Part 1 of this blog spent time closer to Rome – highlighting sites in Europe that feature a strong presence of Roman history. Now let’s consider some farther reaching destinations…
We live in a world that was sculpted by empires of the past. And no empire left behind an array of ancient wonders quite like the Romans. To this day magnificent feats of ancient engineering astound those that lay eyes on them. I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Rome and experienced the sensation of wandering through the Colosseum, exploring the basilicas, and stretching my neck to appreciate the size of the domed Pantheon. The scale and skilfulness that built these ageless works of art are something to behold. Extending far beyond the boot (‘scuse the pun) of Italy, the Romans constructed numerous monuments, fortresses and ancient building projects across their vast holdings. Outside the former capital of Rome you’ll discover must-see sites that will leave you marvelling at the legacy of this once great empire.
When we travel, I marvel at the intricate beauty and grandeur of ancient sites while D puzzles over the logistics and engineering behind Roman construction. It is difficult for us, in a society accustomed to computers and scientific instruments, to imagine the complexity of engineering ancient buildings. One of the finest preserved in antiquity is the theatre of Aspendos. Accomplished in 155 AD, and built along a hillside, this 7,000-seat man-made wonder is still used today for its superior acoustics. Annual performances by local and international talent share the splendour of sounds that echo through the arena. Thank the god of theater, Bacchus, for this truly remarkable structure. He’s also the god of wine, so be super thankful!
The reach of the Roman Empire went far beyond Europe. Many Middle Eastern territories were, at one point or another, under Rome’s supreme rule. At the base of the Gilead Mountains, ruined remains of arched temple walls, infinite columns and a grand stadium lay across the desert land of Jerash. The Roman conquest of 63 BC ushered in an era of harmony and progress that spanned several hundred years. Apart from the Decapolis League, it became known as one of the ten great cities of the Eastern Roman Empire. Don’t miss walking (or even better running) the Cardo Maximus – the main road that leads into the ancient city – that is still paved with many of the original stones that were laid 2000 years ago. You can watch a live re-enactment at the original arena during the RACE performance. Witness battles between valiant gladiators, Roman guard marches and famed chariot races to fully appreciate the history behind the infamous Roman arena.
Located northeast of Beirut is the town of Baalbeck, famed for having one of the largest sanctuaries built during Roman rule. Alexander the Great conquered this area in 334 BC and began construction calling it Heliopolis (City of the Sun). Temples erected for the gods Jupiter, Venus and Bacchus cast considerable shadows over the landscape. For many who visit, the magnificent detail of the well-preserved shrines offers perspective into the how those worshipers would have felt looking upon beauty such that only the gods could grasp. Baalbeck had always been a pilgrimage site for the ancient religious. The giant stones laid at the Great Court of Baalbek are said to be some of the largest, if not the largest, ancient blocks ever. Sadly, this remarkable attraction is only an hour’s drive to Damascus, making it very difficult to reach and high-risk on the traveller safety scale.
Perfectly preserved Roman remains can be found at El-Jem, Tunisia, at the famous Amphitheater of Thysdrus. Completed in the 3rd century AD and capable of holding a rowdy audience of 30,000 (that’s more capacity than Madison Square Gardens), this is the third largest arena ever built in the Roman Empire. Presently the town has roughly 50,000 inhabitants, the same number it had during its peak in 238 AD. The amphitheatre remained completely intact until the 17th century when, sadly, stones were broken off to build sites instigated by the Ottomans who ruled over the town during that period. Deconstruction and stone relocation happened often in history to many ancient structures. For you movie buffs, parts of Gladiator were filmed at Thysdrus.
Leptis Magna, Libya
Located in Khoms, Libya (130 KM from Tripoli), Leptis Magna was once a great ancient city. It was taken over by the Roman Republic in 146 BC, after the Third Punic War, and converted into Rome’s primary African port. Increased commerce attracted hordes of merchants resulting in increased wealth for region and its populaces. When Roman emperor Lucius Septimius Severus, originally from the area, came to power, Leptis Magna was propelled into the limelight as Rome’s new favourite vassal. As a city preferred above all other Roman districts, Lucius initiated several massive building projects that transformed Leptis Magna into a truly remarkable treasure. Grand halls, vast chambers and the famed Arch of Septimius Severus, carved out of rich marble, glowed in the desert sun. Trekking along the stoned pathways you will come across the renowned Hadrianic Baths, full of colourful mosaics. Leptis Magna is exceptionally well preserved as it was hidden from the world for over thousand years, in sand, keeping its beauty a secret.