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Under Sabratha's spell, near the sea in Libya

 Sabratha, Libya   The very name sounded exotic enough: Sab-ra-tha, the three syllables rolling in the tongue like some sweet, mysterious fruit. My husband Alex and I were in Tripoli for a visit, about three months before the Arab Spring of 2011 that started in nearby Tunisia. Many Filipino friends whom we met in the Libyan capital encouraged us to visit Sabratha, a coastal town on the northwestern area of the country by the Mediterranean. Because Sabratha was accessible by sea, many explorers had set foot there, and when the Romans held sway over the African continent, it became one of their strongholds. The archeological site was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982.
Details of the carving on the Basilica's pillar.
We started out early that morning together with our driver friend Mohammad, who pointed out interesting places along the way. Sabratha was about 60 km. from Tripoli along well-paved roads, and we reached the district of Al Zawiyah where the town was located in less than an hour. “Take all the time to go around,” Mohammad said, “you’ll be surprised yet!” He added enigmatically.   From the entrance we could see a Roman coliseum-like structure from afar to the right, but signs told us to go straight ahead along a well-trodden path of stone and marble ruins. This led us to the Temple of Isis, its tall marble columns soaring up to the skies. I attempted to climb a “low” tier (about 10 feet high) from the back, stepping gingerly on stones, and finally reached the level with much difficulty. I gasped at what I saw beyond: The deep blue Mediterranean, and more of what remained of the Roman influence on this North African land— massive square stones lying on the ground, a huge maze of a previous village, stone walls demarcating the individual abodes, seen clearly because the roofs had disappeared with time.
Marble sculpture of Roman soldiers on the walls of the theater.
Lured by the azure waters, Alex and I walked towards the direction of the sea. Just before we reached the promontory, we espied a beautiful mosaic floor on one of the stone buildings. We had to stop and gaze at it with wonder. It was so well-preserved we could clearly see the clean grout in between the mosaic tiles. Celtic knots, stars, geometric designs… we lingered a while deciphering the motifs and patterns, the sea breeze cool against our faces. There were so few visitors that day, too, and Alex and I felt as if we had the site all to ourselves! Beside this mosaic floor was a beautiful stone sculpture of a headless goddess, its feminine form limned by her flowing robes. It reminded us of the marble statues in the Uffizi in Florence, done by the Italian masters. 
Well-preserved mosiac floors with different designs, the Mediterranean at the background
Walking further into the Roman ruins we found a clearing with a tall pillar in front. We were in the Basilica, built around 375 AD, according to the marble tablet by the side. The pillar had intricate carvings around it: strange animals, flowers, plants, curlicues, and leafy decorations at the sides. Moving further in, we discovered another sign that said Basilica of Justinian, 527 to 565 AD. There was another large clearing surrounded by tall marble columns, and one could imagine the pomp and pageantry of the Romans as they celebrated their feasts and rituals within the walls of these hallowed grounds. To one side was the Baptistery, with its stone well for the baptismal ceremonies.   It must have been the tranquil atmosphere, the full view of the blue Mediterranean, and the cool air. I put down my shoulder bag and camera, and started to listen to the silence. I went and stood at the center of the open air basilica, and before long I was doing a meditation in motion —slow, deliberate movements of the Wu Tai Chi. Brush Knee and Twist Step, White Crane Spread Wings, Grasping Sparrow’s Tail, Single Whip… There was a palpable flow in the atmosphere, a force that made all the Tai Chi exercises so fluid and smooth. Looking back the exercise felt so right, the slow shifting of the weight from one leg to the other effortless, as the wind came up, whipping my tan tunic against my torso. Without my knowing it Alex was clicking away with his camera, and after that trance-like exercise I was surprised to see the photos he took, because I really looked oblivious to everything, having fallen under Sabratha’s spell!
Tai Chi among the Sabratha ruins
Another structure, the Temple of Serabis, indicated “Hellenistic Period” and only the floor plan existed. Almost everything was in ruins, save one beautiful stone with wavy markings; the name of the temple was written below it. So too, was the Temple of Hercules, where only one tall pillar was seen, with huge stone and marble ruins around it. More beautiful mosaic tile floors were seen as we walked around, and one could imagine the painstaking effort of the artist to choose just the right shade of 2 cm x 2 cm tile one after the other to form a beautiful whole. We passed by a tall monument, and the inscription said it was a Punic Monument, named the Mausoleum of Bel— indeed, it had a different style, more like a narrow tower, topped by a bevel-like spire with lions on four sides.   Finally, we reached the best-preserved monument in Sabratha: its theater. An arena-like area was encircled by tall tiers of stone seats not unlike an amphitheater. At the side enclosures were marble sculptures in bas relief, but it was the three-storey marble structure facing the arena that took our breaths away. The light amber-colored marble shone softly in the afternoon light, suffusing the area with a goldish tint. Tall marble pillars supported three levels of audiences, and these pillars were so high we could hardly see the highest points from where we stood, below. We could imagine the emperor seated at the center of the second tier surrounded by other high-ranking Roman officials on both sides, watching the show in the arena. The immensity of the edifice made our knees weak, so Alex and I had to sit down to slowly take everything in. We tried walking around the stone seating tiers, imagining ourselves as citizens here, watching the show. We noticed that at the back of this theater was already the sea, which probably provided a natural breeze to cool the audience during a performance!
The three-storey theatre auditorium.
We walked around the archeological site a bit more, and after a while noticed that many of the staff were kneeling on their prayer mats for noontime prayers. We repaired to a shady gazebo provided for visitors and opened our backpacks: especially prepared sandwiches for lunch, some boiled eggs, canned soda and beer, and indeed, that was “paradise enow!” We quietly had our lunch near the trees where some birds were nesting, so busy were they flitting hither and yon.   The soothing quiet was the best ending to our Sabratha visit, after which we went to the café within the premises to have some hot coffee. Before long, Mohammed appeared, smiling and kind. We were ready to go back to Tripoli. - YA, GMA News Photos by Alex Cua and Alice Sun-Cua