Libya: the Ruins of ‘Leptis Magna’
Wave magazine, 2007
Amongst the lovers of antique, the words ‘Leptis Magna’ are a whispered charm that needs no further elaboration. My only word of caution is don’t see them too young. I am still grateful that I did not discover Libya until I had already spent decades hunting down most of the lesser Roman ruins of North Africa and western Turkey. Libya came like a reward from all those earnest days of building up castles of the mind from shin-high archaeology and sketching plans into black notebooks while working on my various guide books and histories.
Although it is now a dozen years ago since my first trip to Lepis Magna, I can still remember as if it was yesterday - the first astonishing impact of strolling into the vast enclosure of the Severan Forum at sunset, repeated the next day when we entered the tomb-like frescoed vaults of the Hunting Baths half embedded in a dune of sand.
We ‘found’ the amphitheatre on our third day at Leptis after we had taken things comparatively easy. A picnic of locally cooked fish stew eaten with hot bread had been followed by a swim off from the ancient harbour walls of Leptis Magna – which is now alas illegal. We then strolled along a deserted beach in order to pace the length of the slight remains of the chariot race track. It is a magical site, where the two great domains of Neptune, God of Sea and Lord of the Horse, would have met together in the mingled sound of the surf and the stampede of the chariots. Sitting on one of cascading stone benches, you can almost feel the surge of adrenalin from those ancient crowds as they urged their favourite team, be it the blues, reds, greens or whites, to make the seven circuits. Then we climbed a hill to come across the fallen stones of the old Temple of Nemesis.
It was only then that we first saw it. For unlike all the others I have inspected, the great mass of the Leptis amphitheatre is hidden from sight, having been sunk within the bowl of a quarry. It looks as if it had been abandoned twenty years ago, not twenty centuries. The dizzy-making descent down the steep stone steps, passing acre after acre of seating, was given an extraordinary extra twist after we found Carthaginian graffiti scratched on the Roman seats - the tell-tale sign of Tanit, the great Punic Goddess. Then the child-like excitement of stumbling across one of the internal stairways that lead you down into the dark underground ‘service’ tunnels. When your eyes are at last getting accustomed to the solemn gloom you are ready for a further slice of time travel. For if you look carefully it is possible to find little altars beside the side entrance gates. Place your hand on this shrine (just as hundreds of gladiators will have done before you) and then enter the arena pit at a trot. It is a form of time travel.
If you sprinkled some fresh sand on the arena floor and hung some new doors the whole place could be put back into working order in under a week. But for what? Then a shiver started to enter my spine as the realisation fully sunk-in that this superb classical edifice, was built so that prisoners of war, wild beasts and political and religious dissidents could be tortured to death as a form of popular entertainment. There is no need to take my word for it, when you are in the castle museum of Tripoli look with care at the details of the Roman mosaic on the right hand side of the entrance hall. It is better that it is left alone.
I have been back many times since. But despite at least a dozen three-day visits to Leptis Magna I have yet to track down all its enchantments. And even the monuments I think I now know well: the public baths, the two forums, Byzantine walls, archways, fountains, markets, the dozen temples and the harbour grow in complexity. Even the cities most in your face, iconic monument, the Severan triumphal arch doesn’t pale in interest, as you get to know the faces of this astonishingly talented imperial family, the last brilliant flowering of the pagan world. For the tough-minded Emperor Septimus Severus, who took the Empire to its zenith was a Libyan boy, born and bred in Leptis from an old Carthaginian family, while his brilliant blue-stocking wife, Julia Domnia, was the daughter of the royal dynasty of the high priests of the sun from the Syrian city of Homs. The old Emperor was fated to die in a garrison-town on a far-distant frontier – York.
No one has any spare time at their hands at Leptis (which also has an excellent brand-new museum) but you have to somehow squeeze in another half day. The Villa Selene is guarded by a twisting road and a slightly deaf and eccentric gate-keeper but his occasionally irritating policy of only letting in one group at a time should yet be praised. For he has helped keep this sleeping beauty intact with its delicate skin of intact frescoes and mosaic floors which was discovered by chance, just thirty years ago by a snorkler. It has been gently awakened from the dunes by a Libyan archaeologist – and as you wander through its suites of rooms one can doubt if there is anything from our material civilization which matches this enchantment.
If you have the chance to completely design your own itinerary, I would advise a visit to the ruins of Sabratha before Leptis. Sabratha makes a good starting point, for here you have not only one of the most stunning Roman theatres in the world (fully a brood sister to Provencal Orange and Syrian Bosra) but you get a chance to comprehend the Phoenician origins of all the trading cities of Roman North Africa. The dry stones of Sabratha are also animated by the spirit of Apuleius, the Byron of his day, who has been variously described as ‘superficial, colourful, excessive, disordered and intemperate’. He was accused of witchcraft by some envious neighbours (for he had swept off a local heiress as his wife) which became the cause celebre of 158 – in part because she was also the mother of his best friend. So much so that the trial was moved to the theatre where Apuleius personally defended himself – and the right for intellectual inquiry against superstitious bigotry. After his public acquittal he devoted himself to teaching and writing which includes his vivid description of the Goddess Isis at a seaside temple – just like that of Sabratha. So if you have room, do pack a copy of The Golden Ass and get one of you party to read an extract.
Don’t touch the local hotels but make it a day trip from Tripoli, which is your natural berthing point and has by far the best restaurants and hotels in Libya. Parts of the old city are lovely but don’t set your expectations too high, it is not in the same league as the Medina’s of Tunis, Cairo, Marrakech or Fez - in part because the medieval city was completely flattened by the Knights of St John. What we see know is a seventeenth and eighteenth century Ottoman rebuild (at its most charming at the Karamanlis Pasha and Gurgi mosques) with one or two exceptional older survivors, like the al-Naqa mosque, the Castle and the arch of Marcus Aurelius. Don’t rush at these sites in one session, but pick them off at your leisure during your early evening strolls through the covered market. The museum collection in the basement levels of the old castle of Tripoli is one of the best in the world, so rich in wonders that if you are here for more than a week, I advise a first initial tour topped up by a second visit after you have got your eye in. Then there is the issue of whether to stick with Tripolitania ( Sabratha, Tripoli and Leptis Magna) or whether to also include Libya’s eastern province of Cyrenaica which can be explored form the ports of Benghazi and Derna, topped up with a day or two in the hotel at Appolonia.
For me there is no choice. The glow cast from Cyrene’s monumental hilltop, the bustling ruins of the sanctuary to Apollo below it and a thousand years of continuous urban civilization draped around the surrounding hills (including a monolithic temple to Zeus and thousands of Hellenic rock-cut tombs) is like finding Delphi and Olympias on a North African hill top. To complete the historical narrative of this region there is also the nearby Byzantine fortress port of Appollonia with its string of ruined churches and Dux’s fortress-palace, the half-excavated ruins of the sprawling Hellenistic walled city of Ptolemais with its vast water cisterns which can be topped up with picnics in half a dozen minor but charming sites such as the church mosaic floors at Ksar Libia or the tiny, crude but still magical carvings that decorate a dried up-spring at Slonta.
I no longer find the ruins quite as empty as those first trips during the pariah days of Libyan foreign policy – which means that sometimes you have to choose a quite corner of the ruins to allow a five-coach-load strong crowd from a passing cruise-ship to do their rounds. But otherwise there are no major ‘density’ problems and a lot of quite tangible advantages to Libya’s newly open door. No longer do you have to fly in via Tunis, transfer on an internal flight to the island of Djerba and then and put up with dozens of security check points on either side of the land frontier. This could degenerate into a 24 hour ordeal, and on one unhappy occasion, we heard that the Tunisian border guards wouldn’t let any foreigners back into their homeland without a certificated innoculation against the Black Death. We did not wait to see if such a vaccine exists but amended our plans and left on a Malta-bound ship. It proved an expensive detour but arriving at dawn into the grand harbour of Valetta was worth the price. In those days the hotel stock outside of Tripoli (which has always had good hotels) was stuck in the guest-worker/bordello category. Now however it has soared to the heights of the impeccably run Bab Africa which overlooks the old city at Tripoli and which doubles up as an unofficial branch of the Foreign Ministry with its ambassadorial receptions and lobby filled with oil men. Internal flights have also resumed, cutting out the 24 hour crossing of the near featureless Syrtic desert that stretches between the ports of Tripoli and Benghazi. Nor are visitors discreetly advised into using a ‘second identity’ that might better appeal to a visit to Libya still constitutionally under the control of a permanent revolutionary state of the masses. Indeed on my most recent trip, I felt very disappointed that my small group of five hard-baked pillars of the old evil Empire of Britain: which included Antony Eden’s widow, a Royal Chamberlain, a Treasurer of the Household and Churchill’s neice, were not forced to travel under aliases.
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by Barnaby Rogerson