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House & Garden, December 2006

“Are you a Bulgarian engineer or a Rumanian doctor?” This was the question I was asked in Libya’s pariah-state days. A British traveller keen to see the ruins of antiquity was not then considered a valid option. This was not just the opinion of the Libyans I met, or our own foreign office, but was also shared by the frontier guards of Libya’s neighbours who on one occasion insisted that we should have an innoculation against the Black Death. We did not wait to see if such a vaccine exists but amended our plans and left on a Malta-bound ship.

Things have improved in the last decade. Direct flights have removed unexpected medical requests at frontier posts, internal flights have banished thirty hour coach journeys and instead of being bedding down in a shabby brothel you can stay in one of North Africa’s really top knotch hotels, Tripoli’s five star Bab Africa, its lobby abob with ambassadorial receptions and visiting oil chiefs from Texas. Nor are visitors presumed tempted into using a travelling alias that might better appeal to a revolutionary state of the masses. Indeed I felt a bit disappointed on my last visit to see how soignée the Libyans have become in sorting out the baggage of one Countess from another, and the one tall Lord from the other upright Lord in our little party of half a dozen travellers.

Some things in Libya have not changed. It remains home to three of the most exceptional ruined cities of the entire Mediterranean which when viewed in sequence can pack in more learning than a university course. But beyond education they offer up enchantment: reinforced by wild flowers, eroded marble columns, vivid mosaics and the roar of the surf.

The ruins of Sabratha make a good starting point, for here you have not only one of the most stunning Roman theatres in the world (fully a brood sister to Provencal Orange and Syrian Bosra) but a whiff of the Phoenician origins of all the trading cities of Roman North Africa. The dry stones of Sabratha are also animated by the spirit of Apuleius, the Byron of his day, who has been variously described as ‘superficial, colourful, excessive, disordered and intemperate’. He was accused of witchcraft by some envious neighbours which became the cause celebre of 158. So much so that the trial was moved to the theatre where Apuleius personally defended himself – and the right for intellectual inquiry against superstitious bigotry. After his public acquittal he devoted himself to teaching and writing which includes his vivid description of the Goddess Isis at a seaside temple – like that of Sabratha. Don’t touch the local hotels but make a day trip from Tripoli, whose old walled city with its half dozen mosques and covered markets should not be explored in one session but bit by bit in contrast to sun-bleached archaeology.

Even after a dozen three-day visits to Leptis Magna I have yet to track down all its enchantments. The Emperor Septimius Severus transformed his hometown into one of the great cities of the Empire complete with public baths, forum, archways, fountains, markets and a processional avenue that still have the power to shock our jaded eyes with their magnificence. To view the frescoes of the walls of the suburban hunting baths and the dark menace of the astonishing well-preserved old amphitheatre is to undertake a form of time travel. The marble carvings on the Severan arch also allow us to physically stare at the faces of this astonishingly talented imperial family, the last brilliant flowering of the pagan world. A few miles outside their native city, the villa Selene is like a sleeping beauty that has been gently awakened from the dunes – and which allows us to wonder if there is anything from our civilization which matches this enchantment.

The golden glow cast from Cyrene’s monumental hilltop, the bustling ruins of the sanctuary to Apollo below it and a thousand years of continuous urban civilization draped around the surrounding hills (including a monolithic temple to Zeus) is like finding Delphi and Olympias on a North African hill top. It is a cultural frontier away from Leptis and Sabratha for the Green mountains of Cyrenaica are not only separated by the Syrtic desert but by a cultural divide that saw the eastern half of Libya colonised by Greek settlers from the seventh century. To complete the regional narrative there is the nearby Byzantine fortress port of Appollonia (beside which there is a usefully placed new hotel which supersedes the basic comforts offered elsewhere), the half-excavated ruins of sprawling Ptolemais and half a dozen minor but charming sites such as the church mosaic floors at Ksar Libia. You should give yourself at least three days for a first exploration of Cyrenaica including the internal flight between Benghazi and Tripoli. If there is a choice between a night in one city or the other opt for the latter. The museum collection in the old castle at Tripoli is one of the best in the world, so rich in wonders that you should aim to make a first tour topped up by a second visit once you have got your eye in.

The museum gates open onto Green Square which now most mornings echoes to a happy bustle of excited American and British voices – just about where a decade ago, the Stars and Bars and the Union Jack could be expected to be burned at the end of any reasonably well-attended public parade.

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