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Lepcis Magna. Between Late Ancient Times and Islamic Invasion

In the summer of 1920 the excavations of Lepcis Magna started under the direction of Pietro Romanelli, Renato Bartoccini, Giacomo Guidi and Giacomo Caputo, who ran the Government Office for Monuments of Libya during the Italian occupation. They brought to the light the ruins of a marvellous town, which had been buried for centuries and, for certain aspects, had been protected under thousands of cubic metres of sand and alluvial deposits 1. The excavations and explorations were carried on also in the post war period both under the patronage of Italian archaeological missions and by English and French experts. Today much of the habitat and the monumental centre are still to be studied thus awakening the scientific interest of many archaeological missions that are carrying out excavations and surveys in the Libyan town (the latest excavations, co-ordinated by professor Luisa Musso ot the Terza Università of Rome dates back to April and May 1996) 2.
The most ancient findings date back to the end of the 6th century BC., even though tradition attributes the foundation of the town to Tyro or Sidone, during the Phoenician colonisation, at the beginning of the first millennium, thanks to its strategic position near the sea and to its big natural harbour. Lepcis Magna owes its name 3 to the Latin transcription of the Punic toponym Lbqy o Lpqy, which also referred to a town, situated in the present Tunisia (the town of Lamta), that was distinguished by the adjective Minor. Owing tribute to Carthage, with the defeat of the latter during the Punic wars (146 BC.), it was annexed to the Reign of Numidia under the rule of Micipsa, Massinissa's son. During the long fight between the Roman Senate and Giucurta, Lepcis backed Quinto Metello (108 BC), this becoming socia et amica of Rome. It underwent a considerable urban development under Augustus, and Traiano gave it the title of colony. Also very beautiful are the monuments built under Adrian .
However, Lepcis (in 193 ac.) obtained the ius italicum by one of its most famous sons, Settimio Severo. It was under the Severi that the town reached its maximum splendour. Just think of the columned way which ran along the Forum with a central lane of more than 20 metres width, that served for the chariots circulation and that had two lateral porticoed lanes opened to the central way. Think also of the Forum Novum , with its famous Basilica, and the temple dedicated to the Gens Septimia, or the exceptional tetra pylon , the big harbour and the circus, which show the Severi influence and which would require a much deeper attention. It has been said that, thanks to these actions, Lepcis Magna obtained a particular aspect, which definitively distinguishes it from the other African towns and brings it closer to the big metropolis of the Hellenistic and Roman East. However, the aim of the author is to describe the frail traces of Christian building during the short period of the Byzantine occupation. As it is well known, after the serious crisis of the 4th century, that ended with the Austurian invasion, Lepcis underwent Berber and Vandal invasions 4 (455 AC ca),and, during the first half of the 6th century had a new period of splendour under the Byzantine occupation during the Justinian revival. We must remember though that the town, that had been re conquered by the descendants of the Roman Empire, was largely abandoned and covered by the desert 5.For this reason the perimeter of the walls, built during the 3rd century 6 was strongly reduced by the Justinian militia and it encircled just one third of its original extension 7, including the area of the Ancient Forum, the Forum and the Ninfeo of the Severi, the Harbour . The only section of walls, that was reused by the Byzantines, seems to be the one which faced the sea 8. In other parts the walls were entirely rebuilt, except for the structures of circle of the Forum Severiano and those of some other buildings that were included in the new perimeter. During the Byzantine occupation some big constructions were used as redoubts: they had been saved from the Vandal invasion and were outside the area encircled by the new walls: this is demonstrated by the excavations carried out by Caputo in the area of the Theatre and some walls of the Market.
The Byzantine defences are characterised by the technique of the construction, that is much more accurate in the execution than the one used for the walls of Gallieno; even though it reused some blocks of the nearby monuments, the selection was very accurate. These walls are much more stable, they are made of well cut stones, linked by a very strong mortar, composed of grinded shells. To the South of the Forum, an incredibly interesting portal opened . It is one of the most important monuments of Lepcis Magna, explored by Bartoccini in 1925 9. It is built with recovered stone walls, on the two sides of the opening there are two rectangular towers, made accessible from the internal part of the town through two arched ways . A stone stairway, built up against the wall, opened the way to the higher passages. The portal we have just described is similar to those of Madaura and Theveste, both built in the same period, but also to the doors of Fortilizi in Africa, such as Tobna and Timgad 10.
Soon after the concquest of the African provinces, Justinian gave the control of Tripolitania to Sergio, naming him Dux; Sergio decided to live in Lepcis 11. The place chosen for the quartering of the troops was probably the Forum Novum. Infact, some interventions near the temple of the Gens Septimia - the building of new entrances and the closing of some structures - show a reorganization of this place . Moreover, the lateral tabernae, between the Forum and the columned way, are built over 60-80 cm of debris 12 formed by the ruins of some walls of the Forum itself, that was abandoned after the vandalic invasion.
Christianity must be arrived in Tripolitania passing through Cirenaica where powerful Jewish communities were present 13. The first Bishop we know is Archaeus, who spread the Gospel in the town of Lepcis Magna at the end of the II century 14.
His name probably belongs to a stranger. In the Council of Garthage of year 411, in which the great Donatist schism found its bases, participated also the Bishop of Lepcis, who, together with the Bishop of Oea (today's Tripoli), proclaimed himself in favour of the separation from the Catholic liturgy, unlike their colleague of Sabratha 15. Donatism, although condemned by imperial proscriptions and by numerous Fathers of the Church, among them also Augustine, went on spreading also after Donat's death (355) , and, after violent fights, it was at last tolerated. We must remember the groups of North African day labourers, known as Circoncellioni. Their name, within the Donatist movement, was in reality Agonistics (milites Christi); they represented the armed branch of the schismatic movement. They were oppressed peasants, who claimed better economic conditions and tax allowances from the established power 16. Most of them were exterminated by Constant during his African Campaign in 347-359. The Donatist Church continued to spread in some North African regions until the Islamic invasion, and Donatist communities were found in Numidia up to year 722 17.
The most representative monument of Christian building in Lepcis Magna is, in our opinion, the church that Emperor Justinian built in the central part of the Severi Basilica 18, dedicating it to Thetokos . This news was reported by Procopius in his book De Aedeficiis 19. Originally, it was a building with a nave 20 and two aisles, with galleries over the aisles and an apse in the centre of each short side of the nave 20. In each corner of the Basilica were little rectangular rooms, from which, through a stairway, the overhanging galleries could be reached; these rooms communicated through narrow passage obtained between the apse and the external wall.
The building should have been almost intact at the moment of its conversion into a church, and no important structural modifications were carried out. Only one of the two apses, the southern one , was reused, while the northern apse, in disuse, was despoiled of its marble panelling 21. In fact, the decorative display of the original Basilica had to be gorgeous; we may still find the pillars engraved by artists coming from Aphrodisia of Caria .
The southern apse, utilised as a presbyteral area, raised on the pavement of the Basilica of about 80 cm., was projected within the nave, through a platform of the same height. Inside there is a presbyteral enclosure, composed of six pedestals, recovered from the northern apse and between them, on both sides of a central opening, four engraved little pillars were settled, they probably had come from the Severi tetra pylon, that, located outside the Byzantine town, had to be almost entirely covered with sand and completely abandoned. The central opening of the presbyteral enclosure was composed of a marble lintel, supported by two cipolin supports, and led directly to the nave and the pulpit.
The altar is not conserved, but it must have been in the centre of the presbyteral area where there is a marble slab well inserted in the centre of the pavement. The niches obtained in the apse were readapted, through the use of steps, in seats where the officiating clergy found place. Immediately in front of the presbyteral platform, there is the pulpit, a structure composed entirely of recovered marble blocks . Two stairways led to the level, where the priest talked to the believers, composed of two angular capitals despoiled from the Severi arch, supported by little marble columns. It is difficult to tell what transformations have undergone the angular "chapels", because the explorations have completely removed all the debris deposited inside the monument. We know, through the exploration notes, that 80 to 130 cm. of debris had accumulated, as it is also shown by the baptismal basin located in the north west room. It is a typical cruciform font of the VI century, conceived for an immersion rite.
In the Forum Vetus there is a second church, with annexed Baptistery, brought to the light in the years 1925-26 by the explorations of Bartoccini 22. It was built exploiting the podium of a temple dating to the end of the I century a.C., wrongly attributed by the Italian archaeologist to the worship of the Magna Mater. No element of the elevation of the ancient pagan temple is still standing.
The christian building, of rectangular shape, has a typical basilical plant, with a nave and two aisles, separated by longitudinal arches, with only one apse, internally circular, externally linear with north-east orientation . In the opposite side of the presbyteral area there is a narthex, while on the left side of the central body a room opens with back stairs which had to reach the superior level. There were five doors through which one could get into the building, two of them were at the sides of the apse and one on each remaining side. Entirely built with reutilized blocks, the structure was well conceived in its external curtain, while the internal walls, which had to be plastered and probably frescoed, look less accurate.
The nave is divided into five spans. The central one is larger than the others and may have been covered with barrel vaults, supported by transversal ribs, which rested on colomns arranged in pairs. These, obtained by blocks of Corsican grey granite, lay on bases of dark grey marble, as the Corinthian capitals which complete them. It is very interesting the likeness of these elements with those employed in the Constantinian restoration of the Basilica Vetus, from which they may have been recovered.
The presbyteral area was, also in this case, higher than the pavement and located on a platform, accessible through steps and closed by the apse. In the centre of this platform the four bases of a canopic jar remain to witness the presence of the altar. A throne must have been in the centre of the apse, where a trace of a stone support still remains.
The narthex, built over a preceeding street, which had to serve the temple on which the christian building is located and the "Sacristy" were added to the main body of the church in a secon time, although it is not possible to give a precise date 23. Both buildings are vaulted and built with the same recovery material of the church.
The Baptistery is 30 metres far from the apse, at the centre of the paved area of the Old Forum. It is an open enclosure with a crucificial font in the centre, also conceived for immersion .The building is dated back to the VI century, both for the typical shape of its font , and for its caracteristic mortar, composed of grinded shells, that fastens the side walls of the structure and shows evidence of the Justinian interventions. It is not easy to give the church a chronological setting. Goodchild and Ward Perkins 24 propose to date it back to the first half of the V century, according to the presence of graves, in the area around the entrance door of the left aisle. These graves, that have never been studied, are, according to the two English experts, pre-Byzantine, as they consider the presence of graves in builtup areas in the first years of the Justinian reoccupation very unlikely.
Also the building techniques, so different from that of the opposite Baptistery, makes us lean to date the building back to the period of the vandalic invasion.
A third church can be found near the Severi colonnade. The explorations started under the direction of Caputo, but were interrupted by the war. The site is now almost totally buried because of a great fload occurred in the year 1945.
It is a set composed of three groups of connected structures . A small Basilica with nave and two aisles and a sole apse at the centre of the nave, bordered by two side chapels. On the north east side a series of rooms are located, among these, there is the Baptistery, while in the south west side, there is a wide yard which was used as graveyard. The entire building is composed of re-employed sandstone blocks and in part it embodies pre'existent structures. The nave and aisles were separated by columns, completed by re-employed Ionic capitals, which had to support the longitudinal arches.
It remains a pulpit, similar to that of the Severi Basilica, and ome traces of ornaments in the inside of the church, such as a tile in the north-west wall, with a red cross painted on white field, bordered by an alpha and an omega, at the end of the two atms. At the east angle of the left aisle there is a door that leads to the square Baptistery. In the centre of the room there is a cruciform font, with a central basin for immersion, which can be reached through steps on the four sides. Other rooms open on the same side of the aisles, but are yet to be completely explored. Thanks to these elements it is possible to date the church back to the VI century. It is probably one of the four churches which were built by Justinian in Lepcis 25.

Another Christian building, probably a Baptistery, has been located near the Severi harbour, in front of the steps of the temple of Jupiter Dolicheno . Mostly buried by the fload of the year 1945, it is not possible today to admire it. Anyway it was a very simple structure, with an irregular plant which ended with a rectangular exedra on the opposite side of the entrance, reached by a series of steps.
As far as Christian evidences in Lepcis are concerned, we must speak of some engraved blocks, found by Bartoccini in 1923 26, during a superficial cleaning of the area around the east pier of the harbour, near the small Severi temple, that was probably transformed into a church. Another Christian building was located near the Chalcidicon, in the insula n.8 of the III Region. It is a room which faces the street, whose interior has not yet been explored; the entrance, free of ruins, is bordered by two cipolin columns, on which crosses and birds of clear christian symbology are engraved.

Arab sources about the concquest of Tripolitania, started in 643 (22AH) and lead by 'Amr Ibn al 'As, do not mention Lepcis Magna 27. The town had probably already gone to ruin because of the assaultsof the Lawatans, who wanted to revenge the slaughter accomplished by Dux Sergius in 544 28.
El Bekri, who lived between 1028 and 1094, in a description of North Africa, informs us that the town was little more than a castle, where about one thousand arab knights lodged 29.
Al Idrisi, who wrotein the XII century, tells, on the contrary, that the decay and the end of Lepcis Magna was due to the Arabs. He also writes "There are only two castles that are woth noting, where the Berbers of the Houwara tribe established their residence. Apart from these castles, it is possible to see, in Labda, a great and densely populated fort, on the seashore. There are also other buildings and a market is frequently held there" 30.
El Abdani, in the XIII century, says that the town had gone to ruin. In its surroundings lived some Arab tribes, in the gsur (castles) of Ras el Hamman, built by Emir Sulaym, between 1080 and 1099, on the ruins of a roman building (probably a defensive outpost), and Merkeb 31, located on the coast a few kilometres from Lepcis.
Archaeological evidence confirms the historical datum. In fact evidence of Arab presence, within the town, is very modest. Some structures of this period were identified by Professor Caputo before the war, in the Severi Square.
Other sporadic recoveries have been carried out near the Byzantine Door and near the Flavio Temple. This area, for its position between the Forum Vetus and the harbour had to remain, somehow, in function. The explorations of the Archaeological mission of the University of Perugia, carried out by Enrica Fiandra, between 1964 and 1968, in the area of the Flavio temple, that was excluded from the Justinian restoration, explored layers subsequent to the IV century 32, of which on of the most superficial can be dated IX century. In fact in its interior a coin of the Aghlabita dinasty (800 909 a.c.) and pottery of probable Islamic production, still to be completely studied, have been found.
The sand and the floods of the Wadi Lebda with the passing of time covered the ancient, marvelous town. Its marbles were carried to the palaces of the new powerful western monarches, in London and Versailles of the XVII century.

1 R.G. Goodchild, in Archaelogici I, 1946 (1948), 2072.
2 The participants have benn: the author, archaeologists Fabrizio Felici, Sergio Fontana, Massimiliano Munzi, Massimo Pentirci, antropologist Licia Usai and architect Niccolo' Masturzo.
3 On the local iscriptions the name Lepcis was used. However it was pronounced Lepchis and it was then transformed in Leptis in the Greek and Latin literary texts.
4 Ch. Courtis, Les Vandales et l'Afrique, Paris 1955
5 Procopio di Cesarea, Aedeficiis, VI,4, 1-5
6 Procopio affirms that the "town, that was once very big and with a very high population, became mainly desert".
7 Eugenio Manni, L'Impero di Gallieno, Roma, 1949, p.58. The author attributes the fortifications of the 3rd century to the intervention of Emperor Gallieno, also because of the reading of an inscription contained in a block of stonediscovered by Aurigemma in 1914, at about thirty meters from the Mausoleo of Gasr Shaddad. This inscription was dedicated to Valeriano, the Emperor's son. We must take into account the fact that, to the honour of Gallieno's wife, Leptis and its inhabitants had the title of Saloniani, as R.G. Goodchild remembers in one of its contributions, Recent exploration and discoveries in Tripolitania, Reports and Monographs of the Department of Antiquities in Triplitania II, 1949, pp.39-41.
8 R.G. Goodchild - J.B. Ward Perkin, "The Roman and Bizantine defences of Lepcis Magna", in Papers of the British School at Rome, n. s. 8, 1953, pp. 42-73; E. Zanini, Introduzione all'archeologia bizantina, Urbino, 1995, pp. 194-95.
9 Bartoccini, "Il Recinto Giustinianeo di Leptis Magna", Rivista della Tripolitania, II, 1925, pp. 63-72.
10 S. Gsell, Monuments de l'Algerie, II, 1901 pp. 344-84; D. G. Pringle, "The Defences of Byzantine Africa from Justinian to the Arab Conquest", British Archaeological Reports (IS 99), Oxford 1981.
11 Codex Iust. I 27, 2,1: Sancimus itaque, ut Dux limitis Tripolitanae Provinciae in Lrptimagnensis civitate sedes interim habeas.
12 R. G. Goodchild - JB Ward Perkins, The Roman and Bizantine ...op. cit., p. 60.
13 R. G. Goodchild - JB Ward Perkins, "The Christian Antiquities of Tripolitania", in Papers of the British School at Rome, 1951, p.1.
14 P. Romanelli, Le sedi episcopali della Tripolitania antica. Rendiconti della Pontificia Accademia Romana di Archeologia, IV, 1925-6, p.156.
15 F. Caabrol - H. Leclercq, Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, IV, 2 1457-1505; P. Monceaux, Histoire littéraire de l'Afrique chrétienne, Volume VI Paris 1922
16 W.H.C. Frend, "Religion and Social Change", in The Late Roman Empire, Cambridge Journal, May 1949, pp. 487-96; for this reason, E. Gibbon, the English historian who wrote in 1901 Authobiography,(London) compares them to the camisardi of Langue d'oc of the beginning of XVIII century.
17 A. Berthier, Les vestiges du Christianisme antique dans la Numidie Centrale, Algiers, 1942
18 B. M. Apolloni," Il Foro e la Basilica Severiana di Leptis Magna", I Monumenti italiani: reliefs collected by th R. Accademia d'Italia, fasc. VIII-IX, Roma, 1936. P. Romanelli, "La basilica cristiana nell'Africa settentrionale italiana", IV conference of Christian Archaeology, pp.266-70
19 Procopius of Cesarea, De Aedif., VI, 4, 4-5
20 R. Bartoccini, Africa italiana, Journal of history and art published by the Ministry of the Colonies, I, 1927, pp. 53-74; ibid. II, 1928-29, pp.30-49.
21 R. G. Goodchild, JB. Ward Perkins, The Christian, op. cit., p. 22
22 R. Bartoccini, "Scavi nel Foro vecchio", in Rivista di Archeologia Cristiana, VIII, 1931, pp.23-52
23 R.G. Goodchild - GB. Ward Perkins, The Christian, op. cit. wrote there could have been some changes during the works. 24 R.G. Goodchild - GB. Ward Perkins, The Christian, op. cit.
25 Procopio di Cesarea, De Aedif. VI, 4, 4
26 R. Bartoccini, Rivista di Archeologia Cristiana, VIII, 1931, p. 52
27 Isabella Siostrom, Tripolitania in transition. Late Roman to Islamic Settlement, Glasgow, 1993
28 Procopio di Cesarea, De Bello Vandalico, II, 21, 3
29 El Beckri, Description de l'Afrique Septentrionale, (ed. De Slane), Algeri 1913, p.26.
30 Al Idrisi (edrisi), Descriptions de l'Afrique et de l'Espagne Translated by Dozy and De Goeje, Leiden, 1866, p.154.
31 P. Romanelli, Leptis Magna, Roma, 1925, p.45
32 E. Fiandra, I ruderi del tempio Flavio. Vicende dal IV al IX secolo, Lubia Antiqua, XI-XII, 1974-75, pp.147-50

Enrico Cirelli

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