Leptis Magna. The four syllables were a summons. As soon as I heard them I knew I had to goby Geoff Dyer / August 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2000 issue of Prospect Magazine
Towards the end of the 20th century I lived with an Italian girlfriend in Rome, where I became conscious of what used to be called the grandeur of antiquity. Valeria had been born in Tripoli, and one day she showed me some photos of her mother and father in their teens, courting in some Roman ruins on the Mediterranean coast of Libya. These images of an ideal colonial romance showed Mario in a white shirt and pleated grey trousers, Anna in a white dress. They were tanned and wearing sunglasses, leaning against columns, perched on chunks of antiquity. The sky looked amazingly blue. In one picture Mario had his arm around Anna’s shoulders, in another they were holding hands. Often the sea could be seen behind them. In front of them-behind the photographer’s back-was, I imagined, the desert, the huge beach of the Sahara.
What was it called, I wanted to know, this buffer of ruination between sea and desert? Leptis Magna, Valeria told me. Leptis Magna. The four syllables were as much summons as name. As soon as I heard them, I knew I had to go there. There may have been other equally impressive, more accessible ruins in Syria and Turkey, but from that moment, Leptis, for me, became the ruin, metonym and epicentre of antiquity. “The desire to have seen,” writes John Berger, “has a deep ontological basis.” I would go to Leptis to see it in the flesh, to see it for myself.
Until recently-until the Lockerbie bomb suspects were handed over for trial and the Libyan government paid compensation for shooting Yvonne Fletcher, the British policewoman, from a window in their London embassy (one of the more gratuitous acts of international aggression in our time)-this was next to impossible. Even now that it is possible to travel to Libya, it’s still unusual. Tours are occasionally arranged for those with a special interest in archaeology or in schlepping across the Sahara, but it’s almost unheard of to travel there independently. Information about travel in Libya is, consequently, pretty thin on the ground. There are dozens of guides to neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia; none to Libya. I couldn’t even buy a map or book a hotel. I did buy a book about Leptis but, despite my fascination with the place, I couldn’t read more than the first couple of pages, couldn’t follow the story of the founding of the city, its history, its architecture, its glory and subsequent decline. It was built on the site of a Phoenician settlement some time between the prehistoric days of Raquel Welch’s fur bikini and the chariot race in Ben Hur. That much is certain. The ampitheatre was inaugurated in about AD 1 (an easy date to remember) and was granted colonial status under the Emperor Trajan in AD 109. The spectacular monumental buildings were built in the reign of Septimius Severus (193-211). After that, apart from getting trashed (possibly by the Vandals) in 523, reclaimed by the Byzantines a few days later (relatively speaking), and burying its head in the sand (going ostrich, as archaelogists tend not to say), it was a complete blank.