Magazine article Geographical

In the Footsteps of the Few

Magazine article Geographical

In the Footsteps of the Few

Article excerpt

After years of self-imposed isolation, Libya is now actively encouraging foreign tourists. A highlight of any visit is to follow the ancient trans-Saharan trading routes.

At the heart of the Sahara desert in southern Libya a small group of 4WD vehicles gathers around a cave. The inside of the cave is adorned with extra-ordinary rock paintings dating back 4,000 years.

The paintings provide a window on to one of the lost worlds of Africa. Antelope, cattle, giraffe and crocodile cavort across the scene, interspersed with human groups, hunting, dancing and playing. The Sahara was, at that time, experiencing one of its wet periods, and the landscape resembled the savannah of today's southern Africa.

The paintings are the work of the Garamantes, a nation whose empire, founded in southern Libya, stretched across the Sahara in all directions.

"I've waited 25 years to see this," says one of a group of Britons gazing at the pictures. The tour group is one of a handful choosing to "re-discover" the ancient trans-Saharan trade routes.

After a while a Tuareg appears from nowhere with a book under his arm. It is, strangely, the visitors' book for the Acacus mountain area, unwrapped from a protective oilcloth.

The Britons pass the book around, quietly taking in the fact that they are among only 100 or so visitor to the area in three decades.

During the earlier part of this century, under Italian colonial rule, Libya was beginning to become familiar to the outside world and Italian archaeologists were having a field day. "Despite the horrors of colonial rule, they did uncover some fine [archaeological] sites," admits an official from the Libyan Department of Antiquities.

Yet foreign interest in the region stopped after independence and the subsequent revolution in 1969. Oil-rich Libya did not want or need foreign tourists and for 25 years Libya became notorious as one of the most difficult countries to enter.

A change in policy a few years ago, however, means that it is possible to visit Libya once again, and the country is now actively courting foreign tourists. Travelling to Libya across the former trans-Saharan trade routes is a rare experience and one that is becoming quietly popular.

The regions south of the coast and around Tripoli were closed to non-Muslims from the 6th (when Arabs conquered North Africa) to 19th centuries, when a few hardy European explorers took up the challenge of crossing the Sahara and finding the wealth everyone believed was lying in Timbuktu and beyond. Many perished in the attempt. Some came home with astounding stories of sand storms, disease, deprivation and hostilities.

The ancient trade routes across the Libyan Sahara begin and end on the shores of the Mediterranean. The few good natural anchorages were developed into ports, first by the Phoenicians and later by the Romans. Of the three "tripolis" only Oea, now called Tripoli, is still a living city. The other two, Sabratha and Leptis Magna, lie in ruins, their ports long silted up and their buildings destroyed by Vandal invaders.

Even after the demise of the Roman empire, Tripoli became one of the principal trading ports on the Barbary coast. The massive Assai al-Hamra, a towering fortification which has been added to over the centuries, still looms over the port. Around its imposing walls grew the ancient, densely packed medina with its merchants' houses, souks and khans.

Towns sprang up and prospered at strategic oases along the ancient trade routes. One of the most important of these was Ghadhames, once the southernmost point of the Roman empire. Ghadhames still has something of a frontier-town atmosphere. Beyond its southern edge, the road stops and the real desert begins; rolling dunes stretch hundreds of kilometres southwards towards the town of Ghat.

The small hill outside Ghadhames, Ras al-Ghoul, was the site of the Roman garrison which now lies in ruins. …

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