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Sahara

Day 84: Sirte to Tripoli

Sirte to Tripoli, Libya 
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All the world's a stage. The theatre at Leptis Magna, near Tripoli.
Michael Palin - SaharaA few miles short of Tripoli is Leptis Magna, the richest and most magnificent of all the Roman cities in Africa. We pile out and take the tour. It is indeed wonderful, much more grand than Cyrene and much bigger too. A paved street, the Via Colonnata, runs for almost half a mile, and to walk its well-worn slabs is to feel yourself in the heart of a great city. The smaller details stick in my mind, like the beautifully carved dolphins standing on their heads in the market, probably the sign of a Roman fishmongers' stall, but the massive interior of the new Basilica at Leptis is hugely impressive.

It was used as a law court and standing in it, dwarfed by the mighty Aswan granite columns, is to experience an almost palpable sense of the brute force of Rome.

Next to it, the 300-foot-long, 200-foot-wide Imperial Forum is like a vast mad monumental mason's yard. Columns, capitals, decorated friezes, plinths, pendentives, bas-reliefs and massive heads with curls like eighteenth-century wigs lie around as if an earthquake had just struck.

The sumptuousness of Leptis Magna may look very European, but it would not have been built without Saharan money. The bread which Libya so copiously supplied to Rome could not in itself have provided sufficient revenue for excess of this scale. The difference was made up of the wealth of gold, ivory and slaves, brought here on caravans from across the Sahara Desert.

There is a parallel here with the wealth of present-day Libya, which also comes from the desert. Gaddafi's oil, which is not only copious but also of very good quality, keeps the West going, the same way Libyan grain kept Rome going. Who needs who most?
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 84
  • Country/sea: Libya
  • Place: Leptis Magna
  • Book page no: 224

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