Libya is in a horror zone; thousands dead, violence dominant, cities ruined, citizens terrified, chaos abounds. And still the tyrant has not gone.
It seems almost improper to talk of my brief visit there in the face of the current civil war and the deserted hospitals with bodies piled up. But perhaps my pictures will provoke a better idea of a real country for those who have seen nothing of it but clips of the fighting.
In 2006 I went on a study tour of Roman North Africa. It didn’t start well as my travelling companion was careless enough to be knocked over by a car in Sydney while I was in transit visiting Uganda. So I was left with a bunch of strangers who didn’t dance to the same drummer. Still, it was an adventure, a chance to see what had been a pariah state although now Gaddafi was sucking up to the west.
As we approached Libya’s western border from Tunisia, the road was lined for a few kilometres with men selling cans. I was told it was petrol. Smuggled out of Libya with its overabundance of cheap oil I can understand, but what were the cans full of on the other side of the road? More work for Dr. Google.
At the border we were held up for hours before being allowed to enter because someone on the bus was suspected of once having visited Israel. No-one owns up. That same bleak border now houses thousands of “guest workers” from further south in Africa sheltering in makeshift refugee camps escaping the civil war.
Tunisia had a French, Roman, Moslem, Berber overlay but Libya? I didn’t go into the vast Sahara desert inland but clung to the coast; still it was parched and overwhelmingly Arab, male and in retrospect, the air was heavy with what was probably the heel of oppression. The following snippets skim the surface mostly of the past.
Counterpoint to the featureless highway and the first bleak town of poor provincial Libya, Sabratha had form ~ a Berber, Phoenician, Hellenistic and later Roman settlement. Sometimes drifting off to sleep at night, I conjure up the still majesty of the theatre at Sabratha as the sun sets on its sandstone. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, its three colonnaded stories tower behind the stage testimony in scale and beauty to the grandeur of great Roman architecture. The dying sun turns them rose.
Green Square is the civic centre of Tripoli. On one side is the Med a few scraggerly palms along the front, on another the Italinate arched gallerias; across from them is the fine museum and the doorway to the medina. Here in front is the platform where Gaddafi used to stand to harangue the people and review his Empire. The medina has the narrow alleys of Middle Eastern cities; tradesman shape bronze, antiques and gold are sold. I scored some fine coral and trading beads. But Tripoli never felt alive to me and now seeing the depth of the anger the people have, I understand.
Leptus Magna is east of Tripoli and perhaps the greatest intact Roman archeological intact site. Situated on the ruins of a 7th century BC settlement, it reached its peak under the Romans when it was their food bowl and probably the shipping of lions and other exotics to amuse them. The extent of the ruins is extraordinary, the market with its weights and measures stone, the empale and theatre, the forum and the goths. I was overwhelmed by the Great Colonnaded Street, the remains of statues and mostly by sitting on the high wall separating the almost intact amphitheatre and the Hippodrome, gazing out to sea.
I was tweaked to realise that 2000 years ago the Romans had expensive holiday homes by the sea. The Villa Sireen is a grand isolated estate replete with fine mosaics and a private bathhouse that must have wowed the guests. I could see the fine ladies in draped robes and fine jewels sitting where I propped on the seawall contemplating life.
We stayed in Misrata, the scene of recent particularly bloody battles and I remember cheerfully catching a taxi to a cyber cafe where young men earnestly sought the wider world. Then on to Sirte halfway between Tripoli and Benghazi in the area where Gaddafi came from and where his tribe is based. It was the modern centre of his administration (his Canberra?) where he had his famed Congress tent. I am glad the photos I had taken before his huge portrait there are too dark to reproduce, ditto me speaking at the lectern from where he lectured the world.
It is a long bleak drive to Benghazi broken by local pit stops where local families pass, by the odd Berber warrior, by roadside stalls and by a caravan of camels. The empty new resort apartments strike an odd note.
A break in the journey comes with the viewing of the Great Manmade River, one of most ambitious and expensive projects in the world and part of the Colonel’s grand vision(like Nasser’s Aswan Damn). Gaddafi called it “the eighth wonder of the world”. This huge reservoir is fed from deep wells deep in the Sahara and then piped 100s of kilometres to the coast. The plan was to extend these wells right through the desert and devil take the consequences of the impact on the groundwater not to mention the cost. Also, there is an evaporation issue.
Further along, in a field by the side of the highway is a sight to recall the “vast and trunkless legs of stone” and “shattered visage” of Shelley’s Ozymandias that lies in another desert somewhere else. Here are the bronze outstretched torsos of the Philaeni brothers. The Italian brothers once stood more than 5 metres tall above the arch which marked the provincial border. Other stone reliefs decorated the arch including one of Mussolini being saluted. Given the horror Italian colonisation wrought on the Libyan people, rubble in a remote field seems appropriate.
Benghazi I remember the dozens of African workers fringing a large roundabout, shovels at hand waiting for the bosses to come along and pick those they would employ as day labourers. Life in the Mahreb was their cargo cult. Watching them, I thought about how many lives are so tenuous, beholden to the will of others. My grandfathers, wharf labourers in Sydney would have been subject to the same whimsies when they stood on the Hungry Mile at the docks waiting to be picked, families depending on the day’s money for food.
After Benghazi, we stay at Appollonia to see the Graeco-Roman ruins at Cyrene. Since Sicily, I have been of the view that the Greeks chose the best sites in the world.
But then we make a dash to Tobruk. On the 11th of the 11th 2006 at 11am I stood with 22 others for two minutes and remembered the war dead. Many more to remember now. Besides the people I went with, there were some Canadians in that simple rectangular Allied cemetery of white- crossed rows. Young men too young to die whose inscriptions made me cry. Next to this simple open memorial, the monumental German memorial stands. Two stories high and made of imposing stone its top battlement afforded a view of the arid landscape around the harbour. Petrochemical plants and oil refineries were silhouetted. Rommel’s bunker is a dilapidated, rubbish strewn, neglected outbuilding surrounded by rubble.
Back to Tripoli and after the others leave, I have some time to wander this city of a million and three quarters. I still do not feel comfortable. There is no laughing or chattering in the street. I noticed this once before, in Iran. Groups of schoolchildren are a breath of air and here are the only girls I see. It is not the dust and sub-optimal infrastructure that worries me, more it is the protective coating weighing down the souls around. This arid land has been subjected to waves of rulers most recently the Italians and then the Colonel.
At the airport I see a young woman in a chador with red hair and very pale skin. She is with a man and a small child and is crying. We go through customs; she is alone and we start to talk. An Irish/ South African Moslem convert married to a Libyan, she is going to a family wedding down south and he has not allowed her son to accompany her. Problems are wider, cross-cultural probably. She works; he studies; her money goes to his family; he wants her to sell her Jo’berg flat. We exchange emails. She is happier with a better job now in Tripoli. Then the correspondence drifts off as these things do.
With the current civil war, I have been thinking about her. I send an email. It is returned – undeliverable!