Karl’s Chronicles Article 59 Leptis Magna, Libya
In this article Karl Beeney reflects back on a late January day in Libya in 2011. Having moved on from Tripoli, the buffered vintage Mercedes rolls past the dunes to terminate in a sandy clearing. Rising from scrub is a city like no other.
An angry wild bull is tackled to the ground, overpowered by four young men’s compounded stealth. Next to them, a gladiator looks upon his slain opponent, while in the adjacent frame, an antelope dodges the spears from an intimidating warrior. A casual eye, perhaps an occasional gasp from a shocked visitor greeted all these powerful acts of subjugation, looking upon the thirty-foot mosaic from a villa’s private bathhouse. The luxury and high-living ran commonplace in this city of heightened sophistication, groomed to its pinnacle under Emperor Augustus’s reign. Leptis Magna soon became the finest city in North Africa, proudly swaggering its plumage with the Mediterranean behind.
Situated 130km east of Libya’s capital Tripoli, just before the land sweeps down to form the Gulf of Sirt, Leptis Magna’s ruins unveil a city both ambitious in scale and logical in design. Setting the stage for grand show-pieces and monuments that intentionally spot-lighted their modern and refined way of life. A decorative forum with adjoining Basilica, a statue-lined theatre with VIP stalls, temples, collonaded walkways, monumental arches and even a circus, gave the city increased importance. But by the 4th century AD, as Rome’s power declined, Leptis Magna tumbled from a massive earthquake, its shock-proof limestone proved unable to withstand the magnitude. What was left briefly passed through the hands of the Vandals, the Byzantines and Arabs. Until time and sand, centuries ahead of archaeologists were alreadyensuring its preservation.
Black filled the sky. A momentous bruise as if a giant fist had punched the clouds and dragged them down. The storm was imminent, and my heart swelled with disappointment. I only had one opportunity to visit Leptis Magna. Its magnificence bellowed by the implausibility of visiting this rarely seen country.
From a ragged dune, I surveyed a sunken road winding its way to the sea. To the east, stunted columns, much like the trunks of beheaded trees lined the entrances to the theatre and forum. Always intruding my eye-line were these fantastic landmarks. A common cursor in today’s major cities with their monuments to power and prestige. But the Romans were two thousand years earlier and their influence still resonates.
A ships worth of wind sailed through, carrying its cargo of sea-salt and warm African air. The smell brought only a warning. Run, run for cover before the sky falls to earth. The first drops came, weak and slow like a leaking roof. Before turning for cover, I paid one further glimpse to the landscape, strewn with blocks and columns like a child’s plaything. Then the black began to bleed.
Bleeding out the colour as the rain carried it down roads two thousand years old out into the hazy ocean already used to inclement weather. The Phoenicians would have sailed on undeterred in their long open boats. Fleeing conflict from their home in Tyre (modern-day Lebanon), they established a string of trading ports along the North African coast. While Carthage (Tunisia) became the mother city, they recognised Lepcis (Leptis Magna) location ideally suited their gold and silver trade. Though a seafaring race, they didn’t blinker their focus only to maritime pursuits but headed inland to foster trade-treaties with the resident Berbers. The Phoenician civilisation at Lepcis lasted for a half a millennia until 146BC, with the fall of Carthage to the Romans in the Second Punic War, their era passed hands.
I wondered at which point I would leave the small museum’s dry confines and step out to explore. Even the most liberal itineraries still saluted a schedule and the more time spent sulking only bored into exploration. After all, what was rain? I could shake it off like a dog. The rain was as familiar to an Englishman as the harmattan to the Africans; we almost wore it like a second skin. But like a General scanning the battlefield for the closest point of cover, I noticed the arch of Septimius Severus provided ample shelter. Satisfied with this strategy, I made a run for it. Dignity took a pounding as the rain, like spears from an ambush fell in a savage torrent. All faith went into one’s feet, burdened with navigation and leadership as the command room upstairs flapped about like a kite in a gale. Once under the arch, the collapse in the northern sky had opened up yellow pockets, falling upon the pallid sea and the distant Temple of Hercules. Hercules, now wasn’t he the son of Jupiter, God of the Sky and Thunder? Something suggested more extraordinary strategies were at work.
With the Phoenicians conquered, the Romans sacked Carthage, building new works on top of it. Today, hardly an element remains from five hundred years of Phoenician occupancy at Leptis Magna. Living a simple and modest life compared to Rome’s pomp and grandeur insured little would survive. It wasn’t until Emperor Augustus took to the throne that expansion and investment took off. Increasing the cities’ image of power and fast becoming one of Africa’s prime ports, which suited Rome’s insatiable demand for predatory animals as entertainment—equipping the colosseum to satisfy the spectatorial bloodlust from society and dignitaries alike. Wealth also came closer to home, from the humble olive and commerce contracted from the trans-Saharan caravans. The cities drive down grandeur street continued under successive emperors all keen to add their mark. Aqueducts and public baths under Hadrian, the hippodrome under Marcus Aurelius and ever loftier projects under Septimius Severus.
One of which now glowed gold, basking in the re-emergence of mid-morning sunlight. Like a noisy mob, the storm roared about a bit, tired, parted, then sullied off. Sol took over from Jupiter, casting sunlight across the ruins. The smell of cool rain on warm stone resembled forest mushrooms. I stepped outside into pleasant dampness, a freshness like peace, conceived only from trouble. Forming a half turn to face the structure that had afforded shelter, the Arch of Septimius Severus now enjoyed its intended splendour—built to honour the inauguration of native-born Septimius Severus who became Emperor in AD 203. Stone reliefs record his successes and virtues, flanked by Corinthian columns rising to a domed roof. In one scene the Emperor holds the hand of his son Caracalla who would later rule alongside him. Standing at a crossroads to the city behind, the arch purposefully evoked emotions of awe from new arrivals. Introducing them to a theme of architectural excess which became a signatory of Leptis Magna.
I follow the long paved road north to the theatre. The rain has glossed the slabs like varnish. Aside from the subdued tumble of breaking waves, it is wonderfully quiet as if the storm scared everything into silence. Further down, a dark figure passes three broken columns then disappears. There is no one else around. A series of steps brings me up to the theatre. There are pillars everywhere, some standing like sentries, others, mainly marble lay broken and piled up as casualties of time. A side entrance runs alongside the stage with steps ascending through the spectator’s gallery. At the very top, I turn and face the stage—three semi-circular recesses surrounded by fluted pillars and life-size sculptures. Statues of the ruling Emperor, Gods and the theatre’s wealthy benefactors once lined the stage. If this wasn’t decadent enough, it’s further enthralled by the vivid blue of the Mediterranean behind. Forget the VIP area down near the orchestra, the cheap seats at the rear enjoyed the theatrics of nature and man. One could also slip away and find peace in a series of temples flanking the cavea (upper stalls). The theatre, built on a Punic necropolis site, incorporated many changes, continually evolving its flamboyant style across several centuries, becoming an ideal platform to showcase the Roman culture and the vanity that took centre stage.
Little was overlooked to enhance the architectural design; even the market benefited from a pair of fine octagonal pavilions. One trading in fabrics while its twin displayed fruit and vegetables. Stone tablets containing sculpted basins and pouring holes recorded fixed measurements when selling olives and olive oil. At one point, the city was punished by Rome for misplaced loyalty with an annual tax of up to 3 million litres of olive oil. Line scarred benches show the extensive use of ropes that hauled in fantastic quantities of produce. Though Severus added later additions during his reign, the market’s birth came from Annobal Tapaius Rufus in 8BC, whose philanthropy recommenced a decade later with the theatre.
I wondered if King Midas is around. Everything looks like gold as sunlight buffers the limestone. The sky is blue with disintegrating islands of black. The typical Libyan heat is gradually making a comeback, but it’s still this side of pleasant for now. Down near the sea rise the high walls of the Severus Forum and the adjoining Basilica. From here, on a high dune, it already looks extraordinary. But seen from on top of the waves it must have appeared divine.
Most of the building scatters the ground. A jumble of columns, pedestals, faded faces, girders, broken steps and historic rubble. An open-air museum half-submerged in a foot of rainwater that severely limits access. But with a bit of imagination, even if not to design, one can see the Emperors project’s colossal scope. Originally the floor lay covered in marble, enough to fill the 100m x 60m forum. A gorgon’s head sits nearby, one of seventy which once looked out above a series of arches. Inscriptions appear from the floodwater, etched across plinths that no longer honour the greats. The adjoining Basilica mirrors the same jumble of antiquities. Its wooden roof now a rectangle of the open sky. Caracalla continued his fathers work, making adjustments and introducing further inscriptions. The Basilica operated from a judicial perspective until Emperor Justinian I converted the complex to a Christian church in the 6th century AD. As I surveyed the nave and two apses at either end, my eyes fell upon a marble plinth. Its engraving ignited a moment of pride and nationalism for in large Roman characters ran the words ‘Pax Britannica’.
By the fourth century with Rome in decline, scant support materialised when a massive earthquake rocked the North African coastline—bringing Sabratha, Cyrene and Leptis Magna to their knees. Little call existed by Genseric, King of the Vandals to restore the devastation. In fact, he added to it, having the perimeter walls destroyed in a threatening tactic to cement Vandal rule. Flavius Belisarius arrested control in the 6th century, presenting the land to the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. High taxes to fund his military dug a wedge with the locals whose cities continued to rot.
Riding in on horseback in the mid-seventh century, the Arabs and the arrival of Islam cantered in a new era. Much of their campaigns focused on the hinterland and the defiance of the Berbers to accept Arabic culture. For the most part, Leptis Magna continued its period of neglect.
As in the theatre, I climbed to the hippodrome’s highest seats to peer down into a rubble-strewn oval of green where chariot races would have buckled and jolted seven times around the half kilometre circuit. The frenzy could accommodate up to 25,000 people. In between races, acrobats would keep the crowds distracted with thrilling displays of gymnastics. One of the cities villas represented a day at the hippodrome in a beautiful floor mosaic; capturing the power and danger as athletes commanded their horses to win.
So much history had defined Leptis Magna. Even as a ruin, it hardly remained immune to bouts of human dominance. Somewhere beyond the city, a mosque called the faithful to prayer. I strolled towards the museum along a sand path, thinking about all that went before. Hardly realising a new chapter lay a fortnight away as Qaddafi’s Libya would succumb to the Arab Spring.
When Intelligence suggested an armaments cache owned by pro-Qaddafi forces lay within the ruins of Leptis Magna. NATO forces refused to rule out the possibility of an airstrike. An architectural and historical sacrifice to warrant the Colonel’s capture. However, events took a different course, sparing the nations countless antiquities. Even when Qaddafi left the stage, the chapter remained unfinished, spiralling out of control as the second Libyan civil war followed. So, it was with tremendous courage and understanding when locals chose to step out and voluntarily protect and maintain Leptis Magna. During a time when international support had changed its focus. Minerva and Venus, the goddesses of Wisdom and Love, must be following those locals with immense fondness.
The events that followed the Arab Spring and the permanent removal of Libya’s Colonel Qaddafi unravelled in a way few at the top gave appropriate priority. Despite history clearly showing similar behaviour in Afghanistan and Iraq unleashed dangerous fault lines once suppressed by their governing dictators. Today Libya is a broken country, with two governments, numerous militia, and Isis’s corroding presence. In comparison to the Colonel’s scarring dictatorship, the current crisis is a gaping bloody wound. For now, Libya remains off-limits regardless of the pandemic restrictions. Hopefully, when peace finally overcomes the exhaustive war years, Libya will reopen her doors, for there is so much splendour and warmth to admire.