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Traveling as a Tourist in Libya in 2018

People told me that I was insane to go to Libya at this time, four years into the country’s brutal civil war, at a time where they dont issue tourist visas because of the situation. I had even been denied entry to Tunisia because of my intention of visiting Libya and it was just lucky that I had brought my second passport which I used to get in.

As the Libyan Wings plane got ready for take off the pilot let out three Allahu Akhbars and that was it. There was no going back. The plane took off from Tunis Carthage and I was feeling a mix of uncertainty and exitement.

I was arriving at Mitiga military airport (as the main airport had been destroyed by the war) with a business visa that had cost me over 1000$ in total*, and I was afraid that the immigration was able to spot that I was there for tourism. Luckily they didnt ask a question and just about an hour later I was walking through the streets of Tripoli city center which felt much more safe than I first had anticipated.

Plenty of bullet holes, even on the mosque

I think it was a great time to go. The Black market rate for the dollar was at 6,2 dinars while the official rate was about 1,3dinars. Also the fightings West in Tripoli had stopped just 4 months ago and was now very quite in peaceful. The best part was that there was not a single other tourist in the country, with my guide I had the whole Roman Ruin sites of Sabratha and Leptis Magna to myself.

A bombed bridge on our way to Sabratha.

The ruins of Leptis Magna and Sabratha was some of the most beautiful I have seen in my whole time traveling. Sabratha had been used as a hiding ground for ISIS and could just as well have been destroyed just like the ruins in Syria. The ruins already had a lot of damage from the fightings, like the mortar holes on the walls of the Amphitheater:

I went to Libya with a company called Sherwes travel who organized my visa on the ground and provided an excellent itinerary with a knowledgable guide. I would have reccommended them at the warmest had it only not been for the response I got from their booking agent Ibrahim when asking him if I could stay longer. His answer was downright aggressive saying that if I refused to leave the country after the 4 day tour was finished he would report me to the secret police as being a spy and have me arrested. I left the country after that threat but am sure that I will be back again soon, but then to go to Benghazi and the mountains in the East, which currently works as their own country with their own parlament and visa requirements. Will be interesting.

There were lots of grafitti in Tripoli, including caricarures of Gaddafi

* The official visa fee at the embassy was 300£, but then I also had to pay a 50£ express fee, 350$ handling fee to the a Libyan agent and then another couple of hundred dollars for flights and hotel to arrange my visa in London

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Tripoli, the Capital of Libya

Marcus Aurelius Arch from 165 A.D

Tripoli, also called Tarabulus in Arabic is the capital and largest city in Libya. The city was founded by the Phoenicians in year 700BC and because of its long history there are many sites of Archeological significance like the Roman gates that you will find next to popular cafés in the city center.

After the Romans came the Ottomans, then came the French and finally came Ghadaffi- all of which have left their marks on the city.

The streets in the old town, Medina are narrow and going there as a foreigner you will get looks from everyone you pass. A part of the old town is called Sook Al-Musheer where armed militias were in control. It was crazy to see people walking with wheelbarrows full of money. I did not dare taking a picture and noone dares taking the money as everyone involved in the currency black market are armed to their teeth. We sat down at one of the caffees and watched people deal thousands of dollars right in the open, a crazy but safe experience that you would not find elsewhere.

Generally speaking, Tripoli felt very safe and we visited many cafés and restaurants which were just like the ones at home. We were walking for hours through the areas with Italian colonial architecture, through old streets from the Ottoman times to the corniche and modern style downtown, mainly built during the 32 years of rulig by the dictator Muhammar Gaddafi. Alcohol is forbidden, but the restaurants served food similar to the Algerian and coffee and shisha which people enjoyed even throughout the night.

One of the most touching experiences was to visit the Tripoli war cemetary right next to the Talata Shopping Center which was completely destroyed during the fightings of the 2011 revolution. A guarded cemetary for WWII veterans was an oasis of calm, whereas the buildings and graves outside the walls had been completely destroyed. You could see that people had been living inside the old tombs and graves of Italian soldiers had been dug up and smashed, probably in search of valuables. The grave robbers had only taken the valuable parts of the watches and left hundreds of their golden wristbands around the graves. It was simply sad to see how these dead people had been disrespected and I hope stability in the country can bring investors who can clean up this mess and create new structures on top of these war wounds.

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Leptis Magna

Leptis Magna- the place I had been looking forward to the most on my trip to Libya. Its located in Khoms, 130km (81miles) East of Tripoli and I had to pass a total of eight militia checkpoints to get there from the capital.

The name of the Roman city comes from Latin with Magna meaning “the great” whereas Leptis Parva “Leptis the small” is a similar roman ruin city located in Tunisia.

Leptis Magna was declared a UNESCO heritage site in 1982 and is now one of the best preserved roman ruin city in the mediterranian.

The city used to be the home to around 80 000 people during the roman empire and really flourished around year 200A.D as it was the hometown of the Roman Emperor Septimus Severus until the city was stuck by a tsunami in year 365A.D.

We spent a full walking through the ruins, being explained by our guide Yousuf how life used to be in the ancient roman empire. The best part was that we had the whole place to ourself, without a single person in sight.

On our way back we stopped at Villa Selene, an ancient roman villa next to a popular beach about 30kilometers from Leptis Magna where I went swimming. I was told by my guide who had worked with tourism in Libya for over 20 years that he thought I was the first tourist to go swimming in Libya since the revolution in 2011.

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Sabratha- A Favorite for Both Me and the ISIS

Sabratha was for me the highlight of my visit to Libya. I had been a bit concerned about going there before I went. By googling Sabratha you will get a lot of articles about the fightings that were going on there until about four months ago. Sabratha was afterall under ISIS control and was then used as a smugglers hub for human trafficing.

When visiting the ruins we found some life vests laying on the shore, we saw lots of empty bullets and we saw damages from gunfire and mortars. The stuff that had beeing going on there was imaginable to me though, as it felt more peaceful than anywhere, having absolutely no other tourists around, or locals for that sake.

Kalashnikov bullets laying around

It was even so peaceful that I decided to get in the water and go for a swim in my underwear. Luckily it was right after I got out of the water and not before that a security guard demanded us to leave the site. Apparently they had made some new rules where you needed a written note from a ministry, but as we had seen the whole site already we did not bother arguing and left the site.