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.
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.
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.