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Hello, Libya

Does the fall of Qaddafi mean the rise of tourism?

Jan 30, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 19 • By ANN MARLOWE
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Indeed, it was not until seven centuries later (1705) that Europeans noted the existence of Cyrene again—and the consequences of European attention were far better for the Europeans than the Libyans. In 1861 two Britons, Robert Murdoch Smith and Edwin Porcher, transported nearly 150 statues to the British Museum. Cyrene was systematically explored, beginning in 1913, when Italian workmen accidentally unearthed a masterwork that was then displayed in Rome’s Campidoglio Museums but returned to Libya in 2008. The colonial government performed a primitive sort of restoration in Cyrene—indeed, across the Libyan littoral—while simultaneously killing as much as a third of the Libyan population.

Because of the intervening world wars, little additional work was done anywhere in Libya until the 1950s, when Libya gained its independence. Then, after just 18 years under King Idris, the Qaddafi era began. And because the colonel viewed the classical sites as artifacts of a hateful colonial past, he was disinclined to take care of them.

The Cyrenaican sites can be approached from the Egyptian border, or by flying to Benghazi and driving toward Egypt. Either way, it’s best to spend at least one night at the seaside hotel in Apollonia, which is built next to the ruins. (Both the four-star Uzu and five-star Tibesti hotels in Benghazi are comfortable, the latter even luxurious.) Benghazi itself is a spirited but badly rundown port, though with the cobalt-blue sea always in the background, and a way of life centered around drinking endless espressos and smoking endless cigarettes, it feels as much Mediterranean as Arabic. Its classical buildings fell victim to a fourth-century earthquake and nomadic, Vandal, and Arab raids in the early Middle Ages. Extensive bombing during World War II, when the city changed hands five times, finished off most of the Ottoman-era buildings. The oldest structures are from the Italian occupation of the 1920s and ’30s, so the lover of antiquity will want to make a speedy getaway to the ruins nearby.

Beginning from Benghazi, the first significant site is Tolmeitha. These ruins may be the largest of any Roman provincial capital, and they are barely excavated. Yet while Cyrene is a world heritage site, the Libyan government’s request to obtain the same status for Tolmeitha was rejected by UNESCO. It was certainly the poorest place I saw on the eastern coast, but also potentially the most beautiful, with palm groves next to the sea and acacias a mile inland near the ruins.

The major part of the ruins of Tolmeitha are about a mile-and-a-half inland on a dirt road that leads back from the sea toward the main highway but does not connect with it. In a scene that can have changed little from classical times, shepherds grazed their flocks and a group of rural women strode happily through the groves of pines and acacias. The not-very-evocative remains of the Arch of Constantine are to your left walking uphill away from the sea, but the first major group of ruins at Tolmeitha is the Villa of Columns. This looks from a distance like a public structure, but it was a private home that included a large pool. The renovation here seems to have been minimal, and so the site is much more interesting than Cyrene or Apollonia. Endless scraps of red, sometimes black, pottery everywhere suggest the vast remains still below ground.

After a short walk southwest the small (four-tier) theater faces not the sea, as is more usual, but the pastoral landscape. And near the theater is the most spectacular part of Tolmeitha: On a small rise is a football-field-sized Greek agora, later a Roman forum. Just a handful of pillars are still standing, but these are much taller than the ones at the Villa of the Columns, and, once you see them, the contrast between private and public spaces is clear. The star attraction, though, is underneath the agora: A huge, well-preserved Roman cistern, the largest in Africa, extends the full size of the forum.

Since Tolmeitha had no fresh water supply, the Romans built a 15-mile aqueduct to provide the cistern with water. In the period of insecurity during the fourth century the aqueduct broke, leading to depopulation; it was repaired by the emperor Justinian. Down a flight of stone steps is a series of linked rectangular rooms, dimly lit by openings to the agora above, and almost as impressive as Istanbul’s underground cistern, though not nearly as lofty.

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