Leptis Magna

Leptis Magna Libya the Gorgon and the Arch

The magnificent city of Leptis Magna is a wonderful place to see, immensely satisfying, and is one of the most sought tourist destinations in Libya. It is also the most important Roman site in the world, as it is widely recognised as the best preserved Roman city outside Italy, and, unlike most ancient ruins, its well-preserved remains give a clear picture as to what a complete Roman city would have looked like. No visit to Libya is complete without seeing this magnificent Magna.

Leptis Magna, also known as Lepcis Magna, Lebda, Lubdah, Lebdah or Labdah, is located about 120 km east of the capital Tripoli, and only 2 or 3 km east of al-Khoms (Khoms or Homs). Its Greek and Latin name Leptis has been linked to the Berber and Punic Libqi or Labqi, which Bates was probably the first to mention in association with the Berber Ribu or Libu, whence the name Libya itself.

 

Archaeological Paradise

Leptis Magna Reconstructed

An illustration of how Leptis Magna would have looked like.
map of archaeological sites in Leptis Magna

Map of the main archaeological sites of Leptis Magna.

 

1. Light House 9. The Entrance to Excavations 17. Church 26. The Byzantine Gate
2. Doric Temple 10. Arch of Septimius Severus 18. The Severan Forum 27. The Serapaeum
3. The Harbour 11. The Schola & Baths 19. The Severan Basilica 28. Seaward Baths
4. Temple of Jupiter 12. The Theater 20. The Old Basilica 29. The West Gate
5. Colonnaded Street 13. The Chalcidicum 21. The Curia; 22. Old Forum 30. Marcus Aurelius Arch
6. The Nymphaeum 14. The Market 23. Temple of Roma & Augustus 31. The Villa of the Nile
7. The Balaestra 15. Arch of Trajan 24. Temple of Liber Pater 32. Amphitheatre
8. Hadrianic Baths 16. Arch of Tiberius 25. The Old Forum Church 33.The Circus
 

 

 

Originally, the city was a Berber settlement, well before the arrival of the Phoenicians about 3000 years ago. According to Ibn A'bd al-H'akam (ninth century), the Berber tribe Hawarra, a name closely linked to Zwara, Zwagha and Zwawa by Ibn Khaldun, established themselves at Leptis Magna and to the south of the Syrtis Major. After the Romans' destruction of rival Carthage  (a mixed city of mainly Berbers and Phoenician settlers), the three cities of Sabratha (Zawagha), Tripoli (Oea) and Leptis Magna (Lubda) were incorporated into the Berber Kingdom of Numidia, before they were finally engulfed by the Roman invaders, where Leptis Magna became part of the Roman empire in 111BC.

Owing to the flooding caused by the rise of Lubda Wadi (see illustration above) the Romans built some engineering structures to protect the city from flooding. But as these barriers are no longer in place, the city of Leptis Magna suffered devastating flooding in 1987 and 1988. It took aid workers several years to restore the site, with the help of the UNESCO, which also proposed a flood protection project in 1990 to put an end to this ancient problem.

the view of the theater with the sea in the background
The magnificent theater at Leptis Magna.

The theater was built with money donated by a few rich aristocrats of the city during the first century AD.

a reconstruction of what the theater would have looked like when it was complete
A reconstruction of the theater.

(1) Ima Cavea; (2) Media Cavea; (3) Summa Cavea; (4) Vomitori; (5) Orchestra; (6) Seats for important dignitaries; (7) Entrance to stage; (8) Stage; (9) Wall of scenery; (10) Wooden ceiling; (11) Stakes to secure the canvas awning; (12) Attic gallery.

 

the arch of Septimius Severus

The Arch of Septimius Severus

Under the influence of one of its citizens, the Berber Septimius Severus, who became the first African Roman Emperor, the extraordinary city of Leptis Magna became an important trading port, and enjoyed a monumental architectural development, like the beautiful Amphitheatre (dug into the ground of an old quarry), the colonnaded street, the Severn Forum, decorated with Gorgon heads, the massive Basilica, the Hippodrome, the Hadrian Baths, the Temples of Liber Pater, Hercules, Roma and Augustus, the Tiberio Arch, the Nimphaeum, the Oea Door, and the Palaestra. The existing Arch of Septimius Severus is a replica of the original arch, which has been moved to Tripoli. The splendid theater by the sea was also built during the Severus dynasty. Its excellent museum houses many important pieces of the city's history, like the mythological Gemini twin Castor and Pollux, some portrait busts found scattered across the ruins, the two Aphrodites from the baths, and the stone elephant. The city of Leptis Magna reached the height of its glory just before the first Vandal invasions in 5th century AD; after which it slowly began to disappear into the corridors of oblivion.

 

The gorgon's head at the severan forum
The Libyan Goddess Medusa (the Gorgon) Guarding the Severan Forum.

Evil mortals dare not breach the protected sacred sanctuary or else be turned into stone. The myth has it that the blood droplets that fell from the severed head of the Medusa onto the soil were turned into desert snakes.

 

the Hadrianic baths
The Hadrianic Baths, Leptis Magna.

 

During the second century AD, Rome was in turmoil, where its emperors degenerated into a state of debauchery   and chaos. In the power struggle that ensued after four years of civil war, Septimius Severus rose as a formidable leader. Transferring the seat of power to the frontier provinces, he immediately began to reform the Roman army and thus expanded the empire to include Mesopotamia, while Numidia was made a separate province. His reforms in Africa included exempting Leptis Magna, Carthage and Utica from provincial taxes. Septimius Severus’ sons (Geta and Caracalla), contrary to their father's advice shortly before his death, began to fight among themselves and eventually finishing each other, bringing the great Severan dynasty to an end.

 

Commanding bronze statue of the Berber Roman emperor Septimius Severus
The Statue of Septimius Severus

Lucius Septimius Severus was one of Rome's great emperors. He ruled the Roman empire from 14 April 193 AD until his death in February 211 AD in York (in Britain). He was of Berber origin and was born in the Berber Leptis Magna on the 11th of April 145 AD, and as such he became the first foreign emperor in Roman history. His Berber father Publius Septimius Geta was a wealthy man who held no political status; while his mother Fulvia Pia was of the Italian Fulvius gens, who was of a Plebeian origin. After advancing through the customary succession of offices he first seized power after the death of emperor Pertinax in 193, deposed the emperor Didius Julianus, and then went on to defeat the generals Pescennius Niger and Clodius Albinus in 194 and 197 respectively.

 

Severan Forum

The Severan Forum

The Severan building program, begun in 190s AD by the emperor Septimius Severus at Leptis Magna, was widely recognised as the grandest project of its kind in the ancient world. For further information regarding this project the reader can refer to "The Severan Buildings of Lepcis Magna", by J. B. Ward-Perkins. Edited by P. M. Kenrick, with drawings by R. Kronenburg, and published in 1993. The book is an illustrated architectural study by the late J. B. Ward-Perkins of the principal monuments of the Severan program, including the Forum, Basilica, Colonnaded Street and Nymphaeum, based on the research of Ward-Perkins and his team at Leptis Magna, and prepared for publication by Philp Kenrick and Robert Kronenburg, with support from the Society for Libyan Studies. 140 pp. 45 plates, 42 figures, Arabic summary. ISBN 9780950836362

 

Scenes from the city of Leptis Magna, including an ancient street and the baths.

Leptis Scenes

Have you ever wondered what an ancient street looked like?

 

an ancient street in Leptis Magna

An ancient street in Leptis Magna.

 

gladiators arena
Gladiators Arena.

gladiator's arena

 

 

Villa Silene:

villa sileen view

Villa Silene is a private house of a wealthy owner from Leptis Magna, dating back from the Byzantine period. Overlooking the magnificent Mediterranean sea the villa is widely recognised as one of the must-see places in Libya, especially its lavish decorations and the highly detailed and intricate mosaics across the villa's floor, including sea nymphs, animals, geometrical designs and amphora-helmeted pygmies. Please see our page at Villa Silene  for further details.

 

The Leptis Magna Market:

the circular ancient market
The Ancient Fabric Market of Leptis Magna.

the circular ancient market

This grand market was originally built in 9 BC, and was later rebuilt during the reign of Septimius Severus. It must have been a busy centre of business and commerce, where traders exchanged goods and merchandise between Africa, Rome and Phoenicia. The harbour (see photo at the top) would have been one of the busiest in the southern Mediterranean basin. This round structure is the fabric market, followed (behind in the picture) by the vegetable & fruit market. One of the main preserved features of these markets are the stone measuring tools (see below).

Length Measuring Stone

the fabric market showing a stone with lines marked as a measuring tool
Fabric Measuring Stone From The Fabric Market.

A measuring stone at the Fabric Market. The stone shows different units of measurements, just as modern rulers do, for measuring fabric lengths. It is difficult to guess what the small units are, considering fabrics are measured in long lengths like meters or yards. Imagine you have a bit left in a roll and that the buyer wants to buy it all. To unfold the entire roll and measure it meter by meter would seem tedious, but measuring the thickness of the roll against the small squares (or distances between the lines) the trader would know exactly how many meters left in the roll. (Please note that this is only a guess!) The stone at the top with the Arabic writing (which is also shown in English) does not belong to the same period; it is a recent addition to inform tourists of the nature of the stone. What about the standing blocks on each side?

 

Grain Measuring Holes From The Grain Market

the scales at the ancient market
Stone-dug measuring-holes for measuring grains, Leptis Magna Market.

These holes, which come in different sizes, were used to measure produce like grains. I presume the larger holes were used for wheat and barley, often sold in large quantities, while the smaller holes were probably used for products that are sold in smaller quantities, like beans.

the scales at the market

Once the holes are filled with the required product, the customer places his or her basket under the scales (see above photo), between the two standing stones supporting the holes (or the scales), and then the trader pulls the plug and lets the contents fall into the basket below the hole (see photo below for the hole at the bottom of the hole). Note the two lions guarding the scales at the top of each supporting stone.

the scales with holes at the bottom to let the produce into the container below

 

Mausoleum of Duirat Castle

Mausoleum of Qaser Duirat

Mausoleum of Qaser Duirat, 200 AD, Leptis Magna Museum.
(Please note that this is an image made of the same mausoleum shown twice from different sides. In reality there is only one mausoleum.)

The original location of this funerary monument was about 2 kilometres south-west of Leptis Magna city (Lubdah). It was moved to its current location outside Leptis Magna museum for safety reasons, owing to the high voltage pylons which passed by its previous location. This mausoleum is among the best preserved mausoleums and most decorated of all the Mausoleums found in Libya. Among the designs are the zodiacal and astrological signs. The name found inscribed on the monument is half Roman and half Libyan, which indicates that the tomb belonged to a Libyan dignitary, as it was the custom then for dignitaries to keep their Libyan name in order to indicate their ancestry. The structure was dated to 200 AD.

 

gorgon's head from Leptis Magna

The Libyan Gorgon

 
 
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