and monumental Cairo, who wouldn't feel insecure? Libya has a population less than a tenth that of Egypt, scattered over an area nearly twice as large. If any country in North Africa was going to end up with a rock star for president, it had to be this one.

But apart from Gaddafi, is there anything to Libya? It calls itself the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jumahiriya, which does not sound very charming. It has joined Saudi Arabia and Iran in banning alcohol. It operates a highly restrictive visa regime. And yet, with its Mediterranean beaches, sunny climate and fabulous antiquities, it seems to offer unlimited tourism.

On my visit a fortnight ago, I found no issue which excited the Libyans more.

"Oh yes," they kept telling me. "We are going to be a very big tourist country. But of course ... you must allow for the customs of our people ..." In other words, I understood, no beer and no bonking.

Luckily I was there just for a tour of antiquities. This was what Libya meant to me: it was an Arab land, built on Phoenician and Greek roots, sitting on a vast area of desert. And, since Lockerbie, you had to beat a UN air embargo to get there, which meant driving across the border from the nearest Tunisian airport.

"May your day accrue more benefit!" shouted the immigration police. The first thing that struck me on the Libyan side of the border were the high school girls in white socks and trainers, walking with their boyfriends. A hard-line Islamic state? Hardly. Anyway the scenery was far too benign for that, with golden wheat fields dotted by endless rows of olives.

This was no dour, desert environment. In the restaurants and hotels of Tripoli, I found everybody drinking espressos and switching unflappably back and forth between English, French, Arabic and Italian. But Tripoli did not feel like a capital city. Palm trees stuck their heads above flat, dusty roofs. The centre of town was overlooked by the cliff-like walls of the Crusader Castle. Container ships stood mistily off-shore. And there was the new city: an Italian-built, white-washed zone of balconies and green shutters, colonnaded walkways and sleepy cafes, serving excellent coffee. But no grappa.

Never mind. I escaped into the old city. A gentleman with a purple beret wobbled past on a bicycle; a youth in a gelabiyah held a mobile phone to his ear. The heart of Tripoli's commercial life? The boys manning stalls in the souk looked like stylish Inter Milan supporters. This had the air of a souk-in-waiting: waiting for the end of the embargo, waiting for tourists, waiting for history.

To be honest, some people looked as if they had landed here unintentionally. And so in a way they had. Tripoli was originally founded by Phoenician sailors 2,700 years ago as a staging post, somewhere to re-equip their boats on the way to Spain.

A mistake? Of course not. In Roman times this part of north Africa was destined to become one of the wealthiest in the world. Along with sister cities Sabratha to the west and Leptis Magna to the east, modern Tripoli became the centre of a province which the Romans would call Tripolitania: the Land of Three Cities.

Mussolini, when he barged into Libya 70 years ago, loved his Roman ruins. The Libyans, equally naturally, were not so sure. They preferred the Phoenician connection: Tripolitania may have been developed by Romans but it was a Semitic people, the Phoenicians, who got there first.

I arrived at Sabratha in a sand-storm, under a sky black with dust. The wind blew hot, and raindrops fell with the consistency of quicksand. Who cared? I saw a schoolgirl in a Leonardo Di Caprio T-shirt dancing beside a ghetto-blaster. Children laughed together under the pine trees. The Phoenician goddess Tanit (in whose temple ritualised orgies once took place) would not have been entirely displeased.

The first building I saw in Sabratha was a profoundly un-Roman looking mausoleum, a tall spire decorated by seated lions; but that was the extent of the Phoenician remains. I turned away and saw suntanned rocks, towering arches and tiers of columns filling half the sky. Like it or not, the Romans had left their mark.

Clearly this part of north Africa had not always been a backwater. Only the world's wealthiest cities could have afforded such theatres or temples, or decorated (say) their public latrines with statues of naked goddesses.

And the best was yet to come. The next day I was taken along a quiet road beside avenues of eucalyptus (Libya's main highway) to Leptis Magna. I stepped out to the smell of pine resin, the song of crickets and a warm wind in the grass. Sixteen hundred years ago this had been a city to rival Rome.

The entrance to Leptis is still marked by a monumental arch of Septimius Severus where winged goddesses high above the trees thrust out their breasts in victory, and colossal cornices top florid vine tendrils carved in stone. Open-jawed with amazement, I continued along the smooth paved street into town.

Back in the third century AD Leptis had the luck to produce a baby called Septimius Severus. Years later, as Roman Emperor, Severus would channel prodigious wealth back to his native land. From today's perspective, giganticism seems to be the theme: the public baths alone comprise dozens of 10-metre-high archways, with superhuman door lintels and walls as wide as elephants.

But even now I had not quite seen it all. Nearby, through a small back entrance down a sandy lane, I would step into the apocalypse itself.

Walking through the vast, dead square of the Severan Forum, littered with upended columns, I found myself surrounded by monumental gateways and loping arches. Staring faces of Medusa heads lay about amid the desolation. Meanwhile, in the Severan Basilica next door, gigantic roof entablatures had crashed to the ground, carrying their inscriptions with them, still awesomely legible after 2,000 years. There were no tourists; the only sound was of crashing waves on the beach outside.

Time for deep thoughts about the passage of time? Time for a visit to the harbour. This had once been a perfect circular bay, surrounded by breakwaters. Over the centuries the bay had silted up, until it became first unusable, and then unrecognisable. Today, it is covered not by ships but by long grass and rustling bamboo. Its entrance is a sandy beach.

After Leptis, it was hard to get up in the morning, let alone continue with the tour. The strange thing was that I had still only seen half of the country. The next stage was to drive across the great Gulf of Sirte, that hole in the map where the coastal landscape deteriorates into sheer desert and camels nibble by the roadside.

Not that the gulf was as empty as it used to be. This is now a big area for petro-chemical complexes and for Gaddafi's Great Man-made River, which passes through colossal pipes under the sand. One day, I was told, this land would be green again. The historic desertification of north Africa, no less, would be reversed.

East of here began that other Libya, the old Greek colony of Cyrene. A wet, fertile upland, its scenery is identical to Mediterranean Europe: a day later, I was driving in verdant hillsides interspersed by vineyards and rich golden fields of wheat. The wind blew fresh off the sea.

No wonder the Greeks liked it. The wonder is that more Libyans have not discovered it. The land seems largely empty except for scattered ancient cities, guarded by devoted old local archeologists who love their sea and sandstone. The sites are miraculously picturesque, like dreams of Provencale farmhouse gardens, with geraniums perched on Corinthian Capitols and silver columns tumbling into blue waters.

In Cyrenaica, the old stones have never been covered over by sand or forgotten. In fact, they have been picked over by bemused Arab shepherds and their flocks for centuries. At Tolmeitha for example - the ancient Ptolemis - I saw herds of goats under eucalyptus trees nibbling on dry grass sprouting from the ancient theatre.

As for Cyrene itself, on a high plateau overlooking the Cretan Sea, the great wonder is the fresh water spring pouring out of the mountainside. The Greeks built their temple of Apollo here; two-and-a-half thousand years on, it is still flowing strongly, providing yet another reason for the Libyans to feel good about themselves.

libya fact file

Getting there

The author's trip was arranged through the British Museum Traveller (46 Bloomsbury St, London WC1B 3QQ, tel: 0171 323 8895/1234). Its next 10- day group tour of Libya runs from 4 to 13 October and it will run more trips next year. The price of pounds 1,840 per person includes scheduled Tunis Air flights to Djerba, all transport, full-board accommodation plus the constant attendance of a tour lecturer. This autumn's tour will be with Susan Walker, deputy keeper in the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities of the British Museum.

Operators

British Museum Tours makes its arrangements through a Libyan tour operator, Wings Travel and Tours (Tripoli, PO Box 1736, Libya, Tel: 00 218 21 3331855, fax: 00 218 21 3330881). It can authorise visas for you on the basis of tour bookings. It arranges tailor-made trips to any part of the country, including the desert, with pick-ups from Djerba or, if you prefer, Cairo in Egypt.

Visas

If booking with British Museum Tours, it can arrange your visa (pounds 20 + pounds 15 procurement fee). Otherwise contact the Libyan Interests Section (0171 486 8387, or 486 8250 in the Saudi Arabian embassy). Note that you will need authorisation from Libya (obtainable through, for example, Wings Travel) before a visa can be granted. Visas for Tunisia are not required.

Further information

The author's flight to Djerba was arranged through Tunis Air (0171 7347644), which flies direct from Heathrow once a week on Thursdays, and via Tunis on any other day. Price from pounds 263 + tax, or pounds 283 for the direct flights.

There is also useful material, especially on how to get into the country, on the Sahara Travel Information website: www.users.globalnet.co.uk/ckscott/libya.html.

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