We slept very well in the comfortable bed and both kept hitting snooze to cuddle up for a little longer. The shower was cold but we pretended it was nice and warm and felt refreshed. At breakfast we were the only westerners. We spent some time writing our diaries in the breakfast room and then went downstairs to meet Walid at nine o’clock. The car was parked a few streets away and we walked past the shops selling car hi-fi systems and parts, and to Walid’s car.
It was a drive of about an hour and a half to Leptis Magna. Getting out of our part town we passed a rather chaotic junction where cars and minibuses were clamouring for passengers, à la Peru, calling out the names of their destinations, and with lots of people around, mostly black Africans, with packs and parcels, trying to load luggage on the roofs of already full minibuses. We also saw quite a few very new big blocks, apartments, offices, hotels. Coming out of Tripoli, the wide road was actually built on reclaimed land, with the old corniche still visible on our right, but now just representing a walkway along a busy road. However, a new corniche had been built, and at various points there were kiosks.
The wide road led out of Tripoli and took us eastward. We cruised along comfortably and Ness even nodded off at one point. Walid was always happy to talk. I looked left and right, taking in the new sights, although mostly they were of the littered roadside variety, with many workshops, unfinished concrete constructions, but beyond, to the south, we could see a greener landscape and some hills. The road was wide and generally smooth, but with some potholes and sections in poor repair. Traffic weaved in and out with no regard for western notions of “lanes”. We passed many police checkpoints but only had to show our papers at one of them.
At some point we passed an area where orange vendors had set up stalls along the road. I wish I had asked Walid to stop –the blue tarpaulin provided a colourful backdrop for the large numbers of orange fruit. Further on still we passed improvised stalls selling olive oil and honey, which looked clear and colourful in the sunlight. Again, I didn’t ask Walid to stop in time, but on the way back I did remember to do so. I bought a jar of honey, “to earn the picture”. The stall keeper was a little wary of me taking a picture of his stall, worried that the local farmer or dignitary would notice from a distance and ask him why he had let foreigners photograph his stall. On our left, for parts of the drive we saw the clear blue waters of the Mediterranean.
We turned off the main road and after a few more crossings we reached the entrance to Leptis Magna. There was a small open car park, around which there were some offices and tourist shops and a café under the trees. All very modest in scale and without any hint of “grown up” western-style tourism. Walid located a guide for us and we got tickets to take photographs. Salah, our local guide, was about the same as Walid, 20’s-30’s, and softly spoken, and carried a waft of some kind of perfume, not sure what it was. We entered the site and were immediately impressed with the large arch of Septimus Severus, a grand introduction to the city. The arch was a faithfully reconstructed version of the original and consisted of four imposing pillars which supported a domed roof (see Lonely Planet, page 112).
Salah provided explanations, answered our questions, and took us on a tour of the various architectural highlights of the city as we walked along the old Roman city streets and through the ruins. We went to the Hadrianic baths, the Nymphaeum, the Severan (new) forum, which we reached by walking along the once colonnaded Via Colonnata. On towards the old forum, the market (originally Phoenician traders, or so), and the theatre. All this was set against a backdrop of a lovely clear blue sky and a pleasant breeze, with the sounds of the waves lapping. Leptis Magna is set right on the Mediterranean coast. There were puddles of rainwater left from the rains of a few days ago. These added even more to the already stunning scenery by adding reflections. It was a fantastic “bit of Roman”, rivalling the Forum in Rome for grandeur.
Most of the site is in fact still unexplored, covered in sand. Excavations only started in 1921, during the Italian period, and have so far uncovered a good section of the city, but there is far more yet to be explored. We met a few other tourists but mostly had the site all to ourselves. We returned to the entrance and stopped for a drink, some shahi (tea), with mint leaves, and chatted with some other people, Libyan guides, most of whom have other jobs as teachers, as did Salah. Then we drove a short distance, about a kilometre, to the amphitheatre and circus. These were on the other side of the former Roman harbour (now silted up, but the outlines and quays were still visible in parts where they had been excavated).
The amphitheatre was spectacular, built into the ground rather than a building on top of it, and in a very good state. We sat on the top steps while Salah explained all about the “gory games”, an expression he kept repeating, and he accompanied it with coloured line-drawings from his folder. He had used the latter to very good effect throughout the city to show how the various places and forums would have looked during Roman times, such as a nice drawing of the inside of the Hadrianic baths. These reminded me in a small way of the Gellert baths in Budapest. The backdrop to the amphitheatre was the Mediterranean, just behind the circus, which lay next to the amphitheatre. Adjoining the amphitheatre was a deep complex where wild animals and slaves used to be held.
The circus was right on the coast, partly overrun by the sea. The circus was a long straight race course. Think of Ben Hur (or Star Wars!). It had a spina along the middle. Most of it was now in ruins and Salah explained how big this would have been originally. Beyond it, in the sea, we could see darker patches against paler ones in the water, indicating where there lay other remains of the old Roman city on the sand. A big earthquake had hit North Africa in AD364 and caused massive destruction, moving the coastline inland to where it is now.
We returned to the entrance and then Salah took us round the Leptis museum which housed a large collection of Roman statues, coins, pottery, etc. Mostly finely carved Roman statues. Also a little bit on modern Libya, with a funny model of a new factory with little toy trucks. The central hall was dominated by a large portrait of a smiling Gadaffi in a white suit. After the museum we had another cup of tea (it was the only thing I knew how to order!) and then got back in the car and drove back to Tripoli. Along the way Walid helped to negotiate a picture from the roadside honey and oil vendor, or at least of his stall.
Driving back to Tripoli along the main road, at one point we got stuck in the traffic and cars that were parked on the motorway, close by a cemetery. Walid explained that many people all wanted to come in person to someone’s funeral to show their respect and to help the family over, or with, their grieving. Back at our hotel we relaxed briefly in our room, 45 minutes, and then met Walid again in the lobby, to go out to the old town.
We parked in the centre and walked to Green Square and then entered the walled old town, the medina, through one of the gates. We had immediately entered an altogether different part of town, with its narrow little streets that led here and there, and with the bustle of a thriving market. Well, the tail end at least. Many of the little shops were beginning to close. There was really only one tourist shop, close to the entrance, but for the rest most of the shops and stalls simply sold clothes, food, household items, spices, jewellery, and so on. There was a huge variety of goods and colours, both in terms of the wares as well as of the people themselves, women with black veils, men in “Mustafa dresses” (jallabiyah’s) and slippers, as well as many negroes selling from street corners and stalls. As it was already getting dark it was very hard to take pictures, and people, especially women, scattered at the sight of the camera, which explains the empty-looking streets in the few blurry pictures I did manage to take! We wandered and meandered, chatted with some stall and shop owners, with Walid’s help. The spice vendors said “BBC!” There were all sorts of wedding gifts and accessories on sale, and a large number of jewellers with lots of yellow gold on display. We soaked up the atmosphere. There were coffee shops with men smoking the fragrant nargileh and playing cards. The latter didn’t seem to be Walid’s scene though and my prompts weren’t very successful. “Maybe when we’re back in Tripoli in a couple of weeks”, Walid promised.
We headed back towards Green Square and the streets beyond, where Walid took us to a Turkish restaurant. It was a simple kebab shop and the food was decent if a little predictable, but it was good to share the meal and not have the “three star tourist” option forced on us. Walid paid for the meal too, which was unexpected and very kind of him. Oh, the mezze for starters with the flat bread was excellent. In the medina, as here, we were the only tourists. Well, we saw two western women in the medina but they had the air of ex-pats. After the meal Walid drove us back to our hotel, where we wrote our diaries in our room briefly (there is nowhere else to go, no lounge or anything) and then cuddled up in bed, very snug and comfortable!