Leptis Magna: Sightseeing marvels in the desert

Thermes of Hadrian in Leptis Magna

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

Triumphal Arch of Septimius Severin Bogen1

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. We imagine the bathing there to be like our recent visit to a public hamam in Aleppo: more like a party.

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.

Roman arches in the Leptis Magna Forum

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

empty outdoor restaurant in Al-Khoms

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.

Marble statues in the Leptis Magna Museum

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!

Cruise ship tourists on their Leptis Magna sightseeing excursion

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.

Leptis Magna Roman Theatre with sea in the background

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

Camels on open trucks between Benghazi and Al Khoms

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.

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  1. What a wonderful place to visit and so lucky you got there before the civil war broke out. It is a shame that so much history is inaccessible. Hopefully one day tourists can revisit this historic landmark. I hope that the war has not destroyed it.

    1. Yes, Libya has some of the most impressive Roman sights we have visited. I read that most of the sights made it more or less undamaged through the war. Let’s hope the best!

  2. Wow, what an amazing place & the whole complex looks huge. Your trip to Libya certainly sounds like an adventure. It’s good to hear that the war hasn’t destroyed all these amazing sights – fingers crossed. I loved reading about the bathing facilities & that shot of the theatre is awe-inspiring. Thanks for sharing.

  3. What an adventurous tour of Libya! Your images are beautiful. I love the perspective of that arch image. It was interesting to read about the Thermal bath. The hippodrome and amphitheatre look great. It is indeed amazing that many of these structures are still standing there almost intact. 🙂

  4. Your photos are marvellous! What an exciting and brilliant adventure to undertake before the civil war. I am especially drawn to the amphitheatre and can only imagine how amazing it would have been to explore what stands today. I hope someday that the unrest will be no-more and I would feel safe to explore Libya.

  5. It is always fascinating to learn the history of places like Leptis Magna. And to find yet one more place that at once was inhabited by the Romans. This looks like a stunning site to explore. I love when there is a museum on site to see the gems that have been preserved. Since I may never get there, it was great to get a glimpse through your blog post.

    1. Yes, many of the Roman sites in North Africa are quite stunning and well preserved. Probably because the areas are less populated than – lets say – Italy. Also they have a much drier climate. And especially emperor Septimius Severus who was a native of Leptis Magna generously gave money to the city.

  6. You visited Libya in 2007 and you were sad because you did not have a good guidebook.
    There are two good guidebooks available now.
    Both focus on ancient history. Both are written by Philip Kenrick:

    ** Tripolitania (2009)
    ** Cyrenaica (2013)

    I visited Libya in 2004. It was a very interesting experience.
    At that time there was no guidebook, but fortunately I travelled with a small group and we had a private tour guide.
    PS. Lonely Planet published a guidebook about Libya a few years ago.

    1. Dear Torben, in 2007 we were travelling overland from Jordan and Egypt. I guess there were guidebooks available, even back then. But we could not find anything in this countries. Online buisness was not as it is today. I think the books by Philip Kenrick are quite interesting. Libya was one of the best and interesting travel experiences we had!

  7. I can see why this has been designated an UNESCO World Heritage site. Such amazing history and important to protect that ancient site. It’s a photographer’s dream to visit this outdoor museum and capture the architecture.

  8. Beautiful architecture and wonderful history probably wouldn’t suffice when describing Leptis Magna. No doubt it has been designated an UNESCO World Heritage site. Walking through the town and around those walls must be such an amazing experience.

  9. Wow! This is fascinating. It is such a treat to be sightseeing here. Good thing you were able to get a visa. We may not be able to visit anytime soon but we definitely enjoyed your post. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  10. This is such an amazing experience in Lybia and Leptis Magna, to walk along these ancient archeological sites and be present to its relevance. One can only imagine what life during that time must have been like – from socializing in the Roman baths, to admiring fellow citizens with gorgeous sculptures. I would love to do this. (I’m glad you were able to navigate any cultural difficulties with visas, tours, and extensions!)

    1. Dear Jackie, Leptis Magna was an all-time highlight of our sightseeing experiences. Sadly now, it is even more difficult to visit Libya as a tourist.

  11. I love your journeys because they are definitely off the beaten track. Libya is not a very touristic destination for sure. You show unknown places with a vibrant history and a vast heritage for humanity. I haven’t heard about Leptis Magna before. It’s such a fantastic place. I love this ​Marble Arch. And I’m impressed that you provide so many historical facts in an accessible way. It’s great to know that The Severian Forum was a copy of the Forum square in Rome. The view of the Mediterranean from old theatre seats is terrific!

    1. Dear Agnes, thanks for stopping by at our blog! Libya and Leptis Magna were one of the highlights of our travel life, for sure! Unfortunately after the war it has become even more difficult for tourist to get a visa. The political situation is still very unstable. But if things get better, I am sure Libya has a lot to offer for tourists. We would definitely go back and explore more of the country.

  12. This is an incredible itinerary. I would love to visit Libya and explore Leptis Magna. I haven’t read of this place before I stumbled upon your blog. Thank you for introducing an extremely new destination that I would consider adding in my bucket list.

    1. Dear Shreya, unfortunately Libya is off-limits to the avarage tourist right now. The political situation after the civil war is still not very stable.

  13. What a rare and beautiful place. I never knew about it – despite being a UNESCO site. And to me, this is really ancient given it was made before the Roman times. The bath and your description of it is very intriguing. I can imagine how huge the place must be – given there are individual and community spaces. I wish things were a little better in Libya so that gems like these were more accessible to people like us.

  14. The photo of everyone walking on the marble had me shocked! I would think it was too fragile to walk on, but it appears quite stable. Leptis Magna looks stunning, I see why it’s remarked as a world heritage site.

  15. Wow this is the first time I heard of Lepris Magna, a Libyan World Heritage Site! Love that view of the Meditteranean from it. Lots of history too!

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