To the ends of the world…Libya Roman Rambling

With Nick Smith

Perched on a rocky outcrop on the South Mediterranean coast, the Villa Sileen is one of the finest examples of the Roman summerhouse

As we say goodbye to one of the most tropical Swansea summers in living memory, we rekindle the spirit by travelling to the hottest place on earth: Libya. Bay’s Nick Smith packed his cameras and headed for the seldom-visited North African country that boasts some of the best Roman ruins around.

As with so many of the best adventures, my travels in Libya started with a detour. I’d gone off the beaten track in this vast north African country before I’d even found the established one – if you can call it that ­– because I’d been told that whatever I did and wherever I went, the one place I really shouldn’t miss was the Villa Sileen. And, since this was to the east of my starting point in the country’s capital Tripoli, and since my intention was to travel south-west to the geograph-ical tripoint where Libya, Tunisia and Algeria meet on an enormous sand dune, early one morning I pointed the jeep into the orient and headed along the Mediterranean coastal highway. After an hour or two on the road, there before me, in the breath-taking golden morning sunshine was the (admittedly very small) Roman summerhouse for the great and the good of the Empire, the turquoise sea shimmer-ing behind it. With its sand-coloured domes and elegant mosaics, Villa Sileen is a million miles away from the images of burning fury we see of Libya on the 24-hour rolling television news that portrays the country only as a central character in George W Bush’s ‘Axis of Evil.’

Columns and archway of the ‘Curia’ or “senate House’ at the ruins of Sabratha, to the west of Tripoli. Recognised as a UNISCO World Heritage Site in 1982

Of course, Libya isn’t the first choice for travellers looking for an experience in the realms of the sedate and the serene. Most of us, if we know Libya at all, know it as the stronghold of the late political revolutionary Colonel Gaddafi, portrayed (probably fairly) by the media as the ‘mad dog’, killed in the Battle of Sirte in 2011. Former British Prime Minister David Cameron claimed that he was ‘proud’ of his role in overthrowing the ‘brutal dictator’, while the president of the United States at the time, Barack Obama, trumpeted that “the shadow of tyranny over Libya has been lifted.” Whether or not history will prove either of these men right, Gaddafi believed that he had created in Libya a ‘utopia’. Whether Gaddafi had any basis to his claim or not, Libya is an extraordinary place to visit, and I’m glad that I went there three times in quick succession at a time when you could, because today the British govern-ment is telling UK nationals to stay away due to security concerns over terrorism. With the British Embassy in Tripoli temporarily closed, it all looks a bit grim. But things change. There was a time when you couldn’t go to Russia. Likewise China. Today, these countries extend global influence and you can travel in them at will.

Tumbled masonry at Leptis Magna in both sandstone and marble. One of the beauties of visiting this ancient city is that you are free to roam around at will, undisturbed by tourists

Roman frescos, mosaics and statuary are the order of the day in Roman Libya

For me, Libya is a peaceful place of Roman ruins and desert adventure. For sure, I had my passport taken off me on my first evening in Tripoli. But, it was politely returned to me the following morning by a young policeman who informed me that he’d be travelling with me for the duration. As we drove to the Villa Sileen we chatted like old friends and I even took a few photos of him as I bought him lunch of rich barley stew, stuffed vine leaves and radishes at a road-side café. “Just how long are you going to be with me?” I asked Hassan as politely as I could muster. “It depends,” came the reply: “where are you going?” I told him that I was heading for the camel fair at Ghadames, right in the heart of the desert, in the west of the country. Hassan considered the matter for a moment or two, before asking me to drop him off at the police station in Tripoli with the promise that I’d report back to him in a few weeks time before flying home. An informal deal struck, we celebrated its mutually beneficial outcome by visiting the magnificent ruins of nearby Leptis Magna.

Tripoli’s Red Castle at sunrise, shot on transparency film with a medium format camera. Also known as Assaraya Alhamra, or the Archaelogical Museum of Tripoli, it is a national museum in Libya

If you stand at the Arch of Marcus Aurelius in the old part of Tripoli, a stone’s throw from the famous medina and Red Castle, you’ll find yourself at a crossroads of two ancient thoroughfares. If you face north towards the harbour, to your left the road leads to the Roman city of Sabratha and on to Leptis Parva in modern Tunisia. To the right, it heads off to Leptis Magna and modern-day Egypt. These two ancient ruined metropolises are the most important of Libya’s great antiquities and are arguably the best-preserved Roman cities in the whole of the Mediterranean. As Hassan and I discovered at the 7thcentury BC Leptis Magna, Libya’s ruins are also deserted, to the point where we were the only people there. No crowds of tourists with selfie-sticks, no irritating ‘keep-out’ signs, no hawkers, touts or pickpockets. To walk among the lonely palisades and colonnades is to step back in time, and if you listen carefully you can, with a little imagination, still hear the sounds of the olive oil presses and fish markets, brothels and temples, public baths and amphitheatres.

Two views of the theatre at the ancient Roman city of Sabratha. The city itself dates back as far as the 5th century BC: it has been partially destroyed by an earthquake and continually looted by opponents of both the Carthaginian and Roman empires

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the reason for Hassan’s dereliction of duty was the heat. Libya is hot. And while meteorologists bicker endlessly over whether Death Valley is hot-ter, the small Libyan town of ‘Aziziya was for almost a century officially the hottest place on earth. Having notched up an eye-watering 58° Celsius (that’s 136.4° Fahrenheit in old money), ‘Aziziya has now (some-what unfairly, in my view) been demoted, as a result of some retro-fitted scientific mumbo-jumbo as obscure as the LBW law, after a controversy developed in 2012. Apparently, a specialist from the World Meteorological Organization claimed that the climatologist who took the original reading 90 years previously (to the day) had been unqualified to read a thermometer. With ‘Aziziya relegated to second place, the laurels were handed back to Death Valley on a technicality.

I took this portrait of this man wearing a white taqiyah (tassled cap) on the walls of the Red Castle at Tripoli. In honour of the occasion it was shot on medium format transparency film rather than digital / This is what the Jabal Nafusa looks like. Desert and mountains. Hour after hour. You can just make out car tracks in the sand

The cover of Philip Ward’s guide to Libya with black and white shots of the camel fair at Ghadames and the chambers of the Qasr-al-Haj

With Hassan safely back behind his desk, and with the sense of freedom that comes with no longer being escorted by the local constabulary, my real journey began. For the record, I was loosely following in the footsteps of an intrepid travel writer and explorer from a few generations before me. Philip Ward was also a journalist with the Sunday Times, whose book ‘Touring Libya: The Western Provinces’ came out in 1967 and, despite tediously smug successors from publishers such as Rough Guide and Lonely Planet, remains by a country mile the absolute best and most beautifully written guide for the traveller. With Ward’s book tucked away in my backpack, a bootfull of bottled water and my iPod plugged into my ears, I put the key in the ignition, my compass on the dash-board and headed into the desert.

The Jabal Nafusa is strewn with ruined cities (quite often with their modern equivalents built next to them). This is Jefren, shot in the early morning sunshine

Sitting at my desk at home, I’ve always found it hard to come to terms with the fact that Libya is the fourth largest country in Africa (believe it or not, it’s half the size of India). But it’s a fact that soon lodged in my mind as I chugged west along the ever-deteriorating road that was to take me into the heart of the Jabal Nafusa, a desert mountain range that seemingly goes on for ever. After an hour or two, bi-lingual English-Arabic road signs became Arabic only. After a further few hours, they disap-peared altogether, hence the compass. It was at this point I discovered to my dismay that I’d synchro-nised my iPod incorrectly, and instead of having thousands of tracks to listen to along the way, had only five. Luckily, they were the five movements of Beethoven’s 6th ‘Pastoral’ Symphony, conducted by Daniel Barenboim. After a fortnight of listening to this – and only this – I was of the opinion that I prob-ably knew the piece as well as Barenboim did and could make a pretty good fist of conducting it myself. But even if I’d had all the music in the world, nothing would have staved off the brain-rotting effect of the same topography rolling by for hour after hour, day after day. Several times I’ve been asked why I made this journey there and back again by road – not once, but twice – and the answer is always that it’s better than flying. You really, really don’t want to get involved with airports in Libya unless you have to.

Exterior of the ancient Qasr-al-Haj granary and ‘stock exchange’ for grain traders

En route to Ghadames I visited the troglodyte dwellings of Gharian, stayed in the Rumia Hotel in Jefren (where I slept on a straw mat on the floor) and called in at the Berber castle of Nalut. On the road from Jefren to Nalut, in the middle of no-where, is the fabulous Qasr-al-Haj, a circular Berber grain store that in itself makes any trip to Libya worthwhile. This ancient building, for all its surreal appearance, once served as a grain storage ‘bank’ for the regional semi-nomadic peoples. There are exactly 114 chambers (the same number of verses as in the Koran) facing inwards onto a market square that acted as a kind of commodities stock exchange for grain farmers and traders.

Interior of the Qasr-al-Haj, showing the grain chambers that served as a bank. Note the amphorae in the central area that would have served as a marketplace

The famous camel fair at Ghadames can be a bit dangerous. While photographing these riders in their indigo robes, I was kicked by a camel. Not recommended

A Berber sword dancer, shot again on film, using antiquated technique of ‘real curtain flash’ where the flashgun goes off at both beginning and end of exposure

Journey’s end is Ghadames, the ‘Pearl of the Sahara’ and a UNESCO heritage site. This is where there is an annual camel fair that has evolved from an ancient Silk Road market place into a festival of Tuareg culture, where hundreds of tribal nomads gather to display their traditional dances, jewellery, tattooed hands and indigo-dyed tagelmusts (a sort of a veil and a turban combined). The men race camels down the street at night and improvise Tuareg-fusion on electric guitars. Traditional music is the work of women and girls, who play monochord violins and goatskin tambours to accompany their voices. The climax of the festival is a party on the dunes that mark the tripoint, an event upon which Ward’s book is curiously silent. Hundreds flood out into the desert in their off-roaders, and at midnight their red tail lights can be seen streaming out into the wilderness in all directions.

Date palms reach for the sky at Ghadames

All too soon it’s time to leave this most exquisite of towns and head back along the road to Tripoli, with only Beethoven for company. As I get nearer to the coast, the temperature dips to the low nineties and the trail becomes lined with fig and apricot orchards. Just to the west of Tripoli I stop at the small settlement of Janzur, where there is a museum full of mosaics and wall paintings. Here, I got talking to locals who told me that during Gaddafi’s administration a western television unit once arrived to do a segment of to-camera ‘news’ journalism. Upon finding that the road to Tripoli wasn’t ablaze with the fires of civil unrest, they paid local teenagers fifty dollars to set fire to an old abandoned car to use as background to their footage. “That’s not really what happens here,” complained one woman. “We’d been to the market and were returning with our shopping, when we were told to get out of the way in case we ruined their TV show.” As my policeman friend Hassan said on my departure: “Welcome to Libya.” When the travel ban is lifted, go see it for yourself. It’s nothing like it is on the television.


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