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krisek Leptis Magna - A travel report by Krys
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Leptis Magna,  Libya - flag Libya -  šaråbulus
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krisek's travel reports

The Roman Empire's most important city in Africa.

  8 votes
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One of the most spectacularly preserved ancient Roman cities in the world, Leptis Magna (aka Lepcis Magnae) took my breath away. Because I only saw a few close-up pictures of statues and one picture of the Roman Theatre, the city took me by surprise.

Forum of Leptis Magna
Forum of Leptis Magna
Africa once produced one of the most powerful Roman emperors. And he came from the most spectacular Roman city on the continent. There is no exaggeration here at all. It took a bit of time for Leptis Magna to achieve its imperial status. The city was probably founded in 1100 BC by Phoenicians and gained some importance as a trading post when Carthage established itself as a considerable player in the region, rivaling Greece, Rome and Egypt. It eventually fell into the Roman hands in the second century BC, and gradually developed as one of the key provincial cities of Rome in Africa. Then, on 11 April 145 AD, Lucius Septimus Severus was born in the city, who on 14 April 193 became the Roman Emperor. He started favouring his native city over all other trading posts and started converting Leptis Magna into an imperial centre. He erected a brand new forum and modernised the harbour. It became the third most important city in Africa, after Alexandria and Carthage.

The city continued to prosper only for about twenty years and at least until 211, when Septimus Severus died. It started declining when the trade halted as a result of the Crisis of the Third Century. Later, of course, northern Africa fell under the control of the Vandals and subsequently to the Berbers, who damaged the city. In the 6th century, Leptis Magna returned to the Roman Empire, or Byzantine Empire actually, and repaired.

The state of preservation of Leptis Magna is phenomenal. UNESCO listed the city as a World Heritage Site in 1982.

Favourite spots:
The Arch of Septimus Severus - the grandest entry to a Roman city anywhere in Africa.
The Arch of Septimus Severus - the grandest entry to a Roman city anywhere in Africa.
The grand entry to the site is the Arch of Septimus Severus. It has been wonderfully restored and the result is mind-boggling! It makes such an impact that everything else that I had seen in the Mediterranean of this kind looked now bleak. The path from the entrance to the arch, which is located on much lower ground, does not reveal anything until the very last second and then it hits you! I simply could not believe my eyes. The arch is, for a lack of a better word, perfect. I met a few Italian people, actually Romans, hehe, and they admitted that they were overwhelmed by this arch. Their actual words were “We are from Rome, and we do not have this! This is exceptional!!”

The arch is decorated richly and meticulously from all sides and the engravings and reliefs are simply impossible to describe! Since no other ancient Roman arch in the world has been so completely restored, it is impossible to compare this one with any other. But it could claim the title of the most stunning one.

What's really great:
The Hadrian's Baths of Leptis Magna
The Hadrian's Baths of Leptis Magna
Hadrian’s Baths of Leptis Magna were potentially the most magnificent place in the city and arguably the most extravagant baths in the Roman Empire. The baths contained several pools, sophisticated heating system for the steam rooms (sauna) and complex toilet. All was meticulously decorated with different variety of marble, perfectly sculpted statues and elaborate mosaics. It must have been the place for spending time, socialising, gossiping, trading or just being seen. One the most interesting features was the toilet, which was simply a marble bench with holes. There were no cabins and the holes were just 2.5 feet away from one another. This allowed for the guys to continue socialising, gossiping, trading or just being seen while doing number 2.

Adjacent to the Hadrian’s Baths was the sports ground, at the end of which a temple for Septimus Severus and his family was constructed. All in perfect harmony and surrounded by colonnades.

The Septimus Forum of Leptis Magna
The Septimus Forum of Leptis Magna
The massive Septimus Forum, which the Emperor Septimus Severus added to the Old Forum redefined the central part of the city, which at that time was home to eighty thousand people, a quarter of whom were slaves, is overwhelming. When I stood in the place where the temple was (now in ruins) I could easily imagine what a wonderful city it must have been to live there. The decorations on the columns and the number of shops and bars around are unprecedented. Unfortunately, the statues, which were adding to the splendour of the piazza are now missing, but if they were there, wow!

The sheer size of the main square defines the splendour and importance of Leptis Magna. Many of the columns and decorations are scattered on the floor of the forum and the amount of it stimulate imagination. The greatest pleasure of it being there was that it was allowed to wander freely and linger how long one wanted.

The Market of Leptis Magna. A clothing boutique.
The Market of Leptis Magna. A clothing boutique.
If I thought that there could not be any other magical place at this site, I obviously did not see the Septimus Basilica – right next to the Forum. It was a more judicial place rather than church (obviously it was later converted to church), and with its wooden roof over the marble floor and two tiers of columns, it was a perfect hall. And it was huge! Old Forum stroke me less much since there is little left of it. I was amazed though by the number of games engraved in the floor of the piazza. The games involved rolling and throwing marbles across the engraved lines and dimples. How clever!

The beautiful Market, my other favourite spot in the city, boasts two private stores, one for selling clothes and the other for produce. When I stepped onto the Market and saw the round cloth shop, my imagination again took me two thousand years back. I was imagining how exclusive those shops must have been, and the people wandering around and selecting material for their new togas.

The theatre
The theatre
The Roman Theatre, which could sit seven thousand people, is one of the oldest stone theatres of the Roman Empire. The construction of this one started at the year of the Jesus Christ’s birth and it only took a year to complete. The most magnetising feature of this theatre was its stage, whose background was created by a large number of columns, sculptures and statues. That must have been not only the place where art was shown, but where it was also born. This place is so gorgeous! I went wandering around the auditorium and climbed places, where I should not really be, but I just wanted that perfect view of this extraordinarily magnificent place.

The Harbour of Leptis Magna is now overrated, because it is now overgrown by bushes and marsh, and although the guides will claim that the harbour was great, it actually never reached its potential since soon after it was created it silted and there was no use of it. However, the design is in fact nearly perfect.

The amphitheatre
The amphitheatre
The Amphitheatre, at the other side of the harbour, surprised me. I must have overlooked it in my guidebook and did not expect to see one, and definitely not so well preserved. Since a large number of structures within Leptis Magna have been at least partially reconstructed, the Amphitheatre is completely original. It could sit sixteen blood thirsty spectators and the show was twice a day, I heard. The morning was for a juicy wrestling between the humans (criminals, slaves, prisoners of war) and undernourished for days wild animals. The afternoon show was of gladiators taking on either other slaves and criminals or other gladiators. The Circus, at the other hand, is in total ruin and only the southern part of the seats remains visible. It is nevertheless superbly positioned along the beach, and quite a large stadium for chariot racing, whose length was 450 meters. In the middle of the Circus, there was a catwalk for acrobatic performances and additional places to cheer the racers. The podium is still visible, and it was once decorated with statues.

Leptis Magna's main avenue
Leptis Magna's main avenue
One of the best options for food in Leptis Magna is to bring your own and scoff it in the theatre, admiring the views. That is one of the most civilised spots to have a picnic anywhere in Africa. However, almost exactly opposite the entry to the site, there is a ‘tourist’ restaurant located in a new building. The interior is a little over the top and the menu is very limited to ... a set menu and hardly ever any choice. But that is not unique for Libya and its ‘tourist’ restaurants. It definitely works cheaper and much, much more pleasant to have an open air meal around the ancient sites within Leptis Magna. Apart from the Theatre, I could recommend the Amphitheatre, the Market and the ruined temple in the New Forum. All had great sitting areas and perfect views, and the first two had sea views as well. A baguette with chicken shawarma and tomatoes would not taste better anywhere else.

Other recommendations:
The Basilica
The Basilica
I was so glad that I chose to come to Leptis Magna last. I mean this was my last ancient city to visit in Libya. It is by far the grandest of all in Africa and its state of preservation successfully rivals Rome. One can easily and almost lucidly imagine how spectacular Leptis Magna once had been. It is such a shame that the French in the XVIII and XIX centuries and then the Italians in the XX century plundered the place, stealing the statues and columns. I hope that one day they will restore Leptis Magna completely to its full glory, including the port and the circus. I would love to see that!

Leptis Magna is located about 130km from the capital of Libya, near the town of Al Khums and it is relatively easy to get there. There is plenty of public transport along the main coastal road. I had my own car (pre-arranged), which worked perfectly for me as I got to the site before the crowds poured out of the tourist coaches.

Published on Saturday January 10th, 2009

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Sat, Jan 31 2009 - 01:10 PM rating by frenchfrog

Another great report on a great destination! Thanks for sharing!

Mon, Jan 19 2009 - 06:56 AM rating by lioness


Sun, Jan 11 2009 - 07:48 AM rating by orlen

Your photography and detail is superb. I had heard of Leptis Magna, but you have broadened by view of what is was and is.

Sun, Jan 11 2009 - 07:27 AM rating by kcbrecks

Your excitement at being in Leptis Magna comes through in your report. It must have been a wonderful experience.

Sat, Jan 10 2009 - 10:57 AM rating by jorgesanchez

A good leson of History.

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