I'd wanted to go to Libya for a while but had been put off by what had seemed to be mountains of red tape and the apparently prohibitive expense of having of having to sign up for an escorted group tour. After looking into it a bit more deeply, however, I discovered that it was possible to visit Libya for 48 hours without having to join an expensive package tour. I found that I could combine a longer trip to West Africa - where I could fly into Cotonou in Benin, and then fly home for Bamako in Mali - with a short break in Tripoli. The visa would cost me 90 Euros but there was no extra change for the stopover. As Afriqiyah was the cheapest option from London to West Africa, anyway, I thought I'd try and make it to Libya before all the crowds arrived.
After emailing my credit card details and a scan of my passport to the Sarah Guardian Hotel, they promptly emailed me back a visa number that I simply presented at Tripoli airport, to be given my proper visa. I seemed to be the only passenger on my flight from Gatwick, that wasn't just switching planes in Tripoli on the way to a variety of destinations in (mainly) West Africa. I had opted to pay another 10 Euros to be picked up at the airport by a driver from the hotel, and sure enough, as soon as I walked through customs (with minimal fuss), there he was, holding up my name on a piece of cardboard. I couldn't believe how easy it had all been.
On my arrival at the rather anonymous looking budget hotel, Ali, the manager, dragged himself away from the large flat screened television to warmly welcome me in. I couldn't help noticing the scenes that were being reported on either CNN or BBC World. Not long before I had left, a protestor in Tunisia had set himself on fire, leading to a sudden and violent uprising against the current regime. For decades, Tunisia had been held up as an island of stability in this troubled region of the world; while both of its neighbours, Algeria and Libya, were considered to be pretty much no-go areas for all but the most adventurous of travellers, Tunisia was full of tourists. They were now all leaving in droves, and from what I could gather from the international news, the same kind of uprisings seemed to be kicking off all over the Arab world. In the few hours between setting off early to the airport, and arriving in Tripoli, protestors had also taken to the streets in Egypt, Algeria, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain. Nothing like that had happened in Libya. Ali assured me that Libya was a very safe country. Everything was fine.
The Sarah Guardian Hotel was comfortable enough, had satellite television in the rooms, and had free drinks, snacks, breakfast and internet. I had originally booked the smallest and cheapest room at around thirty Euros a night but they had already booked this out. I agreed to pay more for a larger room, which I could then use right up until it was time to fly out in two night's time. I had also agreed to hire out a taxi for the day to take me to the Roman ruins at Leptis Magna, as well as to and from the airport, as there appeared to be little in the way of public transport. By the time that my 90 Euros for the visa (plus another 10 Euros 'registration fee' that I hadn't know about) was added on, it was going to work out as a rather expensive add-on to what was meant to be a low budget backpacking trip to Africa. The option to stopover in Tripoli might have been free but the lack of any tourist infrastructure or real competition, meant that any visit to Libya would be far from a bargain.
As it was already starting to get dark, it seemed a bit late to walk the 3 or 4 km into the centre of Tripoli. Instead, Ali drew me a map of the local streets, and I set of to explore Libya's largest and most cosmopolitan city. I had half hoped to find myself wandering through exotic, incense scented bazaars, while be-robed and turbaned Arab tribesman tempted me with their exotic offerings. Instead, I bought a kebab off some bloke in a shell suit. Having said that, it was an exceptionally tasty kebab; overflowing with grilled lamb and vegetables, and French fries. Fat women in burkas tried to push in front of me, in the busy queue, so I edged forward to block the way. Nobody seemed to take much notice of me. They were far more interested in getting their dinner than in what a foreigner was doing in there.
The buildings in this part of Tripoli looked grey, cheap and poorly constructed. After oil was discovered in Libya in 1959 and rural migrants began to flood into the capital in search of this new found wealth, the rapid expansion of Tripoli was poorly planned and chaotic. Consequently, most of the building and roads, outside of the historic centre, just seem to have been thrown down anywhere. Despite only being a few decades old, many of these hastily constructed blocks of flats already seemed to be falling down. Every now and again, one of the huge expanses of greyness would be broken up by a billboard of either Colonel Gaddafi or a consumer desirable. The further you moved from the roads radiating out of the historic Green Square, at the very political heart of Libya, the less likely you were likely to see billboards featuring the apparently melting Gaddafi, and the more likely you were to see them depicting what the people really desired.
Having walked around in the dark for long enough, I bought a Snickers bar at a friendly corner shop, and went back to my room to watch CSI Miami. They were still showing the riots on CNN but I'd seen enough of that kind of thing.
There were a few Westerners at the hotel's buffet breakfast that were here for business but I was the only tourist. Having eaten my fill, I was introduced to Muhammad, who was going to drive me the 130km or so to Leptis Magna. It seemed kind of extravagant (and expensive) to hire a taxi for the day, just for myself, but I justified it by reminding myself that Leptis Magna is one of the greatest sights in the whole of the Mediterranean. The city was established as Lebdah by the Phoenicians around 1100 BC and later became Africa's premier Roman city, under the reign of the Libyan Roman Emperor, Septimus Severus (r AD 193 - 211). If Leptis Magna was in Tunisia or Morocco or Egypt, then it would be crawling with thousands of tourists. As it is, it receives remarkably few foreign visitors. Every now and again, a luxury cruise liner will anchor down nearby, and the site will be inundated by hordes of affluent coffin dodgers but most foreign visitors will find that they are the only ones.
After a couple of stops at police road blocks - who soon lost interest after a cursory glance at my passport - we soon arrived at a sandy car park at the edge of the ruins. There were a couple of gift shops and a cafe but no other tourists. A number of 'guides' were sitting around, sipping at mud like Libyan coffee, while hoping for some visitors. Muhammad had already phoned up his friend, the stripy jumpered Jamal, and arranged for him to meet us. Jamal sat us down at a table, bought us coffee, and proceeded to make polite conversation. It seemed to have been assumed that he was going to be my guide. Knowing that the guides charged so much, I thought I'd better bring up the subject of money before we began and rather foolishly agreed to his lowest rate without bargaining harder (they will often make out that it is compulsory to have a guide in Libya when this isn't always true).
After paying the small official entrance fee, we walked past the closed museum and down towards the huge lump of ornately carved stone that is the Arch of Septimus Severus. The monument can't be dated precisely, but it seems that it was erected soon after the Emperors defeat of the Parthians. The grand arch covered the crossroads on the main street of the city and each of its corners points to the four corners of the compass. It clearly marked the point at which all roads from Leptis Magna began. We carried on further, down the ancient road towards the once great port. Jamal seemed nice enough but he didn't seem to know any more about the history of the site that I hadn't already gathered from my somewhat ropey guide book. He led me into the Hadriatic Baths, where a few Libyan day trippers were also wandering around. After pointing out some particularly well preserved mosaics - quite a few of the better ones had actually been carted off to the Jamahiriya Museum in Tripoli - he asked me if I wanted to go to the toilet. This seemed like a strange question to ask as we were in the middle of a huge complex of ruins, but I thought it might be best to make use of the facilities while I had the chance. Jamal led me into ancient toilet area where the citizens of Leptis Magna would all sit in rows to take a communal dump. It was more of a social occasion in those days. Jamal took my camera off me and then urged me to lower my trousers while sitting over a hole in the line of stone carved toilets. As he was taking a picture of me on the toilet, a family of Libyan day trippers emerged from the bathing complex. While quickly moving on towards the forum and the market area, I glanced back to notice that the family behind us was also doing their best to recreate the same picture. It seemed to be the thing to do.
Jamal had recently returned from a six month stay in Europe and was constantly being texted or chatting on his state of the art iPhone. I wondered how he could afford all these luxuries but then remembered how much I was paying him. Everyone I spoke to in Libya seemed very keen to see more tourists. They cursed the government for all the obstacles it insisted on putting in place to discourage mass tourism, but all seemed optimistic that Libya would soon start to take off as a major tourist destination. With its miles of empty beaches, outstanding desert scenery, and some of the greatest historic sites in the whole of the Mediterranean, how could it not?
We picked our way through the remains of the grand forum that Septimus Severus constructed at the time of Leptis Magna's greatest prominence, and carried on through the ruins towards the ancient docks that Severus had also extensively rebuilt. The natural harbour had always had a tendency to silt up but these 'improvements' had made it far worse. The eastern wharves are particularly well preserved as they ended up being hardly used. It was around this time that Leptis began to seriously over extend itself. By the third century, trade had begun to fall dramatically, and by the middle of the fourth century, large parts of the city had been abandoned. Leptis Magna came under the control of the Vandals in the fifth century, until it was so badly sacked by Berber raiders that it never really recovered. The ruins became a UNESCO world heritage site in 1982 and new archaeological discoveries are still being made today.
Jamal pointed out a carving in one of the large stone pillars.
'This is a feelass' said Jamal. 'How do say feelass in English?'
I had no idea what he was talking about. It looked like a big willy to me. He pointed out an even bigger one. It was undoubtedly a huge stone carved cock.
'Ah' I said, 'you mean a phallus: an ancient symbol of power and fertility'.
'Yes' agreed Jamal, 'it is a feelass. I want to know the word for this in English so that I can say it to my girlfriend'.
I patiently explained that it was called a willy, and Jamal practiced saying his new word over and over again. He pointed to another ornately carved relief in the ancient cities still standing walls, and demanded to know what those bits were called as well.
'They are called balls', I announced authoritively.
'Ah' said Jamal, 'willy and balls'. He seemed extraordinarily pleased with his new vocabulary. I hoped that his next group of cruise ship pensioners would also be impressed with his mastery of the English vernacular.
We returned to the site's entrance and sat down under the trees with some of Jamal's fellow guides. His friend's insisted on paying for my ice cold water and strong hot coffee. No other foreign tourists had turned up today, so they would just sit around all day, drinking coffee and chatting. Most of them had spent some time in Europe but none of them were interested in visiting other parts of Africa. They seemed to think of the rest of Africa as being a bit uncivilised. Libya was different.
Muhammad drove us a kilometre or two up the road, to see the circus and the amphitheatre in the second part of the Leptis Magna complex. The amphitheatre was built to seat up to 16,000 spectators who would come to be entertained by circuses, chariot races and gladiatorial combat. Criminals would be torn apart by wild animals for the entertainment of the masses, and gladiators would hack each other to death in front of the baying crowds. It seemed difficult to imagine that anything so violent and brutal could have been allowed to happen in such a centre of civilisation. It made you feel glad to be alive today.
I walked away from the news of the uprisings being shown on the large flat screened television, during the hotels' buffet breakfast, and set out towards the heart of historic Tripoli. The Sarah Guardian Hotel was far better value than anywhere else that I could have booked through the internet, but it was a bit of a walk to get into the historic old town. There didn't seem to be any buses around and hardly anybody else seemed to be walking. It seemed like everybody had cars. I eventually made my way to Green Square (aka Martyrs' Square) in front of the Red Castle, the medina and the world class Jamahiriya Museum. I was wary of entering the museum as my guide book stated that it was necessary to hire an expensive guide. This turned out not to be true and I was free to wander around wherever I liked. The grand museum is packed full of artefacts from Libya's ancient sites at Cyrene, Sabratha and Leptis Magna, but what visitors seem to remember most is Colonel Gadaffi's old Volkswagen Beetle. They also display the army jeep that he triumphantly drove into Tripoli on in 1969, along with a number of ostentatiously large portraits of Libya's 'Brother Leader'.
Having walked through the walls of the old city, you find yourself in a typically bustling North African medina. It's actually remarkably similar to the medina in Tunis, and seems to sell almost identical goods. The only real difference was that I was the only Western tourist. I'm sure that there are organised groups that turn up, and a few Westerners over here on business, but few seemed to have realised that independent travel is (largely) possible in Libya. Towards the further, and less crowded, end of the medina, is the Arch of Marcus Aurelius (around 163 AD), the only remains of the Roman city of Oea. Most of the international hotels, along with a few restaurants, and some old European Consulates, are situated in the narrow lanes around this photogenic arch. You can even buy Libya tourist t-shirts at the solitary souvenir shop. I couldn't find the old French Consulate building and nobody seemed to be around at the old British Consulate when I wandered in, but the architecturally similar House of Yusuf Karamanli was open to the public. The atmospheric Ottoman mansion was full of enthusiastic children exhibiting their art work. I was warmly welcomed in and shown around the exhibits over the two stories of rooms that overlooked the fountain in the central courtyard.
After meandering through narrow lanes of blacksmiths, bakers and artisans, I found myself back under the clock tower in the square between the Red Castle and Medina, where the popular Magha as-Sa'a traditional teahouse is located. It's actually more of a posh coffee shop, now, than a traditional teahouse, with excellent cappuccinos, and large plasma screens hung across the trendy interior. I opted instead to sit outside, in the pleasant town square, and take in the sights of this unusually calm and peaceful city. A short break in Libya may have cost me more than I would have hoped, but I thought that it was worth it, to at least have had a taste of Libya just as the country was beginning to open up to the world, and before the real tourist invasion began.
Four weeks later, having backpacked from Benin to Mali, I was back in Tripoli. I had meant to be just changing planes but there was a delay and nobody was telling us why. The huge plasma screens at the airport were no longer showing CNN or BBC World News. The flight delays seemed to be stacking up but then it was announced that a couple of the flights would now be leaving. I rushed to catch my flight to London, and escape the grimly overcrowded airport.
Only a few hours after leaving Tripoli, I was glad to find that everything was safe and secure and as it should be in my flat. Even the plants had survived. I turned on the television and tuned into the news only to find that it was now Libya that was making the headlines. The uprising had already started while I was in the airport and my flight back to London had been amongst the very last to leave. Only a few hours later and I'd have been in Libya for rather longer than a short break.