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
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.
Consider yourself lucky that that is all I know. Since living in Rome I’ve read quite a bit about the emperors and their atrocious appetites, but beyond this the defining feature of antiquity is how uninteresting it is to read about. Now I am no stranger to boredom. I have been bored for much of my life by many things, but equally, I have also been interested by many other things. Antiquity, my latest interest, represented a weird synthesis-a kind of short-circuit-of these two currents of my life. For the first time, I was bored by what I was interested in. I didn’t fight it. I would go to Leptis not knowing anything about it. For classicists and archaeologists, a visit to Leptis was probably the summit of a lifetime’s study, but I was putting my faith in the power of ignorance as an investigative tool. Where Foucault proposed an archaeology of knowledge, my trip would proceed in the opposite direction: the archaeology of ignorance.
Leptis is just outside Khoms, 80 miles or so east of Tripoli. The entrance to the ruins is indicated by the arch of Septimius Severus: scaffold-clad, in the process of some kind of renovation-and therefore disappointing. Reminding us that the past’s survival is not entirely the result of its own stored reserves of longevity, scaffolding is fatal to the spell of antiquity. It gets-mediates-between the clean lines of ancient stone and the framing timelessness of the sky. I moved on to the Palaestra, an expanse of grass and scattered columns. Immediately there was the sense-which I’ve had in only a few places in the world-of entering not so much a physical space as a force-field, where time stands its ground. The feeling is akin, perhaps, to what some people feel on entering great cathedrals. That I’d never been able to feel it myself was due, I assumed, to a lack of-even a profound aversion to-the faith which had inspired the buildings. Equivalent places-mosques, synagogues-left me cold, too. Then, at the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas, I had a revelation. In that famously non-denominational environment-a place designed to provide a setting for contemplation of the spirit by those who, like myself, did not feel at home in any of the more traditional places of worship-I felt… nothing. Not a thing. There, surrounded by the fathomless darkness of the paintings, I realised I could never experience a sense of spiritual arrival indoors. DH Lawrence experienced exactly this sense of arrival, of “something final,” at Taos Pueblo. While some places felt temporary on the face of the earth, Taos, according to Lawrence, retained “its old nodality.” It is the same at Leptis. It is not a place you enter, but the dream-space of the past: a zone.
You feel this especially strongly in the Severan Forum. Enclosed by four high walls and a huge lid of sky, the Forum is hidden until you are inside it. The effect, when you enter, is hard to describe. In the Palaestra I felt that I had entered the force-field of the past; here, I was completely enclosed within it, walled in. This feeling is all the more marked because of the scale of the place, so huge that it is difficult to think of comparisons (so many basketball or tennis courts). Also, unlike the Palaestra-open, sparsely columned-it is dense with debris. It looks like a storage room or warehouse for bits and pieces of antiquity awaiting sorting and export. As well as a jumble of pillars and plinths, limestone fragments are stacked up in neat piles as though the site were about to be redeveloped as a Cotswold village (Leptis on the Wold) with authentic dry-stone walling. Along the perimeter wall were columns and colonnades. It had been raining heavily as I approached Khoms, but the marble slabs in the Forum were already dry enough to sit on (no wonder simulated marble is popular for kitchens and bathrooms).
One of the columns, bathed in writhing shadow, was filled with writing. The elision of the transitory and permanent-“Here lies one whose name is writ in water”-was held vividly in balance. To that extent my impressions conformed loyally to a template established by the Romantics. In other ways, though, my sentiments ran counter to theirs. The vast and trunkless legs of stone evoked by Shelley in Ozymandias are emblems of the futility of tyranny, the transitoriness of power. In Leptis, the sense was of power’s capacity to endure. This is why Albert Speer evolved his Theory of Ruin Value, planning Hitler’s monuments with a view not just to their immediate impact, but to how they would appear millennia hence, when nothing survived of the Thousand-Year Reich except ruins to rival the great models of antiquity. (It didn’t quite work out that way, but you can see what Speer had in mind.)
Another bank of clouds moved swiftly across the ruins of the Forum. The sky darkened, brightened, grew dark again. Perhaps it was not the clouds which were moving but the earth itself, going through the motions of its orbit at a furious pace. It was like experiencing time from the perspective of the ruins: years, decades, even centuries whizzing by like a day viewed through a time-lapse camera. For a short while the stones retained some of the glow they had absorbed from the sun. Then, as the sky became uniformly grey, the stones lost their iridescence. I felt disappointed, cheated. As the gloom settled, it suddenly seemed to me that I had spent the last 15 years dragging the same burden of frustrated expectation from one corner of the world to the next. I felt I could no longer put up with the rollercoaster emotions of travel, the surges of exaltation, the troughs of despondency, the huge stretches of boredom and inconvenience. It was no longer pleasant sitting in the Forum, but the prospect of going back to the hotel seemed even more wretched. Then it started to rain again.
Apart from a few feathers of cloud, the sky next morning was clear. Birds were singing. The air was chilly, waiting to become warm. I drifted round the site so that I could see the intersections of columns, sea and sky in new ways, new angles. Perhaps the simplest lesson of antiquity is that, after a time, anything vertical-Doric, Ionic, Corinthian-commands admiration. Ultimately, though, the lure of the horizontal will always prove irresistible.
Some columns sparkled slightly in the sunlight-the almost invisible remains of marble cladding long since stripped by erosion or thieves. That, I guessed, was the practical explanation. But it seemed also that these columns had been cast from such stuff as stars are made of. And just as stars are often dead before their light reaches us, so what I was seeing now seemed the light of the dead city.
I walked for hours without encountering a single person. It became hot. The moon appeared over the Arch of Trajan. Eventually, in the late afternoon, I found myself back in the Severan Forum and the adjacent basilica. The walls and columns are made of limestone; they glowed gold as toast against the sky. I looked at my book on Leptis and again made little progress. One page featured an artist’s impression showing what the city would have looked like in its glorious heyday. From this perspective, what remains is a kind of forensic evidence-a negative blue-print-of what was. The more meticulously done, however, the less convincing such reconstructions become: for me, antiquity is not what can be deduced, but what remains. Joseph Brodsky thought that antiquity was ‘”a vast chronological jumble,” “a visual concept, generated by objects whose age escapes definition.” By giving in to my indiscipline and laziness, by failing to follow the history of the town’s development, I had remained faithful to Brodsky’s definition of antiquity. As far as I was concerned, Leptis only really got going when it fell into ruin, its decline was its glory (and vice versa). From this point of view, the site was still in the early stages of a career of ruination which would ultimately end as desert, when the horizon would be undisturbed by any vestige of the vertical: the final triumph of space over time.
Sitting in the Forum, I was overcome by the simplest of emotions: I was glad I had come. Not only that: I was glad that Leptis was in the unwelcoming, unappealing land of Libya. In Rome, in 1956, the Forum seemed to John Cheever “to be a double ruin: a ruin of antiquity and a monument to the tender sentiments of 18th and 19th century travellers, for we see not only the ghosts of Romans here but the shades of ladies with parasols and men with beards and little children rolling hoops.” This is exactly the history invoked by Roman ruins in Italy: the history of visitors on the grand tour, aghast at the wonders of antiquity. Here, though, in unvisited Leptis, there was no sense of that long history of prior tourism. Even if the site had been previously visited extensively-by my girlfriend’s parents, for example-the Gadaffi era had isolated Leptis from its recent past, and, in so doing, had brought the distant past into an extraordinary adjacency with the present. Stripped of the history noticed by Cheever, the ruins were bathed in a perpetual present-a kind of eternity-of which the golden light and stalled moon were the perfect expression. In a vaguely Rilkean fashion it had sometimes seemed to me that the sky was always at its bluest around trees. In fact, I now saw, it is far, far more blue around an antique column or arch. The blue here, the blue which frames the broken columns of Leptis, is especially deep because… well, let’s take a detour into the realm of speculative optics.
Extrapolating from the primitive’s proverbial fear of the camera stealing his soul, let’s assume that it is the same with places, eroding them slightly with each click. Perhaps, in similar fashion, even looking does this. Visiting, say, the Forum in Rome, it is difficult to see it with your own eyes (I saw it through Cheever’s). In a sense, there is nothing left to see. Because Leptis Magna is so radically under-visited, so unseen, its sky and columns have not been diminished, have not been diluted by looking. That is why you feel its nodality so powerfully. That is why the need to have seen is satisfied here so profoundly. You have to have seen it to believe.