Previous entry Next entry

BandA’s Travel Diary

Saturday, 10 Nov 2007

Location: Libya

MapChapter 2B
Leptis Magna

Saturday, November 10
During the 1950s, when B was studying Latin at Melbourne University, one of her lecturers gave a slide show of his recent visit to Leptis Magna, a large , ancient Roman city on the north coast of Libya. She was entranced and told herself that she must go there one day. This was that day! It had taken 50+ years but she was there and very excited.

As usual we started in the Museum that was well stocked, well organized, and well endowed with informative notices in English. It moved from pre-history, through Punic era pottery, 5th and 6th centuries BC; Roman artefacts: statues (including headless ones with wonderful drapery waiting for a wealthy person to commission his/her own statue and have the head added), busts, the Nymphaeum, describing the port and water management, the Theatre, the Fora (there was an old and new forum), an impressive painting of what the Frigidarium in the Baths probably looked like, measuring tablets for cloth to ensure purchasers were not being cheated, coins and funerary objects; Christian and Muslim artefacts; weapons of war, and a large Bedouin tent. Three things we found particularly interesting were: a huge, bronze hand and foot of Septimus Severus from what must have been a larger than life-sized statue, realistic statues with little toes on pigeon-toed feet, and a huge artist’s impression of Leptis Magna in its heyday.

Armed with all this background information we then followed the Cardo Maximus (Via Trionfale) into Leptis Magna proper and soon arrived at the arch of L. Septimius Severus which probably dates from the emperor's visit to his native city in 203 AD and was built to celebrate his return. Like the one we saw in Tripoli this is a four-way triumphal arch set across the junction of the Cardo and the Decumanus Maximus . The design of the arch is unusual and the decoration consists of sharply drilled and incised carvings. It consists of four pillars supporting a domed roof and is limestone faced with marble, Corinthian columns, and stone reliefs depicting scenes from the life of Septimius Severus. The centrepiece shows him shaking hands with his son, the next emperor, Caracalla. This was not the only triumphal arch of Septimius Severus built in 203 AD. Another one was built in the Forum in Rome to celebrate his victory over the Parthians.

After a short walk along the Cardo we turned into a side street, paved with limestone. This was a residential quarter but is included in the 60% that has still not been excavated so there was little to see. Then it was back to the Cardo to the Arch of Trajan close to the 1st century Augustan Chalcidicum—a monumental porch and colonnaded portico that contained a small temple to Augustus and Venus.

After a short walk we then arrived at the base of the Theatre. Othman likes to take his visitors to this point and then have them climb to the top without looking back. It was worth the wait and the climb as the view, which encompassed the Theatre and the brilliant blue Mediterranean beyond, was spectacular

This is a typical Augustan age theatre, built of limestone blocks in AD 1-2, and subsequently renovated by Caracalla. It is one of the oldest stone theatres in the world. An inscription at the main entrance indicates that it was originally paid for by a local citizen called Hannobal Rufus. He must have been a redheaded multi millionaire! The pulpitum or stage was decorated with statues and sculptures of gods and emperors. Only two of these remain: one of Hercules and one of Liber Pater, a name they used for Bacchus. The columns at the back of the stage were added in 144 AD. The scaenae frons (back scene) of the Theatre is well preserved as you can see in the photo.

The Theatre is 88.5m in diameter. The curved rows of the cavea or seating area are still in excellent condition. The seating, for 8,000, is divided into wedges by steps that lead up and down from the walkway. High up at the rear of the auditorium you can see a colonnade and some small temples, including one dedicated to Ceres in 36 AD and another to the Di Augusti, or deified emperors, in 43 AD. During reconstruction work, Phoenician tombs were discovered under the stage area, which indicated that the Theatre stands on the site of a Punic necropolis dating from the 5th to 3rd centuries BC.

We sat there a while and rested from our exertions before heading off to Market. One of the notable features of the city was the size of the public buildings and the Market Place, built in 9-8 BC, was no exception. Our photo shows one of the two circular market-halls/serving kiosks 20m in diameter. One of the halls was for fruit and vegetables, the other for textiles. In the foreground of our photo is a stone bearing the standard measures of length. Stones have also been found containing precise cavities to act as measures of volume, as well as balances and weights. The marble columns and decorated facades were added around 200 AD, during the reign of Septimius Severus while the carving of a ship is a reminder of the importance of the sea trade to Leptis.

Our next stop was at the “old” Forum which we discovered had colonnaded porticoes on three sides, 54 AD, and a circular (octagonal) building at one end that was, during the first century the Basilica for public administration but later became a Christian Basilica (church) complete with Baptistry.

In its heyday Leptis Magna had been a thriving port with all the usual port trappings—stone wharves, storehouses and a Lighthouse that archaeologists believe was similar to the Pharos at Alexandria. Over time the Wadi Lebda, which fed into the port, dried up and the port itself silted up so, today, the wharves extend alongside a green, grassy dry channel.

From there a long, straight, wide road leads back to the Hadrianic Baths and the city proper. This Via Colonnata was once lined with porticoes and shops. The road itself was 400m long, 20m wide and the porticoes on either side were a further 10m wide (10m x 2). This gives some idea of the grandeur of the city.

From there we visited the “new” Forum (100m x 60m) that was built and embellished by Emperor L. Septimus Severus. One very interesting feature of this Forum was that it was paved with marble and over 70 heads of Medusa have been found. These were used to decorate the arches on the colonnades. We wondered why on earth they used Medusa as the decoration. After all, her gaze was reputed to turn people to stone. Perhaps that’s why the whole area is strewn with fragments of stone arches, statues, columns, blocks, etc.

Here too, at the NE end, we found another Basilica (92m x 40m), far more imposing than the one in the “old” Forum. This was commenced under Septimus Severus but completed by his son Caracella, 216 AD. It was offset slightly to conform to the directions of the main civic layout, and consisted of a three-aisled hall, with an apse at each end. One apse was dedicated to the Liber Pater, the other to Hercules. The roof, at least 30 meters high, was supported by the pink granite colonnades that flank the inner walls of the Basilica. This building, too, eventually was converted to a Christian Basilica with the altar at one end and a Baptistry at the other. However, in contrast to the earlier one, this baptismal font was raised above ground.

As we approached the Hadrianic Baths we visited the Nymphaeum which had once contained a fountain fed by a spring. When the spring, like the wadi, dried up, the fountain received its water from the town water supply brought in by aqueduct. Built in the early 3rd century AD, it stands two stories high and is decorated with pink granite and cipolin columns. The building was designed to replicate a water-filled grotto, the habitat of the water nymphs. It was a partially covered rotunda filled with plants and flowers, sculptures, ornamental fountains and paintings. The Nymphaeum served as both a sanctuary and a reservoir and it was also used for wedding ceremonies.
The Baths must have been wonderfully impressive. This complex of buildings was commissioned on an Imperial scale under Hadrian in 126 AD and was the first building in Leptis to be built largely in marble, for both structure and ornament. It also had the luxury of hot and cold running water as a water system had just been installed in the city. Outermost, entered from the Palaestra (sports ground), was an open air swimming bath surrounded on three sides by porticos, flanked by a pair of colonnaded halls, and paved with mosaics. Beyond this, on each side, was a communal latrine with marble seats on three walls. Four doors leading from the swimming bath opened onto a corridor surrounding the cold room (Frigidarium). This was a hall (30m x 15m) paved and panelled with marble and covered by a vaulted blue and turquoise mosaic roof supported by eight cipolin columns 9 meters high. At each end of the hall arches opened onto cold plunge baths. At the back of the hall a door opened onto the warm room (Tepidarium) with a large central bath and two smaller baths at the side. At either side was a super-heated sweating bath. Behind the warm room was a large barrel vaulted hot room (Calidarium) with arched windows. Of course it requires some imagination to see all these rooms as they would have been in their glory days, although the main features are still there.

Finally, we drove 2-3 km to the Amphitheatre built between 54 and 68 AD, during the reign of Emperor Nero. It had a capacity of 16,000. Whereas the Theatre, where plays for the educated citizens were performed, was close to the city centre, the amphitheatre, where gladiators and wild animals were killed for the entertainment of the masses, was built out of town. This too required good lungs and a good head for heights to climb the rows of seats. Again we were rewarded by a wonderful view of the sapphire blue of the Mediterranean. The view down to the street below gives some idea of the height. Close by was the Circus which held 25,000 spectators who cheered on their favourite chariot teams as they raced their 7 laps round what looked like a very dangerous course.

Well exercised from all the walking and climbing, well satisfied with the wonders of Leptis we left behind an almost empty car park and headed for “home”.

Sunday, November 11.
The guidebook says that Sabratha, a stunningly beautiful Roman city on an equally beautiful site, has suffered from being so close to Leptis and this is probably true. It would be possible to see it as more of the same but it had some features that were quite different.

Sabratha's port was established, perhaps about 500 BC, as a Phoenician trading-post that served as a coastal outlet for the products of the African hinterland. Sabratha became part of the short-lived Numidian Kingdom of Massinissa before being Romanized and rebuilt in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD reaching its monumental peak during the rule of the Severans. The city was badly damaged by earthquakes during the 4th century, particularly the quake of 365 AD and was rebuilt on a more modest scale by Bysantine governors. Within a hundred years of the Arab conquest of the Maghreb, trade had shifted to other ports and Sabratha dwindled to a village.
On approaching the site you see from the distance a strange geometrically shaped building that is clearly not Roman. As we soon discovered it is a reminder that the first settlers were Punic and from Carthage, round the 4th century BC. However, before visiting this site we detoured to the Museum as this always helps put what we are about to see in context. One of the treasures in this museum is a complete floor mosaic from the Basilica of Justinian (6th century AD) with a lovely peacock as part of its composition. The mosaics from the aisles are displayed along the walls. We were later amazed to see floor mosaics at the Seaward and also Theatre Baths in situ and still in apparently good condition.

Some of the busts were also very impressive, especially the one of the god Jupiter.
There were, of course, a Forum, Temples dedicated to Liber Pater, Serapis and Isis, a Christian Basilica from the time of Justinian and remnants also of some of the mosaic floors that enriched elite dwellings of Roman North Africa. We do not intend to take you on a detailed tour of these but will concentrate on two features—the Mausoleum of Bes, and the magnificent Theatre.
As noted above, this underground Mausoleum of Bes, topped by a 24m tall structure, is not Roman. It dates from the 2nd century BC and incorporates Punic and Hellenistic styles in its design. Bes, its guardian god, was Egyptian which helps demonstrate the breadth of influences at that time. Amongst all the ruins this monument looks in remarkably good shape but that is because it was restored in the 1920s with stones from around the site, even from other structures. It certainly stands out like “granny’s tooth” amongst the Roman ruins.

The other outstanding building, started during the reign of Commodus, is the late 2nd century AD Theatre, that retains its three-storey magnificent architectural backdrop. This too was rebuilt by Italian archaeologists in the 1920s. The auditorium measures 95m in diameter and is the largest in Africa. The façade behind the stage is amazing—108 fluted 20m high Corinthian columns, and exquisite carvings of flowers and the divinities. The stage too is huge—43m long and nearly 9m wide and its front is also decorated with wonderful carvings depicting such images as personifications of Rome and Sabratha, the Nine Muses, the Three Graces (below) and the Judgement of Paris. There are also carvings depicting scenes from theatrical performances. Once the Theatre held 5,000 spectators but now, for current activities, the figure is closer to 1,500. We would love to show you all our photos which capture some of the wonders of this Theatre but will restrain ourselves. However we hope you enjoy those we include, even the dolphin which formed part of an armrest.

There is an interesting footnote to the history of Sabratha. Apuleius, the famous orator and author of The Golden Ass, visited the city during one of his speaking tours. Here he met Prudentilla, the mother of one of his former fellow students. She was a wealthy widow and he had spent all his fortune so, never one to miss an opportunity, he married her much to the consternation of those who had thought to inherit her fortune. They therefore took him to court claiming that he had used magic to win her hand. In the Judicial Basicilica he spoke for 3, some say 4, days in his own defence. He distributed an Apologia (A Discourse on Magic) that was not only very witty but made a laughing stock of his accusers. Needless to say Apuleius won the case!

It was late when we left Sabratha and we were hungry but we had one more site to visit on our way back to Tripoli, so Othman stopped at a small store so we could buy some provisions but there was no coffee available. Then it was back to Tripoli along the very busy road. Remember we are driving on the right hand side of the road! Suddenly Othman turned right into a drive and we thought he was taking us to the next site but instead he began driving back along the edge of the road against the oncoming traffic. We thought he had missed the turnoff and would turn down the next road we came to. Not at all! What he was doing was driving back to a restaurant we had passed so we could eat and have a drink! As you see, we are still alive to tell the tale.


Refreshed we took off again for Janzur where there is a small, fairly uninteresting museum—bone shards, pottery amphorae, and oil lamps—but when we moved down the stairs under the museum we discovered a stunning Byzantine tomb, one of 18 found in the area in 1958. The frescoes were fresh and wonderfully evocative. One scene includes a deer hunt, another an angel, as you can see. We wandered around the grounds a little and peered down into a couple more of the graves (no frescoes there!) before returning home.