Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for November 5th, 2009

Tolmeita Past and Present

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 5th November, 2009

TolmeitaLibya is justly famous for its ancient ruins, though few foreign visitors ever get to see Tolmeita or Ptolemais, which is about an hour-and-a-half’s drive eastwards along the coast from Benghazi. Founded in the 4th century BC by the Greeks, the city was subsequently maintained and enlarged by the Romans. It’s an interesting reflection of those two civilizations’ contrasting priorities that the Romans turned the orchestra pit of the lovely little Greek amphitheatre into a swimming pool. In its full Hellenistic glory, Ptolemais covered an area approximately three kilometers square, though only a fraction of that has been unearthed. Eerily, one can still rub one’s foot on the top soil in places and watch mosaics emerge. The Italians did some of the early archaeological work, though these days a Polish team is in charge, but it looks as if it will be decades before the task is finished. In keeping with Libyan government policy, there has been no attempt to create (or, presumably, permit the growth of) significant tourist facilities in the area.

Tolmeita 2In the meantime, a small Arab community continues to live in and around the site and along the nearby shoreline, some of them occupying houses whose original builders obviously raided the ruins for good stones, with the result that their facades are a curious blend of rough brickwork and magnificent marble. The little shops that lined to main street of the modern village until the 1970s have, however, fallen into ruin themselfes. There is a small museum at the classical site, which contains some rather fine statuary, as well as several really beautiful mosaics rescued from the main palace and a couple of villas while they were being excavated. This afternoon, in the shade of some palm trees at the back of the museum, a young man was grooming his pure white horse in a scene that could have come straight out of A Thousand and One Nights.

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