Monday, October 19, 2009

Romans in the Stone

When I learned about 6 months ago that I was going to be posted to Tripoli, I immediately checked the travel guides for things to do in Libya. I mean, I was going to be living here for years, so I might as well check out what I can look forward to.

The main attractions that the books I read pointed out to were Leptis Magna and Sabratha. These were among the most well-preserved ruins of the major cities of the Roman Empire. A diplomat friend of mine, who is an adventurer of sorts when it comes to seeing the wonders of the world, told me almost two years ago how interested he was in seeing the Roman ruins in Libya.

The descriptions that books gave of Leptis Magna and Sabratha seem to state that the two places are some sort of time warp that made you able to see so well how they looked as they did at the time of the Empire. It seemed to have been forgotten by time and untouched by man's relentless drive for progress and development.

So when Cay and I got here in Libya, we looked forward to the time when we can visit the ruins. The good news is, one down, one to go. This week, we got to be tourists in Sabratha.

My interest in visiting the Roman ruins in Libya isn't just because I wanted to see a tourist spot. I would like to consider myself a "historical tourist," if a term actually exists. I'm not the beach and nature kind of traveler. One of my main goals in life is to visit as many historical places as I can. I think about a place not primarily on its beauty but on its significance.

When I was still a grade school student, while my fellow kids were playing patintero and taguan, I was filling my head with things like stories of the Roman Empire, the Crusades, and the city-states of Greece. This lead to the most memorable part of the Foreign Service Officer Exams when I took it a few years ago.

When I was taking the written exams, I saw the history exam had a question about the Byzantine Empire and Hellenistic civilization. I broke out a wide grin that would make the Joker envious and make the big bad Batman wet his pants. It gave me the confidence to last throughout the entire FSO exams. Humility aside, when I saw that question, I already knew I had the exams in the bag. I don't believe in astrology but the stars were all aligned for me at that moment nonetheless.

Another fantastic coincidence happened relating to the historical periods I mentioned early in my career. My first trip as an FSO outside of the country was to Turkey. This was like sending a kid to a toy store that was also a candy store. Six weeks of travelling to such places like Istanbul (not Constantinople) and Ephesus was a dream come true.

Going back to my recent trip to Sabratha, it came about because the Embassy had government officials on a visit here. The visitors wanted to be able to go around during their stay and I wanted to check another box in my list of goals. A visit to Sabratha was a win-win situation.

Sabratha is about a 45 minute drive away from Tripoli, located west of the Libyan capital. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I expected it to have a plethora of souvenir shops with annoying merchants aggressively selling their goods. Boy, was I wrong. There were only two small stalls there manned by friendly guys. They were more interested in chatting with visitors than doing business with them.

The entrance to the ruins was just 6 LYD. You can step into history for less than an IMAX movie ticket.

Before I ramble on about what I saw there, I should give a brief background on what Sabratha was before. Take it away, Prof. Wikipedia:

"Sabratha's port was established, perhaps about 500 BC, as a Phoenician trading-post that served as a coastal outlet for the products of the African hinterland. Sabratha became part of the short-lived Numidian Kingdom of Massinissa before being Romanized and rebuilt in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. The Emperor Septimus Severus was born nearby in Leptis Magna, and Sabratha reached its monumental peak during the rule of the Severans. The city was badly damaged by earthquakes during the 4th century, particularly the quake of AD 365. It was rebuilt on a more modest scale by Byzantine governors. Within a hundred years of the Arab conquest of the maghreb, trade had shifted to other ports and Sabratha dwindled to a village."

The first thing I saw was the enormous structure that was once the city's Theater.

The sight will instantly put you in a National Geographic documentarist type of mood.

Upon close inspection, the remnants of the Peristyle House near the theater look like Lego pieces that can still be built up if you knew the architecture of the period.

The House had mosaics that remained intact.

As we got closer to the Theater, I started to imagine the place bustling with life. Vendors hawking their wares made in surrounding towns. Merchants waiting for ships from Europe carrying precious cargo. Legionnaires patrolling the streets. Artists at work on their latest projects. Prostitutes trying to get patrons. (Okay, I think you get the point. Everyone was gettin' busy.)

The place was ancient but time and history was kind to it. It preserved an atmosphere that can both be haunting and wonderful at the same time.

A few minutes in the place and I was already in a "My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions" mood.

Have I told you my name is Maximus Decimus Meridius... What's that? Oh, I have. Well that's embarassing. Anyway, "I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next."

Walking to the top of the Theater, I got an amazing view of the city, the sea, and the surrounding areas.

I imagined the great Roman Navy's ships docking here, ready for more conquests.

The stage of the Theater had niches which depicted mythological characters and events.

There were various temples in the city dedicated to the different Roman gods. There were also Christian churches built during the early years of the religion. This one was called the Temple of Hercules.

This Roman bath beside the sea was something that easily caught our attention. The Seaward Bath's foundation was intact. This must have been where people went to take a dump in luxurious fashion. There was even a swimming pool in the place.

My name is Maximus... What the? Kanye West, what are you doing here?

Kanye West: Yo, Maximus, I'm really happy for you and imma let you finish, but Spartacus was the best gladiator of all time.

Uhh... okay. Let's look at more temples then. Here's the Temple of Liber Pater.

We also went to what was once Sabratha's Forum, which was the center of public activity, both economically and socially. Yes, it was both an ancient version of an SM Mall and a great place to pick up chicks.

Now here's what used to be a Christian church from the Byzantine period. This is the Basilica of Justinian.

On our walk back to the exit, we passed by the Mausoleum of Bes, which had a shape similar to the Rizal Momument in Luneta.

One can walk in Sabratha for hours just admiring the structures that remain. The best time to explore the place is in winter where the cool breeze will allow you to keep on going without fainting from the heat of the Libyan summer.

Now that I've been to Sabratha, I feel more determined to see Leptis Magna. The way the books describe Leptis, it's like the much prettier sister of Sabratha. That's something to look forward to, and I've got years to go here.

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