Travelling overland from Egypt to Libya on a transit visa, we haven’t managed to get hold of a guidebook for our Leptis Magna sightseeing. Or any Libya travel guidebook at all, for that matter. With envy, we stare at the group tourists near the entrance of the Leptis Magna archaeological site: Germans! Not only do they look German, but several of them are carrying the “Dumont” – a German travel guidebook with a focus on art history.
At least, since Leptis Magna is the top sightseeing attraction of Libya and a UNESCO World Heritage site, there is a small shop at the entrance selling brochures about the archaeological site. We opt for an English booklet translated from Italian – it seems less garbled than the others.
Leptis Magna was an early Phoenician colony in North Africa and later became Punic and then Roman. The city’s heyday came when Leptis Magna native, Septimius Severus, became Roman emperor in 193 AD. He rebuilt much of the city in marble, constructed a forum, a basilica, new harbour facilities, and broad avenues.
Marble Arch in North Africa
The triumphal arch for Septimius Severus is one of Leptis Magna’s sightseeing highlights (there are many). Since its excavation and restoration in the 1920s the marble monument is dominating the former downtown area, stunningly well preserved.
From the arch we move on to the thermal baths of Emperor Hadrian. The booklet calls them Adriano’s Spa. “That sounds like a public sauna in a senior citizens’ centre” we think. But – the spa is breath-taking.
It is the largest Roman bath complex in North Africa, and even the latrines are still intact. Roman citizens wouldn’t sit in individual stalls but socialise in rows and circles. There is even a small water channel in front of the seats to clean oneself with a sponge.
Leptis Magna’s most famous son
Beyond the bath, we explore the huge public buildings Septimius Severus erected in his home-town, Leptis Magna. The Severian Forum was a copy of the Forum square in Rome. Tall porticoes surround the plaza. They are decorated with medallions showing gorgon heads. Archaeologists have re-erected some of them, recreating an ambience of the original space.
Resting below one of the gorgon heads, we meet a Swiss couple carrying not only the Dumont guidebook but also a massive green hard-cover book with a library signature. Most of the other tourists we see (not so many) are exploring the ruins without any book but with a Libyan guide. They don’t have much time to sit in the shade as they are apparently on organised day trips from the capital Tripoli.
The monumental basilica on one end of the Severian Forum was just a representative public building in Septimius Severus’ time. Only later, the early Christians transformed it into a Christian church. We follow the road to the now silted harbour and the old forum.
“Digging in Libya is much more difficult than in Syria, because we can’t even find out when and whom to bribe.”
A German archaeologist we meet at the Byzantine basilica does not mind a brief diversion. To our surprise, we hear that the archaeologists – like us – find the paperwork for getting into the country oppressive. But once inside, he confirms, getting a visa extension is easy and everybody is quite relaxed. “Ma fish mushkila!”, we nod, “no problem”. After months of travelling in several Arab countries, this turned out to be one of the most useful sentences. We use it often, regardless of whether there is a problem or not.
Another day of sightseeing in Leptis Magna
Thanks to the generous extension of our own transit visa we scrounged off some colonel in Benghazi we extend our Leptis Magna sightseeing to the next day. Al Khoms, where we stay, is a small coastal town with no other attractions than the ruins of Leptis Magna. When we arrived last night in a share taxi, the hotel owner was positively excited: 9 guests! But our fellow passengers were all continuing their journey to Tripoli.
The next morning, we visit the on-site museum of Leptis Magna. While the most spectacular finds are in Tripoli, the museum offers a good background on the history of Leptis Magna. With our dearth of guidebooks, we may be the most appreciative visitors ever.
In particular, we like the concept of statues of eminent citizens that must have dotted the town, often with labels like “Ornator Patriae” (embellishment of the nation) or some such. In Roman times, the town elders regularly honoured dignitaries by erecting statues in squares and street corners. From a certain rank, whole families would be promoted to stone portrait galleries. Or you could volunteer to erect a statue for someone else.
More marvellous marble!
Afterwards, we check out the more outlying archaeological sites on the fringes of ancient Leptis Magna. The amphitheatre is partly dug into the rock. Although it is quite large, we cannot see it until we are standing on the uppermost ranks. Today, the site is well-visited since a P&O cruise ship has arrived. But many of the crusaders don’t even bother walking down to the stage, or over to the even larger Hippodrome next to the amphitheatre.
Finally, since the sky is brilliantly blue today, we walk again through the ancient town centre of Leptis Magna. From the seats of the old theatre there is a perfect view of the Mediterranean. And the two fancy round pavilions of the Roman market could stand in any 21st century farmers’ market. A stone is showing the standard measures, for all market visitors to verify. The Roman foot, we find, is just the same size as Natascha’s hiking boot.
Visiting Leptis Magna
We visited Libya independently on a transit visa without a guide (or a guidebook) in 2007, before the civil war. Even back then it was not easy to get a transit visa. But once inside Libya we could travel freely and even got a visa extension in Benghazi without too much hassle and brown-nosing. We travelled along the coast from Egypt to Tunisia in 10 days, visiting mostly the Roman sites.