Once the most desirable posting in the Roman Empire, this unspoilt swathe of north Africa is finally reopening to visitors. Our travel blueprint is your guide to its stunning classical cities and deep, rolling Sahara
Hidden for too long behind the eccentricities of its leader, Libya is rapidly emerging as a choice destination for the adventurous traveller. Names that resonate as great icons of geography and history - the Sahara, Cyrene, Leptis Magna and Tobruk - are suddenly Libya's calling card at just the right moment in its history. This is a country on the upswing, its people newly optimistic and eager to welcome world travellers after the long, lonely years of isolation.
The land we now call Libya was a crossroads for the great civilisations of the Mediterranean - the Phoenicians, Romans, Greeks, Byzantines and Ottomans all left behind a legacy of rare beauty. Leptis Magna gave the Roman Empire its first African emperor and went on to challenge Rome for the title of the empire's pre-eminent city.
Cyrene was a sophisticated Greek rival to the enlightened cities of mainland Greece. These and the other ancient cities arrayed along Libya's coastline have aged so gracefully that you can still imagine them in their heyday. Ancient history is more alive here than perhaps anywhere else around the Mediterranean rim.
Libya's geography is as epic as its history - more than 90% of the terrain is engulfed by the Sahara. The happy consequence of this otherwise dire environmental calculation is that Libya boasts some of the most varied and accessible desert scenery in the world, with sand seas the size of small countries, idyllic oases, open-air galleries of prehistoric rock art and remote volcanoes.
More than anything, there's the sense that Libya's time is now. While Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia were being overwhelmed by tourists and forever changed in the process, Libya's traditions of old-style Arab hospitality were protected from the tourist onslaught - few places are as hassle-free. Coming here still feels like pushing the frontiers of travel, though, and after the long years of isolation, getting a Libyan stamp in your passport still has a certain cachet. Join the club.
Most Libyan trails begin in Tripoli - a good place to start is in its medina, strewn with ornate mosques, tiled courtyard homes and the Roman Arch of Marcus Aurelius. Keeping watch over the Arab quarter is the Red Castle; within its walls is the Jamahiriya Museum, one of the Mediterranean's finest. After a few hours immersed in Libyan history, eat traditional stuffed calamari at the nearby Mat'am Obaya for home cooking, Libyan style.
After a day enjoying Tripoli, a day-trip east to Leptis Magna takes you to what was once the most decadent place to live in the Roman Empire, with exquisite baths, a lavish theatre and temples where every stone is adorned with the glorious aesthetic vision of the ancients. Upon your return to Tripoli, choose the freshest fish for your evening meal by the water's edge at the fish market.
An hour's journey west takes you to Sabratha, another splendid ancient city and home to Ancient Rome's most extravagant theatre. Don't forget to bring your swimming costume to swim in the Mediterranean alongside the ruins.
Time to turn inland and climb to the barren Jebel Nafusa where traditional Berber troglodyte architecture seems to leap from the set of a Star Wars movie. Highlights include underground pit-homes in Gharyan, fortress-like granary stores in Qasr al-Haj and the abandoned stone village of Tarmeisa. The Yefren Hotel in Yefren provides the perfect perch at sunset on your third night. As you make your way south-west, more mud fortresses at Kabaw and Nalut break up the long descent to Ghadames - a magical introduction to the Sahara.
After two nights in Ghadames, take the 4WD-only paths that cross the Hamadat al-Hamrah (the Red Plain), to the Ubari Sand Sea where palm trees and the sand dunes we dreamed of as children surround pristine blue lakes.
In Libya's far south-west, the desert massif of the Jebel Acacus is an otherworldly landscape of towering red monoliths and millennia-old rock art. Long desert trails lead to remote Waw al-Namus, the black volcanic heart of the Sahara. Allow a week for exploring this section of the desert, which leaves just enough time for a flight from Sebha back to Tripoli where you can spend your last dinars in the capital's souqs.
Old Ghadames is a network of narrow, intricate lanes, some opening onto intimate squares from where the arriving trans-Saharan caravans once disseminated news and precious goods from Central Africa. Other thoroughfares pass countless palm-trunk doors of the city’s narrow, multi-storeyed homes.
The uninterrupted horizons of the Sahara begin on Ghadames's doorstep. It can take a full day by 4WD to cross the Hamadat al-Hamrah, after which your reward is to climb the ruined, mud-brick castle in Idri on the verge of the Ubari Sand Sea. Crossing the sands themselves is an epic and wholly exhilarating undertaking - especially the nights spent beneath the panoply of stars.
Add on a couple of days for the crossing to Umm al-Maa (the Mother of Water), which is easily the prettiest of lakes hidden amid the dunes. For the best views, climb the sand hills that rise up from the lake's southern shore close to sunset - the dunes will glow as the light dips below the rippled desert.
After leaving the sands behind, head to the forbidding, black-stone world of Wadi Methkandoush. Here, against all the odds, you'll find perfectly executed carvings of elephant, giraffe and rhinoceros. The nearby Murzuq Sand Sea is almost the size of Switzerland and tinged with red - sleeping here among the solitude of the dunes on your fifth or sixth night is true deep desert immersion.
Away to the west, the towering natural rock arches and stunning panoramic vistas of the Jebel Acacus await; you could easily spend the best part of a week here. The sheer rock walls, especially those in Wadi Tashwinat, are the history books of the Sahara; the finely rendered ochre paintings of wild animals, hunting scenes, chariot races and wedding celebrations tell the story of the now-unimaginable time when the desert was a green and pleasant land.
North-west of the Jebel Acacus is Wadi Meggedet where sand valleys weave between stand-alone skyscrapers of rock. Consider climbing the haunted desert citadel of rock at Kaf Ajnoun en route to Ghat, another famous former caravan town of the Sahara with a crumbling old town built of mud.
Benghazi is as clamorous as a mini Cairo and its obvious Egyptian influence - many historians say that the Middle East starts here - is most apparent in the Souq al-Jreed, which snakes through the city to the soundtrack of Egyptian singer Umm Kulthoum (the Arab world's most famous voice of the 20th century). The decaying elegance of Freedom Square and the low-slung ruins offer reminders of all that was lost when Benghazi was destroyed during the Second World War.
A short drive from Benghazi, Tolmeita (Ptolemais), founded in the 4th century BC, was one of the premier cities of the Greek Pentapolis. It climbs up the hillside like a marble forest of ruined villas and temples.
Not far away, along a quiet mountain road, the otherwise unremarkable village of Qasr Libya boasts a museum unrivalled for its collection of fantastic Byzantine mosaics; panel 48 is one of very few representations of the Pharos of Alexandria - one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Set aside the next day for the jewel in north eastern Libya's crown, the Ancient Greek city of Cyrene, superbly located on a rocky shelf looking out towards the Mediterranean. From above, and when you're surrounded by its age-old fluted columns, the Sanctuary of Apollo is a highlight among many, while the Temple of Zeus is larger than the Parthenon in Greece and every bit as beautiful.
Down the mountain is Apollonia, the former port of Cyrene, where Greek and Byzantine ruins extend along the shoreline to the stunningly sited Greek theatre - the waves almost reach the stage.
The next morning, a short drive along the coast at Ras al-Hillal, the steep slopes of the forested Jebel Akhdar (Green Mountains) plunge into the Mediterranean to create Libya’s most dramatic coastal scenery.
Tobruk, about as far east as you can go in Libya, is where tens of thousands of British, Australian and other soldiers lost their lives during the Second World War. They clearly weren’t fighting over Tobruk for its beauty, so head for the mass gravestones of the Knightsbridge (Acroma) and Commonwealth cemeteries for one of Libya's most poignant history lessons.
Sebha is a place to send those last emails, eat a hearty meal at the excellent Acacus restaurant and enjoy the comfort of a bed before you head out into the wilderness - you won't see such luxuries for a while. A detour to Germa takes you to the ruined mud-brick capital of the Garamantes Empire, which ruled the desert for 1,400 years until AD 500 and made the desert bloom.
At the small town of Tmissah, you leave the tarmac road for the long 4WD journey through sand and rock to the extinct volcanic crater of Waw al-Namus. Black sand and lakes of red, blue and green make it one of the Sahara's most extraordinary sights, as if you've somehow stumbled upon a dark paradise close to the end of the earth. Plan to descend into the crater around three hours before sunset to avoid the anvil-like heat, allow time to explore and for the best light.
A few hardy travellers make it to Waw al-Namus, but very few continue on to Al-Kufra, one of the largest oasis towns of the Sahara, a two-day journey across the soft, steep-sided sand sea of the Ramlat Rabyaneh. En route, the tiny town of Tazerbo can seem like a metropolis but the oasis of Buzeima is much more beautiful.
The road south-east from Al-Kufra is used only by overloaded trucks heading for Chad and by camel caravans into Libya on their 40-day journey from Sudan; the trails are littered with camel bones bleached by the sun. Waiting for you in Libya's most remote corner is the boulder-piled range of Jebel Arkno with its abandoned Libyan army tank and ancient rock carvings.
Nearby, the even more spectacular Jebel Uweinat boasts outstanding 10,000-year-old human figures adorning the walls of the picturesque wadis; it was on Jebel Uweinat that the legend of the Cave of Swimmers (actually just across the border in Egypt) in The English Patient was based.
Known for its natural springs and scarcely visited by travellers, Jebel Uweinat is the most likely place in Libya to catch a glimpse of Saharan wildlife such as the enormous-eared fennec fox, gazelle and the fleet-footed and bearded waddan - a goat-like deer, fond of rocky ledges.
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