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Qasr Al-Haj Granary (Libya)

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Country: Libya / World Region: Africa

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      16.05.2010 19:43
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      Awesome building and so much more than I expected

      On the first full day of our holiday in Libya we spent the morning at the National Museum, had lunch in the souk and then met up with the rest of our tour group to start our exploration of Libya. Our main bus had been despatched to drive to Benghazi and meet us there the next day so we were loaned a spare bus, almost entirely indistinguishable from the first one except for the presence of a slightly different driver. We also at this point acquired our 'Security Man'. It was a mystery throughout our trip why we needed 'Mohammed the Security Man' and we were never sure whether he was there to protect us from Libya or to protect Libya from us. He didn't give the impression of being particularly capable of either role (but that might have been because he looked a bit too much like my cousin Steve who's useless) and we never were sure if he spoke or understood English. However his presence in his unfashionable gingery brown leather jacket (regardless of the temperature) with the bulging inner pocket was intended to reassure someone that everything was all right with the world. He settled in at the front of the bus with the driver and we all grabbed seats in the back.

      When I was a student I spent a summer going around North America on Greyhound buses. I learned the art of sleeping in vehicles because I never knew what sort of disastrous hovel I might be spending the night in or whether I'd be able to sleep. The skill stays with me to this day. No sooner does an engine fire up than I start to drop off. For this reason I find it very difficult to tell you how long it took to get to Qasr Al Haj or how far it was from Tripoli other than '50 pages of quite a good book and a long snooze'. Google maps lead me to conclude that it's about 230 km but Libya has really good roads so you'll barely notice them passing by.

      On the way we were briefly woken by the tour guide telling us we were passing through a village that's allegedly in the Guinness (some irony in an alcohol free land) Book of World Records for recording the highest ever temperatures which was a little hard to believe since the weather was decidedly grey and drizzly outside. Greenierexyboy claims he knows the name of that village but I've not yet called his bluff to find out if it's true.

      ~You Woke me for WHAT?~

      Due to my tendency to snooze and my mistake of neither buying a guide book nor printing off the tour itinerary, a lot of things on this trip did rather sneak up on me unexpectedly. As my husband shook me awake a couple of minutes before we arrived at Qasr al Haj, I shrugged and grunted unappreciatively. "What did you wake me for? A Granary? You can't be serious" but he poked me again until I grabbed my camera and grudgingly got off the bus.

      Let's be honest, would you get excited by being told you're going to a granary? Mostly the answer would be "No" although there is a lovely one in Fez or Meknes or some such place in Morocco that I really enjoyed a few years ago. What if I told you it was 800 years old? Yes, that sounds a bit more interesting.

      ~Fantastic Fantasy Building~

      As I stepped out of the bus, the rain stopped and the sun burst out from behind a cloud. In front of me rising like a massive cruise ship in the middle of the ocean (but brown and with no sea obviously) was an enormous round building. Imagine the Coliseum in Rome but covered in baked red mud and you'll get a rough idea. Inside things got even more bizarre. The construction was a large ring shaped building - I confess I thought "Donut'. It's a giant red donut!" It looked like something from the Star Wars village crossed with a funky student hall of residence.

      There were dozens of roughly shaped door ways - some with, most without, wooden doors. In total there are 104 separate chambers. I didn't count them, I looked it up when I got home and learned that this is apparently the same as the number of chapters in the Koran. Mind you, that might be a complete lie as another site claims there are 114. Personally I don't think it matters. There were lots.

      It looked like a collection of little bedsits in some kind of defensive castle. I imagined early American settlers in their wagons forming a ring to defend against marauding tribes of natives hell-bent on stealing their horses - but much much bigger. This would make a great fortress, I thought.

      ~Nomadic Self-Store~

      But hang on a minute - fortress, student dorm, what was I thinking of. This was nothing of the type. Each of the little 'rooms' was the storage space of one family from the ancient village. Today the village is small with few families but way back in time, this granary stored and protected the food and provisions of a large number of people. And because many of the people were semi-nomadic and didn't stay in one place all the time, they needed a secure place to leave their grain and their valuables whilst they went off wandering. A bit like those out of town storage places you find springing up all over the place these days where you can store your things once your house is too full and you're too attached to your old junk to just take it to Oxfam or the recycling centre. Wooden posts stuck out of the walls on the upper levels for the village folk to hoist their goodies up to the higher levels for storage. A few very rough looking ladders were propped around the walls.

      ~Vertigo Time~

      A single set of carved steps led up to the upper level of the granary. I went straight up knowing my husband would freak and imagine me falling off the moment he saw me. Only when I stood at the top did I take in the fact that it was very rough underfoot and there was nothing to stop me stepping straight off the edge and straight into the hospital. It was a health and safety nightmare of the sort that has your holiday insurance company shaking their heads and pointing out the clause on page 4 of the policy that says you aren't supposed to do anything REALLY stupid. From the top I couldn't actually look out over the walls but I could see the peaks of mountains in the distance and more importantly I could see that getting down might be tougher than getting up had been. And if you are a bit unstable on your feet, I strongly urge you to stay on the ground floor and not go up to the top.

      ~The Donut Hole~

      The central space inside the granary is large and there's very little in there. The research I've managed to do since I got home suggests that this might have been used as a market place for people to trade their goods, and gave ample space for everyone to hide inside - probably with their animals - in the event of any need to defend themselves. Aside from the one door on the outside, it's a pretty impenetrable looking place. There are a few odd stones that looked like millstones and a few old pots. It was, without question, one of the strangest buildings I've ever visited.

      ~I was just passing.....~

      In case you are wondering, there's absolutely nothing anywhere near Qasr al Haj. There's nowhere to stay, nowhere to eat and I doubt you'll find a public toilet or a cup of coffee within an hour. You won't find a cold beer in the entire country. I don't think we paid anything to go inside although there might have been a small transaction between our tour leader and the granary caretaker, but if that did happen, we saw nothing. There's certainly no ticket booth or souvenir stall!

      Your best chance of seeing the granary will be on some kind of organised tour - which as luck would have it, is probably the only way that the Libyan authorities will let you into the country, so it shouldn't be too much of a problem.

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