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July 25, 2014, 6:26 pm

Libya is a destination with several cachets – coastal ruins that date back centuries, incomparable desert terrain and a political landscape that makes this country a destination for only the most adventurous, or the most foolhardy.

Capital city – Tripoli, Population – 5.9 Million, Area – 1.8 million sq km, Language – Arabic

Landscape: Libya, Africa’s fourth largest country, is dominated by the Sahara-plateaus of rock scoured by sandy winds and sand seas larger than many a small European country. The country also does a good line in mountains, with no fewer than three mountain ranges: the jebel Acacus in the remote southwest, the jebel nafusa in the northwest and the north eastern jebel akhdar (Green Mountains), which drop steeply into the Mediterranean.

History: Until about 4000 years ago, the Libyan Sahara was a temperate paradise of vast inland lakes and forests. Northern Libya later became a playground and battleground for the great empires of antiquity-Punic, Roma, Greek and Byzantine – while the home grown and highly civilized Garamantes made the desert bloom in the south. In 643, however, Islam swept all before it, and a succession of Islamic dynasties, including the Ottoman Empire, ruled Libya until the Italian arrived in the 20th century.

During World War 2 Libya again became a battle ground for other countries’ wars, before the British brought Italian Colonial rule to a close. The country achieved Independence in 1951, but Libyans had to wait until 1969 for young Colonel Muammer Gaddafi to arrive on the scene-his regime at once eccentric and authoritarian-wore many guises, from international pariah to responsible world citizen, before it was desposed off by the momentum of Arab Spring. The country continues to remain in a political and security flux nearly two and half years after the removal of Gaddafi regime.

People:  Libya is one of Africa's most homogeneous nations: 97 percent of its people are of Arab or Berber origin. Other small groups include the Tuareg, the indigenous people of the Sahara, and the Toubou. More than 95 percent of the population are Sunni Muslims and up to 90 percent of Libyans live in urban centers.

Marketplace: Libya is one of Africa's largest oil producers, and oil has propelled the country from grinding 1950s poverty to its one-time status as Africa's richest country. As a result, Libyans enjoy a highly respectable per capita GDP of US$11,400 (compared to US$900 in neighboring Niger). But pity the day that Libya runs out of oil: although there are reserves of natural gas for export, 75 per cent of its food is imported. Oil is what keeps the nation afloat, and amounts to a staggering 95 per cent of exports.

Natural Beauty: The Libyan Sahara is the desert you thought existed only in the imagination. In the country's south, the Ubari and Murzuk Sand Seas are daily sculpted by the wind into splendid shapes. In the former are the Ubari Lakes, surrounded by soaring sand dunes and swaying palm trees - a miracle of water in the desert's heart. In the southwest, the Jebel Acacus consists of towering stone monoliths rising from the sands; the east boasts the black aftermath of the long-extinct volcanoes of Waw al-Namus and Haruj al-Aswad.

Random facts:
Deserts cover 95 percent of the country.
Twenty percent is covered by sand dunes.
A quarter of the population died as a direct result of Italy's colonial rule.

Urban Scene: Tripoli has long been known as the ‘White Bride of the Mediterranean’ – it is one of North Africa’s prettiest cities. The Ottoman-era medina is a secret world of souqs and labyrinthine lanes which conceal the grand mansions of colonial times behind high white walls. There is 1st-century AD Roman triumphal arch, and lording it over all is Tripoli’s Red Castle, a sturdy fortress which once hosed one of the best museums in Africa. But it is in the evening that Tripoli is most seductive, when the breeze sweeps in off the sea and you all the city’s fine restaurants to choose from.

Libya’s Great Man-Made River: Libya has plenty of oil but a critical shortage of water. Colonel Gaddafi's solution was to use the revenues of the former to pipe water from the vast underground reservoirs beneath the Sahara to Libya's thirsty coastal cities — and then call it the 'Eighth Wonder of the World'. One of the most ambitious infrastructure projects anywhere in the world, Libya’s Great Man-Made River will outlive its creator-though not by much. The water, some of which has been beneath the desert for 38,000 years, is expected to disappear in around 50 years, just as Libya’s oil reserves run dry.

Tuareg Origins: The nomadic Tuareg people of the Sahara were originally Berbers from the Libyan oasis of Awjila, but the arrival of Arab armies in the 7th century and the 11th-century invasion by 200,000 Arab families drove many Berbers deeper into the desert where, over the centuries, they became known as Tuareg. All Tuareg, whether in Libya, Algeria or Niger, claim descent from a single woman of noble birth named Lemtuna, the same ancestress claimed by the Berbers of Ghadames.

Essential Experience:
Wandering through Leptis Magna, the best-preserved Roman city in Africa
Getting lost in the labyrinth in the wonderful Saharan oasis of Ghadames
Rubbing shoulders with Zeus in the Graeco-Roman ruins of Cyrene
Discovering 12,000-year-old rock art deep in the desert massif of the Jebel Acacus
Meandering through the medina in Tripoli with its whitewashed architecture and refreshingly nonexistent sales pitch
Falling off the end of the earth at the remote black-sand volcano of Waw al-Namus

Best Time to Visit: Nov-March

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