Libya is an ancient crossroads of civilisations that bequeathed to the Libyan coast some of the finest Roman and Greek ruins in existence, among them Leptis Magna, Cyrene and Sabratha. Libya also has some of the most beautiful corners of the Sahara Desert, from seas of sand the size of Switzerland and sheltering palm-fringed lakes (the Ubari Sand Sea) to remote massifs adorned with prehistoric rock art (the Jebel Acacus), labyrinthine caravan towns (Ghadames) and an isolated black-as-black volcano (Wawa al-Namus) in the desert’s heart.
The upheaval caused by Libyaâ€™s revolution in 2011 and 2012 continues and the whole country remains off-limits to travellers with chronic instability and ongoing conflict.
If you only see one archaeological site in Libya, this is the one to choose. Regarded as the best Roman site in the Mediterranean, Leptis Magna’s spectacular architecture and massive scale will impress even the most ruin-weary traveller.
House of Yusuf Karamanli
Just south of the Roman Column Crossroads, the House of Yusuf Karamanli dates from the beginning of the 19th century and was the private residence of Tripoli’s former ruler. Although this represents an extravagant example, it provides a window on the world of private houses that once hid behind the medina’s high walls. The courtyard, with a fountain in the centre, is one of the loveliest in the medina and is surrounded by balconies.
Second in importance only to Leptis Magna, Cyrene is a must see. It ranks as the best preserved of the Greek cities of Cyrenaica, with its temples, tombs, agora, gymnasium and theatre originally modelled on those at Delphi. Apart from the spectacular Greek ruins, its location high on a bluff overlooking the sea is stunning.
The Severan Basilica, 92m long and 40m wide, ran along the northeastern side of the Severan Forum. The basilica, originally a judicial basilica rather than a church, contained two apses at either end, a nave, aisles divided by red-granite columns and possibly a wooden roof. It was started by Septimius Severus and completed by his son Caracalla in AD 216 (read the dedicatory inscription on one of the panels of the nave).
Other Places Of Interest
Old British Consulate
The Old British Consulate building, west of the Gurgi Mosque on Shari Hara Kbira, was first constructed in 1744 as a residence for Ahmed Pasha (the founder of the Karamanli dynasty) during the final phase of his reign (1711-45). From the second half of the 18th century until 1940, it was the office of the British consul. In addition to iplomatic representation, the consul’s representatives used their position to launch expeditions into the Sahara with an eye on lucrative trade routes.
The Circus (or hippodrome) is reached via a side passage on the western side of the amphitheatre. Dating from AD 162 during the reign of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, it was home to chariot races attended by up to 25,000 people. The long side of the track ran for 450m while the short sides were only 100m in length. As such, it was one of the largest known circuses outside Rome.
The arrival of water and marble in Leptis early in the 2nd century AD prompted the Emperor Hadrian to commission the superb baths bearing his name. The baths were opened in AD 137 (some archaeologists put the date at AD 126-27) and they quickly became one of the social hubs of the city. Attention to detail was a feature of the baths and in keeping with well-established Roman tradition, the baths lay along a north-south axis and the symmetry of the buildings was a key requirement.