I’ve said many times before on this blog that I am really enjoying Libya but I think this weekend I might have fallen in love with the country and the people. Why? I went to Ghadames that’s why!
Abdulatti and I had been planning for this weekend for a while now and we quite a few destinations in mind, but due to odd flight schedules and long drives, too long for a 2 day weekend, we ended up going with a trip Ghadames.
So Thursday morning Abdulatti and I was joined by Marcelo, Belina and Luis (Portuguese); Gustavo and Nathalia (Ecuadorian); Faisal (Lebanese Brazilian) and the Lacomb family consisting of Alexandre, Cirlei and their daughter Julia (Brazilian). We had an 8am flight which meant a 5:30am wake up call. So we gathered at the airport and soon we were checking in ready to board the plane. The plane was a tiny little tin can which didn’t inspire much confidence before boarding, but thankfully it was a smooth flight to Ghadames. I want to say Ghadames airport, but I think it would do the word airport a major injustice. It was basically and airfield with a cluster of small buildings acting as a terminal.
There we met the Abdullah, who was our point of contact in Ghadames and sorted the cars, hotels and entrance fees for us. He drove to our hotel which sat on a hill overlooking the old city of Ghadames. We checked in were given our keys which had the heaviest key chains ever in existence attached to them. Seriously, the things weighed about two kilograms!
We were checked in and ready to roll!
Across the road from our hotel was a cemetery of unmarked gravestone. Legend has it that every single gravestone is accounted for and every family knows exactly where the gravestones of their family members.
A little further down was a little tourist market which sold the normal tourist paraphernalia but most of the items were locally made, which I like as anything purchase stimulates the local economy. From here we walked to one of the entrances of the city. Below is a brief description of Ghadames from UNESCO’s website (Ghadames is a world heritage site):
Ghadames, known as ‘the pearl of the desert’, stands in an oasis. It is one of the oldest pre-Saharan cities and an outstanding example of a traditional settlement. Its domestic architecture is characterized by a vertical division of functions: the ground floor used to store supplies; then another floor for the family, overhanging covered alleys that create what is almost an underground network of passageways; and, at the top, open-air terraces reserved for the women.
Even though the view from our hotel was good and you got a sense of the beauty of the old town, nothing prepared for what was coming up. As we walked in and headed to one of the main walkways we were all left speechless. Even now I struggle to find an adjective to describe the town however the one that keeps coming to me is magical. There is something magical and enchanting about the town which leaves wishing you could grow up there. As we wandered in the child in me emerged as I could imagine the hours of fun which could be had in this labyrinth town. One of the first really distinctive things we saw was the little square adjacent to the mosque.
So we wandered ever deeper into the city in the cool shade of the covered walk ways. Abdullah would stop to show us something interesting every now and then but I liked the fact that he let us absorb the city on our own terms. One of our first stops was a traditional Ghadames house owned by the Younes family. One of the Younes sons showed around the house explained the design to us in almost perfect English.
The houses as described in the UNESCO description are designed with the variation of desert climate in mind. The houses basically consist of 2 stories and a roof terrace. The organic and intelligent design of these houses is then compliment with a very particular way of decorating the main the living areas. It seems there were 3 basic components to the decoration of the houses. The first being the unique patterns painted in mainly red paint with some other colours; the second being strategically placed mirrors which are used to maximize the sunlight coming in from the skylight; the last being copper pots which have two purposes. The first being the same as the mirrors (more reflective surfaces, the more light) and the second being for monetary value as the more copper pots you have the better off your family is but in times of hardship, the pots can be used to trade for food or money.
The main living space which is decorated with the painted patterns, mirrors and copper pots also includes four rooms. One is a room which is only used on three occasions, the women of the house’s wedding night, for the birth of children and for when the husband of the wife dies where she will stay for four months. There are three other bedrooms which are the parents’ room, a room for boys and a room for girls.
The terrace of the house is a women and children only zone and also has several rooms leading of the terrace, the main one being the kitchen. The interesting thing about this city is that every rooftop terrace is connected to each other which means women have a quicker way to reach their neighbours house when they need something or simply want to chat.
The Younes boy gave us a quick stroll of the area by roof and we could see how the women use to travel around during the day. With that the tour of the house was over. We head to a little square next to his house where we enjoyed a little rest and had some fantastic tea which contained roasted nuts in it.
After our little break Abdulla then led further into the labyrinth where at some point we reached a little square which was decorated in the typical Ghadames patterns and painting. It was here where something quite amazing and magical happened. As we were standing in the little square, we suddenly heard sound of children singing travel through the covered walkways. It initially gave me a little shiver down my spine as it felt I had travelled back in time and was in the inhabited old town of Ghadames. Around a corner of a walkway and old man appeared followed by about 10 children singing. They got to us and greeted us by shaking our hand and suddenly the old man in almost perfect English asked us ‘Do you want to know what we are singing?’. He then explained the meaning of the song which turns out is a song sung back in the day, by the person who found the first date to fall to the ground during the date harvest. It’s basically a song to taunt others, along the lines of ‘Look I found the first date, neh neh neh neh neh!’ After his explanation he and the kids sang us the song again and at the end added a ‘See you! See you!!’ for us foreigners which I thought was funny. And with that they went their off singing away to the date song.
I’ve had the luck and pleasure of experiencing some amazing things in my life, but this is right up there as one of the best because as it turns out, this wasn’t a tourist gimmick, this was just old man going for a walk with children. And it is these little unexpected experiences which is why I love travelling!
So with that little magical experience we went on further into the town seeing some mosques and the spring from where they drew water. The thing that I found impressive is that the Libyan government is pumping money in the place by helping families repair the houses (for touristic purposes of course) but still it will mean a source of income for some of the families.
We went to another well preserved house where we had lunch. And boy was it a good lunch! Great soup followed by some camel meat and couscous. After such a good meal we just rested at which point the owner of the house made Gustavo and Nathalia put on some traditional Berber clothes! We wandered around the old town some more before heading back to our hotel where we were meeting our drivers and cars to take us into the desert.
From the hotel we head into the harsh rocked desert towards the salt water lake of Ain ad-Debanah. In comparison to the lakes of Ubari, these aren’t as breathtaking and one of them is dirty filled with plastic bottles and bags, but for the others in the group which hadn’t been to Ubari it was still a spectacular sight. Luis decided to go for a swim in the lake and was disappointed to find out there wasn’t the thermal effect of the Ubari lakes.
With this visit over, we head back towards Ghadames to the former Berber fort and the last defence of Ghadames against the invading Arab army. The fort of Ras Al Ghoul is perched on the top of a hill and has stunning views of the surrounding landscape and Algeria to the south west and Tunisia to the North West. While we were on top of the fort a group of young guys arrived armed with a darbuka (a drum, not a gun!) and started having a little party. They were singing and dancing and we clearly out to have a good day in the desert!
As sunset was approaching we headed towards the dunes where we would watch the sunset. At the base of the dune a big tent was set up to welcome visitors to the dune with some tea and sandbaked bread. The dune was full of people so our drivers decided to drive us to other dunes that were further away but larger and we would be the only ones there.
Sunsets in the desert are always a spectacular sight and everyone enjoyed it in silence and took in the sheer beauty the Sahara sunset has to offer. As we were heading down back to the car we passed the darbuka kids heading to the summit of the dune. They greeted us with the usual ‘Hello and Welcome’ greeting I get everywhere in this country. When we got to our car one of the drivers called ABDELBASSET showed us a Berber game in the sand. Luis and Belina got really involved in it and were trying to win!!
With that we headed back to the tent at the base, where once again we found the darbuka kids. As they were dancing and singing I walked towards them and wanted to take a picture at which point they grabbed me made me a lead a conga circle around the darbuka player! It was hilarious dancing around the kid with the rest of them behind me imitating whatever I would do! I took some photos while jumping and dancing and then thanked them for the little dance and headed back to our car. It was another little fun experience here and once again showed me the warmth of the people here in Libya.
So we drove back towards Ghadames where we would have another amazing meal. Before we went in we asked our drivers and Abdullah to join us. Only one of the drivers could join us as the others had to work but it was nice to share a meal with them. Though while we were eating ABDELBASSET told Abdullah in Arabic, that it was weird for him to sit and eat at table instead eating on the floor. He said this while laughing but he clearly appreciated that we invited him to join us.
After our meal we decided to walk back to the hotel. It was a nice walk but what was surprising about it was to see the number of women out in the street with children going for a stroll. So much for oppression against women.
When we got to our hotel the two guys on service were in the lobby watching Voldemort deliver a speech live on TV. So for some reason we all joined in (even though only 2 of the group spoke Arabic). Every once and a while, Faisal would translate. But it was a funny spectacle to watch though… 9 foreigners watching Gaddafi on TV calling for a Jihad against Switzerland. Our introduction to Libyan politics was followed by a nice shisha on the grass in front of the hotel under the stars and cool weather. It was almost midnight when we all went to bed. And we all went to bed truly satisfied after fantastic day.
Then next morning we got at reasonable to hour and braced ourselves for the long drive back to Tripoli. All seven hours of the drive! However there would be a little prize for our sore backside at the midpoint of this drive. The prize? The Qasr of Nalut. A Qasr is a fortified granary where the local farmers would store the crops of their olive, wheat and barley harvests. What makes this Qasr so special is that it’s perched on top of a mountain and its looks like a little castle.
I had seen the Qasr in Nalut on photos, but photos almost never give certain places justice and this is no exception. The place is stunning and looks like something from a movie set. As we wandered within the Qasr I was once again reminded why I prefer these types of civilizations. There’s an organic quality to the architecture and the way they use what they have to defend themselves and their valuables against enemies and the harsh landscapes of the Sahara. The Qasr itself is surrounded by the remains of the old town to one and the other some spectacular views of the valley below and the winding road up to the mountain.
After taking in the magic of the Qasr we headed back to our van and prepared for the final drive back to Tripoli. It was a great with a great group of people, with once again the Libyan people showing their hospitality!
I’ve been in Libya for almost 2 months now and this is the third fantastic trip I’ve done in this country which I’m falling even more in love with, with each day that goes by!