One of the reasons the history of Libya is so incomplete is that nomads were in control of so much of it for so long and kept no written record, so that we have to rely on hearsay and documents from other sources. In addition, the tribes were both nomadic and warrior-like, and when a weaker tribe was driven from an area the occupying tribe moving in changed the names of places and sites without regard to history, which for them was of no importance. As this happened frequently, the ‘collective memory’ was lost and travelers passing through during different time frames would refer to the same place in a variety of names since their only source of information was from the local people who had no knowledge of the area from before their own time.
I have thus spent some time in Tripoli with the knowledgeable and affable scholar Dr. Youssef al-Alkhattali, trying to determine which route Ibn B. took after leaving Tripoli.
“We passed through Mislata, Misrata and Qusur Surt where the dromedary-men of some bands of nomad Arabs sought to attack us, but the Divine Will diverted them…………….Our way then lay through the midst of the ghaba and we traversed it to the fort of the anchorite Barsis and thence to Qabbat Sallam.”
Masalata and Misrata are straightforward, but by ‘Qusur Surt’, which means “castles of Surt”, we determined that Ibn B. was referring to a series of fortified buildings, dating back to Roman times, located on the south-eastern part of the Gulf of Sirt. This also made sense given Ibn B’s reference to potential attackers, as this area was greatly feared by travelers due to banditry by the local tribes. Using old maps compiled by the British archaeologist Richard Goodchild which plot Roman and Byzantine sites in Cyrenaica, as well as the writings of some seventeen other travelers from the 11th to 17th centuries who had completed the Haj pilgrimage, Dr. Youssef tried through a process of elimination to come up with the route.
We trudged off to the school for Libyan Studies under a blazing sun and about 38 degree Celcius (100F) temperatures to find al-Abthery’s book. There was not much to help us in this particular segment of the journey although the book is of considerable import to students of medieval Haj pilgrimage
After a while we ended up back where we had started and determined the route based on the place names given by the frequency of travelers who cite the same names. We still do not know where the ‘fort of the anchorite Barsis’ is nor the Qubbat Sallam, although we are working on the theory that 'qubbat' meaning dome, could also be a retreat (zaouia) of a holy man of which there are many in the region, while Sallam would appear to be the name of the saint. (The name could, as mentioned, have been changed any number of times before and after.)
By no means giving up, the next day we marched off to the Medina Museum housed in the old British Consulate building, a lovely shaded courtyard building with the library on the first floor. It was unbearably hot and humid and people were slumped in chairs or sat on the steps in the porticoed gallery, immobile as statues. The library was no exception – the heat hung in the still air and 2 attendants seemingly incapable of movement, could barely muster the traditional greeting. I could feel perspiration dripping down my back as we looked for the volumes we needed. We came across al-Idrissi, the famous geographer who had passed by a century before, as well as al-Haukal who had passed by in the 10th century, but no fort, no Qubbat and no Qasr.
This plaque is on the wall outside the former Consulate which now houses the Medina Museum. Many of the early British expeditions undertaken in the discovery of sub-Saharan Africa left from here. Most of them came to grief one way or another - I trust I will have better luck in Cyrenaica with my own discovery.
Just for good measure, Ibn B ends his sojourn in Libya by saying that at Qabbat Sallam;
“I became involved in a dispute with my father-in-law which made it necessary for me to separate from his daughter. I then married the daughter of a talib* of Fez and when she was conducted to me at Qasr al-Za’afiya I gave a wedding feast at which I detained the caravan for a whole day and entertained them all.”* jurists of religious law
This place has not been identified either – and we have so far not found other reference to it. So to summarize Libya for the Prince of Travelers, in the space of approximately 4 months he got married twice, divorced once, and was constantly harassed by bandits. Meanwhile I am off to a Libyan wedding - the closest I am going to come to marriage in Libya methinks, and on Friday I leave for Cyrenaica in the quest to find the Qubbat!