MY TRIP TO NORTH AFRICA 2008
by Maureen Halsall
On Saturday, November 1, 2008, my trip to North Africa began at 4:45 p.m., when
Airways Transit Service picked me up from my home in Hamilton, Ontario for transfer
to Toronto's Pearson International Airport. Despite traffic jams on the Queen Elizabeth Highway, by 6 p.m. the mini-bus had managed to reach Terminal 1, where (reluctantly
divested of my water bottle at Security) I made it through to the departure lounge by
6:20 p.m. Air Canada flight 848 to London, England turned out to be delayed 45 minutes
by the ever-vigilant Security staff for the removal of some unaccompanied baggage,
finally taking off just before 10 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.
Favourable tailwinds helped the pilot to make up most of the lost time over the Atlantic, enabling the plane to arrive at London Heath Row's Terminal 3 only five minutes late,
at 8:30 a.m. Greenwich Mean Time on Sunday, November 2. By 9:40 a.m., the group of
over two dozen Canadians participating in Voyages of Discovery's cruise entitled "North African Treasures" had been met by the company's local agent, assembled and
(encumbered with all our luggage) shepherded through typical November drizzle to the
bus that before 11 a.m. was to deposit us at our temporary home for the next two nights,
the London Thistle Marble Arch Hotel.
There we found to our dismay that our rooms would not be available until at least 2 p.m.
Since I had a luncheon engagement followed by a matinee, the first priority was to ensure
that my luggage was checked away safely to await my return in the evening. Then I took
a taxi to the National Theatre, where my sister had booked lunch for us, followed at 3 p.m.
by an excellent production of War Horse. Afterwards we walked to Waterloo Station,
where my sister boarded her train for Richmond and, just after 6 p.m., I got a taxi back
to the Thistle Hotel. There I collected my luggage, registered, and then retired to my room
to unpack and go early to bed, having suffered the previous night from my usual inability
to sleep on board an aircraft.
On the morning of Monday, November 3, following breakfast I made my way via No. 5
bus to Burlington House on Piccadilly, where my sister and I had timed entry tickets for
11 a.m. to the Royal Academy of Art exhibition "Byzantium 330-1452". After lunch at
the Academy, we took a taxi to Trafalgar Square to see the National Gallery exhibition "Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian". Then we took another taxi to my hotel, where
we had tea (the usual cucumber and smoked salmon sandwiches, eclairs and other cakes
and, of course, those indispensable scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam). In the
evening, after my sister had left for home, I repacked and was in bed by 11 p.m., leaving
a 3:30 a.m. wakeup call.
On Tuesday, November 4, for the first time in my life I overslept both my alarm clock and
the telephone wakeup call. Imagine my surprise when at 3:45 a.m. there was a noise at
my door, the lights were turned on, and I opened my eyes to find a young man at the foot
of my bed calling "Madam, wake up!". After a boxed breakfast in the hotel lounge, all of
us Canadian passengers for the North African voyage of mv Discovery departed the Thistle Hotel by bus at 5:30 a.m., reaching Gatwick Airport by 6:50 a.m., where we encountered
a scene best described as total chaos.
Spotting a stand with a couple of chained luggage trolleys and having some pound coins in
my purse, I managed to find and insert the required amount, thereby ranking as one of the
very few to secure a trolley that morning. Then, along with all the Canadian and British
mv Discovery passengers, I found myself standing in a seemingly endless check-in line for Monarch Air charter flight 9122; this was followed by an even longer security line, which snaked all the way to the far end of the terminal before bending back on itself to return
to almost the same spot. In the end, with our scheduled departure time less than 30 minutes
off, we were called out of the main security line into an express line, where the inspectors
still proved thorough enough to make us remove our shoes. To add insult to injury, after
all the stress and strain of striving to get through to the departure gate on time, our flight
ended up taking off for Alexandria an hour late at 10 a.m. Incidentally, throughout our
entire airport ordeal we received little assistance from either the Monarch or the Voyages
of Discovery staff. It was a clear case of God helping those who help themselves.
The Monarch aircraft proved both grungy and crowded, but fortunately took little more
than four hours to reach Egypt, where we landed safely--not at Alexandria's main
international airport but at a former military airport called Borg El Arab, about which our
pilot supplied the less than reassuring information that he had "never heard of it before",
let alone landed there! Descending to the tarmac by steps, we lined up outside the small terminal, awaiting entry for a painfully slow passport check. Finally, all the mv Discovery passengers from flight 9122 were transferred by bus to the dock in Alexandria's West
Harbour and allowed to board the ship, with our baggage to follow later. Reaching my
cabin on deck 5, hungry and late for the start of the 6:30 p.m. dinner sitting to which I had
been assigned, I dashed down to the Seven Continents Restaurant on deck 3, pleased at
least to have arrived at the ship intact, if still baggageless. Upon subsequent examination,
my cabin (5271) proved small, with two very narrow single beds; the fittings were quite worn and none too clean, and the bathroom sink was chipped. As an Englishwoman might put it,
mv Discovery was definitely not turning out to be an "up market" vessel. At 10 p.m my luggage arrived; and at last I was able to unpack and stow my empty suitcases away for
the next 12 days, before finally getting to bed by midnight Eastern European Time.
On Wednesday, November 5, following a 6 a.m. wakeup call and breakfast at the Lido
Buffet up on deck 9, by 8:45 a.m. I was in the Carousel Lounge on deck 6, awaiting my call
for the 9 a.m. departure of a full-day bus tour entitled "Best of Alexandria". Much of this
tour involved so-called "panoramic sightseeing" through the bus window, with photo stops
at a few selected photogenic places, including Qaitbey Fort and Abu el-Abbas Mosque.
Actual visits were made only to the Kom el-Showkafa Catacombs and the National
Museum (in the morning) and to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and the Montazah Palace
Gardens (in the afternoon); we also stopped at noon for a tasty lunch on the airy veranda
of a Greek restaurant overlooking Qaitbey Fort. Finally, after nine hours away on tour,
we were back in West Harbour boarding the ship by 6 p.m., in good time for dinner.
Alexandria was founded at the command of Alexander the Great and named after him.
Following his death in 323 B.C., his body was brought back here for burial in an as yet unidentified spot in the centre of the city. Control over Egypt then fell to Ptolemy I Soter,
one of his foremost generals, who ultimately declared himself pharaoh in 304 B.C. Thus
was established the Ptolemaic Dynasty, which turned out to be Egypt's last. This dynasty
was to rule for three centuries, ending with the death of Ptolemy XII's daughter Cleopatra
VII in 30 B.C., following the defeat of herself and her lover Mark Antony by the forces of
Octavian, after which Egypt passed into the hands of Rome. So, all that made Alexandria
a city of far renown (including the Pharos Lighthouse--one of the Seven Wonders of the
Ancient World--and the great Library of Alexandria, both of which were founded by
Ptolemy I) can be directly attributed to Alexander's decision to establish a new port city
at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. In this way, the legendary Macedonian world conqueror, through his trusted Greek general and that general's many descendants, was destined to cast a long shadow over Egypt, lasting for the next three hundred years.
Alexander the Great on his beloved horse Bucephalus
Nothing really remains of ancient Alexandria. Earthquakes and floods have destroyed and
either buried or drowned most of the ancient city. Patient modern land and underwater
archaeologists are beginning, however, to uncover fragments of its former greatness, some
of which have been brought up for display, to the fascinated view of visitors.
The first stop on our "Best of Alexandria" tour was a long-famous excavated site, the
Catacombs of Kom el-Showkafa (Mound of Shards). These were discovered accidentally
in 1900, when a donkey pulling a cart fell into a pit that proved to be the top of the shaft
leading down into the catacombs. The tombs are fairly late Classical, having been
constructed in the 2nd century A.D. during the Roman era. The catacombs probably
originally belonged to the wealthy family who built the main tomb shown in the 2nd and 3rd
photos below, then were later enlarged to serve the broader community buried in much
humbler loculi (niches). The rock-cut architecture and sculpture constitute a unique
combination of Egyptian and Greco-Roman; in fact, these tombs may be the last in Egypt
to represent themes from ancient Egyptian beliefs, including depictions of the jackal-headed god of the dead, Anubis (seen in the centre of the 3rd photo below). The Kom el-Showkafa burials are on three levels reaching down as low as 35 metres, but unfortunately the lowest level is flooded with water. The entrance is accessible by descending a steep spiral staircase
round a shaft--about 6 metres in diameter--through which the bodies were lowered by ropes
(1st photo below). The tombs include a triclinium (banquet hall) furnished with rock-cut
benches to accommodate visitors who came to visit the departed and dine in their company.
It was the vessels broken after these feasts that created the mound of shards visible at
ground level, which gave the site its local name long before the catacombs were discovered.
Ascending out of the hot, dark catacombs, we boarded our bus and proceeded to the
National Museum. Here some 1,800 artifacts, narrating the history of Alexandria from Pharaonic, Roman, Coptic and Islamic eras through to modern times, are housed in the
Al-Saad Bassili Pasha Palace, a white Italian-style three-storey villa constructed in 1926,
which from 1960 to 1997 served as the U.S. consulate. The many items of interest include
a display on the Greco-Roman floor of artifacts raised during underwater excavations in
recent years. Among the Pharaonic items in the collection, I found particularly attractive
the statue of an ancient Egyptian couple and the carved head of the monotheist pharaoh
Akhenaten below. Having a little time on my hands after touring the building, I dropped
into the museum office, where students are allowed to make virtual tours by computer
and seek out detailed information about the collection. The staff were kind enough to
permit me to spend a pleasant quarter of an hour doing the same.
En route from the National Museum to the restaurant where we were to lunch, we made
a photostop along the seafront road, where I was able to photograph both the seafront to
the northwest and, just across the road to the south, the Abu el-Abbas el-Mursi Mosque.
Shortly after noon we reached what once was Pharos Island. The Greeks joined the island
to the mainland by an artificial causeway, thereby creating the eastern arm which protects Alexandria's East Harbour today (shown on the right horizon, with the Mediterranean Sea
beyond it, in the first photo below). This was the site of the legendary ancient Lighthouse
of Alexandria. Various natural disasters over the many centuries following its construction
in the third century B.C. successively brought down level after level of the structure (see
the reconstruction of the original multi-level Pharos Lighthouse in the second photo below). Finally, it was completely destroyed in a 14th century earthquake. About A.D. 1480, the Mameluke Sultan al-Ashraf Qaitbey built the fort that now bears his name on the
foundations of the ancient lighthouse. The Greek restaurant where we had our lunch was directly across the road from the spot on the Mediterranean boardwalk where I took the
fourth photo below: a distant view of Qaitbey Fort.
After lunch, we proceeded to what for me proved one of the highlights of our tour, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. This ultra-modern structure was designed to furnish a physical
setting for the recreation of the glory of the renowned Library of Alexandria, once the
greatest library and the preeminent centre of learning in the ancient world. Initiated at
the beginning of the third century B.C. by Ptolemy I, the original Library of Alexandria
was damaged by various attackers from the time of Julius Caesar in 48 B.C. and ultimately
was destroyed by the Roman Emperor Aurelian (A.D. 270-275). An international design competition for the new library, attracting over 1,400 entries, was won in 1988 by the
Norwegian architectural office Snohetta, whose designs were finally brought to life when
the 21st century Bibliotheca Alexandrina opened in 2002. It is a fantastic structure, set in
an artificial lake. The walls are of gray Aswan granite, carved with characters from 120
different human scripts. There is shelf space (mostly still empty) for eight million books.
The main reading room is topped by a glass roof like a tilted sundial and consists of eleven levels cascading downward, where students work both with physical books and with the
library's vast electronic resources. In addition to the main library, the complex houses a conference centre, specialized libraries, four art galleries, a planetarium (shaped rather like
a football) and a manuscript restoration laboratory.
From the Bibliotheca Alexandrina we drove via the broad Corniche 15 miles east along the Mediterranean to Montazah Palace for a restful interval viewing the palace gardens, before returning to mv Discovery just after 6 p.m. Built in 1892, Montazah Palace was one of the residences of the royal family that ruled Egypt from 1805, when Muhammad Ali was
recognized by the Ottoman Sultan as Wali of Egypt, until the Egyptian revolution of 1952.
In the course of our nine-hour tour of Alexandria, we had travelled from the Western
Harbour, shown at the lower left end of the map below, all the way to Montazah Palace
at the upper right end.
Thursday, November 6 was spent at sea, as mv Discovery sailed 544 nautical miles to
Benghazi in Libya. In addition to going with my life jacket to the Muster Station in the Discovery Lounge on Deck 6 for the compulsory lifeboat drill at 9:15 a.m., I also joined
a gym orientation session plus a seminar on diets at the Atlantis Spa on Deck 8, attended
a number of lectures in the Carousel Lounge on Deck 6 (port lectures on Cyrene and Leptis Magna, plus lectures on "Egypt's Belle Epoque" and "Life and Death on the Nile") and
had my hair styled in preparation for the Captain's Welcome Reception in the Carousel
Lounge at 5:45 p.m.
On Friday, November 7 at 7 a.m. we arrived at Benghazi. Firm advance warnings had been issued that a Libyan official would be on board from Benghazi to Tripoli to ensure that we observe this strict Muslim country's ban on alcohol and that passengers going ashore dress conservatively. Accordingly, following a quick continental breakfast in the Yacht Club on Deck 9, at 7:45 a.m. I presented myself in the Carousel Lounge on Deck 6--cold sober, completely covered from neck to wrist and ankle, and wearing a broad straw hat to hide
my hair--eager for the 8 a.m. departure on our two-and-a-half-hour bus trip to Cyrene.
Traditionally, Libya is divided into three regions: Tripolitania around the capital of Tripoli, Cyrenaica in the northeast, and the Fezzan (or Libyan desert) in the south. My primary
motive for joining this "North African Treasures" cruise was not to observe the life of the Tuareg or other desert dwellers, but to visit the ancient ruined cities along the Libyan
coast, beginning with the city from which Cyrenaica derives its name: Cyrene.
Sited on the upper slopes of the Jabal al-Akhdar (Green Mountain range) some 200 km.
east of Benghazi, Cyrene overlooks a high plateau leading to the sea. Its history goes
back to about 630 B.C., when the first settlers arrived from the island of Thera (Santorini).
Finding here a cave with a year-round spring of fresh water, they founded what by the 5th century B.C. was to become one of the largest cities in Africa, part of the Pentapolis
(Cyrene, Barka, Eusperides [Benghazi], Taucheira and Apollonia), a federation of five
cities with agreements on trade and joint coinage. At its peak, fertile Cyrenaica was the granary of Greece and the sole supplier of the herb silphium (worth its weight in gold in the Mediterranean world). Upon the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C., the Greek
Empire was split up and Cyrenaica came into the hands of Ptolemy I of Egypt. In 96 B.C.,
by the will of childless Ptolemy Apion, it passed into Roman hands. Thereafter, Cyrene suffered a period of neglect, until the Emperor Augustus gave the city a new span of life
and prosperity. After the suppression of the Jewish revolt of A.D. 115-117 by the emperor
Trajan, the emperor Hadrian undertook large reconstruction works, but Cyrene never really recovered. By the 4th century A.D., the city was largely deserted and falling into decay. Cyrene was never again inhabited, except periodically by nomads, until the village of Shahat grew up, most of whose people in recent years have moved to new houses further away.
The ancient complex comprises five main areas: the Temple of Zeus; the Roman city
centre; the Greek agora and Roman forum; the Acropolis (which we did not visit); and the Fountain and Sanctuary of Apollo, which is the oldest area, with parts dating from the 6th century B.C. (for an overview of this last and most important area, showing the columns
of the Apollo Temple in the upper centre, see below).
Arriving at 10:30 a.m., we began our four-hour tour with a visit to the Temple of Zeus.
This temple, with a length of 70 metres, is actually bigger than the Parthenon in Athens. Originally constructed about 550 B.C., it was rebuilt in the original Doric style by the
Romans after its destruction in the A.D. 115-117 Jewish revolt memorialized in the stone
tablet below (note the phrase "tumultu Iudiaco" beginning the 7th line).
From the Temple of Zeus, we were driven down by bus to the southern end of the lower
city and, walking along the training track of the Hellenistic Gymnasium (identifiable by
the herms depicting Hermes [Mercury] and Heracles [Hercules]), made our way first to
the Forum of Proculus and then to the Roman Theatre.
Continuing west, we passed along the Street of the Caryatids (unfortunately all headless), making our way to the Agora-Forum. Both under the Greeks as agora and later under the Romans as forum, this area remained the real centre of the city. Most of the civic buildings (prytaneum [town hall], law courts, capitolium [Temple of Jupiter], gymnasium, etc.) were situated here, as is the partially-reconstructed Naval Monument below, shaped like a ship
with a goddess at the prow and probably erected in the 3rd century B.C. South of the agora
is the House of Jason Magnus, noted for its mosaics.
Cyrene is enormous, with more ruins than any tourist could visit in a single day (note
merely one stretch of them below). As a further example, see in photos 2-4 below the
circular shrine of Demeter and Kore (Persephone) in the west part of the Agora-Forum.
Lacking time to visit the Acropolis, from the Agora-Forum area we made our way to the
Great Baths. The original baths built by the emperor Trajan in A.D. 98 were destroyed
during the Jewish revolt and rebuilt by the emperor Hadrian in A.D. 119. They are highly decorated, with marbled floors and walls. The pipes from the Apollo Fountain that fed the
baths are still clearly visible.
From the baths we proceeded directly to the oldest part of the city, the Sanctuary of Apollo
and its Sacred Fountain. Legend has it that, when a young man from Thera nick-named
Battus (Stammerer) consulted the oracle of Apollo at Delphi for advice on where to settle,
he was advised to go to the African coast and seek out a spring, which he finally found here
at the cave in my 1st photo below. Legend also tells us that the local nymph Cyrene (who
had been seduced by Apollo) strangled a lion that was menacing the new colony (note the
lion and the phallic pillar representing Apollo in the 3rd and 4th photos). The Greek colony
flourished and attracted more settlers from the motherland. During classical times, pilgrims came from all over the African world of Greece to attend the ritual ablutions in the
purifying waters of the sacred fountain and to venerate Apollo. So, this is where our group from mv Discovery ended our pilgrimage to Cyrene, at the spot where the city was founded.
Following our four-hour tour of the ruins of Cyrene, at 2:30 p.m. we were taken for lunch
to the Tourist Resort Caves (yes, we ate in caves; and there actually were washrooms on
site!). Then we were driven back to Benghazi, where we boarded mv Discovery at 6 p.m.
Saturday, November 8 was a quiet day at sea, sailing westward 296 nautical miles towards
al-Khums, Libya. I spent a good deal of the time either reading material borrowed from the
ship's library or attending lectures, including two port lectures (on Tripoli and on Valletta),
plus lectures entitled as follows: "Mare Nostrum: Rome's Inland Sea and Empire", "The Search for Lady's Men", and "Moors and Christians in the Mediterranean".
On Sunday, November 9, we reached al-Khums, an oil port, whose only attraction for
tourists is being situated two kilometres from the greatest ancient city on the North African
coast, Leptis Magna. We experienced a variety of problems at this port. First, the pilot
was 45 minutes late boarding the ship in the morning, which delayed my group's departure
for the archaeological site until 9 a.m.; then, we were obliged to return early from our second visit to the site in the afternoon, because the authorities suddenly announced that, instead of closing at 8 p.m., the port would close two hours earlier at 6 p.m., necessitating a 5:30 p.m. departure by our vessel. Despite these hitches, the stop at al-Khums was well worth it.
Leptis Magna has a long and fascinating history. Before 800 B.C., Phoenicians from the
eastern end of the Mediterranean began to establish trading posts along the coast of North Africa. Several of these developed into great cities, including Carthage in what is now
Tunisia and three cities in what is now western Libya that ultimately came under the rule
of first the Carthaginian Empire and then, after its fall, the Numidian Kingdom and finally
the Roman Empire. These three Phoenician cities--Labqi (Leptis Magna), Oea (Tripoli)
and Sabratha--are the source of what is still the name of the entire region: Tripolitania
(Land of Three Cities). It was the fact that "North African Treasures" was scheduled to
visit all three cities that determined my decision to join this mv Discovery cruise.
Leptis (or, more correctly, Lepcis) Magna was the largest city of ancient Tripolitania.
Built on fertile land near a natural harbour at the mouth of the Wadi Labdah, it became
a major emporium linking the African interior with the Mediterranean and also produced enormous amounts of olive oil. Leptis' ruins are among the most impressive in the entire Roman world, for the huge scale of the monuments, the beauty of the stone, and the
dramatic location beside the sea. Founded by Phoenicians from Tyre around 700 B.C.,
from the 4th century B.C. Leptis was successively under Carthaginian, Numidian, Roman, Vandal and Byzantine rule. After the Arab conquest in A.D. 643, the city seems to have
been gradually abandoned. The Vandals had destroyed the Roman walls that defended
the city both against the encroaching sand and against attacks by nomadic tribesmen, who looted the city and destroyed the olive groves; and ultimately the dam the Romans had
built across the Wadi Labdah broke, so that, in the centuries that followed, flash floods
washed rocks and soil down the valley and over the site, permanently blocking the harbour.
At its peak during the Roman Empire, rich from exports of olive oil and the caravan trade
with central Africa, the city population is estimated at up to 100,000, most of whom (from
the evidence of the many bilingual Latin and Punic inscriptions) continued to speak Punic. Trajan, emperor from A.D. 98-117, gave Leptis full citizenship rights; but the city really
came into its own under Septimius Severus. Born in Leptis, he rose through the army to become emperor (A.D. 193-211), and favoured his birthplace with freedom from land taxes.
Huge construction projects were begun then: the harbour was deepened; and many of the
great buildings (such as the magnificent new forum) date from his time. Some classical historians believe that Septimius encouraged the city to strain its resources through
excessive expense on unnecessary and showy construction and that this over-extension
may have contributed to Leptis' decline in the third century, when trade fell off. It is indisputable that, by the middle of the fourth century, Leptis Magna was in a worse plight
than its fellow cities in Tripolitania, with large parts of the city having to be abandoned.
We began our tour of Leptis Magna about 9:15 a.m., east of the main site, with the
Hippodrome and Amphitheatre, which date from the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D. Climbing
a rough track to a hilltop overlooking the sea, you find yourself gazing down upon the
distant Hippodrome and also directly into the amphitheatre, which looks like a volcanic
crater lined with seats. The acoustics in the amphitheatre are so good that words spoken
at conversational level in the middle of the arena can be heard in the top row. Just imagine
the effect of 15,000 spectators screaming for blood! Deep tunnels lead directly into the
arena to allow the entry of human participants and also animals--exotic beasts brought from
far and wide to take part in the spectacles. Between the amphitheatre and the sea, the land
was sculpted away to produce a Hippodrome or Circus 450 metres long. The outline of half
the track is visible, the rest having been washed away; and little of the seating survives.
Leaving the Hippodrome, we climbed back up the track to our bus and were driven to the
modern on-site museum, which not only houses some of the best finds from Leptis Magna,
but also has displays of Libyan pre-history, the Punic era, and the Roman, Christian and Muslim periods, right up to the present. Historic photographs from a century ago show
sand covering much of the ancient site; others record the Italian restorations of the 1920's
It was here in the museum that something strange happened to my new digital camera,
which seemed to be functioning well up to this point. I did not notice until that evening
that my tripartite automatic lens cover had frozen in a partially open position. Hence,
when I stood on the spiral ramp that links the various floors of the on-site museum and photographed the enormous image that dominates the interior of the building (a youthful Colonel Gadhafi, without his ubiquitous sunglasses for once), the result was the marred
photo below, bordered in black on the upper left and lower right, as unfortunately are all
my photos taken at the Leptis Magna main site after lunch that day.
This account will be continued in Trip to North Africa, Part Two at: