A rewarding destination
The recent war has interrupted travel to Libya, but hopefully visitors will be returning soon to this most rewarding of destinations for archaeology-related travel. This vast country, some 3 times the size of France, comprises a 1000 mile long Mediterranean coastline backed by the enormous expanse of the Sahara desert. Along the coastline entire ancient cities have lain buried in sand for centuries, and are now World Heritage sites, while the great Sahara desert holds even older secrets and a fascination all of its own.
Saharan Archaeology: Stone Age artefacts here date back hundreds of thousands of years, and there are internationally important rock art sites dating from when the Sahara was not desert but well-watered grasslands. The Fezzan region of Saharan Libya was once home to a remarkable desert civilisation, a Berber tribe known as the Garamantes who, from about 500 BC, made the desert bloom with their irrigation technology. Traditional Berber settlements are still a living feature of the Libyan landscape, The oasis town of Ghadames, about 300 miles south-west of Tripoli, is a prime example.
Coastal Settlers: Since prehistory Berber tribes have worked the trans-Saharan caravan routes, bringing gold, ivory and other products from the African interior to the coast. From about 800 BC trade was boosted by contact with seafaring Phoenician and Greek traders, who established settlements along Africa’s Mediterranean coast. Over the centuries these settlements became very prosperous, and grew into major Carthaginian and Graeco-Roman cities. The three Phoenician foundations in western Libya became known as the ‘Tripolis’, while the five Greek foundations in eastern Libya became the ‘Pentapolis’.
Classical Cities: Libya’s capital, Tripoli, is built on ancient Oea, one of the original Tripolis, while Libya’s second city, Benghazi, is built on ancient Berenice, one of the Pentapolis. Other ancient cities have remained largely abandoned for centuries, and today present a wonderful array of archaeological sites excavated from the sands.
Leptis Magna: The best known is Leptis Magna, which particularly benefited from the munificence of Roman Emperor Septimius Severus, who was born there in 145 AD. A stroll through the excavated streets and grand ruins of Leptis Magna is certainly the archaeological highlight of a visit to Libya. and yet this country’s impressive classical heritage is but one facet of a longer historic duree which continues to influence the world.
For more on Libya read our Recommended Publications