Unlikely saviors stand guard over Roman remains
Ali Hribish stands by the Arch of Septimius Severus which dominates Libya’s ancient city of Leptis Magna, brandishing letters of thanks for his efforts to protect the site.
The former electricity company employee, who is in his 50s, has become the Roman city’s unlikely savior, protecting it from looting and vandalism as chaos rocks the country following the 2011 downfall of dictator Muammar Gadhafi.
Despite having no background in archaeology, Hribish gathered a band of fighters who dedicated themselves to preserving the ancient Roman city, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
While others set up armed groups to protect banks and public buildings, “we immediately thought of Leptis Magna,” says Ashraf Mohammed, 33, one of the first fighters to join Hribish’s group.
“A bank can be rebuilt, but our monuments and our history are things we can’t replace,” he said.
The group of 20 young men, Kalashnikov assault rifles in hand, go on a routine patrol around the 50 hectare site.
They inspect the hippodrome, the basilica and the open-air theater that used to host some 15,000 spectators on its terraces, with a sublime view of the Mediterranean.
Roman Emperor Septimius Severus, who was born in Leptis Magna and ruled Rome from 193 to 211 AD, favored his hometown and turned it into one of the most beautiful cities in the empire.
He endowed it with monuments including a vast basilica over 30 meters high, and renovated the thermal baths built during the reign of Hadrian (76-138 AD). The open-air pool is still intact.
Hribish, from the nearby city of Khoms, fears for the site’s safety.
The jihadists of the Islamic State group, which destroyed priceless artifacts in Syria and Iraq, are still active in Libya despite having been ousted from Sirte, their North African bastion.
But “we are much more worried about looting and acts of vandalism,” Hribish said, adding that he knows “every stone of the site”.
Hribish says he was “appalled” when IS blew up UNESCO-listed Roman-era temples and looted ancient relics in Syria’s Palmyra.
But he says that unlike the country’s other historical sites, “Leptis Magna has been protected from acts of looting and we are continuing to monitor it.”
“We will not allow IS or anyone else to touch it,” he said.
In 2015, his men discovered and defused a bomb weighing several kilograms in a cafe close to the site.
But he doubts it was put there by jihadists, in a country where multiple armed groups are struggling for power.
Islamist extremists are not the only threat to the site, he said, pointing out that it was developers who destroyed part of the city of Cyrene, an ancient Greek and Roman city in eastern Libya, in order to build houses there.
“We have prevented acts like that here,” he said.
Walid Abu Hamid, 33, says the city needs restoration work to tackle the effects of erosion.
“We have told the Department of Antiquities, but in vain,” he said.
“Gadhafi marginalized our history and our heritage for more than 40 years. It’s time for us to look after it and show it to the world.”