Sophocles Slept Here

I had long been fascinated by Khadafi and his band of female security guards. When I learned that our government was easing restrictions on American citizens visiting Libya, I quickly made arrangements to go. Intrigued by Greek and Roman history and culture, when I heard that Libya had such pristine Greek and Roman archaeological remains, I almost flew over to Tripoli on my own adrenaline.

I was not disappointed. First of all, in spite of what you might read in the American press, Libya is one of the safest countries to visit. Khadafi is eager to develop a vigorous tourist trade and urges his citizens to welcome all visitors, especially Americans. One of the benefits of a rigorous central authority is that streets are usually much safer than back home in the good old USA. There is very little crime and no visible poverty. Because of Libya’s oil wealth, the government gives each citizen a monthly stipend, as well as universal health care and free education through university for qualified students”including the opportunity to study abroad. Khadafi has actually been described as a feminist and, unlike most other Moslem leaders, maintains a society in which women share almost equal rights with men. They work, drive cars, walk around freely, attend schools and universities, and have protection under the law. Although most do wear scarves on their heads, they are not required to remain covered.

Before joining my group tour, I spent several days on my own in Tripoli and found the Libyans among the friendliest and most helpful people of anywhere I’ve visited. Individuals offered to guide me”not for any payment, but simply as my hosts”through the intricacies of the Old City. Men were polite everywhere I went, eager to meet an American and to show off their few English phrases.

There was so much to see”from Leptis Magna, one of the best-preserved Roman cities in the world, to Apollonia and Cyrene, which rivaled Athens in size and importance during the height of the Ancient Greece’s splendor. Sophocles and Aristotle visited frequently and spent time there.

As I wandered through Greek theatres and Roman baths, I was alone. Often there were barely a dozen other visitors as I walked through the Calderium, sat on Roman toilets for a photo op, and marveled at the sea coast locations of temples to Zeus and Athena. Walking along at Leptis Magna, I noticed a coin lying in the dust. When I picked it up and showed it to my guide, he said, “Oh, Roman coins are all over the place here. They don’t have much value.” I tossed it back into the soft dust, hoping other tourists would leave it for future visitors to enjoy.

A long day’s drive south took us to the ancient trading town of Ghadarmis, with its mysterious granaries carved into the rocky hillsides. Off we went then, with our four-wheel-drive vehicles out into the desert for several days, accompanied by Tuareg guides”gentle and hospitable nomads sometimes known as the Blue Men. They became my special friends who prepared meals and taught me how to wrap a turban properly. (Not just a fashion statement, that turban protected my entire face when the sand and locusts blew.) When my cranky camel objected to my leaning over to take a photo, he bucked me off and two of the camel drivers caught me in mid-air. I got my shot and didn’t drop my camera.

I am happy to report that the Libyan desert is perfect if you suffer, as I do, from arthritis. I rode my camel and hiked in the sand for hours with few or no aches. I was also delighted that our Libyan security guard, a handsome 30-year-old man, mooned over me during the entire trip. Nice to know some of my old stuff is still intact.

When it came time to leave, our Tuareg friends loaded us up with gifts”including the best gift of all, their email addresses! I am still in touch with them and look forward to a return visit.

Diane LeBow is San Francisco-based travel writer who has published stories in Salon.com, Via Magazine, numerous national newspapers, and several anthologies. A pioneer of college women’s studies programs, she received her Ph.D. from the University of California and is currently working on a book. Diane was not traveling with High Country Passage when she visited Libya.

©Diane LeBow, published in High Country Passage Travel