~ O is for Odeon ~
As the guide at our first ancient site told us "Not the one in Leicester Square". I learned a few lessons during a week of ancient archaeological sites including that the Greeks built their theatres (called Odeons) into hill sides, usually in quarries that they already dug for rock to build the city. The Romans by contrast built their theatres above the ground.
~P is for Ptolomais~
Ptolomais was the first archaeological site we visited. It's in Cyrenae in the East of the country and was founded by the Greeks in the 6th or 7th century BC. The Romans conquered it in the 1st Century and built some amazing underground water collection cisterns which can still be visited today and which were used as a hiding place by rebels during the Italian occupation.
~ Q is for Qasr Libya ~
Qasr Libya is home to a museum of mosaics in the east of Libya. The mosaics were extracted from two Byzantine churches on the site of the museum and have been 'lifted' and installed on the walls of the museum to protect them for the future. Oddly, the two churches that supplied the mosaics are also open to visitors and you really can't help but wonder why 'they' didn't just restore the churches and leave the mosaics in situ.
~ R is for Roads~
Hoorah! The roads in Libya are really good which considering we spent hours every day in a small coach, was really important. Yes there were a few potholes but let's be honest, you can't drive down the street anywhere in the UK without risking a bust axle after this winter's snows.
~S is for Switzerland~
I can read your mind. You are thinking 'Switzerland? What's that got to do with Libya?' Gaddafi has declared Jihad against Switzerland after the authorities had the temerity to arrest one of his sons, Hannibal, for beating up members of staff a couple of years ago. The colonel kicked out Swiss businesses, cancelled all the flights between Switzerland and Libya, and took $5 billion out of his bank account.
Let's face it, Switzerland really isn't the sort of country that people normally get worked up about. Cuckoo clocks, banks, chocolate, and lots of cows would fill the mental collage of most people except for the Colonel. He says Switzerland is "an infidel state" and he thinks it should be split between Germany, France and Italy. Admittedly Swiss voters backed a referendum to prevent mosques from building minarets but that's hardly a rock-solid reason for Jihad. This would all be quite amusing (for those of us who aren't Swiss), but as a result of the bad blood between the two countries, Libya now won't issue visas to people with passports of the 25 countries that are in the Schengen agreement, arguing that because they have no border controls, it's the only way to stop Swiss coming to Libya. This was great for us because the tourist sites were empty but hardly good for the Libyan economy.
~ T is for Troglodytes and Toilets ~
Troglodyte – was there ever a more satisfying word? I loved it long before I had any idea what it actually meant. Troglodytes are people who live in caves or underground holes and our trip included spending the night at a troglodyte 'lodge'. The place had about 10 rooms carved into the side of the hill and under the ground and they were a lot less bizarre than that probably sounds. Our room was large with a rough cut ceiling, two rock beds cut out of the rock and a rather dangerous step that was impossible to spot with the lights off (note to anyone considering staying somewhere like that – take a torch!).
Toilets are an obsession with travellers and a couple of the ladies in our group were really weird about the local toilets. If you are a bit OCD about foreign loos, Libya really isn't a big deal at all. There's approximately a 50:50 split between squat and western styles and nowhere I went was really disgusting although it was not unusual for the wash basins to have no water so take your alcohol gel for germ killing!
~ U is for UNESCO ~
UNESCO has recognised five sites in Libya as being worthy of the World Heritage designations and three of these were included in our itinerary. In addition to supporting Cyrene in the east of the country and Sabratha and Leptis Magna in the West, there are two other sites – the old town of Ghadames in the desert interior of the country and the rock-art sites of Tadrart Acacus which date back up to 12000 years.
I interrogated one of the archaeologists about the impact of the UNESCO listings on their work. We've heard in many countries that local experts don't always appreciate the intervention of UNESCO because they restrict what can and can't be done but in Libya it seems that UNESCO gave them nice plaques to put at the entrance of the sites but not much else – no money, no experts, no interference.
~ V is for Vandals and Visas ~
The Vandals came from Eastern Germany and ploughed into the Roman Empire in the 5th Century, going around destroying things, most notably during the 'Sack of Rome'. They got a reputation for senseless destruction and turned up in Libya in 455 to do their stuff.
Visas are currently (2010) not easy to get unless you are a citizen of one of Gaddafi's favoured nations and that rules out the 25 countries of the Schengen agreement (see S is for Switzerland). Step one in the time-consuming process of getting permission to go is getting your passport translated. Step zero (i.e. before you can even start) is making sure you have a computer readable passport. Heaven alone knows why since I doubt there's a computer that can read the passports anywhere in Libya. The translation service in the UK is offered by the Arab British Chamber of Commerce and costs £30 per passport if you are willing to go to the ABCC yourself, and considerably more if you use a visa agency to do it for you. My husband took the train down to London to get ours done, had a very pleasant time chatting to the CofC staff and popped round a couple of museums to pass the time. For your £30 you get a page in your passport with all your details translated into Arabic. Our actual visas were arranged by the local tour agency and were for collection on arrival. This costs an additional $30 per person.
~ W is for Water ~
One of Gaddafi's famous initiatives was the creation of the Great Manmade River which has been recognised by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's biggest irrigation project. It runs between an aquifer in the Sahara and the coast and cost $25 billion to build. One of our guides was very disparaging (after checking nobody was around to overhear him). "It's destroying an ancient fossil aquifer when it would be so much cheaper and less destructive to just buy desalination plants". He also claimed that the GMR would cause earthquakes. I quietly avoided commenting on that since it was geologically utter tosh.
~ X is for eXodus and X-rated sculptures~
In case anyone was wondering, our tour was arranged by the UK-based adventure travel company Exodus.
I also noticed that almost every nude male statue we saw (and believe me, we saw lots) had no willy. I'm still not sure whether this was an extreme form of later Islamic censorship or whether those bits just tend to get knocked off and damaged by history. If you know, please tell me!
~ Y is for Yousef ~
Yousef was a guide who was with us for two and a half days and knew EVERYTHING about ancient Greece and Rome. When taking us round the national museum he set the tone with this comment "Ladies and Gentlemen, I crave your indulgence. I despise the Stone Age, and implore you to join me with the Romans". He was a very nice little chap but I can't help thinking that we often missed seeing quite a lot of things because he took so much time telling us about some places. Our poor tour guide was going crazy trying to keep us on track.
~ Z is for Zebra ~
Of course there aren't any Zebras in Libya but we did find some striped animals in the mosaics at Qasr Libya which were probably made by artists who'd had a zebra described to them (a striped horse perhaps) but nobody remembered to tell them that it was black and white.