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Friday, November 05, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Ancient places, modern dreams, in Libyan town

By Niko Price
The Associated Press

SUSAN SPANO / LOS ANGELES TIMES
The 2,000-year-old Roman ruins of Sabratha, near the capital of Tripoli, are among Libya's well-preserved archaeological sites.
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NWsource: Travel

GHADAMES, Libya — Hassan Hudana has a small hotel and a big dream.

His 14 ratty rooms are among the most luxurious accommodations for visitors to this ancient town of mud houses and dark, twisting passageways. But the lobby makes clear he hopes to change that very soon.

In a glass case sits a plastic model of the hotel Hudana wants to build, a sprawling complex of luxury suites, restaurants and shopping mall, with a swimming pool, tennis courts and a sauna. Hudana is meeting with Italian and German investors in the hopes of getting his project off the ground. He needs money, he says, and marketing advice. Tourists, he says, aren't a problem.

Since the Libyan government of Moammar Gadhafi began its campaign to open its doors to the outside world, renouncing terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, European travelers have flooded into Libya on cheap package tours. Earlier this year, the United States lifted 23-year-old restrictions on Americans traveling to Libya imposed because of the government's sponsorship of terrorism.

Bring on the tourists

Libyans eagerly await jumbo jets filled with tourists, hoping they can infuse money into the struggling economy. Many also hope the visitors will bring new ideas, and pressure the government to open up even more.

From a tourist's point of view, Libya has much to offer.

Its Roman ruins rival those found in Italy. But there's much more. Libya boasts the ruins of ancient Greek outposts, Phoenician settlements and Berber cities. It has mountaintop castles and desert oases. Its Mediterranean beaches are unspoiled, and new construction in major cities will bring high-class hotels.

Wandering the near-deserted ruins of Leptis Magna, one can imagine the Romans and Phoenicians who lived amid the coastal structures from 49 B.C. to A.D. 800.
 
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A magnificent archway — limestone covered in marble — commemorates a visit by Emperor Septimus Severus, who was born in Leptis Magnus in A.D. 145. A monumental amphitheater with seating for more than 5,000 still has astounding acoustics. Farther inland, where imposing mountains meet the desert, the town of Nalut boasts a castle carved into a rocky peak. Built 800 years ago, it features seven stories of caves where people stored food to protect it from raiding enemies.

Challenging climb

Precarious stairs snake up the walls to the 500 rooms, many of which still have jars of olive oil built into their floors. Quranic verses are written in bas-relief on the ceilings.

Entering the desert, visitors pass herds of camels galloping across the lonesome highway. Vegetation gives way to gravelly scrub, which gives way to rolling sand dunes as visitors enter the Sahara desert. The desert town of Ghadames is built at an oasis, where springs sustain life. Its oldest buildings are made of dried mud, with an intricate system of underground canals that send water bubbling up in squares to offer welcome respite from the heat.

Narrow passageways wind through the town; another network of interconnected balconies allowed women to move about town from roof to roof, so the men in the streets below wouldn't see them.

Despite its splendor, few people see Ghadames. In 2003, only 600 tourists arrived, says Najmadeen Salam Hoda, who works for the government tourist office. "We're planning direct flights from Paris to Ghadames," Hoda said. He added sadly: "But not yet."

That doesn't mean Ghadames is isolated from the outside world. Hoda and his teenage sons piled into his Mitsubishi Lancer.

One son flipped on the cassette player and decidedly modern music filled the ancient square.

Asked what he's listening to, the boy responded in English. "Rap. I think it's Shaggy."

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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