Roman sites in Libya survived the war mostly unscathed, initial reports show

Roman sites in Libya, Roman, Lepcis Magna
The recent fighting in Libya that toppled Gaddafi destroyed many lives and laid waste to many neighborhoods. Now that the country is beginning to rebuild, Libyans are taking stock of other effects of the war.

Libya’s beautiful Roman remains, it appears, got off easy. Earlier this week, the Guardian reported that the Roman cities of Lepcis Magna and Sabratha both survived the war without any significant damage. This news came from Dr. Hafed Walda, a Libyan scholar working at King’s College, London. Dr. Walda has excavated and studied Lepcis Magna for more than 15 years.

On the other hand, the new government displayed a cache of Roman artifacts that it says were going to be sold on the international antiquities market to finance Gaddafi’s fight to stay in power. They were found on the day Tripoli fell to the rebels in the trunk of a car driven by Gaddafi loyalists as they tried to escape. No word on what happened to the pro-Gaddafi fighters. One can imagine.

This brings up the question of how many more artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites, and if any made it abroad into the hands of unscrupulous collectors. Iraq and Afghanistan lost a huge amount of their heritage this way. Much of it disappeared after the main fighting, when armed bands looted what they could before a new regime was installed.

%Gallery-140657%Thousands of coins dating to the Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic periods have gone missing from a collection in Benghazi, the new Libyan government reports.

These are, of course, only initial reports in a country still subject to much chaos and uncertainty. Time will tell how much of Libya’s rich archaeological heritage has survived to attract the next generation of tourists.

I want to be one of the first of that new generation. Libya has always been high on my list of places to see and my wife and I were in the beginning stages of planning a trip there when all hell broke loose. Instead I spent two months out of harm’s way in Harar, Ethiopia.

For anyone interested in history and archaeology, Libya is a great place to go. The nation has five UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The two most popular are the Roman cities of Lepcis Magna and Sabratha. Both are on the coast and were founded by the Phoenicians. Libya was an important province in the Roman Empire and these two sites reflect that with their theaters, broad avenues, and large temples. Lepcis Magna was especially grand because it was the birthplace of the Emperor Septimius Severus (reigned 193-211).

Other UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Libya include the Greek colony of Cyrene, the prehistoric rock art of Tadrart Acacus, and the traditional architecture in the oasis town of Ghadamès.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Oromo villagers fight to preserve their heritage

Oromo, oromo, Harar, Harla, Ethiopia, archaeology, archeology
A week ago I talked about exploring the ancient civilization of Harla near Harar, eastern Ethiopia. The modern Oromo village of the same name sits on the site and of course farmers come across ancient artifacts as they work in the fields. Harla ruins are scattered in between modern buildings and even the favorite tree for kids to climb is growing out of an ancient ruin.

While this makes for a picturesque village, it’s also dangerous for the ruins. There isn’t much knowledge of historic preservation or archaeology here and heritage is always in danger of new development. A Muslim shrine was destroyed in 2004 when the Chinese put a new highway through the area.

The villagers of modern Harla, however, want to protect their past. They trace their lineage to the ancient Harla people and they want to honor their ancestors by preserving their remains. A few days ago Sheikh Omar of Harla visited Harar to talk with historian and Harar tour guide Mohammed Jami Guleid (harartourguide @gmail.com) and discuss how best to protect the artifacts they have. I got to meet him and interview him about what they’re doing.The Sheikh already has a locked cabinet in his house filled with artifacts the farmers have turned up-pots, bits of jewelry, and small silver coins with mysterious designs on them. They’ve also stopped a local farmer who was selling artifacts to antiquities dealers. They’ve isolated him in the community. In a small village like that, being socially spurned is a big punishment. The Sheikh’s cabinet isn’t big enough for all the artifacts that have turned up and so the villagers reburied many of them. He says he has enough to fill a large room with displays.

Now Sheikh Omar is trying to raise funds to build a small museum in Harla to attract tourists. Mohammed is acting as an adviser and there’s at least one European investor who has expressed interest in funding the project.

It’s great to see these Oromo villagers taking interest in preserving their heritage. I worked as an archaeologist for ten years and I saw way too many cases of locals ignoring or even deliberately destroying archaeological remains. I’ve also seen way too many villagers selling artifacts to antiquities dealers who illegally export them to sell on the international market. The villagers get very little money for these artifacts and they permanently lose their past and the possible tourism development they could earn from it. I hope Mohammed and Sheikh Omar manage to get funding for a museum and develop Harla as an interesting day trip from Harar.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Harar, Ethiopia: two months in Africa’s City of Saints

Coming up next: Qat culture in Harar!