Thirty years ago, few Americans were aware that Turkey has nearly as many classical Greek ruins as Greece. Today, Libya’s Greek and Roman remains are similarly unknown to Americans.
It’s understandable: Americans were banned from visiting Libya from 1981 until 2004 under sanctions that eventually led Muammar Qaddafi to give up his weapons of mass destruction and partially open the Libyan economy. Relations began to be normalized in 2006; the U.S. embassy opened in Tripoli that year. Group tourism, under strictly controlled conditions, was begun; but Qaddafi’s initial embrace of tourism proved fickle, and after some charter groups were turned away at the Tripoli airport for not having Arabic translations of their passports, numbers dwindled. The last year of revolution brought many more foreign visitors to Libya, but it is safe to say that very few American tourists were among them.
Now, in 2012, as it prepares for its first free, universal-suffrage elections, Libya (especially eastern Libya) would make a fine destination for the adventurous lover of classical civilization. And as Libya stabilizes, Americans will have a new country to discover—with nearly a dozen important sites, most within sight of the striking Mediterranean coastline.
As I write, the western part of the country, home to the best-known sites, Leptis Magna and Sabratha, is significantly less stable than the east, known as Cyrenaica. While a visitor should see both areas, the coast between the Egyptian border and the revolutionary capital of Benghazi offers more variety than the west, including the unique Berber site of Slonta. The ruined cities of Cyrene, Apollonia, and Tolmeitha, and the Christian site of Qasr Libya, compare favorably with any Mediterranean destination—even Greece itself.
Libya has been isolated for decades, and culturally marginal for centuries, but it was central in the classical world. Benghazi, the capital of Cyrenaica (and from February to August 2011 the capital of Free Libya), was the ancient Euesperides, named after the Hesperides, the women guarding the golden apples given to Hera when she married Zeus. The Hesperides are supposed to have lived in a sunken garden, which Richard Goodchild, one of the main mid-20th-century researchers on Cyrenaica, identified with one of the sinkholes that still exist about 10 kilometers from Benghazi. The inland area around Benghazi is supposed to have been the location of the legendary Greek river of the dead, Lethe.
Greek settlers arrived from Santorini to found Cyrene—the namesake city for Cyrenaica—in the 7th century b.c. The city that would later be known as Benghazi, Euesperides, set up a republic around 440 b.c. Alexander the Great tossed the Persians out of Egypt and Cyrenaica in 332 b.c. before founding Alexandria. A few years later, Cyrenaica came under the control of the neighboring Egyptian Ptolemaic dynasty, and was ruled by the Ptolemies or their successors until it was made a Roman province in 74 b.c.
In the Roman years, the Libyan and Roman populations coalesced, and distinctive forms of local architecture sprang up. Libyans sent numerous senators to Rome and gave her an emperor, Septimus Severus, born in Leptis Magna. Inscriptions mingled Latin with Punic, which is related to Phoenician. Christian communities emerged in Cyrenaica relatively early since there was a substantial Jewish presence. Simon of Cyrene carried the cross at Calvary, and St. Mark was a Jew of Cyrene: Local legend holds that he wrote his Gospel in a cave still known as Wadi Marcus near Derna in the Jebel Akhdar Mountains, before going on to become bishop of Alexandria.
Vandal and Arab invasions led to deurbanization and the abandonment of some of the cities of Cyrenaica. Two years after Cairo fell to the Arabs in 641 they entered Libya, and Barca, today’s Al Marj, became their administrative seat. One of the Companions of the Prophet, Rawevfi ben Thabit, was an early governor of Barca. He was buried in 663 at the Great Mosque of Barca, but was later moved to Bayda and a mosque called Sidi Rafa. (Non-Muslims are welcome, but nothing remains of its original construction.) Cyrenaica lapsed into a sleepy irrelevance during the Fatimid period, and when locals rebelled against Cairo in 1040 the Fatimids sent the nomadic Banu Hilal against them. The destruction and desertification they caused ended Libya’s cultural significance.