Getting into Libya - Or Not

I didn’t realise how lucky I was to go. I almost didn’t get to Libya at all. It was only a long weekend trip and I was due to travel on the Friday. I arrived at the airport to be refused boarding – I didn’t have a Libyan translation in my passport. Try getting one of those on a Friday. I managed it - at a price - and turned up again at Gatwick the following day. Naturally, no-one checked my passport for the translation when I got there. I missed one set of ruins, but joined the bus to Leptis.

A Very Brief History of Libya

  • Libya, as we know it, is a modern, artificial construct, which is why the area is so fragile.
  • It was inhabited by Berbers, since the late Bronze Age, and then variously ruled by Carthaginians, Persians, and Greeks, before the entire region became part of the Roman Empire.
  • The western area, was known in Greek times as Tripolitania (after Tripoli), the eastern area around Benghazi, was Cyrenaica to the Romans and Greeks and beneath, to the south west, was Fezzan. This was the land of the nomads. Tripolitania traded west and north and Cyrenaica east to Egypt, and Turkey with their Arab and Islamic influences.
  • Libya was an early centre of Christianity during the Roman Empire. After its fall, the area now known as Libya was mostly occupied by the Vandals, until the seventh century invasions brought Islam to the region. there was a brief intervention in the sixteenth century, when the Spanish Empire and the Knights of St John occupied Tripoli. Then, Ottoman rule began in 1551 and continued until the Italian occupation of Libya. After the Second World War. Libya became independent, as a kingdom, in 1951. There was only ever one king. Idris reigned from 1951, until he was overthrown by Gaddafi in 1969.

Leptis Magna

Leptis Magna, on a promontory overlooking the Mediterranean Sea - once the pride of the Roman Empire in Africa - lay hidden for over 900 years, forgotten by man, beneath the sand dunes of Libya. Founded by the Phoenicians, it was key in the Carthaginian Empire, but was at its prime under the rule of Septimius Severus, who was born here (that's his arch below), during the Roman Empire, as the capital of the Roman province of Tripolitania. It fell to the Vandals in 439, but was reincorporated into the Eastern Empire in 533 but continued to be plagued by Berber raids and never recovered its former importance. It fell to the Muslim invasion in  647 and was eventually abandoned.

In the mid twentieth century, it was rediscovered, excavated, designated a UNESCO world heritage site and dubbed the “best preserved” Roman city in the world. The streets were complete enough to capture the essence of ancient Rome, the amphitheatre was almost perfectly preserved and there was a world famous Medusa head carving.


Tripoli is the capital of Libya and largest city of Libya, home to nearly half of Libya's seven million population. It is located in a bay, on the northwest of Libya on the edge of the desert, It was founded in the seventh century BC by the Phoenicians, In the Arab World, Tripoli is also known as Tripoli-of-the-West, to distinguish it from its Phoenician sister city Tripoli, in Lebanon, It is also know as "The Mermaid of the Mediterranean" because of its turquoise waters and its whitewashed buildings, though Tripoli is actually a Greek name that means 'Three Cities' because, unsurprisingly, it was formed from the merger of three cities.

Tripoli is quaint, with winding alleys and inviting beach kiosks and the food iss good. The tourist must-sees are the Roman Arch of Marcus Aurelius. the Grand Mosque, historic Gurgi Mosque, Tripoli Roman Catholic Cathedral (from the Italian colonial era now Algeria Square Mosque ) and (perhaps surprisingly) the Anglican church. There were huge billboards featuring Gadhafi everywhere. Though no-one was sure where he actually was - he definitely wasn’t in his palace, in the vast Bab al-Azizia barracks.

Facts and Factoids

  • Today, Libya's wealth depends on the tenth-largest proven oil reserves in the world.
  • Its 1099 miles of Mediterranean Sea coast is the longest of any North African country.
  • And, the Libyan Desert is one of the most sun-baked and arid places on earth. Libya is also known as 'The Land of the Sun'. There is no average rainfall - the land may go for decades with no rain.
  • The Libyans are very friendly. (The married guide was a little too friendly - he thought I should get an individual dinner with him to make up for being late.)

But, sadly, this is another sad tale of ‘man’s inhumanity to man’. Present day Libya remains deeply divided as rival governments continue to vie for political legitimacy and assert control against a background of economic collapse and widespread lawlessness in which armed groups and militias abduct people for ransom and committed unlawful killings with impunity (Amnesty International). The fighting and instability in the country/region was responsible for the deaths of almost 1,800 migrants fleeing several countries in North Africa. They died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe in the summer of 2015.

At least, according to the internet, Leptis Magna still survives, almost entirely abandoned, except for visits by the odd aid worker. Weeds and wild asparagus are growing among the cracks on the cobbled stones of the road leading to the city’s parliament.

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