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Libya’s inaccessible history: Leptis Magna

A view of Leptis Magna in Libya. [Image: Flickr / Carsten ten Brink]

Rocked by war since popular protests toppled long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Libya isn’t top of people’s holiday destinations anymore. However, this vast country is home to five world heritage sites and venturing into the gate to the Sahara once took you through a time warp into a history of civilisation.

One such location is the Phoenician site considered to be one of the most extensive archaeological areas found on the Mediterranean coast dating back to beginning of the millennium B.C.; Leptis Magna.

Located roughly 90-100 kilometres east of the country’s capital, Tripoli, Leptis Magna was declared a World Heritage Site in 1982 because it was classed as one of the most beautiful cities of the Roman world.

It contains a total of 30 major monuments which include Hadrian’s baths, the forum, the Several Basilica, the port, the main temples, the market place and a theatre which have all been restored.

Leptis Magna, Labdah, Libya on November 2004. [Image: Flickr / Sludge G]

The city was the birthplace of the Roman Emperor Septimus Severus who had risen to power after Commodus and was the self-proclaimed son of Marcus Aurelius. He was considered to have had great influence on the Roman military increasing soldiers’ pay.

Buried under bullets: Recovering Libya’s lost history

Severus had even expanded his influence into the field of law where he introduced the Consilium to the Roman Empire; an advisory panel of experienced jurists helping the emperor render decisions.

View of the theatre at Leptis Magna in Libya. [Image: Flickr / Rob Glover]

View of the theatre at Leptis Magna in Libya. [Image: Flickr / Rob Glover]

Looking out from the top of the steps you can see the columns of the theatre line up against the changing sands underneath the waters along the city’s shores. If you stand on the peripheries of the amphitheatre you can imagine the deafening clashes of swords wielded by gladiators while the crowds snarl at the losing faction. The minimal security and rare boundaries mean that one is free to roam as though they were a Roman, under the archway of Severus Septimus.

A view of an arch at the Leptis Magna in Libya. [Image: Flickr / Rob Glover]

A view of an arch at the Leptis Magna in Libya. [Image: Flickr / Rob Glover]

Renovation of the 15,000 seat amphitheatre has been completed with hundreds of sculptures and mosaics having been transferred from the site in Leptis Magna to the museums of Tripoli and Lebda the Arabic name for “Leptis”. Unfortunately, a large number of the 600 green streaked marble columns along the colonnaded way and the 400 red Aswan granite columns in the Severan Forum are now gone, relocated to Windsor castle’s or to the Versailles and Saint-Germain-de-Pres Church in Paris. Many of the columns had been thinned and veneered to fit French drawing rooms scathed away from their original resting place.

The tarnished image of the country and the slow resolution to a large political problem will increasingly continue to be a burden to those who long to visit the gates of the Sahara and all its wonders. And so the image of the barren land known as Libya will continue to cloud the minds of many and be lost in time just like its Roman ruins.

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