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.