Seaside ruins saved by sand

Just a few miles beyond Tripoli lie Libya’s ancient cities of Leptis Magna and Sabratha, with their wealth of beautifully preserved Roman relics

Chris Bradley
Friday March 10, 2006

Leptis Magna, Libya
Far removed from modernity … intricate details are preserved throughout the Roman ruins at Leptis Magna.

The Roman city of Leptis Magna, 78 miles east of Tripoli, is a World Heritage site and one of the highlights of a visit to Libya. Most of the archaeological site (open daily from 8am to 6pm) has been well protected for more than 1,000 years by a covering of sand. A better understanding of the layout is helped by the restoration work done by Italians over the last century.

Only about a third of the ancient city is uncovered, and even the extent of the Roman city inland is undetermined, due to modern buildings to the east of al-Khoms city.

The site was first developed in the sixth century BC, as a coastal trading post around the reef-protected mouth of Wadi Labda, by seafaring Phoenician traders from the eastern Mediterranean. Following the Roman defeat of the Phoenicians in the Third Punic War in 146BC, local desert tribes eyed the site enviously, but new Roman fortifications and a buffer zone of fortified farms on the fertile soil protected the important harbour and trading centre for hundreds of years. Its location increased in importance through grain and olive production and the expanding trans-Saharan desert trade, which brought exotic goods from West and Central Africa, such as wild animals, slaves and gold, to Rome and the rest of the empire.

The Triumphal Gateway
During the 2nd century AD, the city reached its peak of prosperity when the Libyan Septimius Severus became emperor and spared no expense in glorifying and expanding his hometown of 80,000 inhabitants. Details celebrating his life are shown in magnificent splendour on the recently restored Triumphal Arch of Septimius Severus, the first monument to be seen. It stands at the main road junction of the Decumanus (running east – west from Alexandria in Egypt through to Oea, Sabratha and eventually Carthage) and the Cardo Maximus, which connected to the fortified farms, a Roman milestone indicating the distance involved, about 45 miles. The arch was erected in 203AD to commemorate Severus’s return, and is decorated with carved marble panels, the originals of which are now on display at the National Museum in Tripoli.

Severan Leptis
Near the remains of the city’s Hadrianic Baths, you’ll find the ruins of the Nymphaeum, a shrine for Nymph worship. A street ran from the baths to the harbour, a distance of over 400m, flanked on both sides by porticoes with 125 huge cipollino columns.

Through the jumble of scattered carved blocks on the left is an entrance into the monumental area known as the Severan Forum, which represents the might and opulence of this city’s social centre. At the far end of the forum, walk through into the adjoining Severan Basilica, which served as a justice court. During the reign of Justinian in the sixth century, this was converted into a Byzantine church, as can be seen by the small pulpit on the floor of the nave.

The Old Forum
The Old Forum was at the coastal end of the Cardo Maximus. This collection of several interesting buildings included the Curia (Municipal Senate House) and Old Basilica, two temples (Hercules and Liber Pater) and the Old Forum Church (formerly Temple of Trajan). Walk around some recent excavations of earlier Phoenician buildings en route to the northern wall of the silted harbour, to see the base of the old northern lighthouse, built in the style of the Pharos in Alexandria.

Nearby are two temples close to the sea. And there are three enormous granite cipollino columns, looted from the Hadrianic Baths at the end of the 17th century by the French Consul. It is said that they were destined for the palace at Versailles, near Paris, but this is as far they got.

Heading inland towards the theatre, the small Serapeum (Temple of Serapis) is dedicated to an earlier Egyptian god, indicating strong links with Alexandria. This is thought to be one of the oldest parts of the city.

The Market and Theatre
Standing above this is the Market, which was begun around 9BC, and consists of two almost identical tholoi (kiosks) with serving counters and marble measuring-blocks for liquids, grains and materials.

Inscriptions at the doorway of the 8,000-seat Theatre indicate that it was built at the same time as the market and paid for by the same man, Annobal Rufus. Built with limestone blocks, it has withstood the elements of two millennia better than Sabratha’s theatre, which was constructed from sandstone. As well as giving excellent sight of the pulpitum (stage) and three-storey scaenae frons (stage wall), there are commanding views to the sea and across the entire site from the top of the cavea (auditorium).

Located at the entrance to the main site is the Museum, which houses some fine objects and has good information in english.

Eastern sites
As if all this were not enough to make Leptis Magna one of the most impressive Roman sites in the world, there is more to be seen along the coast to the east. The best view of the Old Harbour is found by walking along the eastern wall past warehouses, moorings and steps to a small Doric temple that complemented the lighthouse on the opposite harbour wall. Further around the coast, and situated far enough away from the city so as not to be heard, is the magnificent Amphitheatre (open daily 8am-6pm), built during the time of Nero (AD54-68). Almost complete, this elliptical stadium of public entertainment stands majestically overlooking the sea, and certainly witnessed some mighty gladiatorial contests to the death between man and beast, cheered on by an estimated crowd of around 16,000.

The devastating earthquake of AD365 hastened the decline of Roman power, and Leptis suffered greatly at the hands of the Vandals during the first half of the fifth century. The end of Leptis Magna came when the Byzantines finally lost to the attacks of local tribes. Within 100 years, when the Arabs arrived in 643, the city was already a sand-covered ruin, ripe for plunder by every invader.

Modern Sabratha lies 40 miles west of Tripoli along the main coastal highway, and the site itself (open daily 8am – 5.30pm) is reached via a one-mile link road. To help you spot it, the world’s tallest minaret is being constructed beside the main road. Like Leptis Magna and Oea (present-day Tripoli), this city owes its beginnings to early Phoenician traders who used the small natural harbour en route to the Iberian peninsula.

The Eastern City
Walk towards the sea to see the monuments of the eastern part of the city stretching along the coast to the right, starting with the foundations of the Temple of Hercules on the Decumanus, the main east-west road. Nearer to the sea are the Christian Basilicas.

The Baths of Oceanus is a small bathing area with chambers off to the sides. The columns up a slight hill belong to the Temple of Isis, dating from the first century ad. Fragments of a statue of Isis uncovered here are now in the site museum.

The Western City
Heading west back along the Decumanus to the main site, you enter the western half of the city. This was the original Roman town built on Phoenician ruins; it expanded eastwards, only to shrink back within the defensive walls of the Byzantines.

Heading towards the sea, the Forum is a large open space at one time completely paved with metamorphic limestone. Opposite this at the eastern end of the Forum is the late-first-century Temple of Liber Pater with its restored Corinthian columns. At the rear of this temple are the Seaward Baths (or Forum Baths), the largest bathing complex in the city. A lot of the foundations have suffered from sea erosion, but the mosaics that remain are of exquisite colour and quality, on what is now a terrace overlooking the seashore. Just beside the baths are communal latrines, and then continuing further west is the Curia (Municipal Senate House) and the Basilica of Justinian, nearer the sea.

There are two museums on the site, with the smaller Punic Museum often closed. The Roman Museum is set back in gardens behind a courtyard of statues found at the site. The main displays are of the amazing mosaics, especially that from the Basilica of Justinian. This museum has had some recent security problems and is often closed, so it is fortunate that many of the best objects are better protected inside Tripoli’s National Museum.

In AD365 the city was severely damaged by the immense earthquake, and a century later the Vandals completed the destruction. Despite attempts by the Byzantines to rebuild, the city was uninhabitable by the time of the Arab conquest.

· This is an edited extract from the new Berlitz Pocket Guide to Libya © Berlitz Publishing

Leptis Magna, ancient ruins left by the Romans, was one of the largest of its kind built outside of Rome. It was a wonder how such a large city built of slabs of marble was erected during the Roman Civilization.

Questions were asked by visitors, local and foreign, how such structure has been preserved through time. The obvious answer was the whole city was protected by layers of sand. Another possible answer is, Libya, a socialist country, may play a role itself. The political power and ideology of a leader may hinder his country from prospering, hence the small percentage of tourist visiting Libya, then. Not many have heard of Libya, nor can point its location on the world map. Therefore, no one would know or heard about Leptis Magna unless they have lived in Libya or watched Globetrekkers hosted by Ian Wright.

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