After a late arrival the previous evening, we are excited to wake up on a sunny morning in Misrata: we are on our way to Leptis Magna, the largest Roman ruins in Africa and one of the best preserved of the entire Mediterranean. We get our first taste of reckless Libyan driving on the road west, and after getting off at the visitor centre of Leptis Magna, we are greeted by our guide. He soon turns out to be very knowledgeable about the site. Soon after entering the site, we arrive at the Arch of Septimius Severus. We stop here, while our guide gives us a general explanation of Leptis Magna. Below us, stretching out towards the northeast, is the Cardo, the main street. Even though excavations were started more than a hundred years ago, much of the Roman city still lies underground. Understandably, given the current situation of Libya, it will take time before serious excavations will resume.
After observing it from a distance, the Arch of Septimius Severus turns out to be a masterpiece when we come closer. Many details are still in place, there are sculpted figures on its walls, the lintels at the top are decorated with ostrich eggs and arrows, and it has deities carved out. Roman Emperor Septimius Severus was born here, and under his rule, Leptis Magna was greatly developed around the turn of the third century CE. We walk the Decumanus Maximus, the main street running northwest-southeast. We will explore the ruins counter-clockwise. We see street signs, some with phallic symbols, and marvel at the condition of the almost 2000 year old pavement. After turning a corner, we arrive at the Roman baths, among the largest in Africa. We see the gymnasium, the caldarium, frigidarium, the ingenious heating system, while our guide tells us how people came here to relax in the good old times. We try to imagine what these baths must have looked like in their heyday: mosaics covering the floors, walls and ceiling intact, baths in operation.
After seeing the latrine section, where people would sit one next to the other, we continue to be amazed by the extensive ruins of Leptis Magna, one of the largest cities of the Roman Empire. We enter the Severan Forum, climb up the ruins for an overview. Broken columns are strewn over the floor; the Vandals and Berbers both did a thorough job at destroying the city. We notice details, like Greek texts carved out on slabs of marble, medusa heads on a lintel, and broken arches. Through openings in the wall, we can look inside the Severan basilica next door, which has fine carvings on its portals. We walk the Cardo, pass through a noticeably newer Byzantine gate, and find ruins of a temple and the Punic quarter, the oldest part of Leptis Magna which was, after all, founded by the Phoenicians in the 7th century BCE. After a short detour on the beach, we re-enter the ruins, with remains of old houses. Walking southwest, we pass the market which has one of the most intact buildings of the entire city. Here, we see the way measures were taken for clothing and food, still carved out in slabs of stone. Then, we arrive at the theatre, an impressive semi-circular building with views of the Mediterranean. Ah, to see a play performed here! What a background! From a text above the entrance, we deduce that the Romans and Carthaginians were friends here, and lived happily together in Leptis Magna. Back to the Severan Arch, we have a distant glimpse of mosaics outside the museum which has, unfortunately, been closed for years because of the war. When we leave, our heads are still full of the beautiful and impressive things we have seen here.
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