‘Jewel of Ro­man Em­pire’ in dan­ger

The Phnom Penh Post - - LIFESTYLE - Ji­had Dorgham

PERCHED on the edge of Libya’s Mediter­ranean coast, the an­cient city of Sabratha re­mains an awe-in­spir­ing spec­ta­cle, the pink col­umns of its am­phithe­atre tow­er­ing above turquoise wa­ters.

But the world her­itage site is classed as “en­dan­gered” by Un­esco, its ma­jes­tic struc­tures pock­marked by mor­tar and small arms fire.

Shell cas­ings and bul­lets still lit­ter the sur­round­ing earth, a year af­ter clashes be­tween ri­val armed groups.

Lo­cals say snipers po­si­tioned them­selves at the top of the am­phithe­atre, once a jewel of the Ro­man Em­pire.

Bring­ing blood­shed back to the glad­i­a­to­rial arena some 18 cen­turies af­ter it was built, 39 peo­ple were killed and 300 wounded in the fight­ing.

To­day, the site around 70 kilo­me­tres (45 miles) from the cap­i­tal lies eerily aban­doned, en­cir­cled by parched grass and weeds.

Since the top­pling and killing of Libya’s dic­ta­tor Moamer Kad­hafi in a 2011 upris­ing, Sabratha has be­come a key de­par­ture point for il­le­gal mi­gra­tion.

Smug­glers and mili­tias have prof­ited am­ply from a chronic se­cu­rity vac­uum.

It is from the long and de­serted shores a few kilo­me­tres (miles) from an­cient Sabratha that most mi­grants start their per­ilous boat jour­neys to­wards Europe.

UN­ESCO de­clared Sabratha to be at risk in July 2016, along with four other Libyan sites on its World Her­itage list.

The UN’s cul­tural or­gan­i­sa­tion based its de­ci­sion on two fac­tors – “dam­age al­ready caused” and vul­ner­a­bil­ity to fu­ture de­struc­tion.

It noted that “armed groups are present on these sites or in their im­me­di­ate prox­im­ity”.

Ex­perts fear worse is to come for the coun­try’s his­toric sites, as armed groups con­tinue to vie for as­cen­dancy.

Libya’s ar­chae­o­log­i­cal her­itage is at great risk, warns Mo­hamad alChak­chouki, head of the North Afri- can coun­try’s depart­ment of an­tiq­ui­ties.

The “en­trench­ment of armed groups in­side ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites and the bat­tles which have un­folded near the sites, in­clud­ing Sabratha, pose a per­ma­nent dan­ger”, he told AFP.

The con­ser­va­tion of sites was once en­trusted to West­ern teams.

But these ex­perts have not trav­elled to Libya “for four years, be­cause of the chaos and in­se­cu­rity”, said Chak­chouki.

Spread out over 90 hectares (220 acres), in­clud­ing a part en­gulfed by the sea, Sabratha is one of three former cities that con­sti­tuted Ro­man Tripoli­ta­nia.

The oth­ers are Oea – mod­ern-day Tripoli – and Lep­tis Magna in west­ern Libya that was one of the sites classed as en­dan­gered by Un­esco two years ago.

At the mercy of the scorch­ing sum­mer sun and the salty sea breeze, Sabratha suf­fers from stone ero­sion and degra­da­tion, said Mo­hamad Abu Ajela, an of­fi­cial at the city’s of­fice of an­tiq­ui­ties.

But the “dam­age caused by man is a greater fear”, he said.

A Span­ish ar­chae­o­log­i­cal mis­sion re­cently vis­ited Sabratha and signed an agree­ment to re­store some ar­eas, in­clud­ing the the­atre.

But com­ple­tion of the work“de­pends on the se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion”, Ajela said.

Ur­ban­i­sa­tion and loot­ing

Along­side armed con­flict, sev­eral pro­tected Libyan sites are threat­ened by un­con­trolled ur­ban ex­pan­sion.

One ex­am­ple is Cyrene, an an­cient Greek city in north­east­ern Libya.

Ex­ploit­ing the chaos, peo­ple have claimed own­er­ship of land and built within the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal site’s perime­ter.

Loot­ing is an­other threat to these sites, as the lack of se­cu­rity has led to il­licit ex­ca­va­tion and smug­gling of an­tiq­ui­ties.

Sev­eral thefts of an­cient ob­jects have been re­ported.

In March, Spain’s in­te­rior min­istry an­nounced the seizure “of nu­mer­ous works of art” from the Cyre­naica and Tripoli­ta­nia re­gions, in­clud­ing seven mo­saics, sar­cophagi and pieces of Egyp­tian ori­gin.

Madrid said it had proof that two necrop­olises were looted by “ter­ror­ist groups”.

Of­fi­cials in the an­tiq­ui­ties depart­ment at­tempt to save what they can, of­ten through des­per­ate mea­sures.

Mu­se­ums have closed – in­clud­ing in Tripoli – and some ar­chae­o­log­i­cal trea­sures have been trans­ferred to a “safe place”, Chak­chouki said.

MAH­MUD TURKIA/AFP

A pic­ture taken on Septem­ber 1 shows colomns at the site of the an­cient Ro­man city of Sabratha, around 70 kilo­me­tres (45 miles) from the Libyan cap­i­tal Tripoli.

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