The Lonely Planet guide of 2002 described Libya as ‘quite possibly the last unspoiled outpost in North Africa’; also that, although now welcoming tourism it did so not without certain precautions, as it was ‘wary of foreign invasions’, intimating their frequency during its long history. That history goes back to Neolithic times and there was evidence of semi permanent settlements from 8000 BC. The indigenous peoples of North Africa, the Berbers, are descended from those early inhabitants. The first foreign arrivals were the Phoenicians, whose empire was in Tyre, Sidon and Byblos, now modern-day Lebanon, and who established colonies at present day Leptis, Tripoli and Sabratha. The Phoenician empire became known as Punic and the capital and centre of government was at Carthage in present day Tunis. The Punic wars with the Romans eventually devastated Carthage which was razed to the ground by the Romans in 146 BC.
In 631 BC the Greeks established the city of Cyrene and during the great period of Hellenistic colonisation they established the four cities of Barce, Tocra, Ptolomais and Apollonia (the port for Cyrene). With the fall of Greek dominance the last Greek ruler, Ptolemy Apion, bequeathed Cyrenaica to Rome.

The Roman Period
After the fall of Carthage Tripolitania became part of the new province of Africa Nova and in the east Cyrenaica was taken over as part of the Roman Empire in 75 BC. Eventually the two provinces became united under one administration, and by the end of the first century BC they formed ‘part of a cosmopolitan and sophisticated state with a common language, legal system and identity’. 1 The string of outposts of the Roman Empire along the coast of Libya represents the period of Roman rule and the era of prosperity enjoyed by Libya at this time and gives a clear and vivid picture of life as it was for the inhabitants. (Fig 13) The cities of Sabratha, Ptolomais, Cyrene, Apollonia and Leptis Magna remain with sufficient of their original architecture intact, or reconstructed, to fully recall the familiar aspects of Roman life - the forum, the markets, the temples, amphitheatres and baths. They have suffered from the years of weathering, the earthquakes, the occasional sacking by enemies, but they have not been built on, had roads driven through them, nor had their treasures removed, to any great extent, by foreign experts or those looking for building materials for churches or mosques. They are a striking and unforgettable experience, and they have a significant amount of Karystian cipollino in their decoration.

1 Ham, Anthony, Libya, Lonely Planet publications, Melbourne, Oakland, London, Paris, 2002, pp 9-11.

Maps and Plates

Fig 13.jpg

Fig 13 Map of Libyan coast showing archaeological sites