“This is not exactly what we had in mind, is it?”
Waking up in Ghadames, the difficulty of our situation dawned on us. We would have to leave four nights later. To Egypt, at least two thousand kilometers to the east… and so far in Libya we had only seen the north-western coastline, the western desert and Algeria. Our unplanned four-day excursion into Libya’s neighbor had thoroughly messed up our schedule. But, Al-Hamdu-Allah, we had gotten out unharmed and a lot wiser.
“How about we head for Gharyan today, with a stop at Kabaw to see the ancient Qasr?” Ahmed came to the rescue. “We can sleep below ground at a troglodyte home tonight.”
“Maybe tomorrow we can reach Ajdabiya, below Benghazi?” I added.
“And drive through Cyrenaica, see Omar Mukthar’s Canyon and sleep at Al Bayda?” Melody asked. “To visit Cyrene the next day?”.
“Great plan!” beamed Ahmed. “After Cyrene we will sleep in Tobruk, and be just in time to get you to Egypt the next day!”
Off we rushed…
The Qasr (castle) of Kabaw is an impressive piece of Berber architecture. It served as a strategical safe-haven for the population, but its most important function was the storage of grain and oil. The ingenious building consists of five levels of cave-like storage rooms around a central courtyard. In a small building in the centre of the courtyard, the local religious chief lived, whose task was to levy taxes on the storage of goods, to maintain the Qasr and distribute to the poor. He was also the keeper of the wooden keys, unique to each palm-wood door. Outside the main castle are the remains of olive oil presses and grain mills. Now abandoned, the Qasr paints a fine picture of Berber life in the second half of the 12th century.
“I was born here” the owner of the troglodyte house told us upon arrival. This magnificent Dammous (Berber house), 10 meters deep on a hillside in Gharyan, was dug by his ancestors six generations ago. The 344-year-old excavated expanse once housed eight families, all related, but now serves mainly as a museum. Being a friend of Ahmed, the owner allowed us to spend the night in this wonderful place… in the room where he was born. The unique construction of the house keeps it cool in summer, and warm in winter. After a day of hard driving the eerily quiet rooms, strangely warm and cozy underground, had us asleep in no-time.
We woke up to a difficult choice (and a group of Japanese tourists). Reaching Egypt before our visa expiration left us barely enough time to visit one more World Heritage Site: Leptis Magna or Cyrene. We decided for Cyrene, being closer to Egypt. The following long hours in the car, making speed towards Ajdabiya, we marveled at the incredible diversity of the coastline. Even without our Algerian detour, we had planned our adventure way too short. Libya deserves time… time to immerse yourself into her unique culture, time to get lost in her wild expanses, and time to delight in the indescribable hospitality and sheer kindness of her people. We decided to visit Libya again in the future, and take three times as long…
The landscape of Cyrenaica surprised us, her milk-and-honey atmosphere a welcome change from the dusty dry interior areas. Green rolling hills, cypress trees and mighty canyons cut deep into the landscape like a knife through butter. This is the land where the Greeks settled long ago, but also the land where Omar Mukhtar made his last stand against the Italian invasion. A beautiful, tranquil land, rich in history though steeped in blood. This part of Libya is the least visited by tourists, due to the great distance from the capital Tripoli.
The World Heritage Site of the City of Cyrene lies on the coast of the Mediterranean, offering incredible views from her heights and amphitheatre. The fact that she is still standing is a tribute to the artisanship of her builders, considering this area is prone to severe earthquakes. Damage was done by the 365 AD quake, but not as much as to Sabrata and Leptis Magna. This means that less restoration work was necessary, giving Cyrene a more authentic feel than those other historic cities along the coastline.
The Thera Greeks started this colony, though the city was later Romanized. Elements of both cultures are apparent in the remains of the various temples, the amphitheatre and the Sky Rota. The Nautical Monument, a Trireme carved out of stone (though only the prow remains) will have you marvel at the craft of the builders, especially when viewed head-on. Walking down the valley towards the city-center, ingenious waterworks become apparent, and with the sounds of birds and the smell of cypress trees soothing your senses you reach the edge of the city. A hundred meter drop to the farmlands below, and several kilometers in the distance another steep drop to the tantalizing blue of the Mediterranean. The Greeks truly chose a dramatic setting for one of their principle cities in the Hellenic world.
To our incredible luck, we met Dr. Fadel at the exit of the site. This distinguished gentleman and author, now retired, was the chief curator and head of excavations for Libyan Heritage in Cyrenaica for many years. A walking library of information, he enlightened us with many pictures and stories about the discovery, restoration and maintenance of Cyrene. He also explained to us why the World Heritage Sites in Libya are badly maintained in comparison to sites in other countries. UNESCO views Libya as a rich county, and provides only a fraction of the financial support it gives other countries. What UNESCO leaves out of the equation is that the priority of Libyan economics is not income from tourism, but rebuilding an ailing nation. Precariously little government money flows to the tourism and heritage departments. So little that the Libyan Heritage organization has severe difficulties paying restorers, cleaners and night-guards. There is not even a protective fence around Cyrene… We hope UNESCO and the Libyan government will wake up soon and adjust this untenable situation.
Having made the most of our preciously little time in Libya, we were rushed across the border to Egypt with the help of a few friends: having two entry and no exit stamps in your passport raises eyebrows. No payment in camels was necessary. With pain in our hearts and tears in our eyes, we said our goodbyes to our dear friend Ahmed, and with the solemn promise that we would return to Libya we turned Fiona toward the Egyptian border post, and the start of another story…