Libya

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Introduction to Libya

Libya's not all date palms and deserts, but if shifting sands and camel trains are your thing, Libya's got desert for days, and a quick jaunt down into the Fezzan will take you boldly where nomad has gone before. And despite its scary reputation, most people have a grand old time.

For a country that's been all but swallowed by the Sahara, you'll be surprised to see how pleasantly Mediterranean it can be along its northern coast. Tripoli is as urbane as any place in Africa, while the Jebel Akhdar region to the east is reminiscent of verdant Crete.

From ancient Greek and Roman ruins to modern art and oil money, Libya's a world unto itself (though with the lifting in 1999 of UN sanctions, things are looking up, and out).

The Libyan people enjoy a well-earned reputation for kindness and hospitality toward visitors, and its streets and souqs are free of the hassles of touts and their hard sell. Even Colonel Mu'ammar Gaddafi has of late been keen to renew ties with the outside world and is styling himself as a unifier and pacifier.

Caution

While security in Libya is generally good, tensions in the Middle East remain high. Travellers should keep abreast of international events that might have repercussions in Libya, and avoid political gatherings and demonstrations whenever possible. Travelling with a guide or in groups is recommended in remote areas. The regions bordering Chad and Sudan should be avoided.

Full country name: Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya

Area: 1.75 million sq km

Population: 5.7 million

Capital City: Tripoli

People: Arab (92%), Berbers (5%), plus Tuareg, Toubou, Black Africans and some Europeans - mostly Italians

Language: Arabic, English, Italian

Religion: Sunni Muslim (95%), Christian (5%)

Government: Jamahiriya, or 'state of the masses', theoretically governed by the people

GDP: US$45.4 billion

GDP per capita: US$8,900

Annual Growth: 6.5%

Inflation: 18.5%

Major Industries: petroleum, food processing, textiles, handicrafts, cement

Major Trading Partners: Italy, Germany, Spain, France, Turkey, Tunisia

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Traveler Facts

Visas: Everyone except visitors from some Arab countries and Malta must have a visa to visit Libya. Nationals of Israel are not admitted. Before applying for a visa, you must have your passport translated into Arabic. Visas are only issued to visitors travelling as part of an organised tour.

Health risks: malaria (The risk of this is small), diphtheria (The risk of this is small), typhoid (The risk of this is small), rabies (The risk of this is small), hepatitis (The risk of this is small)

Time Zone: GMT/UTC + 2

Dialling Code: 218

Electricity: 127/230V ,50Hz

Weights & measures: Metric



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Events

The Islamic (or Hjira) calendar is a full 11 days shorter than the Gregorian (western) calendar, so public holidays and festivals fall 11 days earlier each year. In March in 2003 and February for the next few years, Ras as-Sana is the Islamic celebration of the new year. Also known as Eid al-Adha or the Great Feast, Tabaski commemorates the moment when Abraham was about to sacrifice his son in obedience to God's command, only to have God jump in at the last minute and substitute a ram instead. It's held each year in January. Eid al-Moulid, in May for the next few years, celebrates the prophet Mohammed's birthday, while Ramadan is celebrated during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar (in December in 2003-5), commemorating the month when the Quran was revealed to Mohammed. Out of deference, Muslims take neither food nor water until after sunset each day. The end of Ramadan, called Eid al-Fitr, comes around a month later. The fasting breaks amid much celebration.

The main secular holiday in Libya is Revolution Day, which is marked with a week of public parades, rallies and events in September. Folk troupes, horsemen, musicians and various military groups are bussed into Tripoli for the occasion, and Gaddafi usually gives a pep talk in Green Square. Slightly lower in key is the date-harvest festival held in various parts of the country during October.

Public Holidays

February/March - Ras as-Sana, Tabaski

2 March - Declaration of the People's Authority Day

May - Eid al-Moulid

11 June - Evacuation Day

1 September - Revolution Day

26 October - Day of Mourning

December - Eid al-Fitr

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Best time to Visit

The best time to visit Libya is between November and March, when daytime temperatures are relatively mellow...for a desert country. Conversely, if you drop by between April and October, don't be surprised to find the mercury pushing 38C (100F) on a regular basis. The coastal atmosphere is generally humid (hovering around 55% in the afternoons year round), while inland the deserts are often as dry as dust. You should avoid travel to Libya in late spring (May through June) and early fall (October), when the country's subject to the massive ghibli sandstorms from the south, which tend to last several days and interrupt all outdoor activities.



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Currency / Costs / Approx. Spending

Currency: Libyan Dinar

Meals

Budget: LD6-20

Mid-range: LD20-32

High: LD32-50

Deluxe: LD50+

Lodging

Budget: LD6-25

Mid-range: LD25-100

High: LD100-130

Deluxe: LD130+

Libya is an expensive destination by Middle Eastern standards, if ony because visas are only issued to visitors travelling as part of an organised tour. Costs of tours vary widely between companies and can range from those using basic hostels to those using five-star hotels.

Libya does not accept credit cards, and travellers cheques are all but impossible to cash. Carrying cash is the only realistic option, and the favoured currency is the US dollar. Pounds sterling and the euro are also acceptable. The main banks and larger hotels provide money-changing facilities; their rates are virtually identical.

Contrary to practices in the rest of North Africa, haggling over prices in the souqs is a no-no. Tipping is not expected, though a service charge is sometimes added to hotel and restaurant bills.

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Attractions

Tripoli

Once known as the 'White Bride of the Mediterranean', Tripoli has lost much of its pristine allure, though its historic mosques and lively medina retain a good deal of character. Tripoli is the de facto capital of Libya, despite attempts in recent years to move some government departments elsewhere.

Easily the most dominant feature of Tripoli is the Red Castle, Assai al-Hamra, which sits on the northern promontory. The massive structure comprises a labyrinth of courtyards, alleyways and houses built up over the centuries with a total area of around 13,000 sq metres (140,000 sq ft).

Benghazi

On the eastern edge of the Gulf of Sirt, Benghazi is the second largest city in Libya and a major commercial centre. What Benghazi lacks in historical charms, it more than makes up for in its location, with its proximity to the lush Jebel Akhdar area and the numerous Roman ruins along the coast.

You can cover central Benghazi easily on foot. The covered souqs really come alive on Friday morning, when the whole city seems to convene for a shopping spree. The main market, the Souq al-Jreed on Sharia Omar al-Mukhtar, sells all manner of clothes and household goods.

Ghadhames

Famous for its desert architecture, the oasis town of Ghadhames lies 650km (400mi) southwest of Tripoli, close to the borders of Algeria and Tunisia. If your time in Libya is limited and you plan to see one traditional desert place, this is the one to visit.

Ghadhames earned the sobriquet 'Pearl of the Desert' back in the 1950s, when it was a popular getaway for Tripoli folk. Since then, a new town has sprung up around the old one, and the latter's dark, covered walkways and whitewashed mud-brick walls are a lot less boisterous than they once were.

Leptis Magna

If you only see one archaeological site in Libya, this is the one to choose. Regarded as the best Roman site in the Mediterranean, Leptis Magna's spectacular architecture and massive scale will impress even the most ruin-weary traveller.

The city was originally a Phoenician port, settled during the first millennium BC. Slaves, gold, ivory and precious metals brought it great wealth, which was supplemented by the rich agricultural land surrounding it. Roman legions ousted the Carthaginians following the third Punic War, after which the city flourished until the Vandals did their namesake thing in 455.

Roman rule briefly returned to Leptis in 533, and intensive repairs were carried out on the city, but local tribes revolted and eventually the area reverted to pastoral nomadism dominated by the Berbers. The Arab invasions of 644 swept away the last traces of Roman life from the region, and in the 11th century Leptis Magna was finally abandoned to the encroaching sand dunes.

It wasn't until the 20th century that excavation began in earnest, and, much to archaeologists' delight, the sands had preserved the ruins remarkably well. There's an excellent, large museum next to the main entrance to the site, but the real treasures wait out in the site itself.

The first thing you'll encounter is the Severan Arch, which was erected in honor of Emperor Septimus Severus' visit to his hometown in 203 AD. Not far off are the marble and granite panelled Hadrianic Baths, the largest outside Rome. Keep exploring and you'll come across the partially covered nymphaeum, a shrine dedicated to the worship of nymphs; a pair of massive forums, similar in design and grandiosity to the imperial forum in Rome; the extraordinarily detailed basilica and theatre; and, if you continue west along the seashore about 700m (2100ft), the circus and amphitheatre, where chariot races and similar spectacles were held for the locals' amusement.

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Sources: CIA FactBook, World FactBooks and numerous Travel and Destinations Guides.

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