As you make your way up the mountain slope from the Ayyat well southwest of the Libyan capital of Tripoli, using the Yafran Chalioni (the mountain passageway), a rugged landscape welcomes you on the right, with jagged rocks and trees. You’ll soon find the mountain city of Yafran sculpted on the mountain ridges, with peaceful residents and joyful natural colours.
Yafran, at the foot of Nafusa Mountain, is inhabited by the Amazigh people. Buildings are divided between dull modern cube-shaped houses and beautiful old homes. On the way to the city centre, there are cultural monuments like the Nana Zorgh Mausoleum, the Yafran Hotel with its beautiful combination of Italian and local architecture – Italy spread hotels around the mountains in the 1930s to attract tourists – and the old castle.
Kosbah is perhaps Yafran’s oldest village; here and in the villages of Tqarbast, Qusayr, Tagmeh and Aghram, people of Amazigh, Arab, Jewish and Sanhaja origin live side by side. Kosbah is known for its adjoining houses and narrow streets that only allow one car to pass. There are olive trees scattered around, overlooking the slopes of the city.
Esleen House has three sections, one of which is Damus (which means ‘stone-carved house’). Another is a 200-year-old building built by the ancestors of the famed Madi family, where all the brothers with their wives and children used to live. The third section is the collapsed part of the house, which is now just ruins.
“The house was deserted for a few years and the family decided to renovate it in the 1960s,” says Tachvin Madi, one of the family members taking care of the house. “The family, as part of its personal efforts, renovated the house’s rooms and court. They made the rooms into a museum that replicates the lives of their grandparents, from the shape of the bedrooms and living rooms to everyday equipment and the loom. In addition to making one of the rooms into a shop for traditional industries, Damus was equipped and renovated to become a guest house.”
“The house was originally a place where family members gathered together, and now it has become a shrine to the authenticity of the Amazigh civilisation in Libya in general and in the mountains in particular. We also see it as an additional source of family income.”
Tachvin tells us that Esleen in the Amazigh language means a type of compact granite stone often found in Kosbah, which may translate the relationship of the name of the house to this stone’s features. The upper part of the house seems to have been built with different stone than that we use nowadays, or that which the inhabitants of Tripoli used to build their homes for more than 200 years.
The house is amazing. The upper section consists of several rooms, with a kitchen and a bathroom. The kitchen has a small storage section in its floor. The longitudinal chambers are about two and a half metres wide and about three times longer than that. They are divided into two or three rooms – a dormitory with a bed, a family meeting place or possibly a storehouse, and a link space between them containing mattresses, old furniture and ornaments. Some of these rooms are hidden inside the walls of the room to look as if they have suddenly emerged from it.
Tachvin explains this phenomenon to me: “The house was not inhabited by only one family, but more than that. Each family had its own part, where there was a dormitory, a sitting room and so on. It seems that the women of the family were engaged in traditional knitting, using the vertical loom in the most spacious rooms in the section.”
One of the house rooms has become a gift shop selling ornaments, jewellery, old tools and delicious and authentic raisins, loussah and bassissah. There are some pictures and paintings depicting Amazigh life and the mountain ruins in Yafran, as well as jars, household tools and other things reflecting the culture of the city and its people.
We do not have the chance to discover the most important part of the house, the Damus, because it has already been fully reserved, but Tachvin gives us some pictures and it looks wonderful. Accommodation starts from 30 Libyan dinars, according to services provided and the number of people. Breakfast includes popular dishes such as bassissah, zamaytah and sfenz, and for lunch they offer Fattat, bazine, rashtah and more.