So close to Europe and yet so far, in terms of popular destinations Libya is near the bottom of the list.  For over forty years the country was in the tight grip of the mercurial, fanatic, xenophobic dictator Muamar Khadaffi.  After he was ousted in 2011, things fell apart. For the past eight years, the story of Libya has been civil war, anarchy, and barbarism.

These days there is a stasis of sort: a coalition of Islamic militias control Tripoli and surrounding area; while a warlord who aspires to be the new Khadaffi rules from Benghazi.  The territorial lines correspond roughly to the Greek and Roman colonies of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica.  Modern Libya was created in 1934 when the two were were combined by the Italians, giving the country the ancient Greek name for North Africa west of the Nile.  Most countries and the U.N. recognize the Tripoli regime as the legitimate government of all Libya while a significant minority favor the Benghazi faction. Only the coastal areas enjoy relative calm; inland, it’s bandit country.

Tourist visas exist in theory but not reality.  The only way in is through a business visa.  With the help of an agency and a little baksheesh, I obtain one under the sponsorship of a rather prominent government petroleum authority. (I am being deliberately obscure about the details.) Yes, the oil still flows.  Extracted with the aid of western firms, Black Gold is what pays for everything.

Getting permission is one thing; actually getting in is another.  International aviation sanctions have been in effect since 2014, so no “regular” airlines fly there.  Service is limited to a couple of Libyan-based carriers with routes to neighboring Tunisia and Niger, and also to Istanbul.  Tickets must be purchased in person, and foreigners must pay in dollars at an artificially high exchange rate.  Flights are sold out far in advance.

Fresh off our Sudan trip, Agustin and I are back in Istanbul.  We have the day free.  I hang around the hotel while Agustin visits the Saudi consulate to inquire about their dismembership program.

Checking-in for the flight to Tripoli we are questioned about the purpose of our visit.  “Oil business,” we assure the agent.  As boarding time approaches we proceed to the gate.  Just before reaching it there is an announcement that our flight is canceled.

What follows is a four-hour not-very-amusing comedy of being herded from one counter to another while a very harried staff tries to deal with a planeload of frustrated, mystified, and disgruntled passengers (most of whom answer to the name "Muhammed"). They provide little information.  Texting back and forth with our Libyan contact and other passengers calling home reveals that our aircraft developed mechanical problems enroute and had to return to Tripoli.  We then line up to have our Turkish exit stamps canceled, and retrieve our luggage.  Around midnight we are bused to a hotel.

At least the airline (an oil services carrier that that has expanded its franchise by acquiring a single Airbus320 with plans of further expansion) does us right on the accommodations: a gorgeous five star hotel.  We are told to check back in the morning for flight information.



In the morning, no news.  It’s not like they can just book us on another carrier – we have to wait until either they fix the plane or find another.  Finding spare parts in Libya surely must be a challenge, and it is a long way to have duct tape delivered. The weather is cold and rainy and I am waiting for updates so I don’t go anywhere all day.  My only complaint about the hotel is that they are serving huge buffet meals three times a day that are making me even fatter.

No news all day.  Another night in the hotel.  The next morning we get the word: our flight is this afternoon.

“This afternoon” turn out to be more like “this evening”, but our aircraft finally arrives and we get under way.  The crew uniforms are especially sharp – I was half expecting a bunch of scruffy jihadists.  There is no in-flight magazine though which would have made for interesting reading.

Four years ago Tripoli International Airport was destroyed in a month-long battle, part of the ongoing civil war.  Instead, we land at Mitiga Airport, the former Wheelus U.S. Air Force base repurposed to civilian use.  Not much in the way of facilities or amenities, but at least it’s close to the city 

At immigration control our passports are taken for further examination.  An incipient interrogation is interrupted when we are rescued by our tour agent's airport fixer who knows everybody there and I am sure keeps their palms greased.

It is rather late in the evening, but first my impression of Tripoli on the drive in is that it looks to be a rather normal city.  It only takes fifteen minutes to reach our hotel, a small family-run place of quite high standard, where we retire for the night.  Before falling asleep, I hear the unmistakable sound of gunfire in the distance (no, not a battle, just a wedding or other celebration or simply amusement).

Breakfast on the top floor restaurant overlooks the nearby downtown and the port.  Next door is a large church, which we learn is the only one functioning (the rest are closed) and is kept open solely for the black Africans who provide much of the menial labor in the city.  We meet our guide, a delightful, scholarly fellow who studied in the U.S. and is much dismayed over what has happened to his country.

We have lost a full day of our three-day itinerary.  Our abbreviated schedule takes us right away to the highlight: the ruins of Leptis Magna, about an hour and a half away.

The morning traffic is heavy but the road is good.  In Libya, fuel is basically free -- about a penny a gallon – and entertainment scarce, so many spend the day just driving around.  The sides of the road are piled high with plastic bags of garbage – trash has not been picked up in years, so people bag up their waste and dump it somewhere not close to their house.  The trash thins as we reach the outskirts of the city and the coastal highway.

My one-word review of Leptis Magnis is “WOW.”  It is considered the best-preserved Roman city in the Mediterranean. Unlike places such as Pompeii or Ephesus (Turkey) which are crawling with visitors, we have the place all to ourselves.  Locals don’t come here, and there are no tourists.  There are also no guards or entry fees.


The 1957 Hollywood blockbuster “Legends of the Lost” was filmed here, in which John Wayne (improbably, in full cowboy garb) romanced Sophia Loren amidst the ruins.


Founded by Phoenicians and later part of Carthaginian Empire, Leptis Magna was the third largest city in North Africa (after Carthage and Alexandria).  It was the hometown of Roman Emperor Septimus Severus who made an imperial visit in 205 A.D.  In the 4th century it began to decline and by the 10th century the city was buried beneath the sands.


We can thank Mussolini for its rediscovery, excavation and partial reconstruction.


There is a museum on site containing the mosaics, frescos, and other artwork recovered by archeologists, but it is closed by decree of the Islamists.  No need, they say, to display nudity or glorify paganism.

Behind the forum are some exceptionally well-preserved friezes.  ISIS wanted to destroy them, but relented and allowed them to survive provided that steel gates were erected to prevent visitor access.  With the aid of a long lens many of the forbidden images can still be viewed.




One can spend days visiting the city, but we only have time for the highlights.  After a picnic lunch in the stadium, we head back to Tripoli.

Due to non-meshing flight schedules, the planned four-nights in country was reduced to three nights.  Then, due to the cancelled flight from Turkey, two of those nights were in the Istanbul hotel. So we have one jam-packed day to get a taste of Tripoli.


We take a walk through the old city.  This is the only locale in Tripoli where one can openly brandish a camera.


Well below street level is the excavated Arch of Marcus Aurelius.  Aside from that it resembles other walled cities in North Africa and the Middle East -- more a very old but still working city than a tourist attraction.




The day is capped with a excellent dinner at a fish restaurant.  You select your fish from the market downstairs and they clean and grill it and bring it upstairs to your table.  This being a strictly dry country, accompaniment is estate-bottled non-alcoholic wine, i.e., grape juice.




Now the fun begins.  We return to the airport for our flight to Istanbul, only to find the plane has already left.  The airline changed the flight schedule since our tickets were issued a couple of weeks ago.  They claim to have notified the ticketing agent.  Everybody is pointing the finger at everybody else, but there is nothing to be done so back to the hotel we go.

We will be missing our flight back to New York from Turkey, but the consolation prize is that we will get back one of our two lost days.

All the museums in Tripoli are closed by decree of the Islamists.  An exception is the funerary museum at Janzour, about half an hour west of the city.  It, too, is officially closed, but its caretaker will admit visitors by appointment. 

It is collection of eighteen tombs discovered in 1958 and dating from the first to fourth centuries.  Most are boringly unadorned, but the frescoes in Tomb 1 well justify the journey.


We next pay a visit to the British War Cemetery.  Immaculate and moving.  High stone walls and locked gates are needed to protect against vandalism – headstones displaying Stars of David and those in the shape of a cross are particular targets. 

Just beyond the walls is the Italian cemetery, and beyond that the hulking ruins of a large commercial building wrecked in 2011 in the final stages of the battle for control of the city. Overall, there is not much war damage evident. (High walls hide the rubble of what was once Khadaffi’s palace cum military barracks.)  Dominating the skyline are dozens of partially-completed high-rises and hotels on which work was abruptly abandoned with the fall of Khadaffi.


We then take another, longer look at the old city.  We visit the nicely restored French Mission, dating from 1630 and reputed to be the oldest European building in Africa.  Nearby, the Anglican church is being readied for reopening in time for Christmas.


Finally, we come to “Italian Tripoli”, containing a number of 20th century architectural styles.


The very beautiful Cathedral, since converted to a mosque.

These days, a calling someone a "fascist" means you disagree with them on politics.  Here is a genuine Fascist building in which symbolic fasces are incorporated into the façade.


Told that we had confirmed seats on tonight’s flight to Tripoli, we return once again to the airport, this time with ample time before departure.  The camera in my backpack triggers a careful page-by-page examination of my passport (probably looking for an entry stamp from The Zionist Entity a/k/a Israel); after all, only spies need any photographic equipment more than a mobile phone.  It's all for naught, anyway, as our reservations were stand-by only.  We don’t make it onto the flight.  Back to the hotel we go. Well, we are getting our three nights in Tripoli after all. 

The next day is kind of dull as we have no guide or program.  In the afternoon, it’s the fourth trip to the airport in as many days.  (This time I pack my camera in my checked luggage.)  New plan: we are flying to Tunis.

The airbus bus that shuttles us to the plane bear the scars of the Battle of Tripoli Airport -- it is riddled with bullet holes.  Our  Libyan Airlines aircraft is a widebody A340 fitted out for intercontinental routes with 12” seatback entertainment screens any plenty of legroom.  Due to the EU aviation ban, it is being used for the fifty-minute, 300-mile hop next door.  

The flight is late, but we are glad to be getting out regardless of the delay.  By the time we land it is night. We check into a nearby hotel. The ruins of ancient Carthage are just on the other side of the airport and I briefly consider sticking around long enough to visit them, but the weather is lousy and, after Leptis Magna, I am sure I would be disappointed.  Instead, I book tickets to Munich. From there Agustin will fly direct to Mexico and I to Jacksonville by way of Newark. Munich has an excellent airport and my Lufthansa flight is on the new A350, quite comfortable even in coach.

And so it ends, two more countries under my belt.


 Trip date: November, 2018