I was lucky enough to spend two (or three?) consecutive springs in 1969-72, more than  two months each time in Libya as director of the Hungarian pavilion at the International Fair of Tripoli.

Tripoli in itself is a nice place with its long and green shore, very interesting fort with a museum, the old city having so narrow streets that you can touch the walls of both sides standing in the middle, and the suk, which was a real marketplace till a few years after the revolution of  Khadafi and his fellow officers.

But first I shall try to describe three wonderful places which are worthwhile to visit even in the present political situation.

Leptis Magna (known also as Lepcis Magna, Lepcis Magana)

I simply did not believe the first information that there is an ancient Roman city in Libya the size of which much exceeds the size of any other Roman place in the world, including even Italy.

But the real surprise expected me on the spot. We arrived by car on the third day of a gibli (sand-storm), when the visibility was still dim. Even so what could be seen was fantastic, a huge area of remnants of a once flourishing big city, having streets and squares so well maintained, that they could be easily converted into the network of transport of a modern city, with at least 1/3 of the ruins having walls higher than one meter (3 feet). Some exciting buildings had – and I hope have – almost intact floors with intricate, beautiful mosaics, marmoreal wall-plates and settees, high walls, some still reaching the height of the ceiling.

Unbelievable is the water-system of the city. The remnants of the Hadrianic Baths are so well preserved that the whole complicated structure of it can be seen. The large open-air swimming-bath (natatio) with its vast and wonderful interior could easily be the main pool of a splendid hotel anywhere today, the frigidarium or cold room is surprisingly beautiful with its marble floor and high Corinthian columns. A doorway from it leads to the tepidarium or warm room , which is connected to the hot baths (caldarium) with a heat-lock, a small vestibule. It would not be very complicated to restore these baths and use them today as if they had not been left behind by Romans some sixteen hundred years ago. It was even more intriguing to see the toilets of the baths, which still have the seats of guests where they enjoyed life carrying long discussions while emptying themselves. The canalisation of the toilets is almost complete, ready for use.

Among  plenty of exciting buildings I recall now three more: the Forum, the Basilica and the amphitheatre. The temple is full of  stones, parts of the building itself, remnants of sculptures, of the altar, but one can see the tremendous size and beauty of Basilica even through this disorder. The high walls are accompanied by rows of  splendid columns,  there are aisles on both sides of the nave as in a cathedral.

I have seen amphitheatres bigger and more complete than the one in Leptis Magna, but the beauty of this one is unparalleled: standing on the top of it you may enjoy the view of the whole city, if you go down to the scene and look back, the colours of the plates covering the seats brightens up almost as a rainbow.

I have fallen in love with Leptis Magna. Remember: not only the size of the city is bigger, but the beauty is also unsurpassed by any other Roman place.

Links to Leptis Magna  

Lepcis Magana Excavation Site

Archeological Site of Leptis Magna


Sabratha is much smaller than Leptis Magna and very different too. It is on the seaside, one can smell the vapour of the sea when approaches the first walls of the city. You can also have a walk on the streets and squares, less impressive ones than in Leptis Magna, most of the buildings are only ruins, though not in worse state than most of the European wonders of the Roman Empire.

But there is one structure in Sabratha to see, which makes the trip of some 80 km from Tripoli worthwhile: the amphitheatre. It is so well preserved, you hardly believe that close to two millenniums have passed since the theatre is out of use. The scene and the walls, columns behind it are practically intact, the semicircle of the auditorium could be used again without spending much efforts on reconstruction. I was walking around it, up and down inside excited and was wondering about the fantastic skill of the builders. 


Ghadames is the capital of Tuaregs. Tuaregs are almost unknown, a small group of people in the middle of the ocean of Arabs, nobody is aware of their origins and they not only look frightening, but the stories about their cruelty makes one afraid to get in touch with them.

Therefore I was not very keen to accept the invitation of the Fair Authority to pay a one day visit to Ghadames. A Hungarian working in Tripoli with an American oil company advised me not to miss this exclusive opportunity.

So I joined the group of enthusiasts, managers of the pavilions, a few representatives of the Fair Authority, a couple of journalists and a short lady PR-officer.  

No road existed between Tripoli and Ghadames, it was just being built by Yugoslavia or Czechoslovakia. We were taken by bus to the airport, embarked a plane that looked like DC3. The two American pilots greeted us with broad smile. It was really funny to board such a built- just- before-WWII plane.

Oh, my goodness, how lucky I am! I surfed yesterday the Internet and found a page about Ghadames. I quote a part of it:

"Located close the point where the international frontiers of  Libya, Algeria and Tunisia join, modern Ghadames has an estimated population of around 10000. The residential area is divided into the old and new towns. The old town is situated within the oasis whereas the new town has been built on the dry slopes above the oasis. The old town has been uninhabited since 1986. The old town has not been simply abandoned and still plays an important role in the life of the inhabitants. In hottest days of the summer, the inhabitants of the new city return to their original quarters in search of shade and cool." (LibyaOnline)

I have seen Ghadames intact! As if it was in the middle of nowhere. No road, the "airport" was a rolled path of the desert, a one-man tin-plate hut and a wind-cone. We had to walk to the town a few hundred meters beside the cemetery. The tombs were marked with triangular stones. We were waited by very tall Tuareg warriors in front of the municipal hall. You stop in front of them a little bit frightened: you can only see their eyes, flashing on you from around two meters. They are dressed in black from top to toes, covering even their face and nose to protect from the sand of Sahara. All of them have shining daggers, hanging on the left side. We were offered some refreshments and a local orchestra of ancient Arab instruments played a kind of light music. The Arabs, who accompanied us, started dancing, trying to involve the guests as well. I was asked by the short lady PR manager to dance with her, it was impossible to refuse. Our photo was published next morning in the central newspaper of  Tripoli. This event was followed by a tour of the town. It was unforgettable. A small step on the Earth, but a great step back in human history, in the culture of a nation. 

The town looked like a huge ant's nest. I do not use the expression ant-hill, because it was more hidden in the ground than built above the surface. The "streets" were sloping, leaning towards some kind of centre, a small square. If I remember well, the streets became tunnels, at least at certain parts of it. There were doors on both sides, leading to the "flats" of residents. These flats differed very much from what we, Europeans or people living in rich countries under temperate climate are used to: they consisted of a central room on the ground floor, very clean and everything - floor, walls, settees at the walls - covered with wonderful carpets. Small rooms were attached to the central one somehow above it. There was an opening on the top of the flat letting in air and light. No windows. The whole structure of the city is an example of the wisdom of local people, who did everything possible to safeguard themselves against the fantastic heat in the middle of the desert. Clever, very clever, modern architects of hot countries should study every detail of this town.

The city seemed almost empty. We could see a few men, sitting in the corner of the square, chatting, and two-three women working in one of the set-backs of a corridor-tunnel, using thrashers. But the ladies disappeared as soon as they noticed the approaching crowd.

The next surprise was the lake of the town, somewhere in the town itself. An absolutely modern motorboat was floating on it. It seemed ridiculous.

After the tour we were accompanied to a tent. First we were asked to sit down, consume refreshments again and watch a camel-race, arranged for us. Six-seven camels participated in the competition, they were swift. One of them stumbled and broke its leg and was shot. The "horseman" suffered some injuries. The modern ambulance appeared in minutes. The whole event was accompanied by war-cry or scream of a group of women, separated from the general crowd. They were wearing rich, colourful cloths, but covered their face with kerchiefs.

The closing event was the lunch, served in a tent.

I have written a few words about Tuaregs and about this event on my page "USA". I quote: "Probably the most remarkable was my trip to Ghadames, the "capital" of Tuaregs. Arabs or not? It is not important. Tall, brave, frightening people when you first look at them, but they are also very-very nice, friendly, their hospitality surpasses the highest expectations. When we were invited to have our lunch in a richly decorated tent, a man was standing behind every chair, commanding the best services possible for his guest. Fantastic!" The dishes proved to be excellent. But no women were seen again. Poor creatures!

Some general remarks and reminiscences

I "met" both Khadafi a Jaloud, the top two of the young group that took over the power from the king organising a bloodless coup. Their policy was to come straight to the Hungarian pavilion after having cut the ribbon. The intention with this step was that they were close to the socialist block, but did not accept the dictates of any "imperialistic" power, even of the Soviet Union. I found both of them likable, young, handsome, determined, but simple. At the first time none of them was accompanied with bodyguards, at least they were not seen around. Rumours said that Khadafi usually spent his weekends at his beduin parents, living in a tent. He used to drive his VW-beetle. It was a little bit surprising that every director was requested to speak Arabic, it was necessary to clarify that interpreter will do. At his second visit - after a couple of years - Khadafi was closely guarded by four gorillas carrying automated weapons. The transformation of revolutionaries into dictators was already on the way. I also learnt here how one should behave on an official dinner hosted by top politician. Jaloud gave an "opening dinner". I was late (uh!) and got a seat just next to the entrance. I could finish only the starter and the soup, the second dish was just put in front of me when suddenly everybody dropped the cutlery (what a noise!): Jaloud got up, no one was supposed to eat a drop after.

One day I was informed that the chief emir of the United Arab Emirates would visit the fair. I informed the Consulate and the Trade Commission (Office?) and the line of Hungarian officials was formed. I was one of the lasts, certainly. When the chief emir reached me and extended his hand for handshake, we looked at each other with surprise: I felt as if I looked in a mirror, the emir was my copy, twin brother or - sorry - I was his. 

Three more visits have to be mentioned (not necessary during the same fair): 

The director of the American (USA) pavilion came over, unusual step at that time. He congratulated us for making such a nice pavilion with such simple means (he was polite not to use the expression "primitive") and working so hard. It was very nice of him, so we drank some Tokaji. We almost became friends.

Another surprising visit was paid to our pavilion by two or three officials of the pavilion of Formosa (Taiwan). It was almost ridiculous, because the two countries had ice cold (-273 deg of C) relations. We spent some 20 minutes chatting then they requested to join them to make a photo. I agreed with hesitation, because noticed that an official of my firm followed the event closely. He had nothing to do with the pavilion, his trip was obviously a present for him. He openly behaved as a "security chap", which he most probably was not. You just get accustomed to be afraid of such spies in rigid state systems. He drew me aside after the Taiwanese had left and warned me not to repeat such mistakes. I was about to spit, but restrained.  

The "best" was the visit of the official Hungarian delegation, headed by one of the deputy ministers of the government. He paid a short visit to our pavilion, then to the pavilions of "friendly" states. The only thing he was interested in was alcohol. I was later warned by the trade commissioner to always have Bull's Blood, his favourite red wine. 

Mr B., the TV-reporter, who came to report about the success of the Hungarian pavilion, requested me to arrange an interview for him with the rabbi of the Jewish community of Libya. I did it, but could not participate on the shooting. I understand it was interesting. What else could it be, the fact alone that Jewish people live(d?) undisturbed in an orthodox Arab state is exciting, isn't it?

Four Hungarian expatriates - oil engineers - , who left Hungary in 1956, have been working with the American oil company (Occidental?) that dominated the Libyan oil industry. All of them maintained good contact with the officialdom of Hungary in Libya, therefore I also could keep in touch with them (though it was still a sin at that time). One of them has even translated some late texts for our pavilion. I was invited by them to visit the oil-fields in the Sahara and it is definitely a pity I could not make myself free for the trip. The whole field was automated and controlled by one single computer, situated in the headquarters of the firm in Tripoli. A Russian journalist told me the story that Khadafi invited Russian oil experts to study the oil industry with the aim to decide if they could maintain flawless exploitation of the same in case of nationalisation of the industry. A good team of Russians arrived, spent a couple of week and then said good-bye without committing themselves to anything.

All of them were proud of their achievements, salary, life, none of them complained of homesickness. During one of the evenings I spent with them I put up a gipsy record and noticed with a little surprise that one of them could hardly hide his tears. Since then I made a habit to try if the most proud Hungarians living abroad were indeed free of this awful sickness. Most of them proved not to be.

One of them got seriously sick in no time. The symptoms were unbelievable: he lost his appetite, balance, had some fever, then could not get up and lost his mind. Some kind of warms attacked his brain. He was flown to Denmark, but it was late, I learnt after a couple of weeks that he died.

I was also shocked by a little accident: I have accompanied the wife of one of them home from the fair. We stopped for a second to find out the right direction and a watchman with a huge cudgel started running towards us. The lady knew the situation was dangerous, she just shouted: drive away quickly! I learnt: in an orthodox Arab country do not sit in a car with a lady.

In spite of this ridiculous case I do not believe the sentiments against the weaker sex are that bad. Bad enough though, they rarely appear on the scene during meetings of men, you can mostly see only the hands of ladies handing over the dishes to the lord and master of the house, or to the "internal" servant.

Khadafi is known today as one of the worst dictators. The conversion was surprisingly quick. It started probably with the introduction of  Islamic laws. Rumours said that the executions of cutting off the hand of tiefs was done in "human way", the hands were cut in hospitals, by doctors!(?) It was also known that Khadafi was fighting against bureaucracy in quite a strange way: he ordered to throw out of offices chairs. Officers were obliged to work standing. Who knows? Is it not a good idea? Then he started thinking of himself as of the only source of wisdom and truth. And this is the end. In spite of all this stupidity the Arab world has to thank him - if I got correct information - for the quick rise of their standard of living. He was the one who organised co-operation among the oil-producing Arab countries, advising them to use their power as suppliers of this "gold" to permanently increase the price of oil. He also made attempts to unite at least some Arab countries, but failed. Dictator? Yes. But at the same time dreamer.

Libyans were very much proud of themselves. Whoever I met was absolutely sure that Libyans do not commit crimes. Thefts are committed by Arabs from the neighbouring countries. This belief was so strong, it was impossible not to believe.

Most of Arabs I met in Libya were very nice. Even simple officers in the customs office or waiters in restaurants treated you as their friend as soon as you learnt saying a few words in Arab or - even better - some Arab gestures, like greeting with your hand. Nice, really nice. I never forget two Palestinians I got in touch with in Tripoli: a bank official and a surgeon. I have mentioned them in another page of this site (United States of America), I quote myself: 

  • The head of department of Barclays Bank in Tripoli of Lybia, who handled the account of the Hungarian pavilion, was a Palestinian. A short man of middle age with bald head came always to the counter from somewhere behind, whenever I appeared on the scene, smiling and making my life with them easy. When the time of my departure drew near, he invited for a barbecue and presented me with a wall-carpet. Whenever I look at it, I see his friendly face and bald head, an unforgettable Arab.
  • I underwent my second haemorrhoidectomy in Tripoli. The physician proved to be Palestinian, he was excellent, in comparison with the Hungarian hospital, where I was first operated, his method was more modern, the process of healing much quicker. I was surprised in a very positive sense.

The colour of my skin - which is Gipsy-like - probably made easier for me to establish friendly contacts with     Arabs. I was quite often mistaken for Arab. Once a young man approached me talking to me in Arabic and did not believe I could not understand him. I wish i could.

I was advised by my Hungarian-American friends to make a trip to Sahara. I made myself free for half a day and drove a distance of around 150 kms (if I am not wrong) through exciting mountains. Parts of them looked almost exactly like the canyons in America. Small villages decorated the road. I had to drive through one of them on a serpentine, drove slowly and could watch the inhabitants sitting and chatting at miniature cafés. The Sahara itself was a surprise to me. I expected huge flat surfaces covered by sand, but found instead small hills of reddish stones and only small dune-like parts in between. The road after I left the mountains ceased to have firm asphalt on it, it was just a rolled strip of the stone-desert. I could hardly drive my car because of the rough vibration of the steering-wheel, until I noticed that Arabs drive their cars fast. The vibration ceased above 90 km/hour, when I did the same.

One of my bosses visited the fair and was complaining about the cold. Yes, it was cold: the fair lased a month from the first days of March, but I spent one month preparing, organising the fair. When you arrive to Tripoli and settle down in a hotel that is built of stone and marble and is not heated, you definitely start shivering. And it was cold in the mountains as well.

Gibli: sand-storm. It has different names region-wise in the Arab world, this is how they call it in Libya. Strange and frightening! Arabs know or feel in advance, warn you: do not go out of the city, this is the time of gibli. Next day you get up and do not understand the light: it is veiled as if you have a yellow curtain on the window. You go out and find that the horizon is bright, but hazy: the sun is unable to break the barrier of the sand-cloud. When it raises its head above the skyline, it looks like a pale moon. You still do not understand much, because everything seems to be quiet. But in an hour or so the wind appears on the scene and changes the whole atmosphere: it covers the buildings with a kind of yellowish-red curtain, you cannot open your eyes, because the sand hurts them, the sand is grinding between your teeth: you turn and run back home and find your room and furniture covered with thin layer of reddish sand. This gibli lasts three-four days. My first visit to Leptis Magna took place on the third day of a gibli, I simply did not have other opportunity. The air was still full of powder. My colleagues were hesitating to join me, but finally we started. As soon as we left Tripoli, we were blocked, because quite strong wind blew and carried red sand across the road, we could hardly see the road at first, then the road became covered and invisible. I stopped and we could do nothing, except waiting for a more lucky moment. We continued our trip only after Arab cars appeared from the opposite direction, like ghosts from dark fog. I do not advise anyone to joke with gibli.

I almost forgot to write a few words about suk (souk?), the fantastic market of East. It existed in Tripoli as well, an exciting market of antiques, curiosities, textiles, leather goods, wooden fabrics, grass goods, books and gold. Gold in unbelievable quantity and variety. I shall never forget that when I could not find the gold pendant I intended to purchase, the owner of the miniature shop left me alone in the middle of a ton of gold, went to one of his neighbours, came back after five minutes or so with the pendant of my taste. I got frightened, thinking that it was a provocation: he would come back saying that something was missing from his shop. European (East European?) life-experience? I also succeeded in purchasing a Coran in both Arabic and English "from under the counter", I was warned not to show or tell anyone in Libya, because it was forbidden to sell the saint book to giaours. (What a surprising reading: the difference between Coran and the catholic Bible seems to be negligible. In the name of what have millions of innocent people been killed during religious wars??) I know the suk was later converted into modern shopping centre, which I hate everywhere: it spoils the game of shopping. The suk was just one of the victims of changing the life of a modern, gay city into an orthodox centre of Islam. The famous casino and brothels were already closed.

Life in Tripoli otherwise was enjoyable, with Italian-type small restaurants. You step in a narrow room, say "marhaba sidi, kif halek", sit at a table and in two minutes salad and drinkable water are put in front of you. Only after that are you asked about your further wishes. Some of the dishes were good and - in spite of strict prohibition, if I remember well -, beer was usually served. The prohibition reminds me that the government made a mistake in extending quotas to diplomats and other foreigners specifying the allowed quantity in bottles. The size of bottles quickly rose to two, five and then even to 10 litres. I also recall a case when I decided to try Arab tea, served at road-side by a dirty-looking, crouching chap. The tea was served in a ceramic cup of 2-3 cm3, extremely strong, blackish. After some 20 minutes my heart-beat doubled, the first and last time in my life. 

The team of our pavilion did not like a lot of phenomena, starting from the lack of punctuality, the slow handling of our goods, the proud behaviour of Libyans and - to my surprise - the fact that street-guides and other names in foreign languages have just been removed. Why is everything exclusively in Arabic?- I was often asked. These questions were stupid: the same question could be asked in Hungary at that time: why is everything in Hungarian in Hungary? Not talking about the expression - late expression - of being independent from foreign, colonial powers.

The importance of this fact is expressed also by an interesting monument: if you leave the old city, you will clash into a tombstone, erected on the right side of the road, into the last victim of Italians: a Libyan trampled by an Italian tank that was leaving Libya for good. If you have a look at the pictures of the Italian occupation (below), you will understand the importance of that moment. 


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