Benghazi is the second largest city in Libya. Tourists who have gone to the city describe the locals as incredibly friendly. The streets are safe, even at night. And while English is hardly spoken and road signs are written in Arabic, outsiders can easily communicate with simple hand gestures.
The Benghazi cityscape reflects its rich and multicultural history. The area surrounding the Benghazi lighthouse has remnants of the old port. Parts of the old Greek wall remain standing. The Byzantine church has withstood the ravages of time, with its mosaic still intact.
Within the new city, Italianate and modernist-inspired buildings can be found. Examples include the Benghazi Cathedral, with its two distinct domes that dominate the skyline; the Italian quarters at Omar al-Mukhtar Street; and Gaddafi’s burned down and once-dreaded revolutionary committee headquarters, found in the middle of the city.
Tripoli, the capital of Libya, boasts of many historic landmarks that attract tourists worldwide.
Tripoli’s old town, the medina, is one of the largest and oldest towns in North Africa. Despite the hordes of outsiders traipsing along its mazelike streets, it has been able to retain its old-world charm.
Within the medina lie the Gurji and Karamanli mosques. These ornately constructed buildings come from a time when Libya enjoyed a semi-independent status under the Ottomans.
Also within the old town is the arch of Marcus Aurelius. The arch has survived invasions, pestilence, and upheavals throughout Tripoli’s history. Today, the arch is the only surviving testament to Roman presence in the city.
Not far from the medina is the Red Castle museum. Widely regarded as the official repository of artifacts found all over Libya, the museum boasts collections from ancient Libya to the modern period.
The exhibitions include Tuareg, Berber, and Garamantes cultural items, and some rare pieces dug from the ruins of Leptis Magna and Cyrene. The museum also displays the Volkswagen Beetle driven by Gaddafi when he took over the country in the 1960s.
Founded by Phoenician settlers in the 10th century BC, Leptis Magna was an important Roman city that would rise to prominence during the reign of Septimius Severus in 193–211 AD.
Severus poured the wealth of the empire into the city by constructing magnificent buildings, including a forum that rivals those found in Rome. He even expanded the city’s docks.
In time, Leptis Magna became so prominent that it could even be compared with Alexandria and Carthage in power and prestige.
The city’s demise began in 235 AD, when competing generals fought over the imperial throne, consequently breaking up the Roman Empire. Trade declined, and large parts of the city were abandoned. The Vandals came and tore down the city walls, and Berbers from the desert began ransacking the city.
The Byzantines made Leptis Magna a provincial capital, but by then, most parts of the city lay in ruins. The city was never rebuilt nor repopulated. By the time the Arabs came, all that remained of this once-prominent city was a tiny garrison.
Nonetheless, today, Leptis Magna is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Once an important stopover in the trans-Saharan trade route, Ghat was a notable part of the Garamantian Empire.
This empire covered much of the Sahara and functioned as a trade broker between the Carthaginian and Roman cities along the Mediterranean coast and West and Central Africa.
Despite its crumbling mud buildings, Ghat remains a habitable city. It is one of the more important tourist destinations in Libya, as the nearby Tadrart Acacus and Tassili N’Ajjer mountains add beauty to the desert landscape.
The massif of Tadrart Acacus features prehistoric rock paintings and engravings. The rock-art sites were inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1985.
Sabratha was once an important city in ancient Libya. Founded as a trading post by the Phoenicians, the city reached its peak during the reign of Septimius Severus. It was badly damaged in an earthquake during AD 365 and was modestly rebuilt by the Byzantines in the succeeding years.
However, within a century of Arab conquest, trade had shifted elsewhere. Sabratha was reduced to a mere village, as its inhabitants had to find work in other cities.
Sabratha is still standing today. It even has its own football team that competes in the Libyan Premier League. The Roman city, with temples dedicated to Liber Pater, Isis, and Serapis, has become an archaeological site. The stadium at the heart of the old city, as well as the Christian basilica, reveal the town’s splendid past.
Sabratha was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1982.
A stroll down Ghadames’ old town reveals wisdom behind the way the town was built: The narrow shaded alleys, the albino-white walls, the hollow windows, and the rooftop openings play a part in cooling these ancient structures. The genius lies not in the architecture of one building but in the layout of an entire block.
Built in the first century BC, Ghadames was settled in by the Romans during the time of Septimius Severus. A century later, the Arabs came and made Ghadames a hub for the trans-Saharan trade. They never left.
In 1986, the old town of Ghadames was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Berbers who lived in the town were moved elsewhere, leaving the structures crumbling to dust. Nonetheless, many of the original inhabitants still return during summer, as the ancient buildings offer good protection against the desert heat.
Cyrene was an ancient Greek colony before the present-day village of Shahhat rose from its ruins. It was one of the five important Greek city-states in the region. The city-state gave Eastern Libya its classical name, Cyrenaica.
Cyrene was the seat of the Cyrenaic school of philosophy, which posits that pleasure is the supreme good in life. Eratosthenes, the father of geography was born here. A Cyrenian named Simon helped Jesus Christ carry his cross part of the way to Golgotha. Its chief local export, the medicinal herb silphium, held back a population boom during the ancient times. (The plant was harvested into extinction.)
Cyrene was devastated by an earthquake in 262 AD. It was partially rebuilt during Roman times, but another earthquake in 365 AD destroyed the city for the second time. It never rose again. The next centuries were marked by conquests, by invaders from the Sahara and from the Mediterranean.
Cyrene today is an archaeological site and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Some of its famous landmarks are the Sanctuary of Apollo and the Temple of Demeter. There is also a large necropolis not far from the area. Restoration efforts are ongoing, and archaeologists continue to discover artifacts that lie beneath the ruins.
Awjila is an oasis town in the Cyrenaica region of northeastern Libya. It sits at the heart of the Sahara, where locals tend small gardens by drawing water from deep wells.
During the ancient times, Awjila came under Roman power. The town had also been a stopover for caravans coming from Morocco and Arabia.
Today, Awjila is known for the Mosque of Atiq. Regarded as one of the oldest mosques in the Sahara, the Atiq mosque is known for its unique architecture. Shaped like the pointed half of a very narrow egg, its rooms are air-cooled naturally. The construction materials are made from soil and palm tree branches, which form a very effective temperature insulator.
For tourists who are inclined to camp out in the Sahara, Gaberoun is a recommended destination. It is located in the Sabha District in Southwestern Libya.
Gaberoun is a verdant oasis next to salty lake. It has remained uninhabited since the 1980s.
A small tribe once called its shores home. They were encouraged to move out in exchange for better housing. It is said that the tribe’s main diet are the crustaceans that thrive in the lake.
A tourist camp has been set up on the northeast shore. The camp has a patio for outdoor activities, huts for those who intend to sleep over, and a souvenir shop attended by a native costume–wearing Tuareg. Swimming in the lake can be a pleasant experience despite the small crustaceans. Bring mosquito protection, though, especially in summer.
An old Bedouin settlement can be found along the western shores. While the settlement has long been abandoned and now lies in ruins, a visit here completes your appreciation of the area.
Waw an Namus
Seen in outer space as a blue-black patch over the desert, Waw an Namus – Oasis of Mosquitoes – is becoming a popular tourist destination.
Waw an Namus is a volcanic field with an extinct caldera. It is located close to the geographic center of the Sahara desert.
It is also one of the remotest places in Libya.
Inside the caldera are three oases that add life to the pallid landscape. Mosquitoes infest these lakes, thus giving the volcano its name.
The volcanic field is surrounded by an area of dark basaltic ash that extends around the mouth of the volcano. It appears as a dark spot when seen in satellite maps.
Camping close to the oases may require insect nets and repellants, lest mosquito bites spoil a camper’s night. Or you could camp at the summit, where there are no mosquitoes.