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Tripoli the Mysterious by Mabel Loomis Todd (1912)

WHEN THE ITALIANS arrived at Tripoli in 1911, many foreign workers left behind a country and life they adored so much. The white streets of Libya’s capital echoed with Arabic, Hebrew, Modern Greek, Turkish, Maltese and French. It was a melting pot, attracting folk who had no particular correspondence to each other. Cultures lived side by side, but Libyan traditions remained prominent and were respected by all.

Tripoli the MysteriousAt the time of writing, Mabel Loomis Todd claims there were only 12 English native speakers who permanently lived in the city. This was pre World War I, and the same year the Titanic left Southampton. As claimed in the book’s introduction, Tripoli provided endless possibilities for visitors and inhabitants alike. In a tone of disappointment, Todd writes: “In spite of months of residence there and constant eagerness for all its enchanting phases, I bring only an incomplete picture of the extraordinary region as I saw it, though drawn with a loving and appreciative hand.”

She lived in Libya twice to observe eclipses from  the British Consulate, and takes us on an extraordinary journey into the history of music, art, food, life and politics within the walls of the city and beyond the rooftops. The 1900 & 1905 eclipses are landmarks in her Oriental experience. Under these twenty seconds of darkness, religion, culture and ethnicity disappeared along with the sun. The sound of applause erupted across Tripoli. Being confronted with the greatness of our mechanical universe is always a humbling experience. It should allow us to see that we are all equal under the sun as well as in darkness.

Todd explains the difficulties of organising astronomy equipment in a world where Muslims – or Mohammedans – don’t work on Friday, the Jewish Sabbath is on Saturday, and Westerners are not keen on breaking Sunday as a day of rest. Fascinating descriptions of differing Arab religious wedding ceremonies are also allocated chapters, explaining intricacies, similarities and differences. Perhaps the most astonishing thing is the harmony that existed between different cultures and religions. This isn’t to say Tripoli 100 years ago was a utopia without difficulties, but a comparison with its contemporary raises allsorts of awareness. The image of Phoenician Monks, Rabbis, Imams, Nuns and Priests strolling the same streets can teach us something about acceptance and tolerance.

Tripoli the Mysterious contrasts the chaotic, pleasant life in the city with the subtle ambience that entrenched the shadows of 1900’s Tripoli. This book should also be acknowledged for documenting a brief and informative history of the city – from the birth of Emperor Lucius Septimius Severus at Leptis Magna in 146 AD, up to the Ottoman Pashas who ruled Tripoli until the Italian invasion.

When reading books on a Libya that once was, it is important not to dwell on the current political instability of the country. What one must do is be reminded of the greatness that existed during certain times, and hold on to the potential Libya holds to be a great nation, welcoming foreigners and providing prosperity for residents alike.

“Whatever it may have been, Tripoli was a city of enchantment, white as dreams of Paradise, fringed by palms and olives, and steeped in memories of the centuries.”