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Sahara

Day 81: Tobruk to Benghazi

Tobruk to Benghazi, Libya 
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Abdul Gerawi, our chief Libyan guide (in the well cut Western-style clothes worn by most professional Libyans), watches filming in the magical Roman theatre at Apollonia, rediscovered only forty years ago.
Michael Palin - SaharaFurther on, looking out over the sea, is one of the most perfectly located theatres I have ever seen, and in excellent condition too. Time seems frozen as I climb on the stage, waves thumping against the rocks a hundred yards behind me, the steep stone tiers rising and curving around in front of me. Test the acoustics with a few lines from Julius Caesar, not long dead when this was built, but am booed off by the crew.

As the road winds up the hill behind Apollonia, it passes a complex of ancient tombs and catacombs extending right across the hillside, most of them fallen into a romantic state of disrepair. Those classical carvings, vaults, decorated lintels and bits of sarcophagi that haven't already been looted lie around in staggering profusion, visited mainly by flocks of sheep and herds of goats picking away at the scrubby grass that covers them.

The extent of this burial ground gives some idea of the importance of the city of Cyrene, much of which still stands, built into the folds of the hills. Two mighty propylaea, a colonnade and several headless deities with exquisitely sculpted robes adorn the old Greek settlement, erected in the seventh century BC. A cluster of elegant baths and fountains show the preoccupations of the Romans, who grafted their own architecture onto the Greek original. I'm poking around them when I find a goat in the hypocaust. Quite a shock, but a good name for a volume of archaeological memoirs. A Goat in the Hypocaust.

Following the railway tracks laid by the Italians in the 1920s to help them excavate and restore the site I come across the eye-catching Fountain of The Nymph Cyrene. With its carved statue of a young girl gracefully ripping open a lion's mouth, it's an ingenious way of telling a story and creating a water outlet at the same time. In Greek mythology, Cyrene so attracted Apollo with her animal wrestling skills that he sent a chariot to pick her up and take her across the water to the fertile highlands of northern Libya, in which green and pleasant land they consummated their relationship and she bore him a son.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 81
  • Country/sea: Libya
  • Place: Cyrene
  • Book page no: 217

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