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Libya Archaeological Guides; TRIPOLITANIA
By Philip Kenrick, published by Silphium Press, isbn 978-1-900971-08-9

Libyan Studies 40; Journal of the Society of Libyan Studies - 2009

If poets perch on the summit, the writers of guide-books occupy the very lowest strata of the literary pyramid. Their work is never reviewed, they are seldom allowed to possess the copyright of their work, seldom see their name on cover or spine and are famously underpaid by their publishers, who routinely pulp old editions and employ another generation of hungry young hacks to rewrite an updated new edition. In return they offer the world an often sorry and second-hand product, a listings service of bargain hotels and burger-bars, interwoven with flippant reviews of tourist destinations. The prevailing mood is seemingly inspired by Jack Kerouac, the need to keep moving, to stay on the road, to pack light, to become a traveller.

Fortunately, now and then, you stumble across a guidebook of a quite different calibre - one written with a lifetime of learning, peppered with enthusiasm, a distillation of decades of on the ground knowledge, experience and passion. Philip Kenrick¹s Tripolitania is just such a book, worthy to stand in the pantheon beside George Bean¹s four volumes on the Turkish coast, Rupert Gunnis¹s Cyprus and Ross Burns¹ Historic Syria.

I have taken dozens of history and cultural tours of Libya, poured over published archaeological reports, amassed sheaves of photocopied maps, even prepared a draft guidebook of my own so I came to the text of Tripolitania with a fully sharpened and potentially critical eye. I was also able to take it on a test drive, for by chance I was asked to take a famous war photographer around some of the great classical sites of Libya, shortly after my review copy came in the post. And time and time again, I found Kenrick had not only got it right, but had marshalled the information in an admirably concise and accessible style. He is also honest. Not a whiff of the ministry of culture varnish of what it should be like - if the signpost to the historic tombs of Ghirza is a rusty oil barrel, if an ancient place of worship has become immersed in town litter, if an ancient mosque is now obscured by apartment block development, if a prize exhibit from a museum has gone off on loan, if a marble bench has been damaged and been sent off to the storeroom we get to hear about it. Within the first few pages, he won my complete trust, and quickly became an indispensable travelling companion. Like recognizing the quirks of a friend, the photographer and I we learned to recognize his enthusiasm for dating 4th century earthquakes and his complete (and wise) refusal to get involved in anything to do with the archaeological quagmire of Christian and Muslim schisms (unlike myself).

Although clearly a methodical archaeologist himself, I was pleased to find that Kenrick was broadminded enough to include oral historical traditions - but not to the extent that he did not come down heavily from time to time on the tall tales made up by local guides. Hopefully the misattribution of those weird and wonderful series of atrophaic carvings at Leptis Magna (where outsize phallic creatures, assisted by crabs, scorpions, birds and snakes struggle against the baleful influence of the eyil eye) as brothel signposts will now cease. He also cites the descriptions of early European travellers and makes good use of their sketches. While we get to hear of their unfashionably dated prejudices, we also get to appreciate them as the advanced guard of today¹s knowledgeable state-of-the art excavators. Fortunately he is also enough of an archaeological insider to relish the variant interpretations put forward by rival Œauthorities.¹ For each generation will always bring their own currency of ideas and experience to their digs, so that what was once identified as Roman border settlements of armed colonial militia, can now clearly be seen to be indigenous Libyan-Berber dry-farming communities. Reading Kenrick one can almost feel the heat of the rivalry between Giacomo Caputo and John Ward-Perkins over the dating of the theatre at Sabratha as either an Antonine or Severan monument. And indeed the jury is still out on this issue, just as it is over the purpose, history and artistic reference points that would allow us to interpret Leptis Magna¹s imposing Chalcidium monument. Not that Kenrick is always content to sit on the fence as a disinterested judge. No-one who first examines those astonishing baroque pediments on the rebuilt arch of Septimius Severus, that have been twisted 90% upwards, to point to the sky, can quite believe the evidence of their eyes, but Kenrick is adamant - Œtheir position on the monument is unquestionable¹. Any art historian who has built a reputation by attempting to date the Roman mosaics of North Africa on stylistic grounds will find Kenrick a very severe and pragmatic critic. Those of us who have struggled to translate the Arabic labels in Libya¹s impressively rich archaeological museums, in order to make sense of some curious juxtapositions, will find his detailed coverage of the collections, something of a relief and a revelation. For it has clearly become an ingrained habit amongst Libyan curators to share out the incredibly rich material culture from Leptis Magna amongst galleries and provincial collections that might otherwise look a little empty. Armed with Kenrick one can not only finally pin down the attributions, placing for instance that gorgeous collection of Julio-Claudean Imperial statues into the old temple of Melkarth-Hercules (which forms a triple Sbeitla-like platform in the old Forum at Leptis), but also to marvel at the bizarre workings of chance by which Libyas extraordinarily rich past has been preserved. The tidal wave which may have destroyed the Hadrianic Baths of Leptis Magna for example, also conspired to seal and preserve its vast gallery of statues in a protective bed of mud. Though a classicist himself we also get to hear about the regrettable early 20th-century habit of clearing away the medieval levels to get at the golden-age achievements of the Roman Empire, quite literally sweeping away the Byzantine and early Islamic periods into oblivion.

My final test drive of this exemplary guidebook was to check up on half a dozen specific items that I have long puzzled over. I began with the gorgeous marble statue in the main entrance hall of Tripoli¹s museum. All too often it is pointed out, to tour groups as the famous Aphrodite of Cyrene, unearthed in a flash flood before the astonished eyes of the Italian troops who became instantly converted to archaeology. Armed with the gift of Kenrick, the tour guides can now tell an equally interesting but correct story. The Venus was found in the baths of Leptis Magna, then given by Mussolini to Air-marshal Goering, and returned to Rome in 1945 and a generation later would finally make her way back to her native North Africa in 1999.

The trial of Apuleius of Madauros for witchcraft at Sabratha is one of those minor events from the Antonine Golden Age which brings the history of that period bubbling to the surface. It is tempting to try and summon up the spirit of the author of The Golden Ass, by reading from his works in the Temple of Isis and the great theatre, but Kenrick is nicely emphatic that the actual trial would have occurred in front of the exedra tribunal that overlooks the large internal hall of the forum basilica.

Another small mystery is the identity of the little rock promontory of Ras al-Ghul outside the Saharan oasis trading town of Ghadames. Local guides are quite insistent that it was a Roman frontier fort, though I have looked in vain on a number of occasions for any tell-tale signs of ceramic sherds or dressed stone. I was fascinated to find from Kenrick that he also Œknew of no archaeological investigations at the site or evidence of date¹. However he has managed to take the local story back to a seventh-century date when Ghadames (then functioning as an independent Saharan city-state in treaty relationship with the Byantine Empire) had surrendered to the cavalry army of Oqba ibn Nafi. Those who couldn¹t make their submission to the Arab general, are remembered to have used the rock of Ras al-Ghul as their last fortress. This rang all the right bells (not only for why this might have been a remembered element of local history) but also because it brought the archaeological and traditional sources of history together in pleasing harmony. I was also delighted to find that Kenrick shared my opinion about the classical architectural fragments embedded in some of the old buildings in Ghadames (particularly the hammam associated with the Yunis mosque) which were almost certainly sourced from the so-called Idols, the remains of a group of Roman period mausolea. For though Ghadames (Cidamenses) appears on all the frontier itineraries, no actual Roman military base has (yet) been identified.

The identification of the remains of the great sanctuary that overlooks the New Forum of Septimius Severus as a temple dedicated to the ŒGens Septimia¹ has long puzzled me. To anyone who has looked at the wider religious and philosophical revival sponsored by this Roman Emperor and his Syrian wife, as well as their own well attested Punic and Semitic piety, this would seem to be a quite impossible aberration. I was delighted to find that Kenrick - although he uses this traditional identification in his guide-book, has also put it in italics and agrees that the dedication is Œuncertain¹. Much more to my taste was his suggestion that the well-planned theme of marble carvings in the associated basilica (honouring Bacchus and Hercules) would tie in well with Cassius Dio¹s complaint that the Emperor had built, Œan excessively large temple to Bacchus and Hercules¹.

The final use which I made of my already well-thumbed Kenrick, was to stuff it in the pocket of my linen jacket as I travelled with my friend to the Roman frontier fortress of Bou Njem. I have been there a number of times but I have to confess that a quick glance at Kenrick as we brewed some coffee in the lee of the neighbouring Italian fort (waiting for that crisp dawn light in which to make the perfect photograph essay) greatly sharpened my wits. To be able to identify the secret storeroom of the chapel of the standards (now once more buried under tons of beautiful windblown sand), the site of the secretary-filled scriptorium, to cite the exact day in which the Roman troops first made camp, added immeasurably to the tangible pleasure of my guest.

My only complaint as a reader, reviewer and user is that I wanted more. A ten page appendix on the use of buildings, how a worshipper related to a temple sanctuary, how a Roman dinner party was given, how and when the forum, the baths, the theatre and the amphitheatre were used, might be a very useful addition for the interested general reader. Nor did I think that the cut-off line of the Hilalian invasion (although entirely understandable most especially for a classicist) really worked for a guide-book pitched at the general reader. There are real dangers in including all the Roman, Byzantine and Berber monuments (not to mention a post-Hilalian 20th century fascist arch) and then to be found to be lacking in interest in the bulk of the Islamic evidence. It also must be remembered that for the vast bulk of visitors to Libya, it is a once-in-a lifetime trip, and the doorway of the Gurgi Mosque stands intriguingly open beside the arch of Marcus Aurelius, just as the Karamanlis Mosque stands right beside the Archaeological Museum. If this guidebook is to compete against other lesser products in the bookshops and on the websites, it must not damage itself in this way. I would like the second edition of this wonderful guide to include all the historical monuments of Tripolitania. In the meanwhile I salute the Society of Libyan Studies, and its offshoot, the Silphium Press, for having published a most exceptional guidebook to the classical archaeology of Tripolitania.

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