Leptis Magna, Libya

Photo: SashaCoachman (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo: SashaCoachman (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
One of the best Roman ruins sites is off-limits. That’s right, you aren’t welcome here. Actually, the friendly people in the nearby fishing village of Khoms would be honored to have you visit. But it just isn’t safe right now. It’s in Libya. That makes you even more curious.

Leptis Magna sits on the Mediterranean coast. The site is massive, the architecture is remarkably unspoiled, and the view is amazing. The Phoenicians first settled the port in the 1st millennium BC. The Carthaginians, and then the Romans followed. They built baths, arches, shrines, a circus, an amphitheater, and a basilica. It became one of the most important cities in Africa. But the decline began when the Vandals arrived, and by the 11th century, Leptis Magna was abandoned. Sand covered—and preserved—the ruins for centuries, until excavations began in the 20th century.

A small museum is located at the entrance of the ruins. It’s filled with pottery, jewelry, oil lamps, and even coffins that were discovered among the ruins. Though interesting, it’s hard to pay attention with the towering arch behind it. The Severan Arch was built in honor of Septimius Severus, the first African Roman Emperor. It’s ornate and massive, and it leads down Via Trionfale, the main street that points toward the sea. The West Gate, more arches, and the Roman Wall are to the left, while the marble and granite Hadrianic Baths—the largest Roman baths outside of Rome—are to the right.

Photo: Daviegunn (self-made by David Gunn) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Daviegunn (self-made by David Gunn) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Market, the Nymphaeum, and the Forum are ahead. The Market, where fish was sold, consists of two octagonal halls. The Nymphaeum, an ornamental fountain house, is a shrine dedicated to the worship of nymphs. The Forum is decorated with Gorgon heads. Eventually, you reach the Basilica. Leptis Magna’s most famous monument was inspired by Rome’s Basilica Ulpia, with three aisles and an apse on each end.

You can continue toward the water, where a battered lighthouse sits at the entrance of the harbor. Strong waves demolished the left wall long ago. Or cross a bridge and follow the Byzantine Wall past the cemetery to reach the waterfront Circus and Amphitheater. Chariot races were held at the Circus, and the Amphitheater sits in a natural quarry. Both have gorgeous views.

Now the ruins sit empty, once again collecting sand as the country attempts to rebuild in the post-Gaddafi era. Hopefully Libya becomes a safe place to visit again soon. When it is, you’ll be one of the first in line at Leptis Magna.

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