(Third part of a three part series on trip to Tripoli and Leptis Magna in Nov 2011 just days after Libya’s liberation)
About 130 kilometres east of Tripoli on the Mediterranean coast is the tiny town of Al Khoms .Al Khoms houses Libya’s best kept secret – the magnificent Roman ruins of Leptis Magna.
Leptis Magna (or Lebda as Libyans call it today) was a prominent city of the Roman empire. The site is one of the most spectacular and unspolied Roman ruins outside Italy and a UNESCO world heritage site.Thanks to Libya’s restrictive visa policy it is largely unknown to the outside world.
We almost did not make it to Leptis Magna .We had heard rumours of foreigners being robbed by gun toting youngsters in the villages enroute (everybody in Libya has a gun these days, except yours truly) and had cancelled the trip. However on our walks through Tripoli we met a BBC crew filming Libya’s tourist spots.They told us that it was pretty safe to go there and the site was a must see. So we hired a taxi and off we went.Two friends from Goa sightseeing in wartime Libya.
The road was silken smooth and we made the trip in just over an hour. The site was largely deserted but we managed to get a tour guide ,an old man who also doubles up as English teacher in the local university.
Leptis Magna is huge and needs at least a full day to cover. However we had to get back before dusk (remember the gun toting youngsters?) so we had a quick two hour trip. Al Khoms has a couple of good hotels and it would be a good idea for wannable tourists to stay there and explore the ruins at their leisure.
As it was typical of the Romans the city is very meticulously planned.Originally founded by the Phoenicians in the 10th century b.c it eventually became part of the new Roman province of Africa in 23 B.C. Leptis achieved its greatest prominence when its native son Septimus Severes became emperor of Rome – the first African to do so.In its heydays it was one of the most important African cities next only to Alexandria and Carthage.By the third century Leptis Magna went into decline . Ransacked by a Berber tribe in 523 A.D. it was abandoned and quickly reclaimed by the desert.
The arch of Septimius Severus welcomed us at the entrance .We were the only visitors at the vast site. Over a fascinating two hours we made our way through triumphal arches,huge columns,baths,temples,market,circus ,theatre ,hippodrome ,forum and harbor.And that was just scratching the surface as two thirds of Leptis Magna is buried underneath and has not been evacuated.The baths were fascinating with latrines and steam saunas.The market place has special measuring stones for measuring the merchandise .But by far the most magnificent was the coliseum .Set against the blue sea it was not difficult to imagine the events taking place here thousands of years ago.As I walked through the animal enclosures for tigers and lions the movie ‘Gladiator’ came to my mind.Besides the coliseum right on the beach was the hippodrome which was the scene of chariot races.The Romans certainly took their arts and sports very seriously.
As dusk settled in we reluctantly made our way back to Tripoli.But my mind continued to linger over the Roman ruins.As Libya goes through a pivotal moment in its history the world is waking up to this lost city.Welcome back Leptis.