Libya: Leptis Magna

THE SANDS of Libya have seen the coming and going of the Empires of the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantine, Egyptians, Persians, Vandals, Ottomans and Italians, among many others. It is now ready and hoping for an invasion of tourists.

Leptis Magna was the home of Rome’s first African-born Emperor: Septimus Severus, who actually died in York in 211AD at the ripe old age (for a Roman emperor) of 66. Severus was a military dictator but he brought peace and stability to the empire at a time when it badly needed it, and exactly what that meant to the well-off citizen can be experienced here.

Buried under the sands of Libya for centuries, having been progressively abandoned after a major earthquake in 365AD, Leptis was rediscovered by Italian archaeologists in the early 1900s. Dominating the modern-day entrance (the port having long-since since silted up) is the triumphal arch of Severus, sister to the more-famous one that stands at the foot of the Capitoline Hill in Rome. Apart from being a tad smaller, the major difference with this one is that you can stand underneath it and have it all to yourself, rather than being surrounded by coachloads of tourists from all around the world.

At its prime, of course, it was pretty busy; Leptis had a population of perhaps 100,000 people and its Circus Maximus could probably hold that many people at least. The circus stands on the Mediterranean coast, one of its walls now more or less a sea-break, dominated by the 35,000-seat amphitheatre, from which you can enjoy a view of the race-course below to bring the imagination alive with images of chariots and horses.

But that’s nothing to the amphitheatre itself, which is splendidly complete, partly through its preservation in the sands of time, partly through Italian restoration. You can wander – spookily alone again – through the alleyways that brought spectators to their seats, or narrower, darker passages that brought gladiators or animals to meet their fate. The blazing mid-day sun seems far away and it is not long before a chill on my neck sends me back out into the present.

Leptis is so well preserved that it takes little imagination to travel back in time. The massive forum, the markets, public toilets, the houses, not the mention the amazing baths, all bring ancient life to, well, life in a way no other site I’ve visited has, with the possible exception of Pompeii. Pompeii, though, has little to match the sheer scale of Leptis – and it’s even more impressive when you hear that perhaps only one-third of the site has yet been excavated. The ground is littered with marble and carvings and you do pity the archaeologists who have to piece this giant jigsaw together.

The baths give a real glimpse of the luxury of life here for the well-off citizen, being built to a scale and a luxury that would put any modern spa to shame. They were turned into a regional showpiece by the Emperor Hadrian. (Yes, that Hadrian, the one whose wall in Northumberland poor old Severus was restoring when he died.)

But perhaps the most remarkable building is the nearby Villa Selene: the house of a Roman merchant. Perched on the seashore, in a setting that any modern beach-lover would kill for, its 20 rooms, including a touching room decorated for children and an exquisite series of bathroom (hot and cold), are filled with mosaics, some beautifully detailed. You may wonder why they are not in a museum. It’s because Libya’s museums have enough of their own. One was found at Leptis Magna as recently as 2000 and kept secret until 2005 when it was acclaimed as ‘one of the finest examples of representational mosaic art ever seen’. That’s a taster for what undoubtedly still lies under the sands of Leptis – and Libya.

To get an idea of what I mean by that, let’s journey on to the site of Sabratha. Less spectacular in both size and preservation than Leptis (water seems to have been much more of a problem, judging by the number of rainwater collection cisterns in every house), it is initially much less impressive. Then you walk into the theatre and are overwhelmed. Painstakingly restored to completeness, again by Italian archaeologists, it’s easy to imagine the performers have just walked off stage.

Next door are the remains of the actor’s changing rooms and baths, the intricate Byzantine mosaics still in place. I was amazed to be able to walk on floors that are more than 1,400 years old. The guide explains that it’s good for them, keeping them bedded into the foundations and preserving the Roman floors that are probably still below them. Stroll back into town and you come to Sabratha’s Seaward Baths. The Roman mosaics are still on display here, open to the elements and seaspray. A beautiful setting where, again, 2,000 years flash past in a flick of imagination.

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