Catriona Rowntree's first visit to Libya was an eye-opener for her. It's a country of 99 percent desert but its capital, Tripoli, is set on one of North Africa's best natural harbours. It has a Mediterranean charm, blended with strong Arabian and Islamic influences, and visitors just love it.
Founded in the seventh century BC by the Phoenicians, Tripoli is on the edge of the desert in Libya's north-west. It is on a rocky point projecting into the Mediterranean.
Libya has been involved in almost every major power struggle in the last 3000 years. Starting with the Phoenicians, it has had many visitors, including the wild Garamantian people, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines and Islamic armies from Damascus as far back as 600 BC.
Moamar al-Gaddafi led a successful coup in 1969 and during the '80s and '90s, Libya gained notoriety as a supporter of terrorism. United Nations cut it off from the political world. The United States arrived in 1986, firing missiles from aircraft, and in 1999, after a change in government attitude and actions, the UN lifted the sanctions and Libya returned to the world.
The Assai al-Hamra (the Red Castle) dominates the skyline of modern Tripoli. It is a vast complex with many courtyards and beautiful classical statues and fountains from the Ottoman period.
The old walled city with three is one of the Mediterranean's classical sites. The walls can be climbed for good views. Its basic street plan was laid in the Roman Empire period and walls were constructed as protection against attacks.
The Harbour Monument stands at the gates of the old city and there are a number of restored houses, consulates and a synagogue in its narrow streets. The medina is where you can buy traditional wares, jewellery and clothing and unlike most souks and markets, bargaining for lower prices is not acceptable there.
Less than two hours to Tripoli's east are the ruins of Leptis Magna, one of the finest Roman cities in existence. In the third century it was the biggest and wealthiest Roman city when Africa was at its peak. Unlike those built of sandstone, it was constructed with sturdy limestone, making it more resistant to earthquakes and the ravages of time.
It remains a testament to Roman town planning, with streets following an ordered pattern and an extravagance of lavish decoration, grand buildings of monumental stature, indulgent bath complexes and entertainment forums. An enormous amphitheatre with seating for more than 5000 people still has extraordinary acoustics.
A magnificent archway of limestone covered in marble commemorates a visit by Emperor Septimius Severus who was born there in 145 AD. Marketplaces are engraved with fish, vegetables and game which were once sold there. There was a steady income from agriculture, gold and other metals, ivory and the slave trade.
The ruins were abandoned in the 11th century and lay under a blanket of the Sahara until the early 1900s when it was unveiled by Italian workers. It is believed that only 20 percent has been uncovered.
The Hadrianic Baths are most impressive, and one remains intact, complete with arches, statues and columns. The bath house was one of the largest ever built outside Rome itself.
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