Libya: Museum of the Civilizations of the World
Libya: Museum of the Civilizations of the World
Photographs by Sulaiman Haidar
Libya amazed us. This country is capable of causing its visitors endless astonishment, from the time they set foot on its virgin soil until the time for their departure. This is exactly what happened to us.
Libya in my memory was surrounded by deceptive veils, which often concealed the ability to search for the fragrance of its ancient civilizations and its unique pattern. It was hidden from us, and removed from us, until it surprised us on that visit, pushing the brilliance of discovery into our spirits, and bringing the fragrance of history and the warmth of the making of civilizations into our souls.
We came to Libya by its Arab Airlines, and set out to roam around in it as much as time allowed us.
We found Libya beautifully virgin. It is a land whose every inch contains a trace of a civilization. Its long sea coast is adorned by beautiful beaches, like a dream when one is astonished, like a surprise of the seas in their obscurity when it is clothed in magic and strangeness.
The shrill cries of women and the happy shouts of children rang out, coinciding with the men's leaps upward, when the pilot of the aircraft said in a hoarse, staccato voice, "We have returned safely by God's grace to Tripoli International Airport."
It was a moment difficult to describe: the joy of regaining a life that one had despaired of continuing a few minutes earlier.
In the waiting room to which we returned, I asked my colleague the photographer whether we had touched the ceiling of the aircraft when we leapt up or not. We were so startled that we felt a new life had been granted to us, after we had seen the wing on fire and thick smoke rising up from it with our own eyes, an hour after we had left the international airport. The other passengers did not notice what was happening until the captain stated, "Because of an unforeseen malfunction, we are compelled to return to where we came from." Then everyone held their breaths, and my colleague and I continued to gaze at the wing of the aircraft and its thick smoke. The next hour which separated us from the airport was longer and more difficult to endure than centuries. We recited all the verses of the Holy Quran that we could remember and murmured prayers to which we resort in extremely difficult situations that always happen to us in our work, which is usually in the world's trouble spots or places where there is danger.
In order to derive some strength in the last moments before the landing of the apparently crippled aircraft, I asked my colleague whether he had ever seen the wing of an aircraft on fire before during his travels throughout the world over the past quarter of a century. I was trying to plead for something that would help my spirit to behave courageously and put a touch of false warmth into my agitated heart. But how could all this heavy fear be dissipated by a word, while our fate and that of the people with us was dependent on the conduct of one man who was flying the aircraft, racing against time and a fire which was still raging on its left wingtip?
This accursed wing cost us 18 hours in the airport waiting to depart again. But the sweetness of spirit whose importance we discovered in this testing moment enabled us to endure this. The hours which we spent came after the loss of hope in life altogether. But what really overjoyed us was the discovery of a country like Libya, with such a huge amount of mystery, with all this human heritage extending over several civilizations. And it has such great potentials that enable it to make great leaps forward in various fields.
We came to Libya, which has become a Jamahiriya, followed by its enigmas and a few facts which we obtained from reference works difficult to track down. But this faint gleam motivated us to run around all over this fraternal Arab country in search of facts which, for a long time, had been hidden by an accumulation of slogans, political ideas and international interests.
The Story of a Shaikh
When Libya is mentioned, one immediately remembers its Arab hero and symbol Omar Al-Mukhtar. This Shaikh, who chose to confront those who were occupying his country in the later years of his life, was willing to be executed by the invaders so that a spark that rejected humiliation would remain kindled in people's breasts until his homeland became independent and expelled the colonialist intruders. The history of a hero like Omar Al-Mukhtar was bound to pursue us throughout our trip to Libya, which extended between many of its cities. We tried to learn from this important Arab country its heritage, civilization, its generosity and magnificent age which continued to waft above its vast area and cast rays of light on its neighbors and its Arab, European, African and Mediterranean surroundings. Libya, whose area totals 1,759,540 square kilometres containing a variety of climates, is a beautiful story of a brilliant civilization which continued to spread radiance for a long time and is still able to do so.
After flying for three hours from Cairo, our aircraft landed at Tripoli International Airport, which had been opened a year before our arrival after the international embargo on air travel to the Jamahiriya had been lifted. Slogans in green from the Green Book were in every corner, while many notice boards lined the roads outside the airport gate and continued to accompany visitors all along the long, broad road to the center of the capital. Everything was green, from the notice boards with slogans to the uniforms of the women officers who carry out many of the security and administrative tasks in the airport, to the windows and walls of houses. Even the many murals which speak in a friendly manner of the common future with "black" Africa are also in green.
Before we arrived at the Grand Hotel, a beautiful hotel run by the Tourist Promotion Board in the Libyan Jamahiriya together with several other high-class hotels staffed by skilled local people, the excellent arrangement of the roads and the spotless cleanliness of the streets were among the things that attracted our attention. We asked the driver to take us around the city, and then noticed a large number of Africans sitting on the sidewalks carrying their metal tools: car washers, smiths and dyers waiting for customers. The weather was fine with the beginning of winter. This inspired us to leave our baggage in the hotel room and head off towards Tripoli's broad, extended Corniche. The country has a total of 1,900 kilometres of coastline. The view of the sea was enchanting. Crowds of people were walking to and fro, while the sounds of tape recorders rose up from the stalls of vendors of cassettes recorded with songs, accompanying those who went for their evening walk by the Mediterranean Sea. When we asked for a cold drink from one of the stalls, we were shown several kinds: kawthar, Saada, Mirada, Rawaa and Boumis, which are alternative names for the Western cold drinks which are widespread in our countries and throughout the world. Although they have a different Arabized name, they keep the same trade mark, the same size container and the same taste.
We noticed later that Arabization affected not only cold drinks. Taxis are called "rakubas". On top of taxis with their distinctive color is a small triangular notice indicating that they are a "public rakuba", to distinguish them from the usually small private rakubas which were mostly older type vehicles. During our whole trip we never saw any American car driving around the streets. Arabization does not stop there, it covers everything from hotels, of which there are none from the international chains known in most countries of the world, companies whatever their field of activity, to luxury tourist complexes and clubs.
Even the months have their own separate Libyan dictionary, as do the years. The month that we know as January is Al-Nar (Fire) in Libya, February is Al-Nur (Light), March is Al-Rabia (Spring), April Al-Tair (the Bird), May Al-Ma (Water), June Al-Sayf (Summer), July is called Nasser after the late President of Egypt Jamal Abdul-Nasser with his revolution that occurred in July as a good omen, August is "Hannibal", September is "Al-Fatih", the first day of the month on which the Libyan Revolution led by Colonel Muammar Al-Qadhafi was carried out, October is "Al-Tumur" (Dates), November is "Al-Harth" (Plowing), and finally December is called "Al-Kanun" (the traditional Arabic name for December). The matter is not confined to the months. The years also have their appropriate changes according to the Libyan view. The Libyan calendar begins from the death of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him). The year 2002 in this unique calendar is 1370 after the death of the Prophet.
We did not stay long in Tripoli, whose simplicity surprised us, as well as the friendliness of its people, the beauty of its streets and its green spaces which are transformed every evening into day illuminated by floodlights at the top of tall electricity poles. We attended many weddings there, at which relatives came to take souvenir photographs of the bride and bridegroom in covered wooden horse-drawn carriages, which took them round a spacious square before they returned to have a distinctive Libyan wedding ceremony to the sound of the cheerful hooting of horns from cars adorned with colored decorations made of natural flowers, cellophane and balloons.
From the square we headed to the old market, where were the sellers of gold, handicrafts, traditional clothes, leather and works of art. There the sounds of recorded songs of Umm Kalthoum echoed. Also from the square we set out to walk for long hours in the long Omar Al-Mukhtar Street, which begins from the building of the Ministry of the Interior and the National Bank. In 1 September Street, an important commercial street in which high-class Italian clothes are sold and whose two sides are lined with perfume shops, bookshops and shops selling electrical appliances, we turned into another street called Al-Kazimiya. We continued to wander around until tiredness brought us back to the square again, and from there to the Corniche where the sounds of Western music gradually grew louder than those of Umm Kalthoum. The styles of clothing worn by young men and their haircuts suggested that there is something new creeping in, albeit slowly, and that a change whose beginnings we saw in many signs is moving forward to establish itself.
We left Tripoli one morning in the direction of Benghazi. Omar Al-Mukhtar was still pursuing us, as if pushing us to go to him. We remembered him as one of a collection of great Arab stars, and seemed to have been affected by his magic. So we decided to head to where he used to fight, where he was executed, and where he now lies in his headquarters which has become a shrine.
After an hour of flying, the aircraft landed at Benghazi. We headed for the streets of the city with our companions, Khalil Al-Uraibi the Secretary of the Artists' League in Benghazi Governorate, and Saad Nafou, the Chief Editor of Al-Thaqafa Al-Arabiya magazine and Branch Secretary of the General Press Establishment in Benghazi. We set out towards the west, the melodious voice of the famous Libyan singer Muhammad Hasan coming from our car radio with very beautiful rhythms, blaming his beloved whose letters were late. After exactly 40 kilometres, which we drove past farms with water cisterns which benefited from water from the artificial river, we arrived at Sallouq, a village which depends on irrigation. The agriculture in it is seasonal, and it now has no more than 20,000 inhabitants. It contains the tomb of Omar Al-Mukhtar. In the walled area of earth surrounding the tomb are notice boards, one of which says, "We are still fighting, Shaikh of freedom-fighters". In this place, where Omar Al-Mukhtar was executed on Wednesday 16 September 1931, 22,000 Libyans were killed who had been imprisoned in a concentration camp at Sallouq. We entered the graveyard area. The place was open without a roof in it. Around Al-Mukhtar's tomb were a few palm trees and tall electricity poles on the tops of which fluttered green flags with no writing on them. The wall around the graveyard was painted white and green. We walked a few steps to the place of execution, where a ceremony has been held on the anniversary every year since 1981, when it was decided to transfer Al-Mukhtar's remains from Benghazi, where he was buried, to Sallouq, the place where he was executed.
We went out to the village: small streets, and so calm that one could imagine that there was no one moving there, a few low houses, but according to history all the invasions passed through here to Libya. This village, with its location, is a corridor for the tribes. Perhaps the choice of Italian colonialism to execute Omar Al-Mukhtar there was not a frivolous one, although Al-Mukhtar's birthplace was in the Jabal Al-Akhdar area, whose caves also were the site for battles in his struggle. The colonialists intended his execution to be in full view of everyone, with the aim of deterring any further attempts at revolt.
From Sallouq we went in an easterly direction, making for Derna where we were to stay the night. The road was very long, in the midst of a plain without vegetation. On both sides hills were visible. The car took us up higher, and then descended again, winding round the hills which were not steep, with camels wandering around grazing by themselves and walking on the asphalt road in spite of the broad desert around them. Finally we arrived in the first town we came across, Abiar which is 300 metres above sea level.
Desert plants grew in profusion in the plain, and clouds passing over the empty ground cast shadows on it, which looked like dark spots on a yellow carpet. We passed by the village of Melitaniya, where the houses are few and thinly scattered. After that we entered a brown-colored desert which did not leave us until our convoy reached the town of Marj, which is famous as one of the five Greek cities founded in eastern Libya. It used to be called Barshi, or Barqa as it was known during the Italian occupation. In Libya there are two Barqas, the first being Barqa Al-Baida (White Barqa) which is now Marj, and Barqa Al-Hamra (Red Barqa). The name of both derives from the color of the soil, which is among the most fertile in the country, and is famous for wheat.
We traveled nearly 90 kilometres from Sallouq to the entrance to Marj, where there are industrial workshops, schools and shops for wedding gear. This town suffeed from a big earthquake in 1961, and was rebuilt in modern style.
Agriculture there depends on the technique of "cloud seeding". Aircraft fly above the clouds which are filled with water, and spray aluminum flakes over them , directing them so that the rain will fall on the land which is required to be watered. This technique has been known in Libya for only fifteen years.
We left Marj and went along a road lined with huge trees which shaded it. Here were large farms, before we were confronted with a tall mountain, which is 750 metres high in its highest area, Al-Hamra, just like the area of Lebanon. In this area, colonialism tried to settle five million people from southern Italy and hand them over ready-made farms there.
We continued along the road which stretched for 225 kilometres parallel to the Jabal Al-Akhdar which begins from Aqabat Al-Bakur west of Marj and ends in Wadi Al-Baqr about 1.5 kilometres east of the town of Derna. Here specifically is the region where the Jihad (sacred liberation struggle) was fought against the Italians. We entered this region, in the center of whose mountain range are spread hundreds of caves, which have become places for tourists to visit. Omar Al-Mukhtar and the Libyan Mujahidin used to use them as hiding-places during their continuous attacks against the colonialists. We were now passing by the mountainous area of Wadi Al-Kuf, and stopped for a short while under its bridge, which had been built during the filming of the international film on Omar Al-Mukhtar, which was directed by Mustafa Al-Aqqad and starred Anthony Quinn.
Before this bridge, on which a portrait of Omar Al-Mukhtar has now been hung with the caption underneath "Here are the valleys of the Jihad and the lair of the lion Al-Mukhtar", we saw from afar a bridge linking two high mountains. The view was magnificent from the bottom of the mountain. It was indeed one of the most beautiful suspension bridges in the world.
Wadi Al-Kuf, which has been adopted internationally as a nature reserve, contains a huge number of caves. I do not know why it has been called Wadi Al-Kuf and not Al-Kuhuf (which means the caves). Why was the letter 'h' dropped from its name?
After 16 kilometres of Wadi Al-Kuf we arrived in the town of Baida, which is famous for growing apples. It is an extremely cold city at night, particularly in winter, which is when we arrived in the Jamahiriya. We wandered around the streets of the town, we went past Omar Al-Mukhtar Agricultural University, and we saw its white houses, before we took the road again to the town of Derna, which required us to travel another 99 kilometres from Baida.
On the way we passed through the town of Qubba, a large town by Libyan standards in terms of the number of its inhabitants (80,000 people). On entering the town, the modern working-class houses look white, but their edges are green.
The well-equipped car took us around the crests of a very high range of mountains. We saw the sea spread out flat and wide, and the land along the shore was empty of people. The slogan "Al-Fatih for ever" had been written in cement. It was a slogan we would always find everywhere, and above every notice board.
The Lights of Derna
We approached Derna in the evening after we had spent the day since early morning driving along the road. We were still suffering from blocked ears as a result of the pressure which took us by surprise when we were in the car in the highest part of the mountains, and then descended, and ascended and descended again. We were overcome by the feelings of airline passengers. We put up with the pain and set off to walk round the streets in the town, which were well lit and broad, until we reached the modest hotel. We threw down our suitcases, and set out to explore the city by night, its people and the fragrance of its quarters.
In this town, which is bisected by the course of a large valley which is famous in Libya, Wadi Derna, live 121,000 people, most of them merchants. It has a modern university with science, social science, technical and medical faculties, as well as the International Center for Comprehensive Professions and a teachers' training college.
Derna was colonized by the Byzantines for a while, and then came the Islamic conquest. The Italians invaded in 1914, and later built a large wall around it to prevent the Mujahidin from entering it, and also to prevent any supplies reaching them from its inhabitants.
In order to learn more about Derna, we had to go to its historian, Shaikh Mustafa Al-Trabulsi (aged 80), the author of the book Derna Al-Zahira. When we visited him at his home on the day we arrived in the town, he told us that there is an old Derna and a new Derna. The former was first mentioned in history by the Greek astronomer Ptolemy, when he mentioned that the Ptolemys were the successors of Alexander and they annexed Barqa. New Derna grew up and prospered after Andalusian families, who had been expelled from Andalusia, arrived and settled in North Africa. The place where they chose to settle was Derna, and at that time agriculture flourished in it.
The name derives from an ancient Libyan word which means "between the mountains". According to Shaikh Mustafa Al-Trabulsi, the name is ancient Greek. It is most likely an ancient Libyan name which the Greeks kept as it was.
In this town there are tombs of 77 Companions of the Prophet Muhammad who died as martyrs in Derna. When the Arabs were returning from Andalusia, pirates from Byzantine ships attacked them and killed a large number of them. The traces of the Andalusians are still there in Derna, in the style of architecture as well as the mosques, particularly the Ancient Mosque. Another historian, Othman Al-Kaak, has described the Andalusian style of building in a book about Derna, in the following words: "The fear which pursued the Andalusians as a result of their departure from there cast its shadow on the Andalusian architectural style in the town of Derna."
Derna is the artists' town in the Jamahiriya. There are a large number of them there, and we saw theatrical groups and other groups for folk music and dancing holding their daily rehearsals. It is well known in Libya that the theater was first launched in Derna in 1930.
We spent the night in a hotel called after the Jabal Al-Akhdar, a humble hotel in Revolution Square. This is part of the Bilad Quarter, one of Derna's several quarters, which include Jebaila, East Sahel, and East and West Shiha.
In the morning we set out to visit the tombs of the 77 Companions of the Prophet which are located in the Sidi Bou Mansour Quarter. They are contained in a building which is an annex of a large mosque with a spacious courtyard, known as the Companions' Mosque. The mosque is very spacious with many rooms attached to it for memorizing the Holy Quran and teaching Arabic. It has a very large reception area with wooden chairs for waiting. The courtyard is decorated with marble. The mosque has two minarets with a massive dome painted brown between them. It is surrounded on the outside by stone walls, and its door is high like a triumphal arch and surrounded by small green domes. In this place is the shrine of Sidi Zuhayr Ibn Qays Al-Balawi, the commander of the Muslim conquerors. In the same building there is an adjoining room called the Martyrs' Room. There is also the shrine of Sidi Abdulla Ibn Barr Al-Isa, the deputy commander of the conquerors, whom the inhabitants of Derna call Sidi Al-Zawwam. Next to it is another room named after the judge of the campaign, Sidi Abu Mansour Al-Sahabi, and near these rooms is a place where there is a well with water. In the same building there is a room for Sufi mystics from the Arusiya order, a prayer room for the Arusiya companions, another prayer room for Ibn Isa, and another containing the tomb of Shaikh Abdulsalam Al-Asmar.
We entered the Souq Al-Kharraza, the market for leather goods, which is located in a square enclosed area in the middle of which is a dilapidated ancient fountain. Around its sides are low shops with arched doorways that one has to bend down somewhat in order to enter. They are narrow shops like matchboxes, containing machines to make and repair leather goods.
We went on foot from the Companions' Mosque, in the street named The Companions' Mosque Street, crossing through the fast-moving cars. Then we turned right into Zulaitin Street, the oldest street in Derna, and found the Ancient Mosque facing us. It is by far the largest mosque there, and is colored yellow and dark brown.
Ancient houses and Andalusian styles in Zulaitin Street, which is named after a town lying 150 kilometres east of Tripoli, containing the shrine of the famous Shaikh of the Sufi orders there Abdulsalam Al-Asmar.
We enter the old city, to Abdulkarim Jibril Street, named after a well-known popular poet there. This street used to be called Al-Zawiya Street, and before that the Street of the Jews because they used to live there in the past. It is a street that is no more than two and a half metres wide, and the windows of its old houses overlook each other. None of them is more than two storeys high. The street is paved with square tiles and stones.
We walked to the Jewish Quarter, past a church which had been built in 1807 and has now been turned into the Derna Culture House. We arrived at the Perfumers' Quarter, and then some narrow corners which led us to the Ancient Mosque adjoining the covered "Darkness" Market to which the sun never penetrates. It used to close its gates when darkness fell. Its name was changed to the "Light" Market after it became lit by electricity. This market specializes in various traditional industries and handicrafts.
We went off towards the Derna Waterfalls area, along a street beside which was a dry river bed, which took us towards a range of high mountains before leading us to the waterfall, whose water gushes out from the highest opening in the mountain covered with dense trees. The water flows through narrow channels and then the circle broadens out at the bottom so that the water rushes out in a white foam into a basin that has been built to collect water at the foot of the mountain. After that it pours through a covered tunnel to irrigate the crops on the other side. This waterfall, which has been known to the Libyans since the "Roman" age, is very high but it is not broad. Its water comes out from a spring at the top of the mountain and continues to flow until it comes to a rocky inclination, from which it rushes forth like a destructive storm, making a noise like a bombardment at the bottom of the mountain.
After a further ten kilometres we arrived at the Wadi Dam, which is a very large high dam whose purpose is to collect rain water. At the bottom is a valley with some green shrubs in it. On the other side there is a trumpet-shaped "funnel" water cistern built of reinforced concrete to collect the surplus water, which flows off after that through a channel under this dam to another dam located at the beginning of the road on which we set out from Derna. We stopped on high ground intending to photograph the town, in front of us what remains of the wall which the Italians built around Derna to prevent the inhabitants from giving help to the Mujahidin. We saw palm trees and houses on mountains, and others lower down. With the minarets of the mosques and the background of the sea they formed a wonderful picture.
There is an amazing phenomenon in Libya, and perhaps we do not exaggerate if we say that it is found nowhere else. In this country there are lots of poets and writers, and they are bashful and modest to an extent that is almost pathological. We never set foot in any Libyan town without finding notable activity in the theater, poetry, short stories and novels. A tremendous crowd of creative people, among them people who are worthy to have a respected status in the domain of Arab creativity. But the really confusing thing is this bashfulness which perhaps is "not benign" in presenting their writings to others.
This phenomenon baffled us - and it really is a phenomenon - and we wondered a great deal about the reason. The answers did not convince us, most of them revolved around the character of desert people which prevents them from trying to display what may be the product of their talent to others. They indicate that if anyone sends a poem to a newspaper and it is not published, this fact is enough for the poet not to try again, and maybe to give up writing altogether.
The day we arrived in Benghazi, we spent the night in the city's theaters, whose groups were busy preparing for the new theater season. We spent the latter part of it in the television studios which were crammed with the leading stars of Libya's acting profession, who were playing their parts in plays which were scheduled to be presented last Ramadan.
In the Popular Theater, which is regarded as the leading theater in the city and which was founded in 1936, its stars had taken part in several Arab festivals and won a prize at the Carthage Festival in Tunisia. We watched a play by the writer Muhammad Al- Ajoury called With the Wind of Fancy, which is a human question in a social comedy framework. It was directed by Hammad Muhammad Hammad and contained plenty of significant allusions to housing and some crises from which Libyan society is suffering. This theater presents two to three plays each year.
In Benghazi alone there are thirteen theatre groups, twelve of them local and one national group which is state-supported. Artists from Egypt (Omar Al-Hariri in 1967, Sayyid Radi and Muhammad Tawfiq) have come to this group, trained it and directed several plays for it. The strange thing is that all those working in that group, actors, directors, writers and other people working in it, are amateurs. None of them receive any remuneration for their participation. These theaters exist by financing themselves, and despite that there is hardly a town or village without its theater group.
Although Benghazi is the center of the theatrical and cultural movement in Libya, the longest period for which any play has been put on is no more than three months. The name of that play was Happiness. In general, all the plays which we saw in most of the towns we visited revolved around purely social questions, without departing from the same framework which is used for most artistic works in several Arab countries and which in most cases hardly goes beyond questions of swindling, breakup of families, narcotics and so forth.
When we arrived in Derna we saw two performances, the first by the National Theater Group (the state theater), and the second by the Amateur Actors' Group, which is the oldest local theater group in Libya. It was established in 1930, and it is also made up of amateurs. The play dealt with the expensiveness of dowries, in a social comedy form, with the participation of women. There are also two local groups, the Muttahidun and Derna Cultural House. As well as the four theater groups there is also the Derna Folk Music Group which was founded in 1969 and which contains 35 members, all of them amateurs.
On the subject of art in Libya, the Secretary-General of the Artists' League and member of the Executive Bureau of the Federation of Arab Artists Jamal Al-Lafi told us that nine festivals are held in Libya every year. They are concerned with music , singing, the plastic and visual arts, the theater, and folklore. He indicated that Libyan art is not mass art because of the lack of professionalism, although there are about 40 theatre groups in the country. For her part Khadouja Sabri, the Assistant Secretary-General of the Artists' League who has won several prizes, the latest of which was the Carthage Festival Prize for the film The Recital of the Rain, and who was honored at the recent Cairo Radio and Television Festival, told us that the General Cinema Company (which the Libyans call the Phantom) makes a feature film approximately every three years. There are Libyan women directors in television and radio as well as the theater.
Poetry thrives in the various towns of the Jamahiriya, but poets normally sing to themselves. In Tripoli, Benghazi and Derna, where we stayed several days and nights, we had several meetings and seminars with poets, story writers, playwrights and songwriters.
In Libya at present there are 333 poets and numerous novelists and short story writers. The best known of these are Ahmad Ibrahim Al-Faqih, Ibrahim al Kouni, Muhammad Ali Al-Shuwaihidi, Salem Al-Abbar, Wahbi Al-Bouri and Yusuf Al-Sharif. They are all great names. The present Shaikh of Libyan poets, Hasan Al-Sousi, says that poetry in Libya has developed since the 1960s, in that it has come to know the scanned poem. This development coincided with the spread of education and the increase in general knowledge, until the present time when Libya's poets have come to take an effective part in Arab poetry gatherings.
In Derna also poetry is thriving in harmony with the theater. Poetry evenings are held regularly. There we met several poets, among the best of whom were probably Ali Abdulshafia Al-Khurram and Faraj Al-Shalawi who described for us the poetry in that town in detail.
In Benghazi we met the poetess Khadija Al-Biskri who writes a column in Al-Jamahiriya newspaper. She has an anthology in manuscript form, and an anthology published in Beirut in 1994. She emphasizes that many women have preceded her in writing, including Fawziya Shallabi (a former Minister), Aisha Idris and Aisha Bazama, who write free verse.
Of the short story writers we met Salem Al-Abbar, who is the Chief Editor of Benghazi newspaper. He is a well-known story writer and a researcher on folk literature. He believes that in spite of the large number of writers in Libya, Libyan literature is not widespread abroad.
"The 1970s witnessed the emergence of the short story in Libya," Al-Abbar said, "and the magical realist school came in the late 1980s, and added fantasy and mythology.
"What we are trying to do is to give free rein to imagination," he went on, "and we are trying to create an identity for the Arab story through the location and characters and produce it again in order to give a different form to the short story, by dealing in a new way with the narrative sentence."
Plastic arts attract public interest no less than poetry, stories and the theater. In Dar Al-Funun in Tripoli, we saw several canvases, as well as workshops in which artists from the Jamahiriya participate and carry out notable experiments. The Secretary of the Dar, Colonel Khalifa Al-Mahdawi told us that "the plastic arts movement in Libya is one of its sources of pride," and that Libya has a number of great artists by international standards.
The Road to Sousa
The road to Benghazi was very delightful. From the time we left Derna on the way back to Benghazi a really beautiful vie surprised us in the strip along the coast of the Mediterranean: bends along the coastline opposite chains of high mountains, virgin beaches on which no foot had trod, surrounding small scattered islands of brilliant blue in a slightly wavy sea. We had arrives at Sousa in Libya, which is different to the town of the same name in Tunisia. The island of Crete is about 400 kilometres away from it. In a very narrow street, we walked along a dirt road that had been prepared, to arrive at an area of Roman churches in Al-Atroun region. There we saw the Byzantine Western church which had been discovered in the 1960s by an Italian mission. The excavation had been continued in the area until last year, 2001, by a French mission under the supervision of the University of the Sorbonne, which is at present repairing it and classifying it in full.
Al-Atroun is administratively subject to Derna. Jabal Al-Akhdar Governorate is called the region of the five Greek cities, namely Apollonia which is present-day Sousa, Kourina which is called Shahat at the present time, Tokhira which is Tokra, Barqa which is now called Al-Marj, and Iosperides which is now Benghazi.
The Western church was built according to the same method as the churches in these areas, with a main courtyard, a sacred area, a curvature towards the west, and porticos along the sides. It was built in the age of conversion to Christianity at the beginning of the Byzantine era, with imported marble and sandstone.
We left this region and headed along a narrow coastal road until we reached the area of Ras Al-Hilal on the coast, where the mountain cuts into the sea forming a crescent-shaped arch with the coast. We had not seen a more beautiful view, but it was not being used for any tourist project.
The road took us up and down. We passed by the Rainbow Resort below the mountain, where there are small white buildings scattered around, and a few minutes later we arrived at other white houses in a tourist village by the beautiful sea crescent.
We stopped to take some photographs of this attractive and enchanting view. We bacame like Tariq Ibn Ziyad and his soldiers, with the sea in front of us and the mountains like a giant behind us. The waters of the sea changed here to a transparent green color, and the waves disappeared, the Mediterranean had little foam. Tunnels extend from the center of the high mountains into the calm tongue of coastline. When our two companions noticed our astonishment, they told us that the famous Greek magnate Onassis, before he died, offered to develop that region over ten years, but his request was refused because of "alcohol".
We drove along in our car, while some people working in the mountains waved to us to stop and have Green Libyan tea. We thanked them and continued on our way to Sousa, about which a poet had written a famous poem that we used to study in Arabic language lessons in the past:
Have you seen Sousa, wrapped in the late afternoon, In garments woven from lights?
I was captivated by its magic
When I halted there one evening.
The sea in front of me seems to reach deep
Into the horizon, and the proud mountain is behind me,
And the sun as it is setting pours out Red rays onto the blue depth of the sea.
When I said that this poem was about Sousa in Tunisia, as we had learnt at school, our companions said that the poet had lived here, and that the descriptions in the poem about the sea with the mountain opposite are only there in this area.
We entered Sousa, which is a small village whose 10,000 inhabitants live by fishing in the sea. We went to its museum, which is full of large headless statues and other small ones, mosaics and earthenware pots from ancient times.
We went to the seashore by the harbor, where legend relates that, when an earthquake destroyed the town of Tyra in Greece, the god Apollo, whose center was at Delphi where people used to visit in order to obtain his blessing. Aristotle went there and asked where they should go after life had become impossible in Tyra, he told them, "Go to Sousa in North Africa". It is said that the Greeks wanted to cut the road for the Persians who were advancing on Egypt, and the immigrants arrived in Sousa, and the Libyans showed them Kourina, which is now called Shahat. They chose to build their city here, and founded it in 631 BC. When they became in need of a harbor, they chose Sousa (Apollonia) as a harbor for Kourina, and it was in fact built 30 years after Kourina. They called it Apollonia after Apollo. It was one of the five cities founded by the Greeks in Cyrenaica which were known as the Pentapolis. It lived through the Greek and Roman eras, and in the Byzantine era became the capital of the five cities. They even changed its name from Apollonia to Souzousa which means Savior, namely Jesus the Messiah who had saved them from the claws of paganism.
However, an earthquake hit the city in 365 AD and it was submerged, so that half of the ruins of that city are still there under the water to this day. The University of the Sorbonne is investigating them at present.
The English mission which came earlier only investigated the Byzantine buildings on the land, where it discovered three churches whose names were not known. These are now known as the "Eastern", "Central" and "Western" Churches. All three date back to the sixth century AD.
We stood by the sea above a gap surrounded by a circle of rocks enclosing a lot of sea water. All the inhabitants and archaeologists affirm that it was Cleopatra's bath, but which one of the seven women called by this name? Nobody had the answer.
Museum of the World
We continued our way to Shahat as it is called now, the former Kourina. It is indeed an amazing city: huge areas covered with Byzantine and Roman ruins.
At the beginning of Shahat, where we were accompanied by Muhammad Ali Sharit, a tourist guide and the head of a section supervising the ruins, there are carved graveyards scattered over two kilometres of the mountain. Huge numbers of these graveyards are distributed all along the mountain, made of marble with columns, and inside them many rooms with stone ornaments and carvings.
According to sources there are a total of more than 2,010 graveyards, open or tunneled into the mountain rocks. The mass graves higher us are in a different style, from different ruling families. The individual graves lower down are horizontal. The graveyards have been used several times. The Greeks were the first to use them in the fifth and fourth centuries BC. Then the Romans used them after that.
We crossed the area of the graveyards and entered the archaeological area in the center of the mountain. On the way we saw the temple of Apollo which dates back to the sixth century BC. This city, Kourina, is divided into two parts: the first was devoted to the performance of religious rituals and was called the sacred area. It contained a temple where there used to be celebrations for the congregation. This temple was destroyed during the revolt of the Jews against the Romans, because when the Roman commander Titus was angered with the Jews in Palestine he destroyed their temple in Palestine. Conflicts then began between the Jews and the Romans. This area was rebuilt in the time of the Roman Emperor Hadrian around 120 AD. The city remained as it was until it was destroyed in the Sousa earthquake in 365 AD. The epicenter of the earthquake was the town of Curium in Cyprus.
The second part of the city of Shahat was called the Agora or market. This was the center of the city in which festivities were held, and there were markets, theaters and baths.
The economy of Kourina depended on the sylvium plant, a medicinal plant which was worth its weight in silver. The historian Herodotus wrote that it was suitable to cure all illnesses.
In that region which is crowded with ruins there are railway lines which our companions said were used in that city. They were a cause of the huge thefts of things from the city, which were smuggled out, particularly during the time of the Italian occupation.
However, most experts affirmed that what has been explored so far is no more than 40% of the ruins of the city, and that what is still hidden underground is more.
We went to the gate with its tall pillars, which dates back to the fourth century BC. Near to it is the Stratigon building, the building of the commanders. We went on our way, after we became exhausted by walking in that extensive area, past the Spring of Apollo, whose water flows down into the lower part of the valley. Facing us were dozens of statues of winged lions, crocodiles and other animals of unknown names. While the Greeks were the founders of that city in 631 BC, they continued there until 96 BC, when the Romans came and took it in accordance the will of Ptolemy Abion, the brother of Ptolemy the ruler of Egypt. He had stated in his will, "If I die without being granted a child to succeed me, my possessions pass into the hands of the Romans," who used to support him. When he died childless, the Romans demanded that his will be executed. They continued to rule Kourina until 642 AD, the year when Amr Ibn Al-Aas conquered Libya and expelled them from it.
Before Ibn Al-Aas, the Romans had changed their religion from paganism to Christianity. They established a new capital which they called Byzantium and came to be known as the Byzantines.
We climbed to the top of the mountain where was the temple of Zeus. This was the largest Greek temple in North Africa, and rivaled the Parthenon and the Acropolis in Athens. This temple dated back to the fifth century BC. It was built in primitive style, and had eight columns in front , 17 columns on the right, 17 others on the left, eight at the back and two columns inside, making it 52 columns in all.
This temple was built on an area 62 metres long by 34 metres wide. Inside there is a base for a statue which in the past bore a statue of the god Zeus, who was the lord of the gods according to the pagans in those ancient times
In our car, which had been prepared for driving at high mountain altitudes, we passed through an area of pine-covered hills, heading for the ancient amphitheater which used to be devoted to games. From there we entered the area of a gymnasium which dated back to the fourth century BC. At the beginning of the first century AD the Romans had turned this into a forum, an open space or square. It was built in classical Doric style.
When this gymnasium was turned into a forum, they added a courtroom to it which was called the Basilica. In the middle there is a small temple to the god Bacchus (the Roman god of wine), whom the Greeks called Dionysius.
The gymnasium was 96 metres long and 84 metres wide, with 110 ornamented columns. It was called a Caesarium in its time, after Caesar, to indicate greatness because it was a huge building.
We entered Batos Street, called after the first king and founder of Kourina. Around this street is a railway. There is a Roman theater which dates back to the second century AD. The Romans came to Kourina in 96 BC. The theater was a high building, with three storeys. There was an area prepared for acting on top of it, but the earthquake in 365 AD destroyed the city.
The Romans had two types of theater. The Odeon was for singing, music and dancing. This theater dated back to the fourth century BC. Beside it was the other theater, where plays were acted.
We went on to the portico of Hercules, who represented strength, and Hermes (the messenger of the gods) who represented speed. They were together in a single statue contained in the gymnasium.
From there we entered the area of the Agora, the public square or market, where there were shops. Many altars were built there on which sacrifices were offered to the gods. People used to come to the market and offer their sacrifices. In this square there is an altar to the nymph Kourina and her husband Apollo. There is also a memorial built in the fourth century to commemorate a sea battle between the Greeks and the Phoenicians, on which is a statue of Niki or Victoria, the goddess of victory. The memorial is adorned with dolphins. The winged statue of the goddess Niki is now in the Louvre museum in Paris, and is known as Niki Samotrasia.
From there we entered the temple of the goddess Demetra (the goddess of fertility, the earth and agriculture), who had a daughter called Persephone whom the god Chaos kidnapped to the underworld and fed six pomegranate seeds, so that she would sit for six months on the Earth and six months in the underworld, so that the season of agriculture and spring would flourish. They used to offer sacrifices of animals which would go inside the temple, so that the blood would go down into the underworld to Chaos, so that he would release Persephone and she would return to Earth.
We left the archeological area, where it is forbidden to live and build, and which UNESCO has registered as World Heritage City No. 222, and headed for the modern town, Shahat, which now has about 25,000 inhabitants engaged in agriculture, trade and animal husbandry. It is famous for producing the best apples. But on the way we turned off to the archaeological museum, a place which also arouses astonishment. We saw large numbers of statues there, most of them neglected and some of them thrown on the ground in the square outside. Inside the storeroom statues of various sizes confirmed what archaeological treasures the Libyan Jamahiriya owns. Had any European country possessed them it would have made them into an attraction for unending streams of tourists. From a statue of the three beauties, Agalia, Iophrosina and Phalia, who represented water, greenness and facial beauty in the Greek era, to a statue of Aphrodite the goddess of beauty, another of the wine god Bacchus, a third of Isis, beside her a statue of the godess Libya, the head of a statue of Athena the goddess of war, then the god of medicine, a statue of Alexander the Great and his horse, his chariot in which he visited Siwa oasis, Amon the god fashioned in the form of a goat, who had become an Egyptian-Libyan god. Then a statue of the sphinx of which there are only three copies in the world, one in Shahat and the other two in Greece. We left this museum of the world whose owners have still not benefited from it, and left Shahat on the long road back to Benghazi. However, something urged us to to stop in the town of Baida once more to visit the tomb of the venerable Companion of the Prophet Ruwaifa Ibn Thabit Al-Ansari.
On a road bordered by tree nurseries and low houses, we came to the hotels and tall buildings of the town, then the main square and the pot of tea set up in the center of it. The long tree-lined road took us to another square leading to the tomb, which was a stone surrounded by a large wall with a tree-lined entrance. It was in the middle of a square room and draped in green cloth on which was written in red, "There is no god but God and Muhammad is God's messenger". Among the information witten there is that the Companion "witnessed the conquest of Egypt and then Muawiya made him Governor of Tripoli".
After driving more than 400 kilometres in the car, we returned to Benghazi. In the morning we wandered around the city, starting from the Muhammad Jamal Al-Durra Bridge to 23rd July Street, and Jamal Abdul Nasser Street which is parallel to it. We went that morning to Qar Yunis University, which is the oldest of the 11 universities in Libya. Its first faculty was founded in 1955, and education there is mixed. We entered the main library which is a four-storey building on an area of 37,000 square metres. It contains some three million books, and has a special section for all the issues of Al-Arabi magazine which are available to students and researchers. One of them has even obtained a Master's degree on Al-Arabi magazine, as the Director of the Library Department Muhammad Idris told us.
We made our way to Abu Duzaira Family Tourist Resort, after passing through a working-class area called Al-Funduq, which contains a vegetable market and a bus station for buses leaving Benghazi. Then we went through Karkoura area to an old area called Sabiri. After that we went to the Mediterranean Corniche to see the old Benghazi lighthouse which is called Sidi Khuraibish Lighthouse, and then to old Benghazi to visit its ancient mosque. From there we went to the old Darkness Market, the new Darkness Market and the beautiful Municipal Square built in Italian style, which looks like a square in Rome.
From there we reached the resort with its enchanting views, where there is a theater in the shape of half an overturned boat, surrounded by restaurants, chalets, wooden bridges extending over sea water, and games that are still working after twenty years.
The End of the Journey
Since all good times come to an end, our journey in eastern Libya came to an end. We were conveyed by an aircraft of the internal airlines back to Tripoli Airport.
There we met the active Kuwaiti Charge d'Affaires Fahd Al-Dhafiri, who offered us all facilities to accomplish our journalistic task in the best way. We went after that to Al-Fatih Tower, a shopping and managerial center which covers a huge area and is very splendid. Opposite it there are three beautiful seaside hotels: the Bab Jadid, Bab Al-Bahr and Bab Al-Madina.
We said goodbye to Tripoli and went to its airport the following morning. The road was wet, and the rain was pouring onto the windscreen of the car and the surface of the road. After twenty minutes we arrived at the airport, but the wet morning was not enough for our journey to end peacefully. We were surprised by smoke rising from the wing of the aircraft, and by fear which lasted for an hour and a half which seemed like an age. We returned from there with a fondness in our hearts for this Arab country, and astonishment and wonderment on our faces.