Tripoli, April 15 2021: Built by the Phoenicians back in the 7th century, Tripoli’s Old City has passed through the periods of Roman, Greek and Ottoman civilizations, but it has been in a state of disrepair and neglect under ex-dictator Moamer Qaddafi and his decision to ban private sector-led development in the late 1970s, rendering ancient knowledge obsolete as long resident families and owners of workshops drifted away.
Now the tide has turned for the sprawling 50 hectares of architectural treasures and criss-crossing alleys as under a UN backed new Prime Minister, Abdulhamid Ddeibah, restoration and construction crews work to restore the ancient buildings and preserve the heritage. There are plenty of wheelbarrows in sight, workers busy hammering away, pausing only for the call to prayer. The substantial restoration underway seeks to “preserve the heritage of the Old City” in Tripoli, said Mahmoud al-Naas, head of the management committee overseeing the enormous project. The project, funded largely by the state, comes as Libya is undergoing a tentative political renewal.
Unlike in the past, when restoration work largely unsupervised and focused on repair rather than preservation, this latest effort bans cement and concrete, wherever possible. Lime-based mixtures are used to generate an authentic look during plastering, while basalt cobblestones replace asphalt streets.
Squatters who for many years occupied numerous abandoned buildings have been moved on, often leaving their own haphazard building work or ruins in their wake. In some places, the walls of old buildings awaiting facelifts are bolstered by wooden beams that extend across alleyways like bridges.
Bemoaning the gradual decline of the past decades, a seller, Hajj Mokhtar says, “So many trades just vanished.”
Looking to a brighter future, Mohamad al-Ghariani, 76, an artist and painter who owns a gallery in the sector, said the ongoing “improvements… revive the soul of the city that we knew as children” he said, pointing with enthusiasm to the restoration of a cultural centre for children. The Dar Krista, built in 1977, and named after renowned Tripolitan artist Abdallah Krista, sits within a group of buildings originally erected in 1664 by Osman Pasha Karamalli, descendant of the Ottoman dynasty.
Another part of the complex redolent of the Mediterranean old city charm, houses the Greek Orthodox St. George, the oldest Orthodox church in North Africa, alongside a so-called Turkish prison, built in 1664 by Osman Pasha to hold Christians captured by the Ottomans.
The gold and silk markets with their covered alleyways have withstood the ravages of time. The Arch of Marcus Aurelius and Gurgi Mosque situated in forsaken corners that up until lately served as open dumps have morphed into huge construction sites overseen by architects, historians, specialist tradesmen and artists. The waterfront now boasts pavements and completed roads.
The Old City restoration and facelift mirrors revival of political progress in the conflict-wracked country. Dbeibah’s new government replaced two rival administrations based in Tripoli and the country’s east, which is loyal to Khalifa Haftar, a military strongman but failed to capture Tripoli in a 2019 attempt.
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