“Do you know the film ‘Legends of the Fall’? It is a wonderful film shot here in Libya in the 1950s starring John Wayne and Sophia Loren. It is wonderful because it ends here, in Leptis Magna, and you can see many of the statues still in situ. They have not yet been removed. It is also lovely because of Sophia Loren.” smiled Mohammed, our guide, bringing Leptis Magna alive in a way that I had not imagined possible.
Not that Leptis is a bland site; to the contrary it is one of the most extraordinary ancient sites in the Mediterranean. In its heyday it dominated the sea shore for some three kilometres and is estimated to have had a population of 100,000; the nearby modern town of El Khums only musters some 20,000.
The site was mainly excavated by the Italians in the 1920s and 1930s over 15 years. Only a third of the site has been excavated and the question remains (no pun intended) of what treasures lie beneath.
Notwithstanding what is as yet uncovered, there is much to impress at Leptis. The monumental centre, the Arch of Septimius Severus, is an imposing start and introduction to Leptis. It sets the tone and gives you an idea of the scale of the city. The Imperial Forum lies at the heart of Leptis. Despite the ravages of time and looters, it is spectacular and is a vast area, some one hundred metres by sixty metres, strewn with masonry and surrounded by high walls. The amphitheatre had seating for 15,000.
“Ah, one of our talented silent guides,” commented Mohammed as we passed a disinterested local guide leading an even more disinterested group of tourists. His wicked sense of humour made me realise two things. Firstly, tourists are few and far between at Leptis, for the time being at least. Secondly, that sadly not everyone felt the same way about the site as I did, that not everyone had the benefit of the witticisms of Mohammed and his insightful knowledge.
Some looked jealously on, as Mohammed produced a diagram of what the Baths of Hadrian would have looked like.
“The columns are an impressive eight metres high. But what I find to be more remarkable is that the columns were not quarried nearby but were brought from overseas by the Romans. Extraordinarily they were brought whole. Sensibly the Romans did not attempt to put them in ships due to their weight but rather they towed the columns on rafts behind their ships.”
More recent Europeans were not so enlightened. On the beach lie three columns that in 1680, fifteen hundred years after the Romans, Claude Lemer attempted to take back to Europe. He was defeated by their size.
“Further evidence of the superiority of Roman engineering is in the very fact that there are baths in this area of desert. Moreover, that they managed to heat the water in spite of the lack of firewood.”
The latter was easy for Mohammed to answer: the Romans used the residue of olive oil pressings which they squeezed into bricks and dried. The result was a slow burning fuel that burned at a very high temperature. The water system was not so easily answered.
“We know that they had a brilliant reservoir system which was reliant solely on rainfall but as to its actual mechanics we can only wonder; a team of UNESCO scholars spent much of the 1980s grappling with the problem but failed to come up with an answer.”
A library situated right next door to the loos made me chuckle to myself, not least because I could now argue that my toilet habits had classical origins. The latrines themselves were intimate, uncomfortably so for me at least. They were extremely close together and lacked a fountain, as at Ephesus, to provide sound cover. Mohammed explained that African baths lacked the elements of sophistication of the Greek baths.
“Here you will see the game of Tavula Issura, a Roman game that is played today, even on the internet.”
“Over there, if you look closely, you can see the grooves made by chariot wheels.”
Mohammed’s fascinating attention to detail was hugely enriching. The extent and scale of the site was obvious, the extra things that he pointed out were a wonderful bonus.
“This is an interesting commemoration from the reign of Claudius. At the top the inscription is in Latin and at the bottom is Punic. Look how many lines of Latin there are compared to just a few lines of Punic.” The Romans were verbose. The Italians of today are no different.
“I like this. This is a good example of their iconography. The handshake is a symbol of friendship. Above it is the symbol of mercury, that of merchants. Thus this symbolises a commercial agreement.”
“This is the Sicilian market.” He pointed out the measures for volume, for liquid. On another stone there were carved units representing the various measurements, the Greek cubit, the Punic cubit and the Roman foot. “Evidence of the cosmopolitan nature of Leptis. So too here, this relief depicting both Phoenician and Roman ships.”
It was also his dry wit that made the tour less dry, less one dimensional.
“Look at the intricacy of this deep chiselling depicting the feast of Bachanalia.” A pause. “I am a devotee of Bacchus, the God of Wine,” he said with a wry grin. Libya is a dry country.
“Here we have a triumphal arch with a magnificent triumphal pylon in the background,” he jibed at the craziness of erecting a modern monstrosity so close to classical beauty.
“Note the plastic water bottles. A Libyan offering. A modern day measure of appreciation. The plastic plague.”
“It is fun to be in a country of such ironies,” he said.
I won’t go on to say what he said about the Minister of Tourism being a chicken farmer. But I will say that you should go to Leptis Magna now, before the chicken farmer goes down the route of battery hens.
On a more serious footnote the mosaics of the nearby and charming Villa Silin are absolutely exquisite. Their detail of Roman life is breathtaking. Now if that has not convinced you to go…