With Roman Ruins Under Threat, Libya’s Ancient Past Presses Against Its Present

  • Share
  • Read Later

According to a report on CNN.com, NATO officials overseeing the aerial bombing campaign against the forces of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya could target positions nestled within an ancient complex of Roman ruins. Rebel sources claim that Gaddafi troops have stashed rocket launchers and other military equipment at the site of the ancient city of Leptis Magna, a remarkably well-preserved relic of Roman antiquity halfway down the road between Tripoli and the besieged rebel-held port of Misratah. With NATO having escalated its efforts to topple the Gaddafi regime, no archaeological treasure — not even a UNESCO heritage site such as Leptis Magna — may be entirely safe.

(PHOTOS: See pictures of Leptis Magna.)

That Leptis Magna can fall under such peril is testament to how drastically things have deteriorated for Gaddafi and his family, whose rule seemed comfortably assured a few years ago. Then, as Libya was gradually ingratiating itself with the mainstream of the international community, Gaddafi’s most visible son, Saif al-Islam, marketed the country’s impressive array of classical Greco-Roman ruins, which span the breadth of its long Mediterranean coast. In 2007, in the shadow of a Greek amphitheater at Cyrene — near the present day rebel stronghold of Benghazi — Saif presided over the glitzy launch of a mega-billion dollar project aimed at conserving the Libyan coast and paving the way for high-end tourism. Breathless accounts in the Western media followed of Libya’s historical curiosities — many conveniently accessible to Europe’s well-heeled skimming the shores of North Africa aboard yachts and cruise ships. 

Of course, now, a budding tourist industry has been left out in the cold, replaced by the specter of bomb attacks and troop offensives. The grandeur of Leptis Magna’s sweeping colonnades and pristine temples seems insignificant when faced with the reported atrocities perpetrated by Gaddafi soldiers and the geo-political headache the West’s intervention into Libya has created for NATO’s member states.

But, in another sense, the traces of Libya’s ancient history here too reflect something of its fractured present. The political fault lines of Roman Libya were not unlike the ones we see today. The Roman province of Tripolitania, named after the three ancient cities (“tri-polis”) of Leptis Magna, Sabratha (both pictured in this Time.com photoessay) and Oea (modern day Tripoli) were trading centers first set up by the Phoenicians, the classical Mediterranean’s famed seafarers. They were later seized by Rome and became thriving urban centers in the heyday of the empire — the Roman emperor Septimus Severus was born in Leptis Magna and the city of his birth remains to this day one of the most unspoiled examples of imperial Roman architecture. Tripoli and its environs now still comprise the major center of Gaddafi power in war-torn Libya.

To defend these three strategic cities from marauding tribes further inland, the Romans set up a string of forts known as the Limes Tripolitanus. Ironically, it’s along this fringe of mountains that marked the southern edge of the Roman world that rebels in Libya’s west, including Berber tribesmen — descendants of the Romans’ foes — now struggle against the Gaddafi government.

Hundreds of miles east across desert and sea from Tripolitania lies Cyrenaica, named after the 7th century BC Greek settlement of Cyrene, where Saif al-Islam grandstanded in 2007 and where this year TIME’s Abigail Hauslohner found a detachment of imprisoned Gaddafi mercenaries, seized by rebels. The culture and identity of Cyrenaica evolved separately from that of Tripolitania — ruled in conjunction with the Greek island of Crete, its orientation was traditionally closer to that of the Greek and Coptic world further east than that of the Tripolitanian cities to the west. History has rolled on since and the centuries have transformed the particular identities of the region, but the sense of a distinct political divide remains in Libya between its Tripolitanian west and Cyrenaican east — Cyrenaica, of course, is where the revolt against Gaddafi has proven most resolute and decisive.

Still, the politics of a Libya that may soon be free of Gaddafi will hardly be measured in the cold stone of its many ruins. Rather, it’ll be realized through the complex alliances of its tribes, the negotiations of regional and local powerbrokers and the significant economic interests invested in the country’s oil reserves, considerations that trump the symbolic weight of history. But after the schemes of men hatch and fade, those ruins will still stand in mute testament.

0 comments