Arabian Vistas

hezaz mountains – saudi arabia

By Sept 2011 it had been more than seven months since I had left Libya.The civil war there was winding to a close .It was time for me to return to Benghazi.I had evacuated in a hurry in March 2011 and was anxious to get back to my job.

arabian desert

Kissing my bewildered son a midnight goodbye I presented myself at the immigration desk at Bengaluru international airport.After some fifteen minutes of patient explanation from me that I was going to Libya and not Liberia and hence did not need yellow fever vaccination I was let through.I and two of my friends boarded the Air Arabia flight to Alexandria.A low cost carrier and one has to pay for even water.I dozed off and got up just in time to see the plane descend into the desert city of Sharjah.I tried in vain to locate the cricket stadium ,the venue of many an epic India – Pakistan clash in the 80s and 90s.After a quick changeover of planes we were off to Alexandria.

port suez and the suez canal

The skies were clear and the landscape below was clearly visible.The desolate sandy Arabian desert stretched for hundreds of miles with a couple of oil installations the only signs of civilization.Crossing the rugged Hezaz mountains of Saudi Arabia we flew over the Red sea and the gulf of Aquaba.The lifeline of world maritime trade the Suez canal was next as we flew over Port Suez.As we reached Cairo the desert topography dramatically turned from brown to green.Not for nothing is Egypt called ‘the gift of the Nile’. For centuries this river has cradled this ancient civilization.Finally the blue of the Mediterranean was visible as we descended into the ancient city of Alexandria.The first leg of our journey back to Libya was over.

entering the nile delta – see how the desert greens
nile river – egypt
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The Secret Lake

Nestled among the wooded hills in a corner of my village of Santa Cruz lies the Bodvol lake.Few people outside the village seem to know much about this ‘secret lake’.

lush greenery enroute

One sunny morning this monsoon ,I took my wife and son on an excursion to the lake.Off we went on our scooter ,my son agog with excitement.The lake is located at a height in the hills behind the temple.We dumped the scooter at the foothills and trekked up.We followed the trails in the dense vegetation.After losing our way once we got on the right trail.Lush greenery and colourful wild flowers enveloped us .My son was wide eyed seeing all the pretty butterflies.A short sharp climb and we saw the placid waters in front of us.

bodvol lake

The lake is surrounded by thick wooded hills on all three sides which forms its watershed.A man made lake it was built in 1908 during Portuguese times.Locals tell me it is more than two coconut trees deep.Largely deserted for most of the area the lake comes alive during the annual Sao Joao festival in June.Dedicated to St John the Baptist it involves jumping into wells and lakes by the revellers.


Soaking in the solitude I wondered for how much longer the place would retain its pristine beauty.My guess is not for long.Like much of Goa that has been ravaged by builders and miners this too will soon be paradise lost.

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Anna’s August Revolution

candlelight vigil at azad maidan - panaji

It was a perfect storm which hit the Indian political establishment this monsoon.Seventy four year old Anna Hazare’s anti corruption agitation was a masterclass in political agitation.A carefully orchestrated campaign since March reached a crescendo in August and had the government on the ropes begging for mercy.

candlelight vigil - azad maidan ,panaji

It’s difficult not to get cynical about corruption staying in India.Its in your face and all pervasive.Greasing palms is a taken and you are butt of jokes if you don’t toe the line.I remember the impotent rage I felt when a clerk slammed his cubicle window on me when I did not yield to his demand for attesting my own degree certificates.What values do I teach my son?Do I preach honesty and then watch him struggle to thrive in a crooked society?Or do I let him find his own moral bearings?

support for Anna's fast - panaji

So when Anna threw us a lifeline in the form of the jan lokpal bill we,middle India grabbed it.We cheered him everyday on television.We campaigned for him online.Here in Goa too fasts,meetings and candlelight vigils took place.It was exhilarating to be part of the biggest pan India movement in decades. I had just come back from the Libyan  revolution when the Anna movement started.I had seen what could be achieved when frustrated youth said enough is enough.This too was a revolution.A revolution against the ‘chalta hai’ attitude of Indian society.A revolution which gave new belief to people power.A revolution which said “Yes,We Can.”

the battle is won - the war remains

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Viva Carnival !

Feb – March is carnival time in Goa. From the cool climes of Benghazi,Libya  I landed home right at  carnival time.Since I had been away from my toddler son for months there was no better opportunity for some father son bonding than the Goa carnival.So off I went with him perched on my shoulder for a dekko of the Panaji carnival.

lots of colourful characters

The Goa carnival is a three day event.Largely a legacy of the Portuguese who ruled here for 400 odd years.A catholic festival it has undergone a secular transformation over the years.The origin of the word carnival is disputed but is thought to be from the Latin word ‘carne vale’ meaning ‘farewell to meat’.Perhaps it signifies the last days when one could eat meat before the fasting of Lent.Carnival is celebrated all over the world in various forms with the biggest celebrations in Rio,Brazil.

crowds line the road for the parade

The Mandovi river made for a picturesque backdrop for the showpiece of the three day revelry – the carnival parade.People had lined up both side of Dayanand Bandodkar road and were also hanging out on rooftops.

a float rolls by

The carnival parade in Goa has had a chequered history.It used to be a much bigger event during my school days.I remember those family outings from the small town where we stayed to the capital ,Panaji.Finding a vantage viewing point was crucial as the crowds were huge.The high point for us kids were all the fancy masks which arrived in the market during carnival time .The event was very much commercialized with corporates  especially liquor companies putting in big money.The parades were full of glitz and glamour,loud music ,pretty women and plenty of liquor.As the event become more and more commercial the church increasingly disapproved of it as it supposedly painted a distorted picture of the catholic community in Goa.Opposition grew and for some years in the 90’s carnival parades were stopped.It made a comeback in the late 90’s albeit as a watered down,government controlled tourism event.

a fish swims past

This year parade too lacked the spirit and spontaneity of yore.While the peoples enthusiasm has dwindled with numerous other entertainment options today the floats too left much to be desired.Many were based on tired social themes like no smoking,avoid pollution,nuclear free world which have already been done to death before.The flagship float was of” King Momo”- the king of chaos who presides over the three day festivities.My son squealed at the various huge floats of animals, birds and fish.With a mask on his face he was enjoying the parade from his loft seat on my shoulder.The dances by young boys and girls preceding the floats were very enjoyable.As always many of the foreign tourists enthusiastically participated in the revelry.Some outrageous costumes were on display.The drag queens ,and the Gandhi-Obama chums especially  attracted many shutterbugs.

Soon dusk set in and the parade wound down.I went to the riverside to show my son the ferry now loaded with people going home.It was good to be home.The cliche runs true – there is no place like it.Viva Carnival !

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Escape through Egypt

(Third post in my three part series on the Libyan revolution of Feb 2011)

Though the situation in Benghazi was stable in the immediate aftermath of the revolution the same could not be said of the rest of Libya.We remained glued to Al Jazeera as news of unrest in other areas of western Libya filtered in .Initial reports of Gadaffi fleeing to Venuzvela  which was greeted with loud celebratory gunfire in Benghazi turned out to be false.Reports came in of the brutal supression of the revolt in Tripoli.Gaddafi himself came on television promising retribution ‘house by house’  to the residents of Benghazi .The speech created panic among our loved ones in India .In fact the madman had dispatched a few planes from Tripoli to bomb Benghazi.We spent a few anxious hours in the night gossiping and sipping tea till news came in that the planes had landed at Benghazi airport and did not carry out the bombing.A couple of pilots landed in neighbouring country of Malta as the pilots did not want to bomb their own people and one pilot ejected from his plane near Ajdabiya .Rumours also swirled that he could use chemical or biological weapons against Benghazi.

Scotia Prince docks at Benghazi port

Seeing the unstable situation various governments began evacuating their nationals.Indian government too advised us to evacuate which was also seconded by Garyounis university officials where I worked .Benina airport in Benghazi had been shut as it had been dug up by the rebels .So the Indian govt chartered the Bahamian cruise liner ‘Scotia Prince’ to ferry Indian nationals from Benghazi to Alexandria in Egypt.

So ten days later we bid goodbye to the Libyan family hosting us.Our Libyan landlady who was ‘mamma’ to us Indians  broke down at our departure.Thanks to them we carried back lovely memories of our Libyan stay.The hospitality we received from them was simply unparalleled.It was a pity we had to leave  such lovely people but then, inshallah we would be back.

The port was  crowded with people of many nationalities crowding it looking for a seat home.The huge contingent of Indians comprising of doctors,nurses from Kerala ,oil workers, labourers ,and factory workers from Hyundai were shepherded into a large warehouse where we waited through the afternoon for our exit visa to be stamped and the arrival of our ship.Most of us had left behind many of our belongings in making a hasty exit. A loud cheer went up as the Scotia Prince entered the port.However my celebration was premature as it was further six hours and a lot of jostling before I finally boarded the ship at midnight.

cabin on Scotia Prince

Things eased up once we were on the ship.In the hold the team of Indian embassy officials from Egypt processed our passports.Many who were without passports were issued temporary passports.Bunks were allocated with four people in one cabin.I managed to gang up with a couple of friends and got a cabin together.The cabins were very comfortable with air conditioning,clean sheets and towels and an attached bathroom.Once checked it we made a beeline for the dining hall where we had a very filling chicken meal before crashing for the night.A long dream of an all expenses paid Mediterranean cruise was coming true,so what if it was as a refugee!


serpentine food queues

It was a long journey to Alexandria in Egypt.In all we spent three nights in the ship due to delay in formalities.The sea is indeed very lovely and time passed quickly just gazing at it stretching from horizon to horizon from Africa to Europe.Queuing up for food became a daily chore as the queues were serpentine.Initially whoever got into the dining hall went into cruise dining mode,eating leisurely while stomachs growled outside the dining hall.As a north indian labourer quipped to his friend”aisa chicken mutton kaha kahne ko milega? lapet lo!”(“where will you get to eat such chicken ,mutton meals?gobble it!”).The joke going around was that after breakfast one should queue for lunch and after lunch for dinner !However the ship crew after being initially shell shocked to see their beloved cruise ship turning into a refugee ship soon got their act together and streamlined things.Being a refugee ship the casino and pubs were not functioning so we sat around the pub gossiping and gazing at the sea.


Finally on the third evening the lights of Alexandria were visible.Everyone crowded on to the deck.Arrangements had been made to send us in five planes from Alexandria airport to Mumbai and Delhi.However what should have been a fairly simple operation of dividing us into five batches and putting up the names on the noticeboard was bungled by the Indian embassy staff.The non transparent and sometimes haughty behavior of some of the senior Indian embassy officials on board led to a lot of avoidable confusion,acrimony and delay.Finally the next day evening I was on the way to the airport in a Volvo bus chartered by the Indian govt.

never too late for some late night business

The drive from the port through Alexandria to the airport took about forty five minutes.The buses stopped at a souvenir shop for some late night shopping .the Egyptians are enterprising people and any tourism business in lean times is welcome even refugees.Many people unloaded their last Libyan dinars which was bought by the Egyptians at rock bottom rates.Some of us held on to the dinars with Gadaffi pictures as these may soon disappear. Some bought souvenirs of pyramids,mummies and camels ,all made in China of course.

borg el arab airport - alexandria

Alexandria is an impressive city with well lit broad wide roads,busy shopping areas,trams and tanks.Egypt had just undergone its own revolution and security was tight.Of particular interest to me were the traffic policemen kiosks at the intersections which had quite a unique look.The brand new Borg al arab airport had been opened just days earlier.An all glass structure well lit up it made for an imposing site.After being cutoff for so many days wifi internet along with some hot coffee was welcome.A few hours restless wait later we were flown out to Mumbai by Egypt Air.It was goodbye Africa for now.

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Game over, Gadaffi

(Second part of my three part series on the Libyan revolution of Feb 2011).

The day after the revolution Benghazi was in a daze.There was no government but to the Libyans’s credit there was no anarchy.The city elders quickly got into the act.After congratulating the youth for freeing the city various committees were formed to looks after various aspects of the civic administration.Banks opened and everybody was given a lumpsum amount of 200 dinars as relief. A few shops and coffee shops opened. Schools and colleges however remained closed .Emergency services in hospitals including our college reopened.

corniche in Benghazi

The party however continued.All day long past my window youth racing about in their cars  honking ,yelling,and firing in the air.In many ways this was a ‘carrevolution’ seeing how prominent the role of automobiles in the Libyan way of life.Many of the protest marches consisted of car convoys and car honking substituted chanting.We joked that we had heard more honking in the post revolution days than in the whole year before. The corniche became a permanent hub for meetings and celebrations.I took a walk there a few days later. Before the revolution I used to avoid taking pictures of the huge Gadaffi posters around town in case I was arrested.So I thought that now that he had gone here was a good opportunity to click some photographs.Poor me! Not one picture or billboard had been left untouched.All were torn down and believe me that takes some doing as he was omnipresent.

kicking out the dictator

The corniche by the Mediterranean had become a 24/7 party zone .The pre Gaddafi Libyan tricolour replaced the green flag of Gaddafi and was fluttering everywhere .At the courthouse were rows upon rows of pictures of people killed or missing during Gaddafi’s reign.People,talking,smiling,praying,singing,photographing, directing the traffic. Old men wandering around with bemused looks.Perhaps they thought they would never see this day and were filled with admiration of the” facebook generation”.I too posed happily in front of a Gaddafi tank with flags in both the hands.Youngsters took turns in having their pictures clicked while kicking Gaddafi’s cartoon .Graffiti artists had a field day covering the whole city  with their art.Gaddafi with his various eccentricities is indeed a cartoonist’s delight.

burnt katiba

Another place which became a major attraction for Libyans was the much feared katiba (military garrison).I spent a morning walking around the huge compound. Cars filled with families poured into the huge place which was off limits for them earlier.Bulldozers were still to be seen where people had used them to break the compound walls.The entrance had been blown up in a suicide blast by a martyred oil engineer. Most of the buildings had been burnt .Dozens and dozens of burnt cars littered the outside.Nothing much had escaped the people’s fury.As one playstation inspired graffiti on the katiba wall put it was indeed ‘game over’ Gaddafi .

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Revolution in Benghazi

(First of my three part series on the Libyan revolution of Feb 2011.)

Browsing through the newspaper on a balmy Goan evening I read the latest war update from a continent far away .I rewind to three months ago when I was in the midst of it all , in downtown Benghazi – ground zero of the Libyan revolution of feb 2011

It all started suddenly at around midnight ,15th of February. I had just turned in for the night, when all of a sudden I heard wailing police sirens outside my first floor Benghazi flat .Rushing to the window I saw a dozen police cars piled up on the road below .They were trying to outflank people marching down the road shouting slogans and displaying banners .A police truck raced towards them spraying water in an attempt to scatter them .Within a matter of minutes the crowd grew and hordes of people on foot and in cars emerged and moved towards the Mediterranean waterfront .The unthinkable had happened .After 42 years of somnolence Libyans had risen against Muammar Gaddafi .I called up my Indian friend and tersely told him “kranti shuru hua” .Was this indeed the start of the Libyan chapter of the Arab spring?

I had been in Libya for 15 months, teaching along with other Indian doctors at a dental college in Benghazi .A graceful laid back city with a lovely Mediterranean waterfront and friendly populace ,Benghazi is the second largest Libyan city .On the surface life was pleasant enough with fast cars ,football ,cigarettes and qawa (dark coffee)keeping the youngsters occupied .However the leader is omnipresent looking down benevolently from huge hoardings and billboards on streets and from pictures in shops ,offices and homes .Spies were said to be everywhere and dissidence was not tolerated .Opponents of the regime simply disappeared without a trace .Chacha 420 or Bade bhai as some of us used to call him had an iron grip on the country .Unemployment was high with very little economic activity .People especially the youth though frustrated had resigned themselves to their fate, waiting for the crazy old man to die.

Then Tunisia and Egypt happened . There was palpable excitement in streets and cafes as Libyans avidly followed the Egyptian revolution on Al Jazeera tv .Egypt exerts a huge influence on the Arab psyche and being the next door neighbor Hosni Mubarak’s exit was a singular turning point in the Libyan resolve to take on Gaddafi .However nothing much was expected to happen here .Thanks to Libya’s huge oil wealth and state subsidy in all sectors Libyans were much better off than their Tunisian or Egyptian neighbors .A lady colleague dismissed all talk of a revolution here saying that Libyans fear Gaddafi too much .In 42 years there had never been any mass demonstrations against him .So what I was seeing below my window was something pretty extraordinary.

benghazi 17th feb

The following day was pretty calm .Over coffee and taamiya (falafel) in the college canteen there was whispered discussion on the previous night’s incidents which had killed two people .The next day 17th Feb ,had been designated as a ‘day of rage’ .It started quietly enough with but action started in the afternoon .Our landlord’s son who took part in the demonstrations kept us Indians updated on the developments .A huge crowd in thousands had gathered at the corniche at the seafront in front of the court house .The security forces fired among them killing about six people .I kept indoors but from my roof top we could see police men firing tear gas at groups of youth and chasing them away .All through the day there was intermittent firing and wailing sirens of police and ambulances .Smoke from burning tyres coupled with a gibli (dust storm)completed the picture of a city in turmoil.

demonstrators wind past my window

On Friday it was quiet in the morning and we did a bit of shopping of essentials from the few shops that were open .Three of us Indian doctors were staying with a wonderful Libyan family and were very safe  throughout the period .By afternoon two funeral processions of persons killed the previous day filed past my window .The mood among the mourners was clearly one of great anger .I later learnt that as one such procession was winding its way past the security headquarters chanting slogans, it was fired upon from the rooftop killing many more .Also by evening news filtered in that Gaddafi had sent armed thugs from Tripoli by Afriquiah airlines flight to quell the uprising .These thugs said to be mercenaries from sub Saharan Africa indulged in random shootings and entered people’s homes threatening and intimidating them .That night my colleagues and our landlord’s sons kept guard at night .The knives used to sacrifice sheep during Id sure came in handy! Vigilante groups were formed across our neighborhood keeping a sharp eye for mercenaries .Irked over the arrival of mercenaries and facing mounting people‘s anger the police simply disappeared .The ‘yellow hat’ mercenaries were chased and cornered by the people over the next two days .Intermittent firing could be heard as youth battled the armed mercenaries at street corners with stones and knives . Two days and a steep death toll later the mercenaries were either killed ,captured or simply fled.

With internet down and international calls not coming through easily it was difficult to communicate with relatives back home .Feb 19th was my wife’s birthday and I could not wish her .However local calls were going through and the service provider provided unlimited talk time as recharge vouchers were not available .The perks of a revolution !Also sms messages from the regime promising money and threatening retribution kept popping in the inbox .I was tuned in to Al Jazeera tv which provided extensive coverage and watched movies .Watching romantic hindi films on my computer with gunfire reverberating outside was quite an experience !There were sketchy reports of horrific stories of massacres of unarmed protesters far away in Tripoli .The whole story of that will only be out once Gaddaffi goes.

katiba entrance

By Sunday with the police and the mercenaries neutralized most of Benghazi was out of Gaddafi control .What remained was the military garrison ‘the katiba”, Gaddafi ‘s home when he came to Benghazi .I used to pass by it every day on my visits to the gymnasium and the compound is armed to the teeth .The previous evening dozens of stone throwing protesters were killed there using anti aircraft guns .On Sunday evening the protesters returned with arms by raiding a small garrison .By then a number of army units had turned against Gaddafi and joined them .Ordinary people used bulldozers to ram into the compound getting shot in the process .One of the most heroic acts as narrated by our landlord’s son was of Mahdi Ziu , a middle aged balding oil executive .He drove his explosive filled car into the main gates of the katiba and blew himself up .The soldiers scurried inside opening the way for the people to overrun the katiba. For all Gaddafi efforts to label the protesters as Al Qaida they were just ordinary men .Many of them were educated in the west ,engineers ,doctors ,lawyers and shopkeepers .Many of our students were involved .The heroism and courage shown by them in face of brutality and live bullets will mark this as one of the great revolutions .They most surely were ‘men enough’.

crowds at the corniche hours after liberation

With the fall of the Katiba on the night of 20th Feb ,Benghazi was free and the city erupted in celebration .A tank rolled rolled by our window followed by honking cars .Everybody went crazy riding along in their cars honking ,shouting and flashing the victory sign .We Indians were also caught up in the euphoria and went out for a spin shepherded by our landlord’s son .We went to the corniche Libya’s ‘Tahrir square’ .The whole city had descended there .Young and old, men , women and children shouting and screaming in pure joy ;the exhilaration of being finally free .Everybody was laughing ,hugging and wishing each other .Everyone was carrying a weapon of some kind .From sticks ,knives,choppers,pistols,ak-47s,rocket propelled grenades ,rocket launchers everything was on display .Celebratory gunfire rocked the night .I too posed for photos in front of a Gaddafi tank even as youngsters danced on it .We drove by the katiba which was set on fire .At all intersections there were armed young men celebrating and guiding the traffic .One youngster directed us to take a diversion as there was some fighting down the road .Burning tyres and dustbins were lit up the night sky .After an hour of driving around yelling and waving we went home .The veil of fear had lifted and the countdown to Gaddafi’s end in Libya had begun.

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Trip to Tripoli

With the Nato airstrikes against Ghaddafi hotting up Tripoli is in the news everyday.I had made a few trips to Tripoli( or Trabulus as libyans call it) from Benghazi  during my Libya stint,the most recent being in December last year.I landed in Tripoli by the early morning flight .The airport was quite unimpressive.I had to search around before finding a stinking toilet. A new one is built alongside as Libya was waking up from years of sanctions.It is a twenty minute smooth  ride by taxi to the city .After finishing my visa work there I decided to do a bit of sightseeing.

the waterfront along green square

The main tourist places in Tripoli are ,the arch of Marcus Auralius , red castle ,Green square,medina and surrounding areas. The Green square is the square known for Ghaddafi speeches.(in feb 2010 Libyan uprising the Green square was the site of a large scale massacre by of peaceful protesters by armed Ghaddafi militiaThe true details of what happened that day are still unknown.) On that day it was just a parking lot for vehicles.The area around the Green square is the commercial hub of the city. I took a stroll from the Green square to the promenade by the glistening Mediterranean ocean.A lone fisherman was trying his luck in the  calm waters.

museum exhibits

Just across from the Green square is the red castle (Assaria al-hamra).Part of the castle is closed to the public while a part houses the jamahiriya museum.Since I had time before my evening flight back to Benghazi I went for a dekko.Muammar Ghaddafi’ s rule has suppressed Libyan history to create an all encopassing personality cult.At the reception were copies of Ghaddafi’s infamous green book(everything is green in Ghaddafi’s Libya ;from buildings to the flag,to books, to the ink he signs in).Inside the first exhibit was that of a jeep in which Ghaddafi carried out the 1969 coup.Oh right  I  said ,a museum for Ghaddafi propaganda.But I was pleasently surprised.The museum showcases Libyan history from the prehistoric times and was a eyeopener for me.Libya has a rich and diverse history which even Libyans seem largely ignorant of.The highlight of the museum were the numerous Greeco-roman statues from the many such archeological sites in Libya.The only grouse was that many of the signs were in arabic with no english translation.I had to leave early as the museum was closing,but it is worth a half day visit.

medina suq

Coming out I went for a stroll in the nearby medina suq (market) .The market is very quaint with numerous small lanes and bylanes.Libyan shopkeepers were soaking up the late afternoon  sun and sipping (qawa) coffee.Gold jewellery,clothes and souvenirs are the main items on display.One shopkeeper while welcoming me to Libya cautioned me not to click photos as I could get arrested.

The area around the Green square has Italian  colonial buildings and modern shops.It has a rather’ Connaught Place’ feel about.I had a shawarma at one of the ubiquitous shawarma stalls and caught the taxi back to the airport.

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Via Balbia

Continuing our day excursion from Benghazi ,after Cyrene we went on a long drive along the North African coast ;Via balbia – as the Libyan coastal highway was known when it was first built by Mussolini during Italian colonial rule in the 1930s . This road is part of the larger Cairo-Dakar trans african highway no 1 which is not yet fully operational.The highway is a lifeline to Libyans as most of the Libyan population is concentrated in towns and villages along this road.

scrub vegetation along the coast

The coastal landscape is rocky ,largely deserted with scrub vegetation .The flora is particularly interesting with all manner of fleshy shrubs with intriguing smells.To the right of the highway are hills of the Jebel Akdhar mountain range while the left is the greenish blue Mediterranean ocean.The area is largely undeveloped and holds tremendous tourism potential.Far away on the ocean we could see a cruise ship lazily making its way to its next destination. The road was also the scene of many a famous battle during world war two between the Germans and the British with the frontline moving back and forth along the road .The ‘desert fox’ Rommel and his panzer division chased the British army east from Benghazi all the way to Tobruk near the Egyptian border.(As I write this in may 2011 the road is once again the scene of the battle for Libya between pro and anti Gaddafi forces with the frontline moving back and forth.)

ruins of Appolonia

On the way back we had lunch at Appolonia .Appolonia was the port of Cyrene .Most of it is submerged after the earthquake of 365 AD which also destroyed Cyrene .Among the ruins was what appeared to be a dwelling of ancient times now partially submerged in the sea.There is also a pool which our guide told us is known as Cleopatra pool. After a late lunch of fried chicken and rice at a hotel there we made our way back home  to Benghazi .

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The Athens of Africa

Situated near the town of Shahat in eastern Libya are the Hellenic ruins of Cyrene. Our Libyan driver made quick time from the valley of caves with the vintage BMW purring along nicely.
Cyrene (UNESCO World Heritage Site ) was founded in 631 B.C by colonists from the Greek island of Thera.Along with the nearby port of Appolonia it was the chief among the pentapolis (five Greek cities ) in the region.Cyrene passed through different hands ;from Greeks to Persians , to Alexander, Ptolemy and finally was annexed as part of the Roman empire in 96 B.C.
The chief export was the mysterious herb sylphium thought to have contraceptive and abortive properties. Trade in sylphium made Cyrene one of the richest cities in the 7th century B.C. Sylphium was harvested to extinction and this led to the decline of Cyrene.A major earthquake in A.D 365 heralded the end of Cyrene and the city fell to ruins.

cyrene ruins

The first view of Cyrene as we drove in from Shahat was spectacular. Set among the cliffy slopes overlooking the blue green Mediterranean waters it had us scrambling for photographs. Later in the day we spent an exciting hour clambering over the ruins. Among the extensive ruins were the temple of Appolo (7th century B.C.),the agora (Greek marketplace ),the baths ,the acropolis and the amphitheatre . A spring has been channeled through the city as it flows down the hill and must have been the main water source. Many of the statues are headless as the earthquake toppled them breaking off the heads. However what saddened me was the callous neglect of such priceless heritage.The authorities need to do more to showcase what was once the”Athens of Africa”.

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