Leptis Magna, Jewel of Libya

            Why this emptiness after joy?

            Why this ending after glory?

            Why this nothingness where once was a city

            Who will answer? Only the wind

            Which steals the chantings of priests

            And scatters the souls once gathered.

              – Sidi Mahrez, from In the Country of Men, by Hisham Matar


Man is a fickle creature by nature; he spends his days toiling for the future, one eye on the greater and grander, yet always with the other trained on his past.  The future is uncertain, but the ruins of his forebears hint that what he leaves behind may escape the void of oblivion.  Perhaps this is why we cherish and protect the husks of ancient kingdoms and civilizations when we exhume their skeletons from the reluctant earth; in them we hear the whisper of immortality.  Snow covered grounds hold their icy secrets firm and the tropics hide their water-logged treasures deep.  But the desert with her arid heat and shifting sands protects her artifacts with a delicate hand and covers them with just enough sand to preserve.  The Pyramids, Palmyra, and the Ruins of Carthage are well traveled and documented, but few know of or have seen the heirloom she relinquished in just the last century: the pristine ruins of Ancient Rome’s Leptis Magna.

Leptis Magna stands sentinel over the shores of Libya’s Mediterranean coast, east of Tripoli, in the District of Khoms.  Recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as one of the most significant anthropological relics of North Africa, its excavation, begun in 1920, has for years brought archeologists from around the globe to study its wonders, many of which remain unearthed.  The UNESCO World Heritage Convention calls the city “a unique artistic realization in the domain of urban planning. It played a major role, along with Cyrene, in the movement back to antiquity and in the elaboration of the neoclassical aesthetic” and “incorporates major monumental elements of that period. The forum, basilica and Severan arch rank among the foremost examples of a new Roman art, strongly influenced by African and Eastern traditions.” (2011)  Leptis Magna reached the height of its prominence around 200 C.E. as the seat of power for Roman Emperor Septimus Severus, who brought neoclassical Roman influence to the Phoenician port.  Severus was a native of the city, and under his guidance it grew into one of the most important kingdoms in the Roman empire, at the time rivaling Carthage and Alexandria.  It was sacked by the Byzantines in the 4th Century, and after changing hands a few times it was finally swallowed by the desert where it lay forgotten for over a thousand years.

Statue of Septimus Severus in Tripoli Square

Leptis Magna has again become an important city, but now its significance is of a different kind to a different people.  A statue of Leptis’ native son Septimus Severus now stands in Tripoli’s principal square, and regardless of Severus’ ancestry, Libya scholar Frank Golino (1970) notes that “this statue has become a symbol of national identity in post-independence Libya.”  For Libya, the emperor and his ancient city stand as a source of pride, representing a time when her streets and arches were a beacon of cosmopolitanism and free trade.  Today, its identity is in flux.  Though its people and their tribes can trace lineages back hundreds of years, Libya as we know it is a yet a young country, claiming its independence from the British only in 1951.  But since staking its claim, it has spent many years in internal turmoil and cloistered from the international community, especially countries in the West, keeping many of Libya’s treasures a secret.  For foreign citizens wishing to bear witness to the majesty of Leptis Magna’s arches, temples, baths and circus, their only recourse has been to view photographs and hope that one day the draconian visa restrictions would lift.  In the last decade, however, many have finally realized the dream to see the city with their own eyes.

Tourism is in its nascent stages of development in Libya, whose government has in recent years opened the doors for foreign investors and private citizens from around the world to visit and cultivate her shores, cities, and ruins in an attempt to modernize and bolster an oil-dependent economy, though obstacles await the potential traveler.  In researching the materials available online, one will scarcely find a tour or travel log that omits Leptis Magna as an essential place to explore in Libya; in fact many regard it as the premier attraction in the country.  Many sojourners draw attention to how empty the ruins are when visiting: because Libya is so untouched by mass tourism, one is able to have a more intimate experience in the majestic city lost to time.  Many tourists also note how eager Libyans are to share their country and its history with visitors, and eager to make contact with those who might in turn share their memories and experiences of Libya with the rest of the world.


A Diamond in the Rough

            Buried beneath sand for a millennium and largely obscured from the world since its revelation, Leptis Magna remains a largely unexplored relic though this isolation has led to some positives for those still wishing to visit.  World traveler Tom Coote (2010) observes, “If Leptis Magna was in Tunisia or Morocco or Egypt, then it would be crawling with thousands of tourists. As it is, it receives remarkably few foreign visitors.” For those who have experienced the kind of mobs that swarm tourist attractions in Egypt, Greece, or Rome, it’s worth noting how many travelers found particular enjoyment in experiencing a piece of history in a relatively private fashion.  As Colin Hepburn (2010) recalls his experience with Leptis Magna, “This is one sight in Libya not to be missed. Try to get there as early as possible: I went there shortly after the gates opened at 0800 and had the entire place to myself for an hour and a half, with not even a security guard in sight. It was absolutely magical.”  Traveler Annabel Simms (2010) comments, “We all felt that the best moments in Leptis were those when we separated to wander on our own through its orderly grid of streets, some still with stone public benches, without another human being to disturb the silence.”  The opportunity to have a personal experience with a piece of human history is a rare find in modern tourism, and is a common theme throughout for those who have had the chance.  Matteo Carri (2010) shares similar sentiments when commenting on his encounters with the people: “Libyans are proud and friendly people, generally well educated and, unlike other countries in this area, unspoilt by mass tourism. You will not find overly enthusiastic vendors harassing you to make a purchase while you are trying to enjoy the wonders of Sabratha or Leptis Magna.”  Carri alludes to the fact that a culture steeped in rampant tourism may negatively impact the experience of travelers; the disposition of the local vendors and guides they encounter in such environments tend to become mindful of profit rather than the cultural experience of the tourist.

Carri’s comments also touch on the important issue of the welcoming nature of Libyans to those visiting ruins like Leptis Magna.  Referring to his preconceived notions of Libya as a strict Muslim nation bearing the ideals of Gaddafi, Carri (2010) notes that he found instead a “friendly people, fascinating culture and archaeological sites which rival Machu Pichu, the Pyramids or Petra.”  Tour guidebook writer Victor Borg (2011) shares the sentiment and notes that while such archeological tours are expensive due to mandates that guides must be present with all travelers, “The upside is the complete absence of touts (solicitors) and the legendary hospitality of the Libyans, who treat tourists more like guests than clients.”  Professional Photographer Herb Schmitz (Meral, 2009) encountered complications on his voyage to photograph Leptis Magna, but observed that “once you actually pass through the red tape and mix with locals it’s actually a wonderfully warm experience.”  It’s clear that often expectations do not match the reality of visiting Libya and her ruins; most foreigners have preconceived notions of what it will be like to visit the nation notorious for Gaddafi’s iron fisted regime.  Instead of a prejudiced populace untrusting of the outside, visitors meet a warm and inquisitive people who in most cases will not even accept tips; their hospitality is a gift freely given, and they are eager to share their treasures.

The Consequences of Isolation

            Though the people wish to see more visitors experiencing what Libya has to offer, tourism to Leptis Magna among other Libyan sites has suffered the effects of the country’s rocky past.  Libya’s truculent disposition toward its neighbors and often the world at large have often persuaded travelers to choose other destinations.  The bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 by Libyan forces over Lockerbie, Scotland over thirty years ago has left a lingering cloud over the region.  At the time, this and other terrorist attacks were devastating to tourism world-wide as hundreds of thousands of flights were cancelled out of fear.  Graham Norton (1987), in his study “Tourism and International Terrorism,” observed:

It is this fear which now must be fought both by counter-measures, and by making plain to the vacationing public, particularly the American public, that to allow oneself to be panicked into becoming terrified is to play into those tainted hands, giving them a gigantically multiplied bonus, which will encourage still further terrorist attacks of the same type. This is a difficult task. For the tourist is, all too often, buying a dream. He will not buy if there is a chance that, instead, the holiday of a lifetime may turn out to be a nightmare.

Since the bombing, the state of Libyan politics has done little to bolster the confidence of the increasingly wary tourist looking to experience such a dream on Libya’s beautiful Mediterranean shores.  Though Libya officially opened her doors to international tourism in 2006 after a hiatus of almost three decades, travel is not easy: visas are difficult to obtain, and impossible if a traveler’s passport has a stamp from Israel.

Visitors must also be accompanied by a sanctioned tour guide and police escorts to travel anywhere in the country.  Though this requirement may arise more from a concern for the safety of the tourists than from suspicion on the part of the Libyan government, the lack of freedom to wander the country has taken its toll on the budding industry.  Eamonn Gearon (2007), writer for Middle East reports:

For many people, especially those used to independent travel, the idea of travelling as part of an organised group, to be shepherded from one ancient sight to another, runs contrary to the entire point of journeying in the first place: to enjoy that freedom of movement that is so often denied to them in their ordinary, workaday lives. Rather than subject themselves to timetables, schedules and the unnecessarily high charges made by tour companies, these people would rather not travel at all.

Complicating what is already a tenuous relationship with the world, Libya’s hands-on approach to the experience of its visitors will continue to deter a percentage of the most intrepid sojourners.

In spite of these hindrances, efforts of political progressives such as Gaddafi’s second son Saif al-Islam saw a slow but steady  increase in tourism through the late 00’s until political strife again threatened to derail the fledgling industry.  Journalist Sudarsan Raghavan (2010) traveled to a nearly deserted Leptis Magna in April of 2010, in what should have been high tourism season, to report on the failing tourist efforts by the Libyan government.  “The Leader (Gaddafi) has called for a jihad against Switzerland,” Leptis Magna tour guide Salah Krima admitted1. “Now, no one wants to come here.  We need to tell the world of our heritage, to bring tourists here.”  Raghavan observes that while Leptis Magna has remarkable tourism potential as a UNESCO site, there are no luxury hotels in the vicinity because investors are discouraged by the instability of the region. Until foreign interests see a Libya free of strife and unrest, they will continue to invest their capital elsewhere.

            1 In November 2009, Switzerland passed a law outlawing the construction of any new minarets, the tall spires built near or attached to mosques designed to perform calls to prayer.  The move has drawn scrutiny and backlash from both Swiss citizen and the international community. (Cumming-Bruce, 2009)

The Price of Revolution

            The past has taken its toll on tourism and international trade; but more recent unrest, specifically the revolution against the Gaddafi regime which began in February 2011, has had an especially devastating effect on the region.  China news source CCTV+ (2011) reported the harm befalling the nearby city of Al Khoms since the fighting began: “The war has brought great looses to the tourist industry of the city. There were averagely [sic] 300 tourists coming to Leptis Magna before, but now, it only hosts less than 30 tourists a day since the end of February. Ticket for each admission is 3 Dinar, so altogether the loss of ticket fee is over 800,000 Dinar in three months.”  The war has closed more than just doors to the outside; many residents rely on a certain amount of traffic for their livelihood, which is now being threatened.  Leptis Magna Guide Khalif Hwuita agreed.  “Now all the area is collapsing because we depend on such work,” he said  (Raghavan, 2010).

When the revolution began, in the middle of February 2011, the rhetoric surrounding Libya and Leptis Magna quickly became cautionary as fighting sprang up across the country.  The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO)  was one of the most vocal on the subject of tourism, discouraging all but essential travel to Libya.  Gemma Bowes (2011), writing for the UK Guardian, posted a warning on March 5th:  “No one should travel to Libya at present. Foreigners are still being evacuated, and the country is in a state of crisis.”  As all adventure tour visits must be booked through a tour guide, the article quoted Frances Tuke, public relations manager for the Association of British Travel Agents, who stated that: “Travelers who have booked a package are entitled to rebook alternative destinations or dates or, if they are not available, a refund.”  When an announcement urging travelers to forestall or seek refunds on their vacations reaches a population already wary of visiting the secluded nation, the danger to that nation’s tourism industry rises significantly.

The budding adventure tourism industry in Libya is also being stifled by the inactivity of the government in the area of archeological development.  The Gaddafi regime had done little to support the excavation work in Leptis Magna and other UNESCO site started early in the century.  Hafed Walda, a Libyan advisor on the nation’s board of antiquities observes: “[Archeological excavation] has been neglected by the regime for quite a while.  At one time it was seen as not Libyan heritage as such but imperialist.  I’m hoping attitudes will change — we want the department of antiquity to be seen as part of the Libyan identity and the future of Libya.” (Gumuchian, 2011).  Mirroring what seems to be the sentiment of many modern Libyans, Walda sees Leptis Magna and other significant Roman and Greek ruins as national treasures although he notes that at one time they were associated with imperialism.  This reflection may offer some insight into why tourism to these sites is still limited.

Archeologists face some of the most significant fallout from the revolution, as they attempt to free more buried relics from the sands.  “Libya is my second home and all this is the worst nightmare,” said British archaeologist Paul Bennett, who was at work when the fighting began (Butler, 2011).  Headlines splashed across the web and news stations as archeologists were evacuated from the embattled nation by the score as fighting pressed closer and closer to the UNESCO World Heritage sites of Leptis Magna, Cyrenaica, Aracus, and Sabratha.  What was believed to be the last group of foreign researchers in the country found themselves stranded in early March 2011, far from safe transportation and without means of communication as the ruling regime locked down internet and phone systems.  Savino di Lernia, head of the international team, recounts: “We were hundreds of kilometres from an airport, with the entire country to be crossed to reach it.” (Butler, 2011).  Di Lernia was able to contact Salah Agab, chairman of the Libyan Department of Antiquities by phone before he and ten others left the country in a C-130 Hercules military aircraft, and Agab assured them that all museums and sites were unharmed.  It would fall then to the civilians to defend their treasures.  Bennett, for one, was reassured by rumors circulating:  “I suspect local militia are keeping control in villages and towns,” he said.  “There are roadblocks . . . local people are protecting their property and their neighbors and in doing so are looking after the cultural heritage as well.” (Butler, 2011)

A Treasure at Risk

            While the future of archeological tourism was to some degree uncertain, it was becoming clear that as the fighting became more intense, the safety of Leptis Magna was in question.  As tanks moved closer, the world became suddenly aware that one of its wonders was surrounded by violence with little to protect it.  As the fighting pushed into July of 2011, The Washington Post proclaimed, “Leptis Magna, Libya’s most important archaeological site, has not been engulfed in fighting as the country’s conflict enters its fifth month. But airstrikes have been carried out nearby, and Libyans on both sides of the battle worry that the U.N. World Heritage Site could sustain damage if rebels in the east push toward Tripoli” (Londono, 2011).  It seemed, however, that both sides of the conflict — loyalists as well as revolutionaries — were committed to protecting the cherished Roman ruins.  In early June, a team of Libyan government officials escorted western reporters to Leptis Magna to prove that they had the area under control and that it was not in danger from the conflict.  Two weeks later, however, the rebels reported different findings.  “We received information yesterday that Gaddafi’s forces are hiding inside Leptis Magna,” said Abu Mohammad, the overall commander of rebel forces for the nearby town of Zlitan (Coghlan, 2011).  He continued, “There are more than five Grad rocket-launcher trucks among the ruins. They are inside the old buildings because they know that NATO will never destroy the area.”  Suddenly, a site that few outside Libya and academic circles had heard of before the revolution had become a focal point as the desperate forces of Gaddafi sought to use the ruins as a shield.  Time magazine (2011) weighed in as the circumstances became desperate:  “NATO officials overseeing the aerial bombing campaign against the forces of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya could target positions nestled within [Leptis Magna].   With NATO having escalated its efforts to topple the Gaddafi regime, no archaeological treasure — not even a UNESCO heritage site such as Leptis Magna — may be entirely safe.”  With NATO considering the possibility of striking among the ruins, the survival of the remains of the great city became uncertain.

Whether NATO would truly put Leptis Magna at risk was unknown, but the rebel forces within Libya made it clear that they wouldn’t put the lost city in jeopardy.  “This is not our mission, this is a mission for NATO,” said rebel spokesman Ibrahim al-Betalmal in regard to the airstrikes, distancing himself from the allied offensive.  “For now we are far from Leptis Magna, we have not yet captured Zlitan, but our fighters would not fight inside Leptis Magna because these are historical buildings.”  Al-Betalmal was just one of many of the revolutionary forces who expressed concern for the health of Leptis Magna.  “For us as Libyans, these ancient monuments are part of our proud history,” rebel spokesman Mohamed Ali said, referring to the erstwhile seat of Septimus Severus. “They are more precious to us than oil.” (Coghlan, 2011)

The Future of Leptis Magna

            Leptis Magna’s history with the modern world will always be tied in some ways to this revolution.  It stands as a beacon of pride to the people of Libya, who long to share their culture with the outside world.  Tourism is one of the few ways in which they have been able to draw the eyes of the outside world to their nation in a positive light, and just as visa restrictions were lifting, opening doors to the economic and cultural boost that was hoped would come with tourism, their doors banged shut again, violently.

In the years and months leading up to the revolution, the outlook was positive.  As a UNESCO site, Leptis Magna had become a part of every tour offered in the country, the beauty and history of its ruins first a draw from those in neighboring counties, and finally to the rest of the world, millions of whose citizens are eager for a new link to the past.  The secluded, intimate experience one could enjoy amongst the ruins became a theme among travelers who yearned for respite from the crowds that dilute the traveler’s experience in so many other places.  With travelers having been inundated, at other destinations, with hawking salesmen and tour guides eager to push them quickly past artifacts they had spent fortunes to see, many tourists found the peaceful serenity of Leptis Magna an unexpected boon.  Though both arriving at and moving through Libya was difficult, for many of the foreign travelers I studied, these struggles were quickly forgotten in the face of the  magical experience offered by the ancient ruins.

What is more, travel to Leptis Magna opened the eyes of many travelers to the welcoming arms of the Libyan people.  Tourists were shocked to find their illusions about Libyans shattered as they shared their stories, their food, and their history freely with the hospitality of a neighbor, rather than with the cold-eyed distance and intolerance associated with Gaddafi.  In all the accounts I read, none reflected a negative experience with locals.  Safety and goodwill marked the experiences off those traveling before the outbreak of the revolution.

Individual experiences such as these can have some impact on the world’s perception of Libyans, but many challenges remain for Libyan tourism in a broader sense.  Tourism articles are dotted with warnings from different time periods to avoid Libya due to the political climate, such as the Jihad announced on Switzerland in 2010.  This rhetoric suggests a sense of frustration from the people who have watched investors regularly pass over areas such as Leptis Magna because of the uncertainty surrounding Gaddafi’s regime.  In no case was this more evident than when the revolution began in 2011, and foreign governments began warning their people of the dangers of traveling to Libya for any reason.

Leptis Magna’s primary draw is for those interested in adventure tourism, and web searches on the ruins after February become marked with notes of how tourism is declining to the area and more specifically how the archeologists are being evacuated.  The archeologists themselves painted a fearful picture of the country as the regime began locking down telecommunications and travel; without the ability to communicate they were effectively blind and deaf as they tried to move from the remote archeological sites to safety.  They begin also the rhetoric of concern over the safety of the ruins, further implying that tourists may soon have fewer and fewer reasons to visit Libya.

Rhetoric published online about Leptis Magna during the first six months after the revolution began was the most alarmist, as almost every occurrence of the UNESCO site on the web involved its potential danger.  By indicating that they had not ruled out striking targets in the area, NATO forces created a global concern as the world watched anxiously in fear that a modern conflict could destroy a priceless piece of the past.  But Libyan civilians and revolutionaries seemed the most concerned; they feared for their historical sites and were doing what they could to preserve them, distancing themselves from any initiative that might cause harm to Leptis Magna.  Tourism was no longer an option as tanks and missiles were moved among the ruins, although government officials proclaimed the ruins safe.

Revolution has brought Leptis Magna to the world’s awareness during the site’s most precarious hour; external forces interfering with the affairs of the Libyan people have left the ruins in a more peril than ever before, as NATO airstrikes loom.  The Libyans, especially those leading the rebellion, seem dedicated to the preservation of Leptis Magna, a symbol of their heritage and source of national pride.  Tourism ground to a halt following the revolution’s inception, and the future of tourism to Leptis Magna remains uncertain.  The worldwide outcry over the potential of Leptis Magna’s destruction has brought the ancient city to the forefront of global discourse for the first time in centuries, and as to date it remains unharmed.  Perhaps when peace returns to Libya, the world at large will have more of a reason to visit the shores of the Mediterranean and the ancient Roman ruins that stand as the crown jewel of the Libyan people.

Sources Cited

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Crifasi, Meral (2009). Libya opens Leptis Magna to the world.  Retrieved from http://heritage-key.com/blogs/meral-crifasi/libya-opens-leptis-magna-world.  Accessed 10/22/2011.

Cumming-Bruce, Nick (2009, November 29).  Swiss Ban Building of Minarets on Mosques.  New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/30/world/europe/30swiss.html.      Accessed 12/3/2011.

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Matar, Hisham (2006).  In the Country of Men. United Kingdom: Dial Press.

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Raghavan, Sudarsan (2010, April 14). Libya’s efforts to build economy, tourism snagged by its own             capriciousness.  Washington Post.  Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-            dyn/content/article/2010/04/13/AR2010041304526.htm.  Accessed 10/22/2011.

Simms, Annabel (2010). Leptis Magna, Libya: Rome by the sea.  Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/activityandadventure/8167751/Leptis-Magna-Libya-Rome- by-the-sea.html.  Accessed 10/22/2011.

Tharoor, Ishaan (2011, June 14).  With Roman Ruins Under Threat, Libya’s Ancient Past Presses Against    Its Present.  Time.  Retrieved from http://globalspin.blogs.time.com/2011/06/14/with-roman- ruins-under-threat-libyas-ancient-past-presses-against-its-present/#ixzz1PSXvaZia.  Accessed 10/23/2011.

UNESCO (2011). Archaeological Site of Leptis Magna.  Retrieved from http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/183.  Accessed 11/13/2011.


One response to “Leptis Magna, Jewel of Libya

  • Who Calls Me

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