Ruins haunt us. They bespeak the end of all things; the transience of human endeavours and an emptiness where not even the ghosts can eke out an existence.
Libya was a backwater in the Roman Empire. The empurplement of its most famous son, Lucius Septimius Severus, founder of the Severan dynasty and conqueror of Parthians, was its most signal event. The Punic-Roman emperor never forgot his origins; he commissioned an extensive building program at Leptis Magna, City of White Stones. It all came to nothing. Once the veneer of civilization crumbled and the legions of the Second Rome - Byzantium - melted away, the metropolis was devoured by sand and lost to memory.
This lavishly produced coffee-table book surveys the various Roman cities of Libya which were exhumed from oblivion by Italian archaeologists in the first half of the Twentieth Century: Leptis Magna, Sabratha, Cyrene, Cyrenacia and Ptolemais. While the narrative covers off the history of the province, assuredly you are not purchasing this book for its text.
Bathed in gold as shadows amass, many of the ruins are photographed in the sunlight of late afternoon. The most mesmeric image of all is the photo taken of the medallions of the Medusa from the Severan Basilica at Leptis Magna. In varying states of decay, the trio commiserate in the twilight on their joint doom. Due heed is paid to the stupendous Roman theatre at Sabratha which the Italians restored to its former glory. What an edifice! The stage consists of three storeys of columns, no less. At last, here is a setting that is worthy of the Women of Troy or Oedipus at Colonus. Even so, I prefer its counterpart at Leptis Magna where the audience in the upper tiers could behold the Mediterranean as events unfolded on the stage. One wonders: what was the last play to feature in Antiquity before the curtain came down for good? Was it Sophocles or a bawdy potboiler? Not even the wind can answer. Likewise mute are the statues of the Dioscuri who gaze out manfully at the empty seating. What are they looking at? Are they trying to out-stare Eternity?
Both Leptis Magna and Sabratha have amphitheaters to their name. The Altar of Nemesis, a customary feature of such structures, has somehow ended up on the cobblestones of the former. Which much has been reconstructed, it awaits resurrection.
Being an advocate of busman's holidays, I am unlikely to see these wonders with my own eyes. The authors accordingly have my gratitude. Better still, if you want to glimpse New York in a millennium's time, purchase this book. And last person left - turn off the lights!
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