By Exodus' Sales Consultant Matteo Carri
Like many westerners, prior to going on the Highlights of Libya trip, I perceived Libya to be a strict Muslim country led by the dictator Colonel Gaddafi, famous for its oil and gas production. Instead I found friendly people, fascinating culture and archaeological sites which rival Machu Pichu, the Pyramids or Petra – but without the crowds or intensive sales tactics from hawkers.
Besides the military structure of the country, daily Libyan life is quite similar to that found in many other Mediterranean countries. Libyans are proud and friendly people, generally well educated and, unlike other countries in this area, unspoilt by mass tourism. You will not find overly enthusiastic vendors harassing you to make a purchase while you are trying to enjoy the wonders of Sabratha or Leptis Magna. If you want to buy souvenirs, the stalls are there for you to choose from at your leisure.
Like many capital cities, Tripoli’s streets and souks contain throngs of people going about their daily business. In contrast to some capitals I’ve been to however, I felt very safe which came as somewhat of a surprise. Tripoli’s main attraction is its museum, which houses a unique collection of treasures. Even if you are not a ‘museum person’ you will definitely enjoy this one; its artefacts and information really help put the major archaeological sites into context so that you get more out of them as you visit.
An incredible thing about Libya is that despite having an overwhelming amount of archaeological wonders which are yet to be excavated, the country does not have Libyan archaeologists to do the work. The majority of sites have been discovered by Italians (in the colonial period), and restored at a later stage by the British, Italian and Polish universities, with the help of some local collaborators.
One of these local collaborators is Absaram Bisama, our local guide at Ptolemais, the ruins of an ancient coastal city. Absaram has lived through amazing discoveries at this site and, from the early stages of his life, has accompanied the research and restoration of some of the most important archaeological finds in Libya. He gave us an amazing insight into the fascinating history of Ptolemais, which really brought the place to life.
Archaeologically, Libya’s Roman remains are amongst the finest in the Mediterranean; very few sites come to life in the way that Leptis Magna does. This magnificent ruin has to be considered a triumph of the Roman world, attributed to the munificence of its emperor Septimus Severus in the 3rd Century. Famed for fine Mosaics, Libya also boasts probably the finest villa and bathhouse complex found in North Africa at Villa Silin. A dramatic Chariot race in minute detail fills an entire room, and for those officiandos of Ben Hur the scene is completed with the lap counter, minus the watch!
Libyans are strongly discouraged (by severe punishment) from excavating any archaeological remains from the Greek, Roman, or Byzantine period. If they find something by chance (maybe while digging a well on their property) and declare this to the authority, they will most likely get their land and house confiscated by the government. With this in mind, the Libyan farmer who finds a valuable historical artefact may quickly bury it and start digging elsewhere! It’s a real shame that much of Libya’s rich historical heritage is unlikely to ever see the light of day.
Being Italian, I was expecting the locals to give me a bit of grief about the colonial days. But, as some of the Libyans I spoke to explained, it was not all bad; the Italians left behind beautiful buildings, roads and helped the Libyans to recover and restore a great number of artefacts and historical sites. Surprisingly, what they did not manage to leave behind is the passion for food and some decent coffee!
Libyan food is simple and is very similar to Saharan cuisine. The most popular dishes are the Shurba, which is soup made with beef, chickpeas, spices and pasta (just to retain some Italian flavour). In fact, it is not common to find Libyan restaurants run by Libyans; the majority are run by Egyptian immigrants. As our leader put it, "Libya has been subjected to a high level of immigration from neighbouring countries and the Libyans have become unmotivated and picky when it comes to work".
Libya is of course a dry country; alcohol is not allowed anywhere, which puts it high on the list of top detox destinations. The penalties for importing, purchasing or drinking alcohol are severe; ignore them at your peril! If you are passionate about culture and history, and can survive for a week without a drink, I would definitely recommend visiting this wonderful country. Libya is seeking to increase the number of tourists visiting its shores – my advice would be to visit before it becomes a mainstream destination and the vendors increase their selling zeal.