Turn back the clock in Tripoli
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.