Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Libyan Civilians Take Up Arms and Form Protective Shield Around Ancient Ruins of Leptis Magna

Ancient Origins

A group of armed Libyan civilians concerned about the potential of their country’s rich ancient heritage are patrolling Leptis Magna, an ancient city of Rome. They fear the Islamic State will do in Libya what it has done in Iraq and Syria: defaced and destroyed some of the richest and most important artifacts and buildings in world history.

Though the city of Leptis Magna is in ruins now, some fine architecture and art remain. There are only around 20 citizens armed with Kalashnikov rifles surrounding Leptis Magna and the surrounding archaeological ruins, which covers an area of about 120 acres (50 hectares).

After the United States and France bombed Libya in 2011, chaos spread to many parts of the north African country. Once the most prosperous country in Africa, Libya now has various factions fighting for control: official government agencies, Islamic organizations, tribal militias and rebels, says the website Realm of History.

The Guardian reported in August 2016 that the United States was bombing Libya again, five years after its initial attack.

Realm of History reports:

But amid the chaos, it is a group of conscientious civilians who have taken the responsibility of protecting the country’s rich historical heritage. One particular example pertains to the ancient Roman city of Leptis Magna, the originally Punic settlement that was the birthplace of Emperor Septimius Severus. And now, Ali Hribish – a former electricity company employee in his 50s, proudly stands guard over the veritable ruins. His reward – a bevy of letters of appreciation from history aficionados and heritage agencies.

The Carthaginians are believed to have founded Leptis Magna around the 7th century BC. Centuries later it became a Roman Republic outpost in part because of good farmlands around the town. The city had so many olive groves that Caesar levied a tax of 3 million pounds of oil a year, says Realm of History.

Arch of Roman Emperor Septimius Severus in the ruins of Leptis Magna (Wikimedia Commons/Daviegunn photo)

By 193 AD, Leptis Magna became highly important when Emperor Septimius Severus favored his home town, making it the third largest in Africa behind Carthage and Alexandria. He directed a new forum and thermal baths to be built. He also expanded the docks, which may have caused silting of the harbor. The town became over-extended, trade volume slowed by the time of the 3rd century AD crisis and in the end the Vandals took over in the first half of 5th century AD.

This map shows the many important sites in Leptis Magna, an ancient Roman city in Libya presently being protected by concerned Libyan citizens armed with Kalashnikovs. (Wikimedia Commons/Map by Holger Behr)

The Independent reports that some vandalism has happened to ancient art in Libya since 2011, dating to before the Islamic State had a presence there. In Benghazi, someone stole a collection of 8,000 gold, silver and bronze coins dating to the time of Alexander of Macedon. Beautiful ceramic tiles were pried off the Karamanli Mosque in Tripoli. Also, a statue of a nude woman with a gazelle was toppled in Tripoli. A medieval Fatimid dynasty palace became a stable in Tobruk, and Sufi shrines in Zlitan have been desecrated.

Ali Hribish told the Independent:

‘We know the value of this place to the whole world. We have had kings, presidents, millionaires, they all come here, so it is truly famous. I don’t know anywhere else in Libya they have guards like us, but this is a very special place. That is the reason we do this, paying for everything out of our own pockets, look at what’s at risk.

Top image: Armed men are protecting this ancient Roman theater and the rest of Leptis (or Lepcis) Magna in Libya. They fear members of the Islamic State will do here as they’ve done in Iraq and Syria—destroy buildings, statues and monuments. They guard the place, one of the most important Roman ruins in North Africa, with just about 20 men and no other equipment but their Kalashnikov rifles. (Wikimedia Commons/Daviegunn photo)

By Mark Miller

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