|Hotel Al-Kabir, Tripoli, Dec 2006
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
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
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.
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