Sunday, January 30, 2011

Making Art In Libya

We had jumped at the chance to live and work in Libya when the opportunity presented itself.  Sherri’s job would take care of us while we were there, and I was convinced that I could make art anywhere in the world. I had tried hard to find out as much as possible about the arts of Libya before leaving, particularly any contemporary visual arts and crafts, but there was almost no information available, so I really didn’t know what to take with me in the way of art supplies.

Evgeni at the ruins of Sabratha.
Once we arrived in Libya, I set out to learn as much as I could, but with difficulty. To begin with, there was no local Chamber of Commerce, no Yellow Pages, and few street names, and no address numbers. Sure, some of the larger streets had names, but we needed to describe directions to our drivers based on landmarks. The easiest way to do this was to tell them the name of the nearest mosque. To make this more interesting, there isn’t a functioning postal service. So, where to begin? I started by asking our drivers where I could buy art supplies and tools. This raised an interesting problem; most of them didn’t understand what the term “art” meant.  I tried using the Arabic term for sculpting, which is “naHt” and most of them hadn’t heard that term either.  I knew that the government of Libya had officially discouraged “the arts” for many years and that art was something that was a part of Libya’s colonial past; there were also strong Islamic restrictions on artistic imagery.
Delphine outside Casa Lounge Art

Fortunately I was scheduled to take a course that was offered to all employees and dependents of by my wife’s company; this was a great help. Teaching the course was a wonderful couple, Sami and Yolanda.  Sami is Libyan, and Yolanda is Italian/English. The two had met in college and have made a life for themselves offering services needed by foreigners to understanding Libya and to Libyans trying to understand foreigners - it’s a perfect niche. The two of them were wonderfully forthcoming and provided me with a lot of information.  They recommended several publications that might help.

Farah and Ameen
One of the online publications they suggested was Look Out Libya, which had just run an article on a Bulgarian painter who had lived in Libya for 14 years. I immediately contacted the publishers and asked them to leave a comment for the artist with my name and phone number. I also found his name on Facebook and immediately friended him. Not much later, Evgeni called me and arranged to meet. We met at a local coffee landmark and talked for about an hour, and I showed him photos of my work, which he liked very much and asked me for digital copies. Evgeni spoke pieces of several languages, including English and Arabic, and he offered to help me to find what I needed. We climbed into his PT Cruiser, and he drove me to the ART House Gallery, a combination gallery/art shop run by a local art entrepreneur, Ahmad. He also looked at photos of my work and made several suggestions as to where I could go to find sculpture tools. I felt as though I was finally on my way. Over the next several weeks, Evgeni took me to stationary supply stores and tool shops and posted examples of my work on his Facebook. He never ceased to be helpful, and he and his wife, Sylvia, became two of our dearest friends.

Muhammed B. discussing his work
Not long after that, another expat friend suggested that I visit Casa Lounge Art, a gallery run by a French woman. I called and was invited to an opening that was taking place in a few days.  When I arrived, there was an exhibition of prints by Muhammed B., an art instructor from El Fatah University.  I complimented his work, and although we did not share much of a common language, we have stayed in touch.  I also met Delphine, the young soft-spoken gallery owner, and I soon had to admire her efforts to bring contemporary art to Tripoli. She introduced me to her two gallery assistants, Ameen and his sister Farah, who took time to look at my work and immediately asked if I had any of my work in Libya. Their intention was wonderfully clear; I was being offered a show. It was with regret that I told them I was still trying to set up a studio. 

Ahmed at Casa Lounge Art opening
At that first opening, I met several artists and collectors and talked with many of them about where to find art supplies, tools, studio space and artist co-ops.  One of those artists was Mirja, a Dutch weaver, who offered to introduce me to some artist friends.  Besides weaving, Mirja had written several books on indigenous weaving techniques from South America.  She had also studied Classical Arabic for many years.  Her language skills gave her immediate respect from anyone who heard her. 

A couple of days later, Mirja picked me up, and we drove to meet Ginny, a retired art teacher from Canada. Ginny created handsome hand-built ceramic sculpture, and the three of us spent a delightful morning over coffee and art talk.  It had taken Ginny time to identify resources in Libya but she had managed to find clay and a place to have it fired. I began to take great hope from these energetic ladies.

The gallery also gave me the name of an Iraqi sculptor named Ahmed, and I contacted him and scheduled a visit. Ahmed lived in a single room that was full of drawings, paintings, sculpture maquettes, a bed and a hot plate. In spite of his modest surroundings, he always appeared quite dapper in a clean white suit. His English was not very good, but he invited me in for a soda and we talked at length, with my driver’s help.  He agreed to show me where I could buy tools for working stone. I had seen large trucks full of boulders coming into Tripoli from the mountains, and I knew that large amounts of Italian marble were imported for building materials. Carving stone would be a good possibility for me.  Ahmed directed my driver to several shops, but all I could find were tools for cutting and polishing flat stone; there were no carving chisels to be found. Checking online and with carvers on the island nation of Malta also failed to produce the needed tools. It was not until we returned to the U.S. for my stepson’s wedding in September that I was able to order carbide tipped chisels and stone mallets, which I had rushed to me before we returned to Libya. We packed them in our suitcases, which got our checked baggage searched at the airport.

After my many adventures in trying to find art supplies and materials, our local drivers began to understand what I was trying to do. We always made a point of inviting them to the exhibitions and introduced them to the artists that we met. Out of kindness, the dispatcher would usually assign me a driver that had reasonable English skills and who enjoyed my strange foreign interests. Soon all of our drivers knew that driving Sherri and I to an event would usually mean that something out of the ordinary would take place, and we became known among them as Mr. Boob and Madam Sherri. Yes, I was Mr. Boob! There are issues in Arabic when pronouncing my name, so I came to refer to myself as “The Boob.”            

Our drivers were often well educated in areas like engineering or teaching; however, they made better money driving us around than they could working for the government. Two of our drivers proved to be especially open and fun to talk with. Walied would drive me during the day when we lived at the guest house in Tripoli, and Khaled would drive me after we moved out to a company villa near the airport. There were several Khaleds among our pool of drivers, but this Khaled was always called “Big Khaled.” Big Khaled was large for a Libyan, standing well over 6 ft. tall and probably weighing about 250 lbs.  Khaled took a special interest in Sherri and I, and he was always ready to do more than simply drive us around; he had a good sense of humor and a down-to-earth approach to life. I never worried about Sherri going anywhere unaccompanied if Khaled was driving. He would also remain close by whenever we visited shops and restaurants and would always call immediately to find out what had happened if we failed to meet him at a scheduled pick-up time.  When I visited a cash machine, Khaled would stay close by and make sure that no one took an excessive interest in what I was doing. 

It was especially easy to have Khaled along when I went shopping for stone.  When we arrived at a stone shop, he took the time to explain to the proprietor what it was that the crazy American was trying to do. He followed his explanation by showing them pictures of my work and exaggerated my reputation as an artist. I had the feeling that Khaled’s presence also carried an unspoken sense that it would be in their best interest to help me, as if I was someone who had important connections. Once everyone had a thorough understanding of why I was there, they would then offer us tea, show us examples of their work and give us a tour. After I picked out a nice slab of Libyan limestone, I asked them how much it would cost. I was surprised when they asked me, “How much would you like to pay?” After a moment of stunned silence, the proprietor offered me the stone for nothing, conditional upon my returning to patronize his shop at a later time. Yes, Khaled had been the perfect person to take stone shopping.
Carving the stone

After wrestling the heavy stone into the van, we headed home to our villa, and I immediately placed the stone on one of the plastic garden tables and began laying out my design.  I worked intensely for the next two weeks, loving every moment of the sweat and limestone dust I created. Sherri’s co-workers and villa staff came by daily checking my progress as I managed to generate two pieces. The first was a small nine-pointed star that I carved to find out about the nature of the stone. The second was a large stylized relief that I called The Eye of Truth. It was a sculpture in which I tried to capture some of the feelings of the ancient Roman sites, like Sabratha and Leptis Magna. I worked hard to finish this piece by a certain date; Delphine had arranged for an exhibition to be held at the Radisson Blue Al Mahari Hotel in Tripoli, and she agreed to let me exhibit.

A show of this kind was unique in Libya, and it was well received.  I got to know several Libyan artists better and made new friends.  Ameen worked hard to find a buyer for “The Eye” but the issue of weight and shipping was always a problem.  As my Libyan visa ran out, I had to schedule my departure for the day after the exhibition closed.  Ameen agreed to help Sherri with the packing and shipping, and I left confident that I would be able to exhibit the piece in other locations. As time passed and Sherri began to run out of time, we realized that the only sure way to ship was in a full container; even then, we would never know what the Libyan customs agent who inspected the piece would charge us.  It looked like the minimum cost for packaging and shipping would be about 4,000 LYD, not including the customs fee.
The Eye of Truth

To this day The Eye of Truth remains in Libya, safely in Evgeni’s garage while Sami and Yolanda work to find a way to make it a gift to a Libyan government museum, or some other organization.  If it never finds an owner in Libya, I have thought about the possibility of having it buried close to the unexcavated area of Roman Sabratha. It gives me a perverse joy imagining the look on the face of some poor archaeology student who digs it up 50 years from now and then tries to explain my name carved in the lower right corner.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Visiting Apollonia

A large tomb on the southern  edge of Cyrene.

As we approached the inhabited city of Shahat, we turned north and came across the first of a series of man-made caves. A gate protected this cave and we could see clearly that it had at one time likely served as a large tomb. Even though we were high in the mountains, the cave was full of water, which explained one of the reasons that the Greeks had built in this location. As we travelled, we began to see hundreds of small caves – we were travelling through a necropolis. The old city of Cyrene is surrounded by tombs, thousands of which have been documented. As we approached the city center, the partly excavated and restored remains of the city became visible.  Cyrene had been built upon a hill with a beautiful panoramic view of the Mediterranean far below.


Former Italian administrative center in Susa.

Passing through the ruins of the central city, we wound our way down the steep slope and past hundreds of additional tombs on the side of the hill. Many had been carved into the stone, while some had been created as above ground sarcophagi. First built by the Greeks in the 6th century BCE, these graves were added to by the Romans and Byzantines and even served as residences for nomadic peoples at a later date.


Tomb ruins in the harbor at Apollonia.

Driving down the slopes, the seaport city of Apollonia began to come into view. This was the active port city that the Greeks had used as a trade center to support Cyrene and to export goods to other parts of the known world.


Roman statue by the Western Church.

On the outskirts of Apollonia is the modest city of Susa, made up of small one- and two-story concrete buildings that house the city’s occupants.  One of the few remaining older buildings of any note is the Italian Parliament building, which served as a regional administrative center during the Italian occupation.


The only building of any size was the multi-storied Al-Manara Hotel, just west of the entrance to the old ruins of Apollonia and immediately next to some of the old tombs that have been turned into a garden area.


Column remains of the Central Church.

Entering Apollonia, we immediately encountered the remains of the first of several Byzantine churches. This was the Western Church; several green stone Byzantine columns remain of what used to support a wooden roof. Parts of the floor mosaics were still visible as well.


Slightly east of the Western Church was the Central Church, with its white pillars adorned by Byzantine crosses. Just north of this church was a Byzantine Bath, parts of which are at the shore of the Mediterranean.  Looking into the water, we saw parts of the city that slipped into the sea during the great earthquake and tsunami of 365 ACE. That quake destroyed most of the harbor of Apollonia.

Ruins of the Byzantine Duke's Palace.


East of the Central Church were the ruins of the Roman Baths, which was built in the 2nd century ACE.  Not particularly large, it was easy to see the partly restored pools of this building and the attached gymnasium.

Just north on a slight rise were the ruins of what is referred to as the Byzantine Duke’s Palace, the largest of the structures that have been excavated at Apollonia. The restoration makes the library, throne room and private chapel clearly visible.


Remains of the Eastern Church at Apollonia.

According to the Lonely Planet Guide for Libya, the eastern wing of the Duke’s residence contains 83 separate rooms for servants, administrators, and soldiers.  We didn’t count them.


Northeast of the Duke’s Palace were the remains of the Eastern Church, which was the largest church in Cyrenaica. This structure can be identified by its huge marble columns, which were shipped from the Greek island of Paros.


Greek Theater on the eastern edge of Apollonia.

Continuing to hike to the east, we came across a Greek theater that faces towards the Mediterranean, permitting spectators to enjoy the ocean breeze and allowing the sounds created by performers to be carried on the wind for better listening.  It was beautifully designed.  This area, like much of Apollonia, had not been fully excavated or restored and throughout the site the ground was littered with potshards and the occasional piece of Roman glass. Security at Apollonia is lax and local families picnic and have social gatherings throughout the site and on the beach. Unfortunately, they seldom removing the refuse from their activities at these beautiful ruins, so in addition to finding a bit of what looked like Roman glass, we also saw lots of bits of modern day broken bottles.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Traveling to Apollonia and Cyrene

Remains of Italian small gage railroad.
More about our trip east in early June:  After getting settled into a Benghazi guesthouse, we made arrangements for a driver to take us to the ancient Greek cities of Apollonia and Cyrene, which were some distance east of Benghazi. However, we managed to make the trip in a day because the roads along the coast are excellent and our driver had no problem traveling at speeds between 130 to 150 kph. His name was Muftah, and he spoke excellent English, had made this trip many times, and was very knowledgeable.  We had a very pleasant day with him.

The cave of Omar al-Mukhtar.
The trip begins along the coastal plane and moves gradually towards the Jebel al-Akhdar (Green Mountains). The mountains are anything but green as you rise to the first of two plateaus. These hills look a lot like many parts of the western U.S. By the time you get to the second plateau, there is a lot more foliage.
Entrance to the cave restaurant.

There are many abandoned farmhouses along the way that are all of similar design. These are the farms that were created for Italian immigrants during the occupation of this area that began in 1911 and continued until the Italian defeat in W.W.II. Many Libyans do not look Arabic this can be attributed to the fact that an estimated 66,000 Italians were abandoned in Libya after the war.

Lounge seating in the cave restaurant.

Driving the side roads that wind through the hills can be a treat. Along the way, we passed many caves that had been used by the Sanusi resistance in fighting the Italians; this included the cave of Omar al-Mukhtar. Nearby are the remains of a narrow-gage Italian railway that had been built to pacify the area after al-Mukhtar’s execution. The story of al-Mukhtar’s resistance fight against the Italians can be seen in the 1981 film Lion of the Desert, staring Anthony Quinn.

Party seating in the cave restaurant.

We stopped for lunch along the way at a location that Mustah recommended. This was a local resort that had a restaurant, which had been built into a cave complex. The caves had been expanded to accommodate several large underground dinning rooms. The restaurant was well lit and coolness of the underground environment offered a pleasant respite from the Libyan sun. 

Friday, August 13, 2010

A Brief History of Benghazi

We spent almost a week in Benghazi for Sherri's work, and while there we tried to learn and see as much as we could.  Benghazi is the largest city in Cyrenaica (the eastern part of Libya) with a population of over 600,000 people. The origins of the city are in doubt but it is believed that the first settlement was slightly east of modern Benghazi and may have been established by Greeks from Cyrene or by Aegean immigrants. The city is first mentioned in the 6th century BCE as Eusperides and was believed to have been the site of the legendary Garden of Hesperides. According to Geek mythology, the eleventh quest of Hercules was to steal the golden apples from the Garden of Hesperides.
The Italian lighthouse with the ruins of Berenice in the foreground.

Around 249/247 BCE, the settlement was renamed Berenice, after the Cyrenaican princess who married Ptolemy III of Egypt. This act effectively ceded the city to Egyptian authority. There are a few excavated remains of Berenice on the northern shore of Benghazi but there is little there to see. Most of ancient Berenice lies beneath the modern city. On the same grounds as the ruins of Berenice, there is an old Italian lighthouse built during their occupation of the city.

Al-Jame' al-Kabir Mosque in downtown Benghazi.
The Romans took control of the city in the 1st century BCE, but by the time the Byzantines arrived, the city was already declining. The Arab invasion of the 7th century did little to revitalize the city, as other ports and trade centers became more favorable. In the 15th century the name Bani Ghazi took hold, which means the sons or descendants of Ghasi, the name of a Bedouin tribe. When the Ottoman Turks took control of the city in 1578, they sought to make the city a center for the collection of taxes, which caused even greater decline among the merchant classes.

Omar Al-Mukhtar's cave in the Jebel al-Akhdar.
In 1911, Italy set up a naval siege of the city, and it was finally subdued in the 1920s. The Italian influence can be seen in the architecture of the city. It was during this period that several groups began an active resistance to the Italians. By 1922, the Sanusi, a regional Muslim group, was the only serious resistance remaining, but it dwindled after constant confrontation with the modern mechanized capability of the Italian military. The Sanusi resistance was particularly effective in the hinterlands of the Jebel al-Akhdar (Green Mountains), where they were led by a tribal shaykh, Sayyid Omar al-Mukhtar. The Italians were particularly brutal in dealing with the local population during this conflict, and many died or were interred in concentration camps. Al-Mukhtar was captured in 1931 and hanged a few days later while 20,000 of his followers were forced to watch. With al-Mukhtar’s death, the resistance collapsed. The movie “Lion of the Desert” has Anthony Quinn playing the role of Omar al-Mukhtar and contains old film footage of the times as well as very interesting period vehicles.

Monument to Gamal Abdel Nasser in downtown Benghazi.
Islamic Call Bldg, the tallest building in Benghazi.
Since that day, al-Mukhtar has become the national hero of Libya, and his portrait can be seen on the LYD 5 bill. During WWII, Benghazi was bombed repeatedly and changed hands several times, but the Italians were eventually driven out.

Traveling to Benghazi

Traveling to other cities inside Libya can be done in one of two ways, either by car or by plane. We decided to fly because of the distance (just under 1,000 km), but getting through the Tripoli Airport can be a challenge. To begin with, the parking area is a random mass of vehicles, and the lines on the pavement appear to serve no practical function. Fortunately, there is a lot of communication and cooperation as people shuffle vehicles in and out. It’s kind of like working on a Rubic’s cube where you slide individual pieces in and out of place to put them in order.

Once inside the building, we waited awhile for the sign for our flight to light up for boarding passes, and when that didn’t happen, Sherri went to the airline office. There were 3 men inside, smoking, and they assured her that the flight was on time. Half an hour later – it was now only an hour before the flight – there was still no information on the board about the flight. Sherri went back to the office where the man who appeared to be in charge said that the flight had been canceled. However, we could take the next one, about 3 hours later. Sherri called our company travel guy who speaks Arabic and got confirmation from him that indeed, the flight had been canceled without notice. The guy at the desk refused to provide anything in writing that showed we really would be allowed on the next flight, but gave several assurances that “It will be fine, Madame.” Given the circumstances, we elected to stay at the airport and wait. And wait. Finally, the board lit up with the right destination and flight number, but it was for Afriqiyyih, not Libyan Airlines. We went to the counter and asked to be seated on the flight. They said that we would have to be on standby because this was a different airline. Never mind that the same guys were working behind the counter, or that both airlines are owned by the Libyan government, or that we had been told we could get on that flight without any problem. Sherri protested exuberantly, called the Arabic travel agent again, and finally, we were given boarding passes.

While we were trying to figure out where to go next (never having flown OUT of this airport), we met some interesting young guys who spoke English, and we made our way to the gate and an uneventful flight. The folks in Benghazi met us as agreed, and all proceeded smoothly from that point on.

Note: At this airport, all the signs and announcements are in Arabic, and the electronic announcement boards containing flight information may not be operative. It is a common occurrence for air carrier personnel to give out differing information on a regular basis. If you are a foreign traveler, be prepared to take the initiative when visiting the Tripoli Airport.  And no, we can't take pictures of airports here.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Old City (Medina) of Tripoli

One of the most interesting aspects of Tripoli is the old city that sits at the northern point of the larger metropolitan area. The term “medina” generally refers to the old or central part of the downtown area. Here in Tripoli, it is the original, once-walled part of the city.

A Brief History of Tripoli

It is believed that the Phoenicians began sailing the coastal waters as early as 1000 BCE and founded the city as a trading center about 500 BCE. After the fall of Punic Carthage in 146 BCE, the city became a Roman protectorate. The Romans referred to the city as Oea and along with the coastal cities of Sabratha and Leptis, this Roman coast became known as Tripolitania, or “place of three cities.”

As the Western Roman Empire deteriorated, the Vandals swept in from Germanic Europe to occupy and conquer North Africa. They completed their conquest in 431 ACE. The Eastern Roman Empire of the Byzantines conquered many of the coastal cities in 533 ACE, but by then the city was already in decline. The Arab conquest of Libya began in 642 ACE and included Tripoli by 643. Under Muslim control, the city again became a wealthy and powerful center of commerce and one of the principle centers for trade with sub-Saharan Africa. A second Arab conquest, by the Bani Hilal tribe of 200,000 migrating families, took place in 1046 ACE. This conquest led too much of the old city being rebuilt. The rebuilding process utilized many of the Roman remains, which can still be found throughout the old city.

In 1460 ACE, Tripoli declared itself an independent city-state and remained so until the Spanish captured the city in 1510 and occupied until 1530. The Spanish then ceded the city to the Knights of Malta. The Ottoman Turks took control of the Tripoli in 1551 ACE, and built most of the mosques, bathhouses (hammams) and markets (souqs) that are still visible today. Under waning Turkish control, Ahmed Karamanli seized power and declared himself Pasha and established the Karamanli Dynasty. The Ottomans reoccupied the city in 1835.

In 1911, the Italian government annexed Tripolitania and the Cyrenaica coast of North Africa and in 1922, Benito Mussolini came to power and began exerting greater control in an effort to expand Italian imperialism in African. When Italy was defeated in WWII, it formally relinquished control in 1947 and the United Nations created the independent State of Libya in 1949.

The Old City
Old souq carpet merchant

The old city of Tripoli is best seen on an old painted map in the Assaray Al-Hamra Museum. This excellent museum, and a police station, now occupy the Al-Saraya al-Hamra, or what is referred to as the Red Castle. This heavily fortified structure sits at the base of Tripoli Harbor and was, at one time or another, bombarded by the French, Dutch, British and Americans, in an effort to discourage the Barbary pirates. Originally surrounded by a moat, the northern, western and part of the southern portions of the moat were filled in to create a wide road along the eastern side of the old city during the Italian occupation. I will write a separate blog about the Assaray Al-Hamra Museum and the Red Castle later.

The best way to enter the old city is through one of the two entrances off of Green Square, the large open parade ground that also serves as a parking area at the south end of the old city. The larger entrance on the right, as you look north, was created by the Italians and travels along the eastern side of the old city. This broad street contains a variety of shops and merges with a smaller street at the Ottoman clock tower. The smaller entrance to the left enters the smaller street that merges with the Italian road and contains shops that sell a variety of clothing and dry goods. If you turn immediately left at the small entrance, you will go directly into the old souq, or market area, that sells more traditional goods. The narrow streets lead through market areas into residential areas and back again. The colors, smells, sights and sounds of different languages are a treat for the senses. The old city area is complex but small enough that you won’t get lost. Walk in any one direction and you will eventually come to a section of the old wall or one of several entrances to the old city. Although much of the original wall is gone, don’t miss the opportunity to climb up on the old rampart of the remaining wall to observe the difference between the old city within and the new city outside.
Karamanli Masque with Ottoman clock tower in the distance
Most market areas in the old souq are grouped together with similar products being offered in certain areas. There is a place for buying carpets and textiles, a men’s clothing market, a women’s clothing market, a household goods market, spice markets, a gold and jewelry market, and others. The shops selling gold are especially interesting as they not only carry contemporary jewelry but a wide range of traditional tribal silver and gold work with designs dating back to the original Christian and Jewish craftsmen who taught their craft to the local people.

I have made several visits to the old souqs in Tripoli and in Benghazi and I find them to be very enjoyable, primarily because the vendors in these Libyan markets do not confront you in selling their wares. There is usually a friendly greeting, but even if you show an interest in their goods, they will usually wait until you enquire about the price before engaging you in conversation. This is very different than other parts of Africa and the Middle East, at least in our experience. We also found that the Libyans are not as inclined to barter, although we have done it. If you believe you can get a product for a better price, simply ask another vendor in an adjoining stall what they might charge you for the same product. This grouping of similar goods and services tends to offer the visitor a wider range of products at competitive prices.
Men of the souq

We are often greeted on the street or in shops with a friendly “Welcome! Where are you from? How do you like Libya?” Taking the time to talk with those Libyans who want to speak with us has been a rewarding experience. In most cases they are excited about the opportunity to practice their English, which is rapidly becoming the second language of Libya. This may be a short conversation as they will have a limited vocabulary, nevertheless, always give them the opportunity to be social and to learn a few new words. Family and human connections between people are very important to the Libyans and they do want to learn more about the outside world. Remember, Libya is a country that suffered from almost 15 years of embargo, and the people here are trying hard to catch up on what the rest of the world is all about. I try to have at least one of these conversations every day, and it has given me great insights into this country and its wonderful people.

Not far into the entrance off Green Square is the Karamanli Mosque. Most of the members of the Karamanli Dynasty are interred there. You may enter the mosques of Medina and take pictures, but you should always dress appropriately - never wear shorts or tank tops. Also remove your shoes before entering and be sure that your visit does not occur during daily prayers or on Fridays, the Muslim holy day.

At the end of this same long street is the white Ottoman Clock Tower. Don’t be fooled by the very European decorations on this building, it was added by the Italians at a later date. The copper market (Souq al-Ghizdir) is just behind the clock tower. Listen for the sound of hammers on metal. Here we watched craftsman forming elaborate bows, boxes and mosque finials by hammering sheets of copper on simple anvils that may be nothing more than a piece of railroad track.
Souq al-Ghizdir (copper market)

Further north into the old city is a white building, which used to be the Turkish Prison; today it is a Greek Orthodox Church. To the west is the former Catholic Cathedral, which was build by the Italians and is now an Anglican church. There are few Christian churches in Libya and those that continue to function do so primarily for the expat communities in the country. Remember, it is against Libyan law to proselytize to any Muslim in Libya. Doing so can get you arrested and thrown out of the country. The Sunni Muslim faith ties this population together, and there are as many mosques in Libya as you would find Baptist churches in Texas. The presence of a mosque in every neighborhood makes it easy for male residents to visit and pray five times daily. There are at least eight mosques in the old city alone.

There is an old synagogue on the far western side of the old city, but in an effort to support Pan Arab Nationalism, the government of Libya officially banned Judaism in the 1970s. Today, there are no Jews in Libya. However, it is against the teachings of Islam to destroy any synagogue or church. A synagogues or churches can be abandoned, rebuilt, replaced or converted into mosque, but not destroyed.

Throughout the old city are small shops offering snacks and bottled drinks. There are also several good restaurants throughout the old city. These include an outdoor teahouse or some older converted residence that contains beautiful atrium courtyard. On the northeast edge of the old city, a very nice restaurant is set among Roman ruins. The Arch of Marcus Aurelius stands in a sunken garden that gives you a clue as to how much the city has been built upon since Roman times.
Atrium courtyard restaurant in the souq

We recently visited the old souq with a friend who took us to one the only antique shop that was selling old Greek and Roman glass. The experience was enlightening as our friend, who had been collected ancient glass for some time, shared his expertise during the process. Afterwards, we had dinner at one of the local restaurants in the old souq. We have also come across small hotels and a hostel within the old city.

Not every place is charming and picturesque in the Medina; there are areas with a lot of trash and unpleasant smells, but everyone who has been here for any length of time will tell you that it is changing for the better. Do not expect clean public restrooms, and bring your own toilet paper. This is generally the rule throughout the country.