Benghazi, Libya, May 1964 —
It’s Saturday, and we have a day trip planned to visit some of old Greek and Roman ruins. The Greeks colonized the coast of Libya starting in the early part of 600 B. C. The most prominent of these cities was Leptis Magna located halfway between Benghazi and Tripoli. It is the birthplace of the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Libya was occupied by the Ottoman Empire, and later by the Italians, who, sent 20,000 Italian emigrants to Libya. During the Second World War, Libya and North Africa were occupied by the German Africa Corp led by General Rommel, and later liberated by U. S. forces and the British 8th Army.
Even though the original Greek city has long since been swallowed up by the newer Libyan city of Benghazi, our driving trip will start where old city wall marks the edge of the former ancient city.
I’ve only driven a couple of miles when I pull up into a vacant lot.
“Vertis look right ahead. See that crumbled area that looks vaguely like a wall?”
“Well, that’s all that’s left of the old city.”
Only a few pieces of the old wall remains, but we can see 3-to-6-feet sections of columns being used in doorways and walls.
“Well, surely we’re not going to drive halfway across Libya to see stuff like that.”
“No, we’re not. Bill Wilson, the Canadian geologist, told me the ruins called Tolmaitha are a lot better, and he said Cyrene is really something.”
We’ve been at the piece of Benghazi wall for about 15 minutes, when I turn to Vertis.
“Hop in the car. We’ve got a long ride ahead of us.”
The little Fiat is zooming along at its top speed of about 50 miles an hour, and we’re approaching Tolmaitha when Vertis comments: “Richard, if we’re going to just see pieces of old walls, I think we’re wasting our time…”
We have just dropped down from a little rise while Vertis is talking, and when she sees the massive temple columns of Tolmaitha right ahead her mouth drops open.
“Oh, wow! Richard, why didn’t you tell me….. I can’t believe it… oh, my gosh!”
Well, Vertis is sure excited, and I kid her a bit. “Hey, doesn’t look much like downtown Smackover, does it?”
I park, and we scramble out to explore the ruins. We’re walking toward the center of the ancient city, when I notice a Byzantium cross on one of the buildings cornerstones.
“Look at this, Vertis. First the Greeks, then the Romans, and later this was a Christian Church. Can you believe the history of this place?”
We’ve been nosing around near the Greek-Roman temple with the tall columns in the old restored center of the city for an hour, when a young boy walks up. He hands me a coin and with just a glance, I can tell it’s an old Greek coin. I offer him an El Dorado House Department store ballpoint pen. He’s tickled and we pocket the coin.
Statues and other artifacts are almost everywhere we walk, but we’re not going to take anything. The only artifact we will carry back from Tolmaitha is that antique Greek coin.
After spending an hour looking at the mosaics and old temples, we’re walking back to where I parked our car. Actually, Tolmaitha is just a stop on the way up to the jebel (Libyan for mountain plateau) called Jebel Akhdar, literally, “the Green Mountains.” Where the old city of Cyrene is located.
We’re driving across an open plain with a scattering of vegetation, then, as we round a curve, we get a surprise. Sitting out on the open plain, there is what looks like a walled castle. The walls look to be about ten to fifteen feet high, and the place looks abandoned. A sign on the edge of the road that says “Turkish Fort.” My best guess is that it fits into when the Ottoman Empire was in charge of the area.
The little Fiat 500 is beginning to strain—-envision your lawn mower running at top speed—-as we climb up in elevation. We don’t have a road map because there’s only one road: the same road Rommel and the Brits fought over in World War II. Machine gun emplacements and barbed wire are still here.
We’re getting higher in elevation, and from the increased rain, there is a dramatic change in the vegetation from scrubby brush to large evergreen trees.
This area of Libya looks nothing like any other part of the country. It resembles Sicily, which is less than 80 miles across the Mediterranean Sea.
It will take us about another hour to reach Cyrene. If you’ll remember, Simon of Cyrene carried the cross for Christ. When Simon lived in Cyrene, during the first century, it was already an old city, founded by the Greeks in 631 B. C.
I see the city as we top a low rise, and as I drive up to the ruins, we’re shocked. Tolmaitha was impressive, but the ruins of Cyrene are spectacular, and the view from the top of the jebel looking northeast toward the Mediterranean is awesome. I park and we walk to the edge of a series of terraces that step down to the lower part of the city, and from there we see the port of Cyrene, Apollonia. It must be at least around five miles away on the coast, but even from this distance the temple columns are clearly visible.
An hour later, and we’re in what seems to be the center of the ancient city, walking into a grand temple. It resembles a football field surrounded by 50-foot columns.
Vertis is smiling and continuing to shake her head, and I understand her amazement. The sights we’re seeing are so remarkable, it’s hard to take them in.
“Vertis, look across the road. There’s a sign that says “Museum of Cyrene Antiquities.” As we walk up to the front door, it is a shock to see dozens of marble statues stacked up outside.
As we approach the entrance door, a Libyan man comes up, and after we pay, 20 piasters each, we enter a room not more than 40 feet long and maybe 20 feet wide, but… oh my gosh.
The first thing we see are the “Three Graces”—life-size, white, cranano marble sculptures of three Greek women, with their arms around one another. The contents of that small museum would rival any of the Greek-Roman exhibits I have ever seen. We are the only people in the ancient city or museum.
We have brought a picnic lunch and sitting in the first big temple we were in earlier, we dine in a magnificent setting.
It’s been nearly four hours since we arrived, and I guess we’ve walked up and down every marble paved street in the old city. As we stroll back to the car, it occurs to me that it is always a relief when our little Fiat 500 starts, and if we don’t hit any camels, we’ll make it back to Benghazi in about two hours.
Richard Mason is a registered professional geologist, downtown developer, former chairman of the Department of Environmental Quality Board of Commissioners, past president of the Arkansas Wildlife Federation, and syndicated columnist. Email richard@ gibraltarenergy.com.