Hope Amid Ruins: Clues To The Future In Libya's Past

In the lush Green Mountains above the eastern Libyan city of Derna sit the  ancient ruins of Cyrene. They are among the most magnificent Hellenic  ruins outside Greece. The place is a bit of a refuge for Libyans, who come here to picnic, relax and enjoy the cool breezes.

In the lush Green Mountains above the eastern Libyan city of Derna sit the ancient ruins of Cyrene. They are among the most magnificent Hellenic ruins outside Greece. The place is a bit of a refuge for Libyans, who come here to picnic, relax and enjoy the cool breezes. Peter Breslow/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Peter Breslow/NPR

Much of the news broadcast from Libya these days features the ungentle sounds of war. But even in the throes of the Libyan uprising, oases of calm can be found.

One of these is Cyrene, looming over the Mediterranean on a limestone plateau in the lush Jebel Akhdar, or Green Mountains, of eastern Libya. Historians consider Cyrene one of the most impressive Hellenic ruins outside Greece.

For much of its history, the country we now call Libya was known as Tripolitania in the west, Cyrenaica in the east and Fezzan in the south. Those names still appear on some modern maps. On a recent afternoon, some Libyans here were wondering if such a division might be in their future, as well as their past.

The ancient city looms over the Mediterranean. i i

The ancient city looms over the Mediterranean. Peter Breslow/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Peter Breslow/NPR
The ancient city looms over the Mediterranean.

The ancient city looms over the Mediterranean.

Peter Breslow/NPR

Relaxing with his family amid the imposing Greco-Roman ruins, a tall young man from Brega, the scene of fierce fighting recently, is reluctant to give his name. Finally, he settles on "Abu Nidal," which might be a reference to the well-known Palestinian militant, or might simply mean "father of the struggle."

He says that after the safety of his children, his main fear these days is that Libya will not survive this conflict intact.

"Yes, Libya could split again," he says. "There are indications. Maybe 70 to 80 years ago, Libya was divided into provinces, and that idea is embedded within us. As modern Libyans," he adds, "we are rejecting this idea. We want it to remain one Libya."

The Excitement Of The Digs

As visitors enter Cyrene, they're greeted by an old man in blue robes with a ready laugh and an ear-to-ear grin that reveals four missing front teeth. Dr. Mayaar tries out his rusty English, picked up during his long-ago archaeological studies here and in Europe.

"Archaeologist, specialist, before — now, I am sleeping!" he says, laughing.

Mayaar remembers the excitement of the archaeological digs, uncovering evidence of an advanced society dating from more than 600 years before Christ.

After the Greeks came the Romans, the Byzantines, the Muslims, the Christians — war upon war, monuments erected on the ruins of their predecessors. So what does Mayaar make of the latest battle, the one to unseat Moammar Gadhafi?

"He's a tyrant ruler," Mayaar says. "We couldn't breathe. There was nothing. We didn't have money, we didn't have houses, we didn't have women — we didn't have the money to get married."

An Escape From The Front Lines

In recent weeks, Mayaar has seen a spike in visitors from Ras Lanuf, Brega, Ajdabiya — cities where civilians have fled the unpredictable front line in this conflict. But he says the battle is never far from his thoughts.

Dr. Mayaar, an archaeologist, worked for decades at the ancient Greek ruins in Cyrene. He says if the Greeks or Romans were still around, they would have dealt swiftly with Moammar Gadhafi: "They would have killed him immediately." i i

Dr. Mayaar, an archaeologist, worked for decades at the ancient Greek ruins in Cyrene. He says if the Greeks or Romans were still around, they would have dealt swiftly with Moammar Gadhafi: "They would have killed him immediately." Peter Breslow /NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Peter Breslow /NPR
Dr. Mayaar, an archaeologist, worked for decades at the ancient Greek ruins in Cyrene. He says if the Greeks or Romans were still around, they would have dealt swiftly with Moammar Gadhafi: "They would have killed him immediately."

Dr. Mayaar, an archaeologist, worked for decades at the ancient Greek ruins in Cyrene. He says if the Greeks or Romans were still around, they would have dealt swiftly with Moammar Gadhafi: "They would have killed him immediately."

Peter Breslow /NPR

"They are far away from us, but our children are fighting on the front lines," he says. "I have four sons; two or three of them are fighting with the rebels."

At the moment, however, Gadhafi and his sons show no sign of leaving, prompting Mayaar to wish the Greeks or Romans were around to hand out some swift, old-school justice. "They would have killed him immediately," he says.

Surrounded by the remnants of a civilization that yielded profound contributions to the arts, poetry, medicine, philosophy and government, Libyans are aiming a good deal lower when they have time to wonder what they might be able to build if and when Gadhafi leaves.

Mayaar, long since retired, says he's still holding out hope for the future.

"A lot will change," he says. "I'll be free; I'll get my life back. God willing, we will be independent, and things will be stable. We'll have things like archaeology and tourism again."

Homer wrote that "men grow tired of sleep, love, singing and dancing sooner than war." Libyans are growing weary of this war — but many say they're determined to find out whether a new country can be built atop the ruins of Gadhafi's authoritarian state.

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