Tripoli: The Old City of Libya

Tripoli: The Old City of Libya Last updated on Thursday 22nd April 2010

Tripoli Medina is an ancient walled city, dating from Roman times. Its high walls were originally built on the landward side to repel attacks from the interior, and these survived many invasions throughout the centuries.

The city's sea-facing wall is less ancient, however, as it was built in the 8th century by Tripoli's Muslim ruler.

There are three large gates built into the city walls: Bab Zanata on the western side, Bab Hawara on the southeastern side, and Bab al-Bahr on the northern side.

The city's basic street plan is Roman in design and consists of many narrow, criss-cross streets and small, blind alleyways. The latter were often useful to confuse would-be attackers, and to seal off areas used by extended families. Through roads in the old city are mostly unroofed, but with the buildings supported at intervals by buttresses, which also serve to shade the pedestrian from the sun.

Windows facing on to the public street are disappointingly plain, to curb the interest of the curious and to maintain the privacy much prized by all Middle Eastern families. Interior doors, windows and courtyards are, however, much more ornate, with beautiful archways in both Roman and Islamic style, and much elaborate tile, wood and plasterwork.

The old city contains seven beautiful mosques, featuring much impressive architectural detail. The castle, known as Al-Saraya al-Hamra is located on a pre-Roman site in the eastern section of the old city, and dominates the Tripoli skyline. This was once the residence of the ruling families, and contains both public and private quarters, including a large harem, where the women of the family were segregated from the outside world.

In the days when Tripoli was filled with merchants and camel caravans plying the Saharan trade routes, the old city was the site of several large inns, known as serais or funduqs. Here, merchants lodged with their goods and camels, in accommodation surrounding a large courtyard. Several of these serais are still in existence today. They are considerably less ornate in their decoration than the private houses, but still provide interesting insights into the customs of a bygone age.

After Libyan independence in 1951, many traditional families moved out of the old city to occupy houses and apartments formerly used by the departing Italian population. These newer houses were equipped with better sanitation, water supply and other facilities, and the houses in the old city were left abandoned. Most fell into a sorry state of disrepair, as a result of neglect and encroaching damp, and by the mid-1970s, these fragile and beautiful buildings lay in ruins. A project to restore key buildings and to chronicle the city's history was then inaugurated by the Libyan authorities. This has been undertaken very successfully, with the result that the main mosques, synagogues and consular houses in the old city have been fully restored to their former glories. A research workshop and library have also been established in the old city.

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