The Magazine

Hello, Libya

Does the fall of Qaddafi mean the rise of tourism?

Jan 30, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 19 • By ANN MARLOWE
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

To reach Qasr Libya, literally “Castle Libya,” a church built in 539 that houses some of Libya’s finest mosaics, I left the coast road and turned in to the mountains. Qasr Libya was known in Roman times as Olbia, then renamed Theodorais to honor Justinian’s wife, Theodora, who grew up in nearby Apollonia. The site was rediscovered by Libyan laborers in 1957. Fifty panels of Qasr Libya’s mosaics—which include a scene showing the lighthouse of Alexandria, about 500 miles away—are housed in a small museum, opened in 1972. A voluntary guard proudly showed me that the front door had been welded shut, to prevent looting, shortly after the 2011 protests began. Unfortunately, the tin roof above the sixth-century “western” church is leaking, with damage to the mosaics below. The “eastern” church next to the museum was firmly shut at the time of my visit, but by an easy climb to the roof you can see the severely elegant stone-block interior.

Tolmeitha can be seen in two or three hours, Qasr Libya in another couple of hours if the mosaics are open. From Qasr Libya it’s almost an hour’s drive east and then inland to Cyrene. Though the original colonists of Cyrene arrived in obedience to a dictate of the oracle at Delphi, much of what can be seen at Cyrene is Roman and dates from the second century a.d. The town had to be rebuilt after the Jewish revolt of 115 to 117 a.d., in which the large Jewish population destroyed huge swaths of Cyrene, focusing particularly on the pagan temples.

About a half mile from the main Cyrene site the Temple of Zeus, built between 540 and 450 b.c., is the most important Greek monument in Africa, bigger than the Parthenon. Sandro Stucchi points to its “optical refinements .  .  . the columns all have different diameters, and their inclination is different” to produce a uniform impression on the viewer from any angle. But the temple’s staggering size makes it difficult to focus on these details; it seems more aimed at impressing than inspiring the viewer. But its absence of soul may be the result of crude restoration: The post-revolt construction was mainly destroyed by an earthquake in 365 and the temple savaged by zealous Christians. Many of the statues were cut into pieces.

Another fascinating aspect of Cyrene is the enormous necropolis, one of the largest in the ancient world, which lines the winding road to Susa/Apollonia. Some of the tombs are huge, many are finely worked, but visiting requires some caution when the road is busy. The tombs I was able to get to were filled with litter and graffiti, but others further from the road are more pristine.

Apollonia has the most beautiful site of any of the pentapolis, with some buildings just yards from the sea. The star attractions are the theater, three sixth-century Christian churches that incorporate earlier architectural elements, and a Byzantine governor’s palace discovered by an American team in 1964. (There’s a small prison underneath, which can be entered by those immune to claustrophobia.) Apollonia today lies much closer to the Mediterranean than it originally did: After the 365 earthquake, the sea reclaimed portions of the town. Some ruins are visible in what’s now the modern harbor. A French archaeological team picked up the challenge in 1954 and have worked there, intermittently, ever since. It isn’t clear who did some of the very sloppy restoration work, or when: Crude mortar joins masonry blocks and even half-columns laid on their side. Cement is slathered in what may have been an effort to prevent water damage.

The Greek theater, renovated under Domitian around 92 a.d., still has its 28 tiers of seats—the biggest Greek theater in Cyrenaica—and a spectacular location looking out to the sea. The Eastern Church, which in its unroofed state looks purely classical and may have been a Temple of Apollo, is the only church where the pillars were still standing when the British began excavations in 1952. There are finely carved crosses in its 18 tall marble pillars—and on their backs, more crudely written bismillahs (the opening verse of the Koran) from the early Arab period. Close to the sea, to the left of the altar as you face it, there is a lovely baptistery, with a cruciform sunken font and a section of marble flooring and baseboard.

But the most mysterious site in eastern Libya is pre-Greek, with connections to Berber art in other North African countries. Slonta, or Aslonta, a dismal market town, contains a ruined grotto temple with 25 feet of bas-relief carvings of tremendous force and freshness. First mentioned in print in 1886, and documented in 1911, it was restored as recently as 1993.

Ann Marlowe is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute and blogs for World Affairs.

Recent Blog Posts