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.
An illustration of how Leptis Magna would have looked like.
Map of the main archaeological sites of Leptis Magna.
|1. Light House||9. Entrance to Excavations||17. Church||26. The Byzantine Gate|
|2. Doric Temple||10. Septimius Severus Arch||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||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 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 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.
A short video reconstructing the theater.
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 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, 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.
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.
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.
Have you ever wondered what an ancient street looked like?
An ancient street in Leptis Magna.
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 Ancient Fabric Market of Leptis Magna.
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
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
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.
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.
Mausoleum of Duirat Castle
Mausoleum of Qaser Duirat, 200 AD, Leptis Magna Museum.
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.
The Libyan Gorgon