The great Libyan question

My Tunisian taxi driver told me something on the way to the airport.
“Tunisia,” he said, “is a small country. Libya is a big country. A very big country.”

A statement of the obvious, perhaps, but an important one because Libya is, by European standards, huge. A 400-mile, ten-hour drive gets you less than a quarter of the way down. With most of the landscape desert of one kind or another, getting any further, save for a few towns here and there, is close to impossible.

When the Phoenicians came here, they didn’t bother going beyond the coast. The Romans ventured a little further, stopping at the edge of the true desert wilderness, but only because they needed to keep the tribes out. The Italians built forts in odd places but otherwise left most of the south of the country untouched. And even now, you get the impression that no one believes the great deserts are controlled by anyone but God.

My Libyan experience began with the desert, about as far south as it’s possible for tourists to go. Accompanied by a driver who spoke almost no English (his vocabulary failed to shame my two-word Arabic repertoire), and everything we could possibly need loaded into a jeep, we took some air out of the tyres and headed onto the sand dunes.


Our destination was the lakes, a series of oases far out into the Sahara. There are probably about 16 in all, although no one, not even the Tuareg (more on them in a moment), seems to know the precise number. And to get to them one has to ride the desert “roads” – the sand trails left behind by vehicles that have made the journey before.

It’s an interesting drive. You go up, you go down, you list at angles that ought not to be possible, the wheels spin, you get stuck, and you wonder what happened to the owners of the abandoned wrecks scattered about that clearly didn’t make it.

And then, over the next dune, you catch the reflection of what you’ve come for: water.


More accurately, salt water. Water so salty that you can do nothing but bob at the surface, that one taste makes you retch and that it makes your eyes feel as if they’re gushing blood. It’s a pity no one mentioned that before I took a dip.

The lakes themselves are curious enough, but it’s the collection of people you meet there that really make them stand out. You get a handful of tourists from the north, day-trippers turning up because their doctor’s told them they need the waters’ medicinal properties and, in my case, an army general who interrogates you in advance of a visit by the Great Leader Colonel Gaddafi himself about your political beliefs.

And you get the Tuareg. The desert wanderers who spend their lives crossing the Sahara, oblivious to national boundaries but not, it seems, oblivious to the economic realities of the modern world.

By a stroke of luck, I got to spend the night with them. Not in some pre-packaged “pay 50 dollars to commune with the locals” kind of way, but because my driver happened to know two of the Libyan Tuareg we came across (indeed, he’d bought his mobile phone from one of them), and because I got talking to a band of them who happened to be from Niger and therefore spoke a language I could understand, French.

That night, lying on a piece of cloth under the stars, my driver tried to convert me to Islam using the Tuareg as interpreters, and I learned that the way of life of the great Saharan nomads is dying. They told me that, after four years of drought that have killed off their livestock and destroyed their crops, most Tuareg are having to turn to modern trades to sustain themselves and, particularly, to tourism.

Their traditional crafts – casting swords, working leather goods and making intricate metal objects with practical uses such as three-key locks – are now peddled as souvenirs. Demand for camel saddles comes not from fellow Tuareg but from businessmen in Austria who compete in desert races. And the Tuareg women, who used to embroider leather boots and tend to the itinerant home, now supplement the tourist income by working in supermarkets.

In the morning, after the fourth cup of absurdly sweet tea, the Libyan Tuareg headed off on their camels, the Tuareg from Niger set up their stall and tried to trade my watch for a saddle, and we left them.


My encounter with the Tuareg was the most sobering moment of my visit, but to say it was the most memorable would do Libya’s great historical sites an injustice.

The country boasts some extraordinarily well-preserved ruins that are, in many cases, enormous, and, in all cases, so little-visited compared to the other great wonders of the world that one gets annoyed when a single tourist interrupts the view.

Scattered along the rock ridge that divides the north of the country from the rest are the old towns of desert tribes.
LibyaH-001Places like Kebaow and Nalut (both pictured) cling to the edges of deep ravines, unhindered by the modern towns around them, and include complete houses carved from rock, giant granaries and even the stone olive presses used for lamp oil (and the giant shafts of palm wood that drove them).


And the most impressive of all the desert towns is Ghadames, right on the edge of the desert. A place first settled in 4,000BC (so they say), it hosted Romans, Ottomans and, under the tutelage of Mussolini, Italians, and dates back in its present form to 800AD.


Built to house the peoples of two tribes (in separate neighbourhoods), at its peak Ghadames housed 6,000 people in a network of covered streets and houses that come together to form a single, giant adobe complex. The whole society worked based on an intricate system of water rationing and thrived as a meeting point for caravans.


With unique features including a rudimentary international post office – a hook from which messages were hung for passing caravans – and a system of air ventilation that kept the temperature inside up to ten degrees lower than without, it’s a remarkable place.



LibyaH-002But if Libya is famous for anything, it is for what the Romans left behind, and for two cities in particular: Sebratha, and Leptis Magna. Two thirds of the Roman “tripolis” of cities (from which present-day Tripoli, the other third, gets its name), both started out as Phoenician ports. They were way-stations, effectively, on the Mediterranean trading routes.

But then the Romans arrived and the cities grew. Sebratha, the smaller of the two, housed a population of 35,000, while 100,000 called Leptis Magna home. And though those numbers are small compared to Rome, nothing in Italy comes close to the scale of these sites.

Buried under sand for a thousand years, Sebratha and Leptis Magna have been preserved to their full, vast extent. You could spend a whole day wandering around Sebratha, and two in Leptis, and even then you would only have seen the 40 per cent that has been uncovered.

Libya-006We have Mussolini, of all people, to thank for the cities as they stand today. The work he ordered at Sebratha included not only excavations of the city as a whole, but the reconstruction of its theatre: a colossal building with nary a tourist in sight (pictured).

And at Leptis Magna, what the Italians began actually takes your breath away. A 15,000-seat colosseum, a 25,000-seat circus, a theatre much the same size as that in Sebratha, and an arch taller than a London bus.


The standout, though, is the forum. Two storeys high when constructed (going on for six by modern standards), it’s bigger than a football pitch and strewn with such flotsam as granite pillars and marble pediments from the roof.









So there are Tuareg, there are adobe wonders and there are Roman ruins in spades. But what of Libya’s people and their leader, Colonel Gaddafi, the self-styled saviour of Africa?

I asked everyone I could what they thought of him and almost everyone said they thought him a great man. The man who had led Libya out of its desert ways and into the future.

And, indeed, people did seem content, gazed upon at every corner by pictures of the Great Leader: in sunglasses looking rather like Bono on a bad day, in spectacles looking studious, with eyes narrowed as he gazes into Hillary Clinton’s celestial heavens.

They have universities, they have schools, they have a handful of decent roads. That’s the good side.

LibyaH-005But the food’s limited and not much good, the environment in the cities like Tripoli is poor, the bureaucracy is chaotic and the services, like electricity and water, cut out without warning. The majority of the population work for the government and the others, like those working in the tourist trade, live under the constant threat that a change in policy will put paid to their livelihoods. And you don’t see much evidence of wealth.

It does lead one to wonder whether most Libyans’ adulation (genuine or not) for Gaddafi, whose double-walled compound covers four city blocks in Tripoli, is justified.

Towards the end of my stay, one of my drivers took a detour on a rocky plain not far from Algeria. He drove us up a barely-visible track and then beckoned me to get out of the car. Then we walked.


And there, rusting and dripping with oil, was a capped well-head. He told me there were many others like it, lying unused in the middle of the desert. There was just too much oil to deal with.

It was a sight that begged what became, during my trip, the great Libyan question: where has all the money gone?