Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, October to November 2010
15.10.2010 - 05.11.2010
Tunis and Carthage
This Explore trip is described as an adventure across North Africa in the footsteps of the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans and Egyptians and it turned out to be just that, with a plethora of magnificent ancient sites. We first took the metro to visit Carthage. There is virtually nothing left of Punic Carthage, which according to legend, was founded by Queen Dido in 814 BC. The Romans sacked it in 146 BC and built their own city from the debris, so the ruins are Roman and even they are sparse. Also it covers a large area with modern developments intermingled, including a big 19th Century cathedral and plush villas; the site also has six metro stations! Carthage is not without interest, but its aura lies in its name rather than in its physical presence, apart from the impressive ruins of the Antonin Baths, once the largest in the Roman world. The following day we went to the Bardo Museum, which is housed in a former royal palace and has one of the world’s finest collections of Roman mosaics.
Dougga, Bulla Regia and Le Kef
We then moved on to the Roman city of Dougga, the largest and most dramatic site in Tunisia and a World Heritage Site. Situated high on the side of a valley, it affords wonderful views all around. Notable monuments here include the theatre, the Capitol, triumphal arches (of Alexander Severus and Septimius Severus), some massive cisterns, a well-preserved public toilet and the curious pre-Roman Libyco-Punic Mausoleum.
Spending the night at Le Kef, we went on to Bulla Regia, which has underground villas, built to avoid the intense heat and unique in the Roman Empire. Unusually for an ancient site it has many fine mosaics intact and it is very well-preserved. Apparently Bulla Regia was notorious for its loose and immoral ways and in the 4th century AD St Augustine berated its citizens for their impropriety.
We returned to Le Kef for a tour of the town. Tunisia seems famous for its doors and they mostly have three knockers, one for men, one for women and one lower down for children, with a small door-within-a-door. We also noticed a door-knocker in the form of a Hand of Fatima, which is used as a charm against the evil eye. Fatima is the Prophet Mohammed’s daughter, but the connection between her and the Hand is obscure. We visited the Kasbah perched high up and with dramatic views over the town and surrounding countryside. Originally a fort, it is now a cultural centre. We also went into the beautiful Mosque of Sidi Bou Makhlouf, named after the patron saint of Le Kef. Described as one of the most captivating places in Tunisia, the tiles, the stuccowork and the carpets in the prayer hall are magnificent. We also climbed to the top of the minaret. Our final venue was to a restored former synagogue, with its mementoes of Tunisia’s Jewish community of 60 or so years ago.
Sbeitla (Sufetula) and Kairouan
The following morning we set out for Sbeitla, or Sufetula, as the Roman site is called. There is very little recorded about Sufetula and what is known comes from the inscriptions on its walls and stones. Unusual in other Tunisian sites, Sufetula has the regular grid plan of most Roman towns and cities, indicating that it wasn’t founded on an earlier African town. It has one of the best-preserved set of Roman forum temples and there are the well-preserved remains of an olive press, showing just how important the olive industry was for the town. Also in a good state of preservation are the baths and the beautiful little theatre, which has been restored recently. Again there are mosaics in situ here, such as representations of birds and fish. There are also a number of Byzantine Christian buildings on the site, including the Basilica of St Vitalis with its baptistry basin, which has a fine mosaic base.
We continued to Kairouan, Tunisia’s holiest city and a World Heritage Site, where we visited a traditional Tunisian house (now a museum) with its open central courtyard. It was fascinating, although obviously it had been the house of a wealthy owner!
The next day we went to see the Aghlabid Pools, which were built around AD 850 and restored in 1969. These two pools (originally there were more) stored water for the Aghlabid palace and the water was brought by an aqueduct over a distance of 36km. The larger pool has a capacity of 11 million gallons and at its centre is the base of a pavilion, where the Aghlabid rulers used to relax. However the pools were an ideal breeding ground for mosquitos and thus a major source of malaria.
Afterwards we went to visit the Great Mosque, which was built in 836 and is one of the oldest, largest and most important ones in Tunisia. This mosque also has beautiful tiles and stuccowork, with a many-columned prayer hall that has been likened to a forest. According to one legend anyone who counts them all will turn blind, whilst another says that those who cannot squeeze between them will never reach Paradise but (they aren’t very close!). The huge courtyard was also used to collect rain water, which was channelled into massive cisterns below. In the middle of the courtyard an oddly shaped drain has specially-cut notches designed to remove dirt from the water.
We continued our travels from Kairouan to El Djem, which has one of the most impressive and best-preserved Roman amphitheatres. It was built around AD 250 in the Roman town of Thysdrus and had a capacity of 43,000. Underground chambers held gladiators, animals and scenery, which would be hoisted up in a system of lifts and cages. The Archaeological Museum has a major collection of mosaics, most from second- and third-century villas, including two lions killing a boar, a child Dionysus riding a tiger and a drunken Silenus being bound by three boys. We then travelled on to Sfax for an overnight stop.
The next day we continued our journey along the coast and in the afternoon reached Matmata, a town of about 50 underground Berber pit dwellings. Matmata was first recorded in the 4th century AD and was a means of escaping the extreme heat and cold of the desert. A circular pit about 7m deep and 10m in diameter is dug into the sandstone and then caves and rooms are dug out from the circular courtyard. We visited one dwelling, before spending the night in another one, which was our hotel. The accommodation and facilities were basic, but it was certainly an interesting experience.
Ksar Kerachfa, Ksar Haddada and Chenini
We then set off towards Tataouine (our final night in Tunisia) through spectacular and rugged mountainous scenery, visiting several villages on the way. The first of these was Ksar Kerachfa, a bleak-looking place on a spur overlooking the plain. We stopped to inspect two abandoned but useable olive-oil presses. Our next stop was Ksar Haddada with its impressive ksar. A ksar is a fortified granary and consists of a block of small stone cells built side by side and on top of one another, up to eight stories high and with a curious cave-like appearance. This one was no longer used for grain storage, but the Star Wars sequel, The Phantom Menace, was filmed here. We then continued to Chenini, a spectacular troglodyte Berber village clinging to the side of a mountain, much of it ruined, but still inhabited. We
had a steep climb up along the narrow winding streets, but the views were worth the climb!
Sabratha was founded by the Canaanites in the 6th century BC, occupied by the Carthaginians and then by the Romans. It was finally abandoned in the 7th century AD. Sabratha’s main period of prosperity was during the 3rd century AD, as a trading centre for gold, ivory, leather and slaves. The extensive Roman remains, mostly from rebuilding after an earthquake in the 1st century AD, are incredible. The site boasts a theatre with a three-tier stage building with 108 Corinthian columns, rarely found in surviving Roman theatres. The stage itself is 43m long and 9m wide. It was the largest theatre in Africa and could seat 5000 people. Also of note are the marble-clad public baths and toilets. After Sabratha we headed for Tripoli.
Tripoli was founded by the Phoenicians around 500 BC and after the fall of Carthage in 146 BC soon became a prosperous Roman protectorate. It is a modern, cosmopolitan city, underpinned by oil wealth and has been called the White Bride of the Mediterranean. The streets and souks display a fascinating array of wares, including gold, jewellery, copperware and lanterns. Our tour of the city started at the Arch of Marcus Aurelius, the last remnant of the ancient Roman city of Oea, sitting isolated in the middle of modern Tripoli. One reason it survived may be that an ancient prophecy foretold that anyone who removed a stone from it would suffer a terrible punishment! We then visited the Gurgi Mosque, which is a19th century mosque that was built under Turkish rule. Although small its interior is magnificent and it has beautiful stone latticework, ceramic tiles and marble pillars, as well as 16 domes.
Our next stop was the 19th century House of Yusuf Karamanli. It is now a museum showing a traditional house with a courtyard and fountain. It made a curious impression, as it has strange-looking mannequins dressed in various costumes and an eclectic collection of curious objects. We then went to the Jamahirya Museum, which has a rich collection of ancient and modern Libyan artefacts, including Colonel Qaddafi’s original green 1969 VW Beetle! It also has fine examples of Roman statuary and mosaics.
We then visited the imposing Masjed Jamal Abdel Nasser Mosque, which used to be a Catholic cathedral. It was converted in 1970, but the work involved was not completed until 2003. The guidebook says that non-Muslims are not allowed in, but we were welcomed inside! The Red Castle (Al-Saraya al-Hamra) represented the seat of Tripolitania power until the 20th century, but was closed for renovation.
The next day we set out for Al-Khoms and visited Libya’s most spectacular and well-known ancient site, Leptis Magna. In its heyday it was the largest and greatest Roman city in Africa and the wonderfully preserved remains attest to that reputation. It was constructed from limestone, which was better able to withstand earthquakes and the passage of time. It is a showcase of Roman town planning and a testament to Roman extravagance, with grand buildings, lavish decoration, bath complexes and forums for entertainment. The Roman emperor Septimius Severus was born here in AD 145 and Leptis Magna even rivalled Rome as the most important city in the empire during his reign. By the 10th century AD it was beginning to disappear under the sands. It is certainly magnificent even today and boasts a wealth of buildings in a fine state of preservation – the Hadrianic baths, the Severan basilica and forum, the market, the hunting baths and several triumphal arches. The two crowning glories of Leptis Magna are the Arch of Septimius Severus and the theatre. The arch was built in AD 203 to mark a visit by the emperor to his native city and the limestone was covered with marble on the outside. The present structure is a reconstruction and the friezes are replicas, but it nonetheless provides a stunning entrance to the site. The theatre is one of the oldest surviving stone theatres in the Roman world and has a particularly striking stage building adorned with a forest of columns. The VIP seats were separated from the paying audience by a stone banister, which meant that people sitting just behind that screen couldn’t see a thing!
Another feature of Leptis Magna is the survival of a large number of paved streets in very good condition, which somehow brings it to life as a living city. There are also a number of phallic symbols carved on walls in various places, possibly to ward off the evil eye. We went back there the following morning and revisited parts of the site. The weather was much better and brighter, making the stonework appear to glow in the sunshine and there were fewer people. The theatre was spectacular under these conditions. We then went into the museum, which has a large number of Roman statues, busts and friezes from the site. The statues have exceptionally well-sculpted folds in the clothes. There is also a section of rather ghostly-looking statues without heads or hands – body parts were often carved separately, so that the statues could be re-used later on. But there were no mosaics here! We set off to drive to Sirt in the afternoon for our overnight hotel.
Drive to Benghazi across the Desert
The next day heralded a long drive to Benghazi and in a sandstorm! We passed by the location of an arch at Medinat Sultan. The Italians built the arch during their occupation of Libya and the Libyans tore it down in the 1970’s. The only remains are fragments, two big bronze statues of athletes and a marble plaque proudly proclaiming Mussolini’s march towards peace across North Africa! At one place on the journey we passed a mounted camel-driver with his herd, looking very traditional in every way, except for the mobile phone he was using!
We also came across some enormous sections of pipeline; these are part of the Great Man-Made River running across Libya to provide water. It is one of the most ambitious engineering projects attempted, piping water from natural underground basins to the major cities and towns. It can be seen either as visionary or as irresponsible, since no-one knows the possible side-effects on water tables for agriculture or in the Saharan oases. Neighbouring Egypt and Sudan have expressed concern, but Colonel Qaddafi has called it the eighth wonder of the world! We also saw numerous lorry-loads of camels being driven along, but never managed to get a photo!
We left Benghazi the following morning, heading for Susa. En route we visited Ptolemais (now Tolmeita), which is one of the Pentapolis - five semi-autonomous Greek cities, established in what is now Libya. They became so significant, that together they were considered a separate entity within the Greek world. At Ptolemais we were very fortunate to have as our guide someone who had been part of the original excavating team, so his knowledge was unparalleled. Ptolemais was founded in the 4th century BC and continued its privileged position under Roman rule, but declined in the 7th century AD with the arrival of Islam. Only 10% of the city has been excavated and most of this dates from the 1st and 2nd centuries BC. The Greek agora, later the Roman forum, has beneath it huge cisterns with arched ceilings, to collect water from the mountain springs; they were once the largest ones in North Africa. There are a few villas and a small Odeon, originally for music and dancing, but the Romans turned it into a swimming pool. The visit was very interesting, but the overriding impression is of relatively little still standing and a lot of excavation work needed.
We then went to Qasr Libya, where a small museum has a treasure-trove of Byzantine mosaics. They were unearthed in 1957 when two churches with mosaic flooring were discovered during work on a dam. The mosaics date from around AD 530 and each tessera is less than 1cm in diameter after the Hellenistic style. They include scenes from nature and daily life and incorporate pagan influences as well. The animal mosaics are exquisite and there is one of the few existing depictions of the famous Pharos Lighthouse of Alexandria (which was destroyed by earthquakes in the 12th and 14th centuries).
Cyrene and Apollonia
The next day was wet and cold, as the weather was the worst of the whole trip, when we visited Cyrene, another Pentapolis city. It was founded in 631 BC by Greeks from Santorini and two hundred years later it was one of the largest cities in Africa. It was built on several levels and many of the Greek buildings are overlaid by Roman ones. The earthquakes of AD 262 and 365 had a devastating effect; Cyrene never really recovered and fell to the advance of Islam in AD643. The site is magnificent and has a host of features, including a theatre, a gymnasium (later converted into a Roman forum), an Odeon, Roman baths, a sacred fountain and several temples! Later that day we visited Apollonia, the former port (from around the 7th century BC) for Cyrene, with a number of Roman, Greek and Byzantine buildings; it had five basilicas and most of the remains date from the Byzantine period.
The following day we drove into Egypt and passed Tobrouk, before reaching our overnight stop Mersa Matruh, a beachside tourist resort of no particular charm or merit. The next morning we left for El Alamein and the huge Commonwealth War Cemetery with its 7000 white headstones. There is also a fascinating war-museum, which shows the stages of the campaign by means of electronic displays and charts, along with various mementoes, such as uniforms and weapons. Outside the museum are a number of tanks, vehicles and artillery in the battle; they mostly seemed to be Italian. We then continued to Alexandria for two nights.
Alexandria was founded in 332 BC by Alexander the Great and aimed to link the empires of the Greeks and the Pharaohs. It soon became a trade and culture centre, even rivalling Rome before declining in the 4th century AD. It acquired its famous library in the 3rd century AD, which was the most significant library in the ancient world. It included gardens, a room for shared dining, a reading room, lecture halls and meeting rooms. Home to a host of international scholars, its role was to collect the entire world's knowledge, aided by a policy of pulling the books off every ship that came into port. It was destroyed by fire in 48 BC and nothing has survived. Nothing remains either of the Pharos Lighthouse, but in the 1480s Sultan Qaitbey built an imposing-looking fort on the site of the lighthouse and we visited this.
We also went into the 2nd century AD catacombs of Kom ash-Shuqqafa, the largest Greco-Roman necropolis in Egypt. It has three levels and is 35m deep, although the lowest level is flooded. The first level includes a Triclinium or banquet hall, where relatives and friends would gather to pay their last respects or commemorate the deceased with a lavish meal. The second level has a vestibule and burial chamber, where the sarcophagi and wall reliefs display Pharaonic, Greek and Roman motifs. This suggests that worship of the ancient Egyptian gods existed long after the reign of the Pharaohs. It was a fascinating underground experience.
We then paid a visit to the ancient Roman site at Kom al-Dikka, where the outstanding feature is the semi-circular amphitheatre with thirteen tiers of marble seats, remarkably well-preserved and dating from the 2nd century AD. Excavation continues, but other remains can be seen, including a bath complex and a residential area. Incongruously some ancient Egyptian objects, found underwater, are displayed there and include part of an obelisk and a rather eroded sphinx.
Our final visit in Alexandria was to the new library and cultural centre, which was inaugurated in 2002. It is an arresting building of glass, pillars and metal with open-plan reading-rooms and a circular outer wall of Aswan granite, which has letters from world alphabets carved on it. The partly-glazed roof tilts down towards the sea and is designed to send sunlight onto the 2000 seats in the reading-rooms; there is a dramatic view of the library across the water from Fort Qaitbey. The exhibition areas had an interesting display of modern Egyptian artefacts, mainly inspired by ancient Egyptian themes.
Wadi Natrun Coptic Monasteries
The next morning we left for Cairo and stopped at the Wadi Natrun Coptic monasteries. The area is fairly isolated and presented an ideal place for Christians to escape from persecution during the Roman era. Originally there were just caves where monks and hermits dwelt, but then monasteries were built over the years. Only four of these remain and they are surrounded by high, mud-brick walls, resembling desert fortresses. We first visited Deir as-Suriani (the Monastery of the Syrians). Some of the icons date back to the 8th century and the original refectory has mannequins dressed as monks sitting round the table.
We then went on to Deir Anba Bishoi, which is dedicated to St Bishoi, whose perfectly preserved body is said to be in a sealed tube on the church altar. Bishoi was born around 320 AD, one of six children. His mother saw an angel in a vision saying that the Lord wanted one of her children to serve Him. She agreed and the angel took the hand of Bishoi, who was thin and frail. His mother told the angel that it would be better to choose one of her stronger sons. The angel replied that this was the one the Lord had chosen. When he was 20 Bishoi went into the Scetic Desert and became a monk. Some years later an angel appeared to Bishoi, directing him to the site of the present monastery bearing his name. There he became a hermit and the spiritual father of many monks. It is said that because of Bishoi's love for God, he used to tie his hair to a nail in the roof of the cave to keep awake during night prayers. He apparently saw Jesus Christ several times and one occasion carried Christ in the guise of an old man, who told him his body would therefore remain incorrupt. We had a fascinating visit, with a charming and exuberant monk.
Cairo and Giza
The following day we went out from Cairo to Giza, to see the Pyramids and the Sphinx. That evening we had a sunset view of the Pyramids from our hotel rooftop, through Cairo’s haze. We then visited the Egyptian Museum, which is spectacular. We wandered amongst the chaos of the displays, the wealth of material and the Tutankhamun galleries, with their 3000 year-old glittering objects in near perfect condition! We found Tutankhamun’s life-size gold death mask breath-taking. The day after was a free day, before we flew back to Tunis for our flight to the UK. We decided to go to Islamic Cairo and took a taxi to Khan al-Khalili bazaar. We started with a guided tour of the nearby Mosque of al-Azhar, founded in AD 970 as the main centre of learning for the city. It has little of the original building now and shows a mixture of styles from different periods, but is very impressive. Two madrassas date from the early 14th century and one was open for viewing. The main courtyard or sabn in the centre of the complex goes back to Fatamid times. The men’s prayer hall is filled with pillars and can be visited by non-Muslim women, whilst the women’s prayer hall is not open to men at all. We then went into the bazaar, which was built in 1382 and has the usual enormous array of goods on display and jostling crowds.
It was an interesting, varied, entertaining and enjoyable trip. The food was slightly better in Tunisia than in Libya, but the Libyan hotels were superior. The hotels and food in Egypt were fine, except for the food at Mersa Matruh. The itinerary and organisation was up to Explore’s usual high standards. Apart from Arabic, Tunisians speak French, Libyans Italian (but English is common now) and of course Egyptians English, all related to the colonial past! It was interesting to compare three countries on one trip and particularly fascinating to experience Libya, which is not geared up for tourism and doesn’t have building developments all along the coast. However Benghazi does have thousands and thousands of high-rise flats on the outskirts. These were built by the Chinese, but it wasn’t clear why there were so many and who would occupy them! Although we had to have a policeman with us on the bus, Libya seems fairly relaxed and the people are very friendly, especially now that relations with the West have thawed.