Getting Settled in Tripoli
I was getting quite settled in Tripoli – the center is very small and easy to navigate and I now felt quite at home. I even had my little daily routine starting with Youssef who makes the best coffee in Tripoli, but early Friday morning, the driver, Nasser, and I set out for Cyrenaica in Eastern Libya on our ‘quest for the Qubbat’. Between his English and my Arabic we would see if we could discover anything more about Ibn B in the east.
Friday being the holiday, the roads were quiet as the crowds had not yet started out for the beach. As we neared the beach area roadside stands were getting prepared for the beachgoers with children’s water wings, balls, windbreaks, parasols, and plastic tables and chairs neatly stacked, while between the trees in the shade, pick-up trucks were parked loaded with watermelons. We turned off just before the beach area on to a graded track which eventually became a brand new road. Our first obstacle was a large rock in the middle of it. I think we may have been the first people to have driven on this new road and the rocks were probably there for a reason - but we were on a mission and despite the fact there was an uncomfortably sheer drop down a very high cliff if we had not managed to scoot around the rock, we scraped by and sailed on to what is now called al-Qusbat, known to Ibn B as Mislata. Al-Qusbat is a sleepy agricultural town built among hills of olives and figs and by rights should be a pretty place, but it is marred by the trash lying everywhere, and even the flocks of goats hoovering up from the previous day’s market could not hope to make a dent in it. There is no old town of any sort left here so we did not linger and drove off quickly to Mislata, now a fairly large coastal city.
From here for the next 600 kilometers (375 miles) the road passed unbroken through flat scrubby, desert with some spectacular sections along the coast passing a limpid turquoise and blue Mediterranean and white sandy beaches with not a soul to be seen. Because the roads were quiet we drove easily at speed (about 87 mph) and after a quick lunch stop arrived in Ajdabiya around five o’clock. We took a quick look at the 10th century Fatimid fortress, the only Fatimid monument in the country, which now consists of little more than a portion of a wall, before calling it a day.
This is all that remains of the 10th century fortress
The following day we set off northwards towards Sluge where I stopped to visit the Mausoleum of the great Libya hero, Omar Mukhtar executed by the Italians in after fighting the Italian occupation in Cyrenaica. (A fine movie called ‘The Lion of the Desert’, starring Anthony Quinn as Omar Mukhtar and Rod Steiger as Mussolini outlines the story.) After a detour involving several kilometers to get gas, (distribution of gas in oil-rich Libya is patchy outside of Tripoli and frequently you find gas stations barred, meaning they have no gas) we continued north to Barce, one of the ancient Greek Pentapolis cities, cited by many medieval travelers as the one place you had to pass through en route from East to West. Clutching at linguistic straws, I decided that Barce (pronounced Bar-sah), was Ibn B’s ‘Barsis’, and the fort might be here. After getting lost a dozen times, Nasser spotted old domes peeking through larger but dilapidating colonial Italian architecture, a pile of rusting cars, mounds of trash and what may have been some BC Greek walls – it was hard to tell. To this amateur, the domes looked medieval, but the façade was now definitely Italianate. A woman who lived amongst this horribly disfigured landscape told us only that it had been a church. But now we got a break; on Goodchild’s map, it noted Zaouiat al-Qusur or ‘retreat of the castles’ in this exact spot And so I unilaterally decided that Barce is probably where Ibn B’s fort is and this former retreat turned church turned ruin is his Qubbat Sallam.
Could this forlorn building be the elusive Qubbat Sallam?
That mystery now ‘solved’, we continued on the pilgrimage route to al-Khurruba, al Mekhili and Zaouiat al-Izziya. Considering we passed exactly three road signs between Ajdabiyah and al-Kharruba, a distance of 191 miles, this was a miracle. Seven centuries after Ibn B passed through, paved roads may make the going easier but being unmarked, travelers still have to rely on locals to tell them where they are. Maps are of little use because they are out of date. (Egyptian and other migrant workers have nonetheless been able to overcome this handicap and have managed to find their way as far west as the aforementioned al-Qusbat where they are to be found in large numbers sitting at ‘designated’ roadsides waiting for work.)
The roadside along this stretch of the southern Jebel Akhdar, or Green Mountain, is dotted with forts; mostly small and mostly in piles of rubble, (the upper portions of the castles were mud-built) but one near al-Khurruba was in reasonable shape. They undoubtedly served as watchtowers, but as they appear to be built approximately the same distance apart they may also have served the trade and Haj caravans as places of refuge at night. There was nothing else of note in the arid landscape and there was only one more place mentioned by Ibn B – Qasr az-Za’afiya. Dr. Youssef and I had surmised that a place on modern maps called Zaouiat al ‘Izziyat might be the place as the names are very similar. And in this tiny place – a clutch of houses and a mosque - in the middle of nowhere, we may just have struck pay dirt. We found the remains of a large castle. From the existing walls, it was at least 150 feet wide, and double that in length with what appeared to be a defensive perimeter ditch of about 20 feet wide. Walls further away from the enclosure suggested the castle may have been considerably larger than it appeared now. Narrow passageways, walls, lintels and elegantly arched doorways seemed to suggest a castle of considerable size and importance – this was more than just a simple watchtower fort such as we had seen so far. It was all we had to point to this being the castle where Ibn B. celebrated his second wedding.
700 years later, this is what remains of Ibn B's Qasr Za'afiya, or is it?
And so mission accomplished we drove to and long the coast to Tobruk, site of WWII war graves; British, French and German, and now a large, clean and modern city where we stopped for a well-deserved ‘narghile’ or water pipe. I have a great fondness for a good water pipe and I had not partaken of the pleasure since I had arrived in Libya. I could not leave the country without having at least one.
These are the young water-pipe preparers.
(In Tunisia, Saleh the driver, and I shared a pipe while watching the Tunisia/Ukraine football match but in Algeria, the water pipe does not exist.) Next stop Alexandria tomorrow.