NATO’s airstrikes in Libya continue with reports today of six explosions heard in the capital of Tripoli near the fortified Bab al-Aziziya compound of Col. Muammar el-Gaddafi, says the BBC. NATO has so far refused to say if it will bomb ancient Roman ruins in Libya if it knows that Gaddafi has hidden military equipment there, according to CNN.
Libya is home to Leptis Magna, a city founded by Phoenician colonists around 1100 BC and incorporated into the Roman Empire under the Emperor Tiberius. Under the Empire, Leptis Magna became a thriving port and, indeed, one of the leading cities of Roman Africa. In 193 AD, the future Roman emperor Lucius Septimius Severus was born in Leptis Magna; he would later transform it into the third-most important city in Africa, after Carthage and Alexandria. Today, the site contains impressive ruins, including beautiful mosaics, a stunning theater (pictured above), and the basilica of Septimius Severus; you can see photos via Time.com and also at the UNESCO site.
As Ishaan Tharoor writes in Time magazine, the precarious fate of Libya’s archeological treasures is a sign of how “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.
Libya, and many other places in the Middle East currently swept up by the pro-democracy protests of the Arab Spring, occupies ground that is long contested territory. Leptis Magna was under the control of Carthage until, in 146 BC, the Romans conquered, and razed, the city in the Third Punic War (I cringe a lot when I read Roman history: The suffering people conquered by the Romans must have experienced is unfathomable — being conquered meant being sold into slavery, at best).
Another city in Libya, Cyrenaica, is named after the 7th century BC Greek settlement of Cyrene and is where, as Tharoor writes:
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.
As for the possibility of Gaddafi in effect holding the ruins of Leptis Magna hostage by using them as a munitions depot: He’s not the first leader to make sure use of priceless ancient ruins. In the 17th century, the Ottoman Turks used the Greek Parthenon as a gunpowder magazine. The Venetians fired a mortar which partially destroyed a structure that, following its construction in the middle of the 5th century BC, had survived pretty much intact. What remained of the Parthenon’s roof collapsed, its internal structures were destroyed, some its pillars were seriously damaged and many sculptures fell to the ground.
Needless to say, I’m fearful of having to cringe a lot more, should the ruins of Leptis Magna suffer a similar fate.
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