By Marie-Louise Gumuchian
Deep inside Libya’s western Nafusa Mountains, some 10 meters into the ground, Al-Arabi Belhaj is preparing mint tea in a somewhat unusual dwelling.
“This house was dug out in 1666 and generations of families have lived here. I was born here and there used to be eight families living together,” he said as he poured the tea from one pot to another to cool it.
Belhaj spent the first 10 years of his life in this home, dug vertically into the ground by his ancestors, who excavated caves around a central squared courtyard. Each room housed a family with cooking areas – smaller caves – used communally.
Decorated with traditional Berber designs – colorful rugs, chests and pottery, each 10 meter-long cave, was split into three sections – the parents’ sleeping area, the children’s bedding and a living room.
Gharyan, some 100 kms (62 miles) south of the capital Tripoli, used to have hundreds such homes scattered among its rocky mountains. But many have been abandoned as their inhabitants have moved to more modern houses.
Belhaj and his family maintained theirs and opened it up to tourists several years ago. Before Libya’s 2011 war, foreign visitors would sleep in the rooms and eat home-cooked meals – usually couscous – for 100 Libyan dinars ($77).
They now plan to open a hotel next year, excavating more rooms within the caves, in the hope that foreign holiday makers will eventually come back to Libya provided security in the North African country – still awash with weapons – improves.
Keen to learn about the ancestral dwellings, he said families from Tripoli, Benghazi in the east as well as other cities usually visit during the weekend. Seeing such homes for the first time, many take pictures among the traditional rugs, clothing and pots that are laid out around the caves.
Others inspect old shoes that hang on the white walls inside the courtyard, which is decorated with potted plants and accessed via a tunneled passageway.
(Editing by Paul Casciato)
Marie-Louise Gumuchian – international news at the media outlet’s London bureau
Photo – A view of a troglodyte cave house in the western mountain town of Gharyan, 100 km (62 miles) south of Tripoli, June 15, 2013. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny