DON'T blame Colonel Gaddafi for seeking attention. Stranded half- way between classy Tunis and monumental Cairo, who wouldn't feel insecure? Libya has a population less than a tenth that of Egypt, scattered over an area nearly twice as large. If any country in North Africa was going to end up with a rock star for president, it had to be this one.
But apart from Gaddafi, is there anything to Libya? It calls itself the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jumahiriya, which does not sound very charming. It has joined Saudi Arabia and Iran in banning alcohol. It operates a highly restrictive visa regime. And yet, with its Mediterranean beaches, sunny climate and fabulous antiquities, it seems to offer unlimited tourism.
On my visit a fortnight ago, I found no issue which excited the Libyans more. "Oh yes," they kept telling me. "We are going to be a very big tourist country. But of course . . . you must allow for the customs of our people . . ." In other words, I understood, no beer and no bonking. Luckily I was there just for a tour of antiquities. This was what Libya meant to me: it was an Arab land, built on Phoenician and Greek roots, sitting on a vast area of desert. And, since Lockerbie, you had to beat a UN air embargo to get there, which meant driving across the border from the nearest Tunisian airport. "May your day accrue more benefit!" shouted the immigration police. The first thing that struck me on the Libyan side of the border were the high school girls in white socks and trainers, walking with their boyfriends. A hard-line Islamic state? Hardly. Anyway the scenery was far too benign for that, with golden wheat fields dotted by endless rows of olives. This was no dour, desert environment. In the restaurants and hotels of Tripoli, I found everybody drinking espressos and switching unflappably back and forth between English, French, Arabic and Italian. But Tripoli did not feel like a capital city. Palm trees stuck their heads above flat, dusty roofs. The centre of town was overlooked by the cliff-like walls of the Crusader Castle. Container ships stood mistily off-shore. And there was the new city: an Italian-built, white-washed zone of balconies and green shutters, colonnaded walkways and sleepy cafes, serving excellent coffee. But no grappa. Never mind. I escaped into the old city. A gentleman with a purple beret wobbled past on a bicycle; a youth in a gelabiyah held a mobile phone to his ear. The heart of Tripoli's commercial life? The boys manning stalls in the souk looked like stylish Inter Milan supporters. This had the air of a souk-in-waiting: waiting for the end of the embargo, waiting for tourists, waiting for history. To be honest, some people looked as if they had landed here unintentionally. And so in a way they had. Tripoli was originally founded by Phoenician sailors 2,700 years ago as a staging post, somewhere to re-equip their boats on the way to Spain. A mistake? Of course not. In Roman times this part of north Africa was destined to become one of the wealthiest in the world. Along with sister cities Sabratha to the west and Leptis Magna to the east, modern Tripoli became the centre of a province which the Romans would call Tripolitania: the Land of Three Cities. Mussolini, when he barged into Libya 70 years ago, loved his Roman ruins. The Libyans, equally naturally, were not so sure. They preferred the Phoenician connection: Tripolitania may have been developed by Romans but it was a Semitic people, the Phoenicians, who got there first. I arrived at Sabratha in a sand-storm, under a sky black with dust. The wind blew hot, and raindrops fell with the consistency of quicksand. Who cared? I saw a schoolgirl in a Leonardo Di Caprio T- shirt dancing beside a ghetto-blaster. Children laughed together under the pine trees. The Phoenician goddess Tanit (in whose temple ritualised orgies once took place) would not have been entirely displeased. …