Leptis Magna: Libya's Little Piece Of Rome

Amphitheater at Leptis Magna i i

The amphitheater at Leptis Magna dates back to the age of Septimius Severus at the end of the 2nd century A.D. Ivan Watson/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Ivan Watson/NPR
Amphitheater at Leptis Magna

The amphitheater at Leptis Magna dates back to the age of Septimius Severus at the end of the 2nd century A.D.

Ivan Watson/NPR
Forum with columns i i

The World Heritage site is just hours from Tripoli, along the Mediterranean Sea. Ivan Watson/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Ivan Watson/NPR
Forum with columns

The World Heritage site is just hours from Tripoli, along the Mediterranean Sea.

Ivan Watson/NPR
Arch at Leptis magna i i

A massive arch was built in honor of Severus when he made a return visit to the area in 203. Ivan Watson/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Ivan Watson/NPR
Arch at Leptis magna

A massive arch was built in honor of Severus when he made a return visit to the area in 203.

Ivan Watson/NPR
Medusa Heads at Leptis Magna i i

Medusa heads top a row of arches at Leptis Magna. Ivan Watson/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Ivan Watson/NPR
Medusa Heads at Leptis Magna

Medusa heads top a row of arches at Leptis Magna.

Ivan Watson/NPR

First, if you're on the verge of traveling to Libya, congratulations. Despite its North African perch overlooking the Mediterranean, this country is still far off the beaten track — with a government that goes out of its way to make it difficult for foreign tourists to visit.

In the fall of 2007, for example, the government suddenly imposed a new visa restriction, which forced a cruise ship full of tourists to abort its shore leave shortly before it was due to pull up to the dock in Tripoli. It's a shame, because Libya is an incredible place to explore.

After arriving in Tripoli and taking in the sights — wander the alleys of the Ottoman-era old city, drink an espresso at a corner cafe and marvel at the Mussolini-era architecture left by the Italian occupation — move as quickly as possible to one of the best-preserved and least-visited Roman cities in the world.

Leptis Magna is a UNESCO World Heritage site located about two hour's drive east of Tripoli. Its incredible arches, fountains and sculpted Medusa heads are spitting distance from the Mediterranean.

I visited on a Friday, the weekend in Libya, and there were only a handful of Italian and Libyan tourists exploring the ruins.

I went all out, hiring a tour guide named Khalifa Hawita who wore a blindingly white shalwar kamiz ensemble and straw hat, and was quick to point out his name — and his price 50 bucks! Don't forget to bargain! — which was highlighted in a well-worn Lonely Planet guide book.

Leptis Magna's golden age was at the end of the 2nd century A.D., when a local boy named Septimius Severus made out good as you could get in those days by becoming the emperor of Rome. In 203, locals built a massive arch in honor of Severus, who was also known as "the Grim African," when he made a return visit to his old home town. This spectacular arch is the first thing you see, after you pay your admission and enter the sprawling ruins of the city.

After passing under the arch, follow a Roman road to the Hadrian baths, where you can still see where Romans stripped off their togas and lept off a diving board into what must have been a refreshing pool.

The roof of the nearby basilica collapsed a long time ago. Some 1,800 years later, however, you can still clearly read the names of emperors like Marcus Aurelius — "MARCVS AVRELIVS IMPERATOR" — carved in enormous stone blocks that used to decorate the ceiling. There are also several ornate stone columns, with ornate carvings of leaping centaurs, frolicking cupids and Hercules performing his 12 tasks (buck-naked, of course, with the exception of a hoodie cape made out of a lion's head). To complete the pantheon of Roman deities, take a few steps next door to the Forum, where a row Medusa heads gape at you from a long series of archways.

There are no guards, no fences and very few visitors at Leptis Magna, so you can scramble over the endless ruins almost the way my guide Khalifa did when he was a child, herding flocks of sheep among the stone columns.

Many of the inscriptions around Leptis Magna are bilingual, a factoid that fascinated the political junkie in me. The dominant language on the stone plaques was clearly Latin, but some space below was often devoted to translations in the Punic alphabet of the Phoenicians, who founded Leptis Magna in 1100 B.C. and lost it to the Romans 200 years before the birth of Christ.

Before finishing my tour, I sat on a top seat of the well-preserved amphitheater and took in the view of the spectacular ruins and the blue, blue Mediterranean. That was until Khalifa interrupted my reverie, when he loudly scolded an Arab tourist who had scrambled on top of an 1,800-year-old pillar.

Septimius Severus died fighting in England, in the city of York, in 211. Thanks in part to him, and to the bizarre politics of Libya's current ruler, we are left with an incredibly preserved snapshot of Severus' period in history.

Tips For Visiting The Site

Plan to spend an entire day exploring Leptis Magna. There are several simple cafes outside the entrance, where you can stock up on water, sodas and those tasty espressos — no booze though, alcohol is strictly prohibited in the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. By the time we finished our tour, the local restaurant was closed for the day — forcing us to stop for couscous at a mediocre roadside restaurant on the way back to Tripoli.

Antiquities buffs should not miss visiting the Museum of History in downtown Tripoli, where you can see spectacular Roman mosaics, as well as the sky-blue Volkswagen beetle Moammar Gadhafi drove before he seized power in 1969.

A final piece of advice: Have dinner one night at the outdoor restaurant next to the Marcus Aurelius arch on the edge of Tripoli's old city. There, you can wash down couscous with non-alcoholic beer, as a sea breeze blows through this indestructible piece of Roman architecture, which looms just a few yards from your table.

Leptis Magna is a UNESCO World Heritage site located about 75 miles — or two hour's drive — east of Tripoli in Al Khums, Libya.

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