LEPTIS MAGNA, Libya The most vibrant cities of the Roman Empire were often not found in Europe. Many were located along the southern and eastern Mediterranean and Aegean, such as Leptis Magna, Ephesus and Pergamum.
Some of the most impressive ruins of these lost cities are in Libya, at Leptis Magna, whose stones have survived for two millennia. Acres of roads, arches, colonnades and temples arise out of the coastal sands, making Leptis Magna one of the most arresting sites of the ancient world albeit one closed to most Western visitors for more than 30 years. I've had the opportunity to visit Leptis Magna as a guest lecturer on a tour of the lost cities of Libya and Tunisia.
In an ironic twist, the fact that Leptis Magna and other antiquities in Libya have been off-limits for decades has meant that they haven't been much harmed by development or worn by tourist traffic. And much of the vast ancient city of Leptis Magna still remains unexcavated beneath the coastal scrub.
Once the ancient Mediterranean was brought under Roman sway mare nostrum ("our sea") in the first century B.C. E., a new homogeneous economy, from England to the Sahara, and from Spain to the Euphrates, replaced the old system of local barter. An improved standard of living among diverse peoples followed, a standard not seen again until the 18th century. Libya's Leptis Magna, for example, was as wealthy as any city in Italy, and its local son, Septimius Severus, once sat as emperor in Rome.
A common language (or, rather, two languages Latin in the west, Greek to the east), habeas corpus , sophisticated aqueducts and good roads ensured a certain uniformity to millions of people for nearly 500 years. This Roman culture was spread not just by the military. It endured because indigenous peoples believed such imported civilization had become their own and offered them more than any past alternatives.
We are currently witnessing a second globalization of sorts. International commerce, instant global communications and high technology have created a thin veneer of sameness that has spread among millions across the world. Yet, so far, the Middle East has been largely immune to the accompanying liberalization of politics and freedom that has slowly followed open trade and free markets elsewhere.
In Libya, however, something small is awakening. Cell phones are everywhere. Unlimited access to the Internet and unrestricted satellite television are taken for granted. A once isolated and stagnant country is scrambling to provide private hotels and facilities to lure in an international business class. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Libya gave up its program of weapons of mass destruction.
Indeed, after Saddam Hussein was deposed, the United States was supposedly disliked worldwide, its efforts at democratization stalled in the bloodshed of the Sunni Triangle. Yet here in Libya at least, people have been friendly to me and the Americans I'm traveling with and seem ready to resume relations and surprise Westerners with their newfound access to the outside world.
It may go mostly unspoken, but the removal of Saddam and the resulting effort to birth democracy in Iraq have sent tremors through the Middle East.
And even as Americans tire of the costs of reconstructing Iraq, millions of Arabs, who may not like interlopers in the ancient caliphate, are nevertheless curious to see Iraq's new politicians bicker and debate freely on television in a manner unseen in the past.
Look at what's been happening in the Middle East. True, the megaphones of the Arab state-run press are, as always, attacking the United States. But the Lebanese people are in a fury against their former occupiers, the Syrians. Tens of thousands of Jordanians took to the street to protest against the terror of fundamentalist Islam. Revolutionary Hamas is already looking ridiculous, as it tries to beg or cajole enough petty cash to keep its garbage collectors on the job.
And in Leptis Magna, where foreigners trickle back to rediscover the ancient sites, it's clear Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi's Libya is not quite the same place it was four years ago.
Back in America, pensioned generals and out-of-work diplomats who oversaw the failed old realpolitik of the past keep telling us that Iraq is a disaster. They are too quick to declare defeat.
The truth is that a huge rock was dropped in the stagnant Middle East pond by the removal of Saddam Hussein. If we keep our cool and remain patient, the ripples that are slowing emanating may surprise us yet as they do out here among the majestic stones of once-forgotten Leptis Magna.