Most of the economic action in this part of the world has happened either to the East (Egypt), or to the West (Maghrib), of what is now Libya except for the role of the three Tripolitan cities as sea terminals for the trade with black Africa in antiquity and the discovery of huge oil and gas reserves in 1956.
The temporary settlements put up by Phoenicians to trade with Berber tribes became Carthaginian colonies around 600 B.C. and important Roman trading cities after the fall of Carthage in 146 A.D. The commercial influence of Sabrata, Oea (Tripoli) and Leptis Magna extended as far as the Niger but the Vandal invasion of 435 destroyed the fortifications of Sabrata and Leptis Magna while sparing the smaller Oea. Their trade declined through miss-management and were of little importance when North Africa was invaded by a the Byzantine general Belisarius in 534. Only Oea survived to become Tripoli as Sabrata and Leptis Magna were abandoned after being razed during the Arab invasion of 643. Sand dunes covered much of their ruins and preserved them until they were excavated this century.
During the following Arab period, all the action was west of here, mostly in Kairouan as Umayyad power was replaced by the Aghlabid's, the Fatimids' and the Hafsids' until Tripolitania fell to Spain in 1510 and later to the Ottoman Turks in 1551. The Turks ruled until 1770 when Karamanli, a chief of cavalry, seized power and established his own dynasty that lasted until the return of the Ottomans in 1835 who were chased out by the Italians in 1912.
The Italian period was short-lived and ended with Rommel's rear guard campaigns against the invading British. After WW II, the UN decided on the independence of Libya in 1949 and the pro-British Sidi (holy man) Idris of the Sanusi Brotherhood, was chosen to rule as King in 1951. Oil was discovered in 1959 and in 1969 a military coup led by nationalist Mouammar Qaddafi installed a socialist regime that removed British and American bases and expulsed Italian and Jews in 1970 and nationalized the oil industry 1973.
Qaddafi went on to support a wide variety of revolutionary and terrorist movements in the world as if his mission were to isolate Libya from the international community. In 1993 the UN responded by imposing an air embargo that was still in force in March 1999 forcing me to come here overland.
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One of sites worth visiting in Tripoli is the Red Castle and museum (Assai al-Hamra), most of which dates from the 18th century. A part of it is said to have been built by the Spanish and the Maltese Knights of St. John during a short Christian interlude between 1510 and 1551 when the Turks took over.
Revenues from the nationalized oil industry has allowed Qaddafi to modernize public infrastructures to a certain extent. High school attendance is high for Africa at 80 percent and illiteracy has fallen below 25 percent.
While most successful politicians are pragmatists before anything else, Qaddafi is one of these unique leaders who have bothered to write a book on their vision of the society they consider ideal. His three part Green Book is less elaborate than Hitler's Mein Kampf and more naive than Mao Tsedong's esoteric Red Book but it is nevertheless worth reading. Like the other two, the Green Book was hugely successful because it caters to the prejudices of the audience it is aimed at. For example, it goes great lengths to demonstrate "scientifically" that a woman's place is in the kitchen or the nursery when she is not in the bedroom!
Here is the main gate of the medina which opens onto Green Square, the heart of Tripoli. You can just glimpse the minaret of the Karamanli Mosque hiding behind the palm tree.
I had picked up my Libyan visa in Tunis thanks to an invitation provided by the Azar Tours Travel Agency which I had contacted through the internet. My overnight bus from Sfax dropped me around 10 the morning in an eastern suburb some distance from the center. I was disoriented at first but people were very helpful and I soon found my way to a bank were the amiable manager gave me a cash advance on my credit card and showed me the way to the Libyan Youth Hostel. I was astonished by such kindness considering Libya's bad reputation abroad.
I was further surprised to learn that the Libyan Youth Hostel was affiliated to the International Hostelling Movement of which I am a member. I had a small room there for only 4 Dinars (4.60$US) and spent some time learning a lot of things about the country from the friendly staff member shown here, the Algerian Abdeldjallil Lallali who had fled the oppressive religious atmosphere of his homeland .
Things were getting "curiouser and curiouser" as Libya was not turning out to be the dangerous western-hating place that I had been conditioned to expect. On the contrary, everyone I met, without exception, was most friendly and helpful and many went out of their way to bring me to someplace I was looking for. Maybe it was some sort of collective compensation for Libya's officially hostile attitude towards the outside world but personally I got the feeling that the people were just spontaneously friendly and helpful.
There are still very few tourists in Libya and I have no hesitation to recommend it. The medina is delightful and not crowded as you can see here and in the photos below.
Tripolitania's heyday really came in Roman times when it supplied grain and olive oil to the Empire and still controlled trade with black Africa. The ruins of Sabrata and Leptis Magna are visible proof of Tripolitania's past prosperity but this arch, built to honour Marcus Aurelius in 173 AD, is the only Roman monument left in Tripoli.
Sabrata's fortunes declined sharply after the Vandal invasion of 435 but it was still inhabited when the Arabs ravaged it so badly in 643 that it had to be abandoned. Much of it, including this theatre, was preserved by sand dunes until this century.
To get here, I took a shared taxi from Tripoli to the nearby town of Sabrata and then a private taxi with this gentleman, Anfata Said, who was very proud of his limited English and who insisted to accompany me all over the ruins to explain them to me.
Unfortunately I travel with a very simple camera that does not have a wide-angle lens. This composite picture nevertheless gives you an idea of the elaborate backstage developed by the Romans on the more simple model of theaters used by the Greek.
The Roman elevated stage was decorated by sculptures of which here are some examples.
These were in the center.
And these on the right.
The residential area was completely razed leaving standing only the two granite pillars in the center of this picture.
I had to wait a long time to take this picture because an organized tour group of German tourists occupied the scene for an eternity.
This Roman mosaic was protected by sand for more than 15 centuries. It certainly will not last that long it is left exposed like this.
This photo of the hot room of a Roman public bath shows clearly the space where hot gases from fires were circulated to heat the false floor above it before being voided through a chimney. Thus, Romans baths had the world's first radiant indirect heating.
My taxi driver was very helpful but he was not an archaeological guide and could not answer many of my questions. Neither could the gatekeeper. I would have been much more interested in this small temple if I could have found out when and for whom it was built and what the underground chambers we can see here were used for.
I went back to Tripoli and the next day, took a bus to Khoms to visit the ruins of Leptis Magna.