What is the Ancient city of Oea?

Due to its strategic location and abundance of natural resources, Libya held great significance for past civilizations, yet why has it been forgotten and dismissed by many today?

Even though we are a bakery, we love connecting Libya's rich desserts, such us baklava, back to its history. It is through the many civilizations that inhabited the region that brought about the heavenly Libyan baklava we enjoy today. 

In this post, we will walk you through the remnants of ancient Oea that tell an intricate story of Libya's identity, struggle for independence, and hidden treasures. We hope you enjoy the ride and perhaps gain some appreciation for this Mediterranean jewel. 

What is Oea?

Oea is the ancient name for the northwestern region of Libya, where present day Tripoli, Sabratha, and Leptis Magna reside. 

The name "Oea" came from the Phoenicians who found haven in this naturally harbored region in northwestern Libya, where merchants formed treaties with the local indigenous Amazighi tribes to set up trading posts about 3,000 years ago. 

Even though the Phoenicians were present in ancient Oea, many of their structures do not exist today due to the settlements of the Roman Empire and excavations carried by the Italians during their colonization in the early 1900s. 

Old City Tripoli 

This historic neighborhood, located by the harbor and where the Phoenicians first settled in Libya, served as the city hub for the Phoenicians, Romans, Ottomans, and Arabs. Given its historical significance, there is a piece of history at every corner you turn. 

The first detail that stands out in that image is the Minaret of the Gurgi Mosque. This mosque was built in 1834 under the command of Mustafa Gurgi, an Ottoman Naval Captain, during the Ottoman rule of Pasha Yusuf Karamanly.

This historic monument combines European and Islamic art with its captivating colors and geometrics. The mosque is embellished with beautiful, white marble columns and vibrant tiles. 

The Homes of the Turkish Elites 

Not too far from there, stands the House of Karamanly, which belonged to the Turkish royal family who ruled Libya in the 1700s and 1800s.

Surrounded by beautiful mosaic-covered walls, this home now serves as an exhibition which highlights the rich history and traditions of Libya and the life of the elites during the Ottoman rule (note: baklava was likely adopted from the Turks during this period and the reason why the Libyan baklava exists today). 

The Arch of Marcus Aurelius 

These two sites are just a small glimpse of recent history in Libya. If you travel further into the old city, you'll come across the magnificent 2,000 year-old triumphant arch of Marcus Aurelius. This marble arch was built in 165 AD when the Romans conquered western Libya from the Phoenicians.

As seen in the photo, the arch stands below the ground level of current day Tripoli, which suggests that Roman Oea actually resides under the city we walk on today. 

However, since this old city was the hub for many civilizations over thousands of years, the history of some buildings is still unclear since each new empire or civilization that conquered Oea built over or modified ancient structures.

The Red Castle, for example, resides on the outskirts of the old city and is known for its red colored walls painted by the Spaniards during their 1510 invasion.

Some excavations of the site indicate that this  structure was built on top of an ancient Roman fortified camp. However, other historians claim that the original structure was likely built by the Phoenicians over 3000 years ago to defend their settlement in the region. 

There are endless structures around this small area alone, which includes the old Catholic church of Santa Maria, the Ottoman clocktower, and many more. However, let's travel to the city of Leptis Magna, which was a part of ancient Oea. 

The Roman City of Leptis Magna 

If you travel 77 miles (124 km) east of modern Tripoli, you'll discover the mesmerizing city of Leptis Magna.

This city became a part of the Roman Empire in 46 BC after the Romans defeated the Carthaginians during the Punic Wars. However, what's visible today is just a few Roman structures that were excavated during the Italian colonization in the early 1900s. One of the most prominent structures that reside in the area is the well-preserved amphitheater that overlooks the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean Sea. 

Most of this ancient city remains underground; however, and many believe that the majority of the city remains under the sand waiting to be discovered. 

Leptis Magna was not only an important city for the Romans to do business and export exotic goods from Africa to Rome. It also served as an important trading post for the Phoenicians prior to 100 BC.

Most structures and artifacts from the Carthaginians are difficult to pinpoint since Leptis Magna was built on top of the Phoenician city and Italian excavators focused their efforts on uncovering the Roman ruins, meaning that Phoenician structures were likely compromised during the process.   

As you can see, ancient Oea alone is filled with so much history that many do not know about and its treasures and history remain a mystery.

Thank you for traveling with us through ancient Oea and we hope you have gained some appreciation for its beauty. 

Image credit: Shutterstock & unknown sources (please contact hello@oeabakery.com for credit)