This past weekend I did the typical expat pilgrimage to Leptis Magna, the site of one of Africa’s great Roman cities. My ambition here in Libya with most of my trips is to camp out as much as I can, so instead of going to Leptis Magna for the day on a Friday, I would leave after work on the Thursday and camp somewhere and see the ruins on Friday.
So Thursday after work me and Abdulatti made our way to Tripoli centre to the taxi ‘station’(more like a collection of cars, where their drivers shout destinations at passersby). From here we took a taxi to a town close to Leptis Magna. Things were looking ominous for the camping that night. When we left Tripoli there was a quiet a big sandstorm which would have made camping uncomfortable and but to add to that, it also started to drizzle a bit, which would have camping virtually impossible seeing as I didn’t trust the water tightness of our tents and it would also leave us with no means to make some food and most importantly provide us coal for shisha!
Fortunately the further east of Tripoli we drove the better the weather looked and finally when we arrived at town where we would camp out, the skies were open and the starts were shimmering.
So we arrive at the town and waited for Abdulatti’s friend, Mohammed, to pick us up and drive to the beach next to the ruins of the a Roman villa, called Villa Silleen where we would camp. On our way to the beach while I was telling Abdulatti about my idea of getting a car so that I could drive out whenever and camp out whenever I liked but my concern about the driving here was making me think twice about this idea. As I said this, we cars stopped ahead of us and people waving torches and telling us to slow down. Initially I thought it was a police check point however turns out it was an accident. As we drove past there was an overturned car and a body on the road. This is the second time I’ve had to see this kind of scene (I saw this in Dubai as well). I was left a bit shaken by this and Abdulatti as well, but there was nothing we could do about it.
So we tried to forget about the accident and carried on driving to the beach. We arrived at the beach next to Villa Silleen. As it was dark already when we arrived couldn’t really see the beach properly, but it wasn’t a big beach. So we found a nice spot and set up tents, started a fire and as always I prepared the shisha. We had some coffee by heating up water with a method we learnt while in the Sahara, which is by putting the closed bottle of water on some coal. The bottle doesn’t melt and the water actually heats up quickly! Dinner was simple and consisted solely of potatoes baked in the fire (how Irish of us).
Unfortunately I didn’t get batteries for my Ipod speakers so we didn’t have some music however as we were only about twenty meters from the waterline the sound of the waves provided us with ample background noise and was very different to the eerie silence of the desert. It was around midnight when both of us decided to call it a night and retreat to our sleeping bags.
This time I decided I wanted to sleep in so I left the sunrise for another day. I woke up and Abdulatti already had a fire going for breakfast. I got out of the tent and saw to the left of our camp, the remains of Villa Silleen. Waking up by a beach with the sound of waves is always nice but to have the added bonus if a 1500 year old Roman villa is something special.
So after some coffee and boiled eggs in bread we packed up our things and then hit a little snag in our plan. Abdulatti was going to phone Mohamed to pick us up and take us to Leptis Magna but he’s battery was flat and so was mine. So we were hoping that Mohamed would get worried when he didn’t get a phone call from us and come out to see if all was ok. So while we waited to see if Mohammed would come, we went to Villa Sileen.
Villa Sileen was a private villa of a wealthy family from Leptis Magna. Apparently its now closed to the public but when we arrived there was small French tour group there. So we went in, gave the guards the rest of our supplies and walked around the Villa. One we got the sea facing side of the villa I realized how impressive this place could have been back in the day. The mosaics on the floor were amazing (my favourite being the one where there are pygmies fighting crocodiles) and the views of the sea are breathtaking. Though I have to say the conservation and restoration up to now hasn’t been great and really lets the place down.
So after our little visit to Villa Sileen and no word from Mohamed we decided to start walking towards the main road in the hope of getting a ride to Leptis Magna. I liked this little unknown bit of our trip as it felt like a proper backpacking adventure. So as we were walking towards the main guess who we find driving down the road looking slightly worried. Why Mohamed! He said when he didn’t a call from Abdulatti and then couldn’t get though to his phone, he started getting worried, so he drove down to see what happened. So with our ride to Leptis sorted we were off.
Once we arrived at the gate of Leptis Magna it was clear Abdulatti used to work here. Almost every single person that worked there greeted him and asked how he was etc. Everyone kept asking why he had grown a beard, to which one of his friends answered in Arabic ‘He has been camping for a month now with this tourist all over Libya’ and everyone believed him as we did arrive with tents and sleeping bags. So we put away our things in one of his friends stores and went off to discover the city of Leptis Magna.
I have to be honest, Roman civilization isn’t my favourite, as I prefer the less ostentatious societies out there like Roma gypsies, Berber, Tuaregs etc. But you have to hand it to the Romans. They sure knew how to build things. The ruins of the city is impressive. The road network, the building for leisure, the baths, the markets, the theatres. Here is the map of the city as it would have been in its heyday. What was good about this trip was the commentary by Abdulatti who used to work here as a tour guide. To see all of this and get the history of it at the same time was fantastic. So we discovered the Roman bath, the forums where the people of Leptis would hang out; the theatre where I guess they enjoyed a good Asterix and Obelix showing; the market where they would buy Gianius Versacius Toga.
Before heading to the amphitheatre we had some lunch and a shisha. It was when I sat down for lunch that I realized how much we walked as my body was stiff. But fully nourished and fully shished (that word doesn’t exist but will do soon ) we took the long walk to the amphitheatre. And it was a long walk through city and where the harbor was to the Amphitheatre and circus. When we did eventually get there all I could say was WOW. Is the only word I can use to describe the amphitheatre. The size of it blew me away (I knew it’s got nothing on the coliseum in Rome, but still). The sheer scale of these structure is just astounding. One of the arches by the amphitheatre was massive. Photos very rarely transmit scale well so once again it’s something that needs to be experienced first.
So with this, our tour was virtually over, so Abdulatti phoned Mohamed to pick us up again and take us to the taxi stand to catch our ride back to Tripoli.
Another good weekend in Libya. I really am loving this country and what it has to offer!