Libyan

Eclipse     

Tour

2006


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Our Libyan Tour started at Tripoli where we stayed most comfortably ensconced in a first class hotel complete with indoor and outdoor pools. We had travelled to Libya to view the total solar eclipse of March 29. The tour company owner and a local guide, who accompanied us all the way, did a great job of organizing transportation, housing, meals, and sightseeing. Even though our group comprised only 23 of the estimated 8,000 umbraphiles visiting Libya, we travelled easily from place to place and never felt crowded.

Friends wondered at our bravery in going to Libya but we found that Libya was very safe! As a matter of fact, the government assigns a “Tourist Police” to each group of visitors. Ours was a young, personable fellow, very helpful and simpatico. He stayed with us, accompanying us on the visits to the sites and the eclipse. We think his role was dual: keeping us safe, but also monitoring our impact on the places we visited.

And what places there were to visit! Northern Libya, on the Mediterranean coast, is rich with mainly Greek, Roman and Byzantine ruins, but we also saw a prehistoric cave, the remains of the Phoenician presence, buildings from the Italian occupation and the World War II sites.

This paragraph is a capsule of our itinerary, in the order in which we toured: before the eclipse we visited the main Museum housed in Tripoli's "Castle" and Sabratha (West of Tripoli); we flew to Lubruk, (East of Tripoli) where we boarded the Egyptian bus named “Bater Flay” (not enough buses in Libya for the many tourists) to visit Cyrene and Apollonia; we drove on to Tobruk, visiting the prehistoric cave and L’Atrun. After the eclipse we toured the WWII cemeteries in Tobruk; continued the next day to Benghazi stopping at Qasr Libya and Ptolemais on the way. Next we visited Benghazi’s Medina, or old town. After flying back from Benghazi to Tripoli we had a chance to see Tripoli’s Medina and on the last day of sightseeing we visited Leptis Magna.

The report of our touring is organized in historical order:

An 8,000 year old skull was supposedly found in the Kaf Hawafte cave. The short hike to the cave from the highway was picturesque through a field of flowers and grass.

Sabratha had a Phoenician presence. Phoenician merchants and seafarers had established Carthage in 800 BC and many colonies in North Africa. The Mausoleum of Bes is the only completely Phoenician (Punic) building at Sabratha and it is a reconstructed one. Sabratha’s Punic character was affected by the Greek settlers in the 2nd century BC. Then, after a severe earthquake in the 1st century AD, the city became more influenced by the Romans. We had an excellent guide who walked us around the many ruins. We liked so many of the views! We climbed up the stairs of the Antonine Temple to enjoy a particularly enchanting view, passing the Statue of Flavius Tullus. The Temple of Isis is considered the best of Sabratha’s temples. Its theater is absolutely stunning! Three tiers of columns are the stage’s backdrop. The facade of the stage has magnificent marble bas-reliefs.

Leptis Magna was founded by Phoenicians, also as a port, about the 7th century BC. It came under the influence of the Romans in 111 BC. Outstanding features of Leptis Magna include: the well-preserved Amphitheater built during Nero’s reign about 56 AD, where Christians and criminals were thrown to the lions; the imposing Arch of Septimus Severus, the extensive Hadrianic Baths, the superb Nymphaeum, the huge Severan Forum, the unusual Market, and the amazing Theater. In its day it was the largest Roman city in North Africa. Together with Sabratha and Oea (the ancient city buried under Tripoli’s Medina) Leptis Magna formed the trio of cities that became known as Tripoli. It is better preserved than Sabratha and restoration work continues.

Cyrene is the third UNESCO site (of the five in Libya) which we had the good fortune of visiting. It was settled in 631 BC, and prospered until Greek influence diminished and the last ruler, Ptolemy Apton, gave Cyrenaica to Rome. Cyrene is not on the coast, it is up in a hilly area, with gorgeous views. It is definitely a Greek city, with many of the ruins, sculptures and mosaics testifying to its connections to Greek mythology. Again, there were many highlights to visit and photograph! Some are: the Temple of Zeus, even larger than the Parthenon in Athens; Skyrota, the main road lined with impressive columns, going through the Greek city; the House of Jason Magnus, a lovely private residence; the enormous Agora (Market) containing many structures; the Temple of Apollo complex, and the spectacularly situated theater.

Apollonia was the port for Greek Cyrene. It still testifies to what must have been a fascinating place.The Greek port lies beneath the Roman and Byzantine ruins. Archeologists believe that it was in operation as early as the 7th century BC. We were particularly impressed by the theater on the Mediterranean and the Byzantine Duke’s 84-room Palace, including a library with stone shelves for large books. During the Byzantine era Apollonia was known as the “city of churches” since it had five basilicas and 19 towers. The sanctuary of the Central Church has some lovely pillars decorated with Byzantine crosses and the globe of Atlas.

Tolmeita, or Ptolemais, from the 4th century BC is Greek, one of the five cities of the Pentapolis, and shows the transition from Greek to Roman architecture. When the Arab armies invaded in the 7th century, Tomeita was the last one of the Pentapolis cities to fall. We visited the charming small theater, the Odeon, where Greeks used to present plays, and where the Romans later had a swimming pool! The Greek agora later became the Roman forum. Beneath it there are the largest cisterns in North Africa, which we also visited, by climbing down into the now-dry tunnels. What is left of the Villa of Columns is fascinating; in the middle of the Villa there was a sunken swimming pool.

For more than 400 years the Romans ruled this area. Tripolitania and Cyrenaica became prosperous provinces. Tripolitania was a major source of olive oil and merchants also operated as conduits for gold, slaves and wild animals, brought to the coast from the Sahara, and shipped to Rome. Cyrenaica was a source of wine, grain and horses. However, by the 4th century AD Rome was in decline and a shattering earthquake in 365 AD destroyed their colonies in Libya.

The small but charming site of L’Atrun dates back to the Byzantine era. To reach it we walked through a flower-filled pasture. It contains ruins of two churches, the Western and the Eastern, separated by a picturesque canyon.

Also from the Byzantine era are the mosaics on display at Qasr Libya. Dating from 339 AD, the mosaics were found in l957 by dam workers. There were 50 panels of mosaics on the floor of the Eastern Church, each about half a square meter. The panels were taken up from the floor and are displayed on the walls of the small museum. Some of the depictions of animals are particularly beautiful, and we were captivated by the representation of the Alexandria Pharos or lighthouse.

Villa Sileen, built right on the coast, was the last ancient site we toured. It was a private Byzantine residence, one of the many that rich people built, escaping the crowded conditions in Leptis Magna, but one of the very few that are excavated and in condition to be visited. Villa Sileen had mosaic floors in every single room.

In Tobruk we visited a few World War II sites: The Lady Be Good airplane, Romel’s bunker, the Australian (Fig Tree) Hospital, and several cemeteries.

Riding the "Bater Flay" (read it as if it were Spanish and the decoration on the side of our bus makes perfect sense) between Apollonia and Tobruk, down to the Eclipse Viewing Site, and then back all the way to Benghazi, we had a chance to see how the terrain gave way from coastal Mediterranean, with fruit trees and lush vistas to the desert conditions of the Libyan Desert, which lies north of the Sahara. Since it was spring there were many flowers blooming. We saw many small herds of sheep and goats, and finally spotted some camels, which we were told were raised for food as well as transportation. On one of our bus rides, the bus had to turn around on a very narrow road above a deep ravine. Passengers had to deplane while the turn was made. But luckily there was a neat waterfall to photograph while the bus did the 180 degree turn.

We passed many small towns, and isolated concrete houses many of them unfinished. In the Medinas (old towns) of Benghazi and Tripoli, we reveled in wandering around shopping, and watching people making crafts in small shops. The Benghazi Medina's Freedom Square contains many structures built by the Italians during their occupation. The Tripoli Medina is extensive and fascinating. Alleys beckoned with special doors to admire! Our guide and the personal security guards accompanied us as we gazed at the Arch of Marcus Aurelius, and finally entered a Mosque. Built in the 19th Century, the Gurgi Mosque is considered one of the most beautiful in Tripoli. Each of its many mosaic domes are truly colorful. All the people that we came in contact with were very friendly, especially children and young boys and girls, who never failed to greet us with lovely smiles and “hello, how are you.”

Just outside Tripoli's Medina is the marvelous Jamahiriya Museum. It's incredibly complete, starting with pre-historic rock art and including Gadaffi's green Volkswagen used during the revolution in 1969.

The main event of our whole trip was, obviously, the Total Solar Eclipse. The Libyan government had set up large tents and facilities, and our tour guides provided box lunches. We viewed it from a point south of Tobruk, which we reached riding our trusty Bater Flay. This was our ninth one and the second longest one: four minutes of totality! This was such a successful eclipse that we are sorely tempted to pretend that we might plan for the next one... Total, sońar no cuesta nada.

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    This report by Robert and Tahleen Nabors

nabors7@comcast.net