Cruising Libya’s ancient cities

by Harry B

For lovers of classical history, a cruise along the North African coast is an ideal way to explore the Greco-Roman sites of Libya, from Leptis Magna and Sabratha to Ptolemais and Cyrene

Libya?” asked surprised friends. “Why do you want to go there?” For anyone with a passing interest in classical history, this is a no-brainer. And once we had seen those shots of stunning sun-drenched ruins with a backdrop of the blue Mediterranean, the lure was irresistible.

But Libya has yet to sell itself to tourists, so the big questions were: how to get there, how to travel around and where to stay? The answers – easy as one, two, three – were found in a package holiday with a difference offered by travel company Noble Caledonia ( One: fly to Malta, then board the ship to cross to the African coast. Two: travel the long distances between ports by sea, leaving only short trips by road to the sites. Three: enjoy the known comfort of a small cruise ship, rather than the unknown quality of Libyan hotels.

One reason, of course, why Libya has not yet taken off as a tourist destination is the fact that it’s a dry country, in more ways than one. Eating and sleeping on board ship was one obvious way to be sure that the occasional beer or glass of wine was available – or so we thought …

As we have spent our lives avoiding cruises, the way teenagers avoid James Last concerts, this might not appear at first glance to have been the smartest choice. However, research revealed that the MS Clipper Adventurer is a small ship with just 61 cabins, so the usual deterrents – dressing for dinner, organised games on deck, bored entertainers  – would not apply. We filled in the form and sent off our cheque. Prices ranged from £2,495 to £3,595 per person for 11 nights, depending on cabin category – not a cheap holiday, but at least all meals were included, as well as flights from and to Heathrow, coach transport and admission fees to sites on the itinerary.

We embarked from Valletta on a warm evening in April. Immediately, disconcerting vibrations from down below raised suspicions that all was not well in the engine room. This was confirmed by an announcement after breakfast that there was indeed a problem, resulting in a long day at sea and the cancellation of the first scheduled stop in Tunisia. That was not the only disappointing news: equally distressing, to many passengers, was the revelation that while the ship’s bar was well stocked, it would be sealed by the Libyan authorities for as long as we were docked in Libya or cruising offshore. Disappointment was tempered by the prospect of a way round this dilemma – with an eye on diplomatic relations, this is left to the reader's imagination ... ...

Next day we awoke to find the Clipper Adventurer docked in Tripoli harbour. Three coaches waited to take us to Sabratha, where the remains of the Roman city occupy a spectacular location by the sea. Temples, baths, latrines and fountains are spread across a huge site. The most impressive building, which owes much to its sympathetic rebuilding by the Italians in the 1920s, is a 4th century theatre, the largest of its kind in Africa.

The following day provided an opportunity to explore Tripoli, the capital. Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed just to wander off on our own. The coaches again awaited us, with police escort; the authorities like to know what foreign visitors are up to. Even when we were allowed time to walk unaccompanied through the medina, or old town, a plain clothes officer from the tourist police was never far away. It’s a kind of bureaucratic muscle-flexing – you are made aware that you are visiting on the state’s terms. Huge posters picturing Colonel Gaddafi and a large number 38 looked down on us. This turned out not to be the great man’s age or waist measurement, but the number of years he had been head of state. The battered VW Beetle used by Gaddafi when planning and executing the 1969 revolution can be seen in the Jamahiriya Museum, which also has impressive displays of mosaics, statues and artefacts from the country’s classical sites.

After an unimpressive lunch in a restaurant next to the Marcus Aurelius Arch, we were driven to an untidy, dilapidated suburb. A dusty path through a disused cemetery led to an immaculate Commonwealth War Cemetery, its lavishly watered lush turf between neat rows of white headstones in stark contrast to the seedy surroundings.

Leptis Magna, one of Libya’s five World Heritage Sites, occupies an extensive area on the coast near the port of Al Khums. Perhaps the most lasting impression was the huge scale of the buildings and monuments, evident even from their ruined state; these included the restored Arch of Septimius Severus at the entrance to the site, and the Severan Forum, measuring 100m by 60m. What an awe-inspiring sight this city must have been in its heyday between AD100 and 300, before it was largely destroyed in the earthquake of AD365. Nearby is a magnificent amphitheatre, where 16,000 spectators attended gory public spectacles – a 4th-century version of Twickenham, in effect.

A full day at sea was needed to reach the eastern sites (Libya is the fourth-largest country on the African continent). From the port of Benghazi, we visited Ptolemais, which thrived under the Greeks in the 1st and 2nd centuries BC. When the Romans moved in, one of their many ambitious projects was the construction of four cavernous water cisterns beneath the forum. Empty now and accessible by stone steps, they provide another example of the staggering civil engineering feats achieved so long ago.

Further east, the remains of Cyrene, once described as “the Athens of Africa”, extend over a vast area. It has the magnificent Temple of Zeus, a Greek agora (public space), a necropolis, the Sanctuary of Apollo and the remnants of a theatre with an unsurpassable backdrop of the Mediterranean. Like all Libya’s ancient sites, much remains unexcavated. When the country’s relations with the US are fully restored – just a matter of time, surely – investment from American universities will indisputably unearth many more treasures. Cyrene’s port, Apollonia, is another splendid site, where the bright blue of sky and sea offer the perfect contrast to the mellow stone of the still upright columns of ruined buildings.

Our cruise ended at Heraklion in Crete, no more than 250 miles from the Libyan coast, although scenically and culturally it felt more like a million miles. This presented the opportunity to explore another famous historical site, the Minoan Palace of Knossos. Excavated and restored by Sir Arthur Evans in the early 20th century, the palace was constructed on a grand scale. Knowing that parts of the original date back to the 15th century BC or earlier makes it even more incredible. Another contrast here with Libyan sites was the number of visitors – like comparing football crowds at Macclesfield and Manchester United.

A little highlight at the end of the holiday, before it was time to head for the airport, was lunch at a restaurant in the charming town of Archanes. I had the best moussaka I’ve ever tasted, washed down with generous servings of local wine. The Cretan spirit raki was offered as a digestif. Apparently the Minoans drank it more than 3,000 years ago – plus ça change