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Sahara

Day 81: Tobruk to Benghazi

Michael Palin - SaharaThe land that Apollo chose for his tryst with Cyrene is known nowadays as Jebel Akhdar, the Green Mountain, and it is quite an extensive upland area, its scenery not a lot different from Provence or even at times, where the roads narrow and the limestone walls crowd in, of Dorset. Annual rainfall up here is about the same as London's and wide and fertile cornfields stretch away on either side of the road. It was grain that brought the Romans to Africa, and vast quantities were shipped across the Mediterranean, earning Libya the title of the breadbasket of Rome.

Cyrene was continuously occupied for over 1200 years, until the Arab invaders of the seventh century, not much interested in classical cities, let it fall back gradually into oblivion.

The Italians returned to the province of Cyrenaica in the 1920s but met spirited resistance to their colonising from a local leader called Umar al-Mukhtar. In 1930 General Graziani was sent out from Rome to deal with the opposition. Mukhtar was captured and hanged, and those who resisted Graziani's policies were rounded up in concentration camps.

So hated did the Italians make themselves in this short period that there is now almost no indication they were ever here on the Green Mountain. Al-Mukhtar, on the other hand, is still remembered as a hero and received the ultimate accolade of being portrayed on screen by Anthony Quinn.

As we descend from the plateau towards Benghazi, the olive groves, junipers and stands of cypress and Aleppo pine grow fewer and the number of roadblocks increases.

Like Tobruk, Benghazi is a city of infrastructure, girdled by a network of underpasses, ring roads and flyovers, all largely free of traffic, and as the road signs are only in Arabic it's impossible to tell where they're going. The woods and fields of Jebel Akhdar seem like a dream as we cruise slowly through a bare and featureless cityscape to come eventually to rest before the concrete and glass terraces of the Hotel Tibesti. I would have said at the doors of the Hotel Tibesti, or even at the portals of the Hotel Tibesti, but the architects of this magnificent late 1970s pile miscalculated the height of the concrete roof above the entrance and all tourist buses have to park and unload in a nearby road, making it a good walk to the hotel lobby through a taxi rank, a small garden, past ornamental fountains and up a substantial flight of steps.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 81
  • Country/sea: Libya
  • Place: Benghazi
  • Book page no: 218

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