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Rediscovering Libya
Off-limits to Americans for decades, Libya has reopened its doors. KIRA SALAK follows the 19th-century trail of Scotsman Hugh Clapperton, the first Westerner to explore the mystical heart of the Sahara.

Photo: Awbari Sand Sea
THE SWELTERING SKY: After crossing an ocean of sand, guide Magdy stands on the shores of a lake in the Awbari Sand Sea.

"You come, Madame," the man says to me. He wants to show me something—something "special." And maybe it's the sincere look in his eyes, the supplication, the knowing, but I follow this complete stranger across Tripoli's Green Square and through the stone gate of the ancient medina, or historic Arab quarter. It's my first night in Libya; I arrived only three hours ago in a country that's still a mystery of culture shock and conjecture. So many people told me not to come here. Terrorist cells, they warned. Don't forget the Lockerbie bombing. And of course Muammar Qaddafi, global pariah, former patron of every rogue cause the world over. The U.S. State Department advises extreme caution.

It all gives me the shivers, like entering a house that's supposedly haunted. I keep looking over my shoulder. Can people tell I'm American? Such paranoia.

Few are out tonight. It's the eve of Eid al-Fitr, the three-day Muslim holiday that marks the end of the month-long fast of Ramadan. The storekeepers look at me curiously as I pass, and I touch my hair before their glances; most Libyan women wear headscarves and long coats to hide the shape of their bodies. Libyan men wear whatever they please—Western clothes, usually, though some prefer the traditional jelabia: baggy pants and a shirt reaching to the knees. An old woman passes, wrapped head-to-toe in a white garment, a burnus, held tightly over her face, a single eye peering out at me through the folds. Otherwise, the medina is mostly deserted, the small stores like lighted vestibules in the dark and cavernous depths of the Old City.

The man urges me down a dim passageway, but I pause at the edge of the shadows. Where are we going? I demand in French. What do you want to show me?

"Something special," he insists, beckoning.

We enter the heart of the medina. Built over the ancient Phoenician town of Oea, its carved columns are still visible at the corners of buildings. Modernity has all but vanished here, and I trespass in a time when donkey carts shuddered by and slaves were driven down the narrow streets.

"Come, come," the man urges.

We go deeper into the labyrinth. Great stone arches cross overhead, cutting shadows across the dank walkways. The scent of incense wafts down the corridors, our footsteps loud and impudent in the silence. The man stops. He enters a clothing store and sends away the young boy tending it. Stepping behind the front counter, he raises his eyebrows at me in conspiratorial confidence.

"Come," he whispers.

I do, stepping forward gingerly.

He looks out at the front of the store. At the aisles around him. No one. He slowly pulls out something small, balled in his fist. Eyes wide and intent on me, he shakes it out.

"Yes, Madame?" he asks. "You want to buy?"

I lean down to see what it is: a lace bra with matching thong panties.

It's hard to know what's real in Libya. I finger the Qaddafi T-shirts in a gift shop at the Roman ruins of Leptis Magna, outside of Tripoli. Qaddafi poses on them like a rock star, face hardened and puckered, eyes gazing majestically toward the clouds. He hangs in every building, in every city intersection, large and wide and belligerent over the streets. There aren't billboards in Libya—there is Qaddafi.

His country used to be one of the poorest in Africa until, in 1959, Esso (now Exxon) discovered massive oil deposits beneath the sands—the largest petroleum reserves on the African continent. A decade later, Qaddafi, then a 27-year-old idealist, seized control of the wealthy nation from its monarchy in a near bloodless coup. In a country larger than Alaska with a population smaller than Connecticut's, he began testing his "Third Universal Theory," a self-created political philosophy that meshes, among other things, 19th-century French anarchist thought, socialism, and the 2,000-year-old dictates of the Koran. But to Qaddafi's credit, most Libyans will tell you, everyday life dramatically improved; great modern cities rose from the dust of the Sahara, making Libya a kind of latter-day utopia.

The store clerk asks my nationality, and I tell him the truth: American. I've been telling some people that I'm Canadian—seems safer, easier in a country that has an "American Aggression" postage stamp series. But the man smiles enthusiastically. "American?" he repeats, as if to make sure he's heard right. I nod. "Ah! You are welcome to Libya!"

I wish I could believe him. Not very long ago, Americans weren't welcome here. In 1981, with Qaddafi openly supporting revolutionary and Islamic extremist causes, then-President Ronald Reagan declared Libya a state sponsor of terrorism and severed all diplomatic ties. Qaddafi went on to use his vast oil revenue to develop chemical and biological weapons. And then, in 1988, the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, cemented Libya's rogue status. It would take Qaddafi's delivery of two Lockerbie suspects to the U.N. in 1999, followed by his 2003 renouncement of weapons of mass destruction programs to put him on the course of reconciliation with the West. U.S. travel restrictions were finally removed in 2004, nearly five years after the EU lifted theirs—which explains why, of the hundreds of nationalities listed in the Leptis Magna guestbook, I come across only two Americans.

The last time Libya was so closed to the West was back in the early 1800s, when most Europeans entered the country as slaves captured by the notorious pirates of North Africa's Barbary Coast. This didn't stop Scotsman Hugh Clapperton, who, in 1824, became the first Westerner to fully explore inner Libya and reach the interior of Africa by crossing the Sahara. I have come to Libya, in part, to follow his trail, to see how he accomplished such a difficult feat. Clapperton is a hero of mine, one of those old-time explorers who was always sick with one serious illness or another (dysentery, malaria) in a time when drinking mercury or bleeding was one's only medical recourse. Still, he plodded through the triple-digit heat of the bandit-ridden Sahara. His journals—the fullest, most unbiased account of early Libya—were lost for nearly two centuries. They were finally unearthed in a South African archive and published for the first time in 2000.

I carry Clapperton's journals with me now as I head out to the ruins, a couple of "tourist policemen" eyeing me. Groups of more than two foreigners aren't allowed to travel in Libya without the accompaniment of such government-assigned watchdogs. But as I'm traveling with only one other person, photographer Bobby Model, I escape most of this scrutiny. The lack of public transportation to many of the popular sites means that visitors like us may do better joining an adventure tour.

Leptis Magna was once the largest Roman city in Africa. I'm not the sort who usually gets into Roman ruins, can only handle about a day of them, but here the city is so well-preserved that it allows you to dream. There are the marble-covered pools of the Hadriatic Baths, great Corinthian columns rising 30 feet (nine meters). There's the nearly intact coliseum, three stories high, where you can crawl through lion chutes and explore the gladiators' quarters. They don't make cities like this anymore, every architectural detail attended to, no plan too lavish, no material too dear. Bearded gods gaze down from friezes. Maidens and warriors lounge among the carved porticos. Even the communal toilets remain nearly unscathed, the marble seats shiny from thousands of ancient buttocks.

Libya is a land overflowing with antiquities. Beyond its extensive Roman and Greek ruins are some of the best ancient rock paintings and carvings in the world. Testament to when the Sahara was once verdant and life-supporting, many of Libya's southern mountain ranges are dotted with petroglyphs, magical scenes created 12,000 years ago: men hunting rhinoceroses and riding horse-drawn chariots.

It reminds me that so many empires have come and gone in Libya. The Garamantes, the Phoenicians, the Greeks. The Romans, Byzantines, and Arabs. And more recently, the Turks, Italians, and British. For a few decades after WWII, even the Americans operated an air base on Libyan soil. I walk along a beach littered with building stones from Leptis. Waves caress the giant chunks of marble, slowly reducing them to the smooth white pebbles beneath my feet. There's too much of Leptis to save. It was too great, too vast. That it could end—I shudder at the thought. Theories abound about the cause of its demise. A great earthquake. A flood. The fall of the Romans and the later invasions of the Arabs. Slowly, perhaps imperceptibly, the sands took over. Will that be, I wonder, the fate of Qaddafi's utopia?

A haunted mountain, an ancient city, and amazing lakes in the middle of a sand sea await writer Kira Salak and photographer Bobby Model. Pick up the April 2005 edition to find out what happens.

Photograph by Bobby Model

Additional Excerpts
From the print edition, April 2005

The Adventures of Your Life
Rediscovering Libya: Writer Kira Salak explores the country's wonders
The Tsunami Volunteers: Writer Matthew Power finds a sliver of redemption in the disaster's wake. Plus, how you can lend a hand
Weird Science: Edward Norton talks about hermaphrodite frogs and a new NG TV series on PBS
Pelton's World: Fresh from the Green Zone, Pelton takes a cruise
100th Birthday: Explorer Col. Norman Vaughan's big plans

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More from Kira Salak

Writer, Adventurer Kira Salak
Check out Kira Salak's guide to being a great explorer.

Places of Darkness
At the center of the Democratic Republic of the Congo war zone, volunteers have risked—and lost—their lives for decades to save the mountain gorilla. Now, as poaching and encroachment persist and civilians continue to die, a tough question is raised: When is a primate's life worth more than a human's?

Mungo Made Me Do It
Writer Kira Salak's aim was audacious: To paddle nearly 600 miles (966 kilometers) down the Niger River, a hazardous journey, inspired by legendary Scottish explorer Mungo Park, that no person had ever completed solo. She was highly determined and completely alone in a little red boat, en route to Timbuktu. Salak's book about this journey, The Cruelest Miles, was published in November 2004 by National Geographic Books.

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April 2005

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