Sunday, December 31, 2006

Libya at Christmas

Hotel Al-Kabir, Tripoli, Dec 2006
by Caroline Lawrence

It's New Year's eve 2006. I am just back from spending the Christmas holidays in Libya, where I was doing research for books 14 and 15, The Beggar of Volubilis and The Scribes from Alexandria. Both will be set in North Africa.

I didn't really enjoy Libya; it was more a case of enduring it. One percent of the buildings, like the hotel Al-Kabir in Tripoli, are in good condition. The other 99% are crumbling and grey. On the whole, the country is a drab, colourless mixture of rubble and rubbish. It cannot compare with the colour and vibrancy of Morocco.

Gaddafi's VW beetle among mosaics & sculptures at Tripoli's Museum
The Libyan guides we had were cheerful, patient and polite, but the people as a whole are wary of Westerners. Children threw rocks at our coach and groups of men eyed us with narrowed eyes. I was not comfortable walking around Tripoli on my own, though I'd have no problem in Marrakesh or Fez.

Despite what people say, the ancient ruins of Libya aren't more impressive that those of Italy, Greece or Turkey. What is special about them is their proximity to the sea. Libya is a huge desert, with a border of green oases running along the coast. This green fringe is where the Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans settled. Many of the towns - Sabratha especially - reminded me of Ostia, which also would have been a port town beside the sea.

Medusa at Leptis Magna
The most impressive Roman ruins in Libya are from the reigns of Trajan, Hadrian and Septimius Severus; in other words, from the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. I can't use them in my next two books, which will be set in the spring of AD 81.

For example, I can't use most of the current monuments at the famous site of Leptis Magna (where the medusa above comes from), though I can use the harbour and the old Forum. Tripoli's main Roman landmark, the arch of Marcus Aurelius, is too late, as is the reconstructed theatre at Sabratha. However, I can use the massive Temple of Isis at Sabratha, whose red sandstone columns still stand beside the sea. And if my characters are there in March, they might even witness the yearly launch of Isis' boat.

lost lamb
I caught a few glimpses of ancient life in modern Libya: the veiled women, the mixture of Arabs, Berbers and black Africans. But these were few and far between. Nothing like going to the time machine of Fez medina or the covered souk in Marrakesh. We saw animals, too: a ram being led to the slaughter, a lost lamb, a mother camel and her baby in the back of a Mazda pick-up, chickens, doves, a tiny dik-dik tottering on delicate hooves.

The food served to tourists is fairly monotonous. Mainly chicken or lamb plus rice or chips. There is an ubiquitous Libyan soup, which has bits of mutton and spices and pasta granules. I imagine in Roman times the North African cuisine would have been much more exciting. The Egyptian bean porridge which some hotels serve at breakfast is delicious, and has probably not changed down the centuries. Date palms drop their golden fruit right on the sidewalk, ripe and sweet and ready to be eaten. Nubia will be in heaven.

the magnificent theatre at Sabratha in Libya
One of the most interesting things I discovered was that Titus' mother Flavia Domitilla came from Sabratha, a port town west of Tripoli. Of all the Roman ports we visited, Sabratha is most like Ostia. I'm sure that Flavia and her friends will feel the same when they arrive. As for my husband, Richard, his favourite part of the whole trip was seeing a truckload of camels. They looked very pleased with themselves.

The Beggar of Volubilis is a history mystery story for kids, set in Sabratha and North Africa in the year AD 80. It is part of the Roman Mysteries series by Caroline Lawrence.

Libyan sunset


  1. Anonymous5:29 PM

    Hi Guys.

    I'm 13, I read the books at 8 and didn't apreciate them so I'm reading them again. I love them. PLiny and Flavia annoy me sometimes though 'cause they have or had very annoying personalities nothing against you Caoline if your book only had nice people it would be boring!!! I love them though sometimes there unrealistically realistic! YOu get me?

    Luv Nubia and Scuto! *Ruff*

  2. Anonymous7:42 PM

    I really LOVE your books !!!
    from marie-laure aged 8

  3. Thank you, Marie-Laure! You can email me on

  4. Anonymous4:31 PM

    Your website is really interesting.
    Who are your favourite people? I don't haye any - I like all of them!!
    from Marie-Laure age 8 [again}

  5. Hello I really like your works.. Congrats

  6. Anonymous5:24 PM

    I absolutley LOVE your books as they are probally the best Roman series of books ever!I especialy like Lupus as he is my favourite character.(Is there going to be more books after The Scribe of Alexandria?If so,can you please tell me what they're called?)

  7. There are only going to be two books after The Scribe from Alexandria: The Prophet from Ephesus and The Man from Pomegranate Street. You can see more at the bottom of my NEWSSCROLL page on my website: