Turn back the clock in Tripoli

RobinBrown­turns­back­the­clock­morethan2000year­sona visit­toTripo­lian­dit­sRo­man­ruins

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - PROPERTY -

I NER­VOUSLY edged out of the tun­nel into the main arena of the am­phithe­atre in the city of Lep­tis Magna and shuf­fled a c r o s s t o t h e c e n t r e . Tu r n i n g 3 6 0 de­grees, I looked up at row upon row of stone seat­ing, closed my eyes and imag­ined I could hear the huge crowd bay­ing for my blood.

All it needed was the em­peror to give t he t humbs-down si gnal and I would be fight­ing for my life.

Ad­vance the clock 2 000 years and I was stand­ing in what is de­scribed as the best-pre­served ru­ins of the sec­ond­largest Ro­man am­phithe­atre,120km from Tripoli in Libya.

For­tu­nately I was not go­ing to face an an­gry lion or tiger to fight for my life.

We had flown overnight from Jo­han­nes­burg to Tripoli aboard a new Air­bus 330 of Afriqiyah Air­ways, the of­fi­cial air­line for Libya for a three-day stay in Libya, to dis­cover some of the most fas­ci­nat­ing his­tory in North Africa.

Arriving at about 6am af­ter a comfortable eight-hour flight, we were met by an English-speak­ing guide who im­me­di­ately cleared us through im­mi­gra­tion – you re­quire a visa for Libya – and whipped us off to Tripoli 30km away.

Shukri, our guide, told us the ho­tel would prob­a­bly not be ready for us and sug­gested a cup of cof­fee in the old part of Tripoli, cap­tured by the Ital­ians in 1911, and thor­oughly in­flu­enced by them.

We stood on the cor­ner of Al­ma­garief Street and or­dered our cof­fee from the small hole-in-the-wall shop of Al­madga.

The cof­fee was of the best I have ever tasted. Here we were, 8 000km from Cape Town, en­joy­ing Ital­ian cof­fee at its best with myr­iad lo­cals.

A short hop and skip from the cof­fee shop, we ar­rived at Tripoli Mu­seum, where the gov­ern­ment has housed the trea­sures dis­cov­ered in Libya over the years.

The mu­seum is one of the best I have ever vis­ited. It traces the his­tory of Libya from the ar­rival of the Phoeni­cians, through Ro­man and Byzan­tine times to a Greek and Turk­ish pe­riod, to Ara­bic and the rule un­der Muam­mar Gadaffi in 1969.

It even sports Gadaffi’s orig­i­nal VW Bee­tle and the Jeep in which he pa­raded through the streets, in 1969.

Once in the mu­seum, vis­i­tors are over­whelmed by the dis­plays, es­pe­cially the Ro­man sec­tion, which is filled with huge mar­ble stat­ues moved from Lep­tis Magna and Sabratha, as well as the mo­saics dis­cov­ered in 2000 by ar­chae­ol­o­gists.

I n one r oom t here i s a pai nt i ng de­pict­ing a wheeled ve­hi­cle dated at more than 13 000 years old.

The mu­seum is housed un­der the old walls of Tripoli and a short walk takes you through the en­trance arch of Mar­cus Aure­lius, which is a land­mark and one of the Ro­man ru­ins in the town. Here in the old city we vis­ited a 316year-old mosque and the Zu­mit Ho­tel, built in 1816, and where the car­a­van mer­chants ren­dezvoused and sat sipped while trad­ing their wares. To­day it has been re­stored to its for­mer glory with 10 rooms and four suites.

Time flies when hav­ing fun and soon it was time to book into our ho­tel, the Rad­di­son Blu, one of the few five-star ho­tels in Tripoli. I had a quick shower, grabbed lunch and headed into the souk – the busy mar­ket of­fer­ing s hops l oaded wi t h gol d a nd ot her goods.

Din­ing in Libya is ex­tremely Mediter­ranean, with plenty of fresh sal­ads, fish, great breads, plenty of nuts and dates, and, nat­u­rally, cous­cous. Chicken and meat are also on most menus.

It is pos­si­ble to dine for about R140 for a main meal, but in smaller lo­cal eater­ies you can eat for a few di­nahs – R7 buys about 1.3 di­nahs.

At lo­cal restau­rants, lunch is al­ways a small fresh salad, fol­lowed by soup then a main course of rice or cous­cous, and chicken and meat. Fresh fruit ends the meal.

We headed into the souk and pre­pared t o s hop. Shopa­holics will be blown away, es­pe­cially by t he gold shops. They are packed with gold jew- eller y sell­ing f or about R31 a gram. There is no se­cu­rity; you just choose a piece you ad­mire, walk out of the shop into the sun, scru­ti­nise it, then ei­ther buy it or try an­other piece.

Shop­ping is un­pres­surised, great fun and the traders are all cre­ate their wares in their shops. I watched, fas­ci­nated, as a sil­ver­smith worked on his jew­ellery.

Mar­kets are the way to go in Libya and the lo­cals flock to the fish mar­ket to buy their fresh fish for the day and visit veg­etable shops to choose in­gre­di­ents for the next meal.

On a Fri­day, a huge mar­ket opens and you can trade any­thing, like a gi­ant boot sale.

As e v e n i n g a p p r o a c h e s , Tr i p o l i comes alive, more and more traders open their shops and lo­cals gather in the city squares. It ap­pears that pho­to­graphs of groups of peo­ple with a back­drop of a rather glitzy mo­tor­cy­cle or hold­ing the lead at­tached to a small buck is the or­der of the night, as busi­ness is brisk.

Libya is home to six mil­lion peo­ple. Ev­ery morn­ing you are awak­ened when the call from the many mosques to the faith­ful fills the air.

The peo­ple are friendly and help­ful, the streets are quite safe and the traf­fic is con­stantly on the move. Tourist po­lice clad in full whites are very help­ful and will step out and hold up the traf­fice while vis­i­tors cross busy roads.

The fol­low­ing day we jour­neyed to Lep­tis Magna and spent a fine morn­ing walk­ing around the 2 000-year-old Ro­man town. It cov­ers 3km2, was the main Ro­man har­bour and was home to more than 80 000 peo­ple, the sec­ond­largest Ro­man pop­u­la­tion af­ter Pom­peii.

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