Today we have had an absolutely top day. We got up at about 8 o’clock to have a relatively leisurely breakfast of some rather peculiar things but including cornflakes and halva. Takila [our guide] had said to us that the ideal Libyan breakfast is four or five dates, a spoonful of honey, a glass of milk, a glass of water and a cup of mint tea, although none of that was to be had.
We then piled into his car and zoomed off for the centre of town where we met a rather urbane and well-spoken guide who, it turned out, had spent six months or so in Colchester way back in the early 1980s. And even St Albans! We trundled round the rather sweet little museum in town which had originally been an Ottoman fort then been expanded by the Italians into a fort-come-police station until it had finally been converted into a museum fairly recently.
There were all sorts of things in there ranging from pottery to artefacts of Tuareg life to stamp collections to pots, bowls, slippers etc. And to even some rather moth-eared samples of local (dead) wildlife. Our guide then took us into the old town of Ghadames itself which is completely wonderful and entirely unexpected. It’s all very low, at least from the outside, and you enter through one of two out of an original seven gates into this caravan oasis and into a labyrinth of cool, dark, mostly subterranean roadways, the whole thing being built so closely packed together that it is, effectively, underground. The marvellous thing is that it maintains a fairly steady temperature the whole year round, not too hot in summer, not too hot in winter but, as with Goldilocks, just about right the whole time.
Another strange feature of this old town, which is, incidentally, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is that it was originally divided between some seven tribes, presumably originally of nomadic desert dwelling descent, and each section of the town was divided up according to the clans. Thus, clan A would have a certain part of the town and at a particular point, indicated by a mark on the wall, one would cross over into the neighbouring clan’s territory. It appears, though, that there was very largely a lot of collaboration and cooperation between the clans rather than it being too rigidly demarcated. And within each clan’s section there was a little open space with pillars and shady seats to sit on where the clan elders could get together and discuss things, or weddings would be held, or whatever aspects of civic life needed to be governed would be addressed.
Off the main roadways, which were big enough to take a donkey but definitely not a camel, so that they caravan trains that pulled into town (Ghadames being a major caravan centre) the camels would be offloaded with their goods being transferred onto donkeys to be led off to particular merchant’s houses within the city. But anyway, and back to my original story, running off the main alleys were tiny little paths, again all part of the urban network of Ghadames and we took one of these, stumbling along a smooth but pitch black path down to the end where you could just see through the cracks in the wall a date orchard at the very end.
Another surprising feature was the underground channels carrying water throughout the oasis. The Sahara at this point is very much like the pictures one may have seen or Mars or the lunar landscape – basically just blasted and shattered rock with occasional elements of pure sand often blown up into dunes. But here there are date palms, olive trees and the occasional citrus tree all watered by water from the Ain Alfaras, the underground source of water said to have been discovered by a thirsty horse way back in the mists of time. But the water has been channelled so that it flows throughout the oasis and through the basements of these houses and occasionally, one can go along and see a sort of pathway with cubicles leading down to the water where people go with their buckets and collect it for use for whatever they needed it for, drinking, washing etc.
Occasionally, too, one emerges into blinding white light walking down pathways through the date orchards the walls characterised by being ochre painted with white sort of outlines along the top and the conical shapes of the Berber art. We stopped at a tea house and had a cup of tea, though both Cat and I ducked out of the traditional Libyan version which is half-filled with peanuts – you drink the tea and then eat the peanuts which struck as both as just too peculiar to sample. But there was a pet lizard, a rather large lizard at that, tied up to a piece of string in the courtyard of the tea house. We asked what he was called and our guide told us that his name was Bob.
We had the opportunity to go into a traditional house, too, which was wonderfully cool and colourful.
And met mysterious women of the desert, too. Well, sort of.