Un­likely sav­iors stand guard over Ro­man re­mains

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - WORLD - By AGENCE FRANCEPRESSE in Lep­tis Magna, Libya

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.”

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