Leptis Magna is an ancient Roman archaeological sight located near the coast in Libya. It was founded by Phoenicians at the end of 7th century BCE. This location near the Mediterranean Sea allowed for a waterway into the country while the coast provided for a natural harbor (Ancient History Encyclopedia: 2011). The city reached its peak under the emperor Septimius Severus and became the second city of the province of Africa, underneath the capital Carthage. Being a city of higher power, it started to build monuments and a forum (a street with columns on each side) to connect Leptis Magna to the old part of the city. However, being located next to the coast this construction of the forum had to be stopped and it was never finished. The site was then abandoned during the 6th century after an attack from a neighboring tribe.
According to the UNESCO website, this site fits criteria (I), (II), and (III) to be included on the world heritage list. To be included in the list, a site must meet at least one out of ten selection criteria (UNESCO: 2016). It was decided in 1982 that this site would be added to the List of World Heritage then was later put on the List of World Heritage In Danger in 2016. According to UNESCO, “Under the 1972 World Heritage Convention, a World Heritage property – as defined in Articles 1 and 2 of the Convention – can be inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger by the Committee when it finds that the condition of the property corresponds to at least one of the criteria in either of the two cases described [dangers in cultural properties or natural properties]” . According to the news article titled Libya’s five World Heritage sites put on List of World Heritage in Danger, damage caused by the conflict affecting the country, as well as other threatening environmental issues, the site of Leptis Magna was determined to fit the criteria and placed on the list in 2016.
This site has many threatening factors endangering it. Tourism, warfare and environmental threats are all factors of this site becoming endangered. Although the main threats is due to environmental issues, all play a key role in the future of the ancient archaeological site of Leptis Magna.
Why is it on the list?
Leptis Magna was put on the List of World Heritage list because it fit under at least one out of the ten selected criteria. The criteria that the site fit under included:
- To represent a masterpiece of human creative genius
- To exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design
- To bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared
Leptis Magna fits under criteria 1 because it is an ancient Roman civilization site. It contains extraordinary building and inner city workings throughout the site the showcases the human creative genius. It fits under criteria 2 because it contains many advanced architectural feats such as columns, arch, as well as sculptures (see Medusa below). It also has many large structures that shows off human values like the theatre and temples (shown below). Leptis Magna also fits criteria 3 because it shows the remains of a civilization that has disappeared.
In 2016, it was determined that this site should be moved to the List of World Heritage In Danger because it fit under the criteria that it had “conditions which threaten the very characteristics for which the property was inscribed on the World Heritage List, and to encourage corrective action” (UNESCO: 2016).
According to the most recent mission report, the most endangering factors affecting the site are as followed (Baccar and Souq, 2007):
- The delineation of boundaries of the World Heritage property and of the related buffer zone should be undertaken as quickly as possible. It must include the coastal villas of Wadi Tala, which are indissociable from the site.
- Inadequate restoration methods cause saline efflorescence on surface of remains.
- Flooding regularly affects the site
- Uncontrolled growth of vegetation in the private housing sectors of the ancient city and in the outlying sectors
Of these factors, the primary endangering factor of Leptis Magna is the threat of the environment. Over the course of time, flooding has eroded many of the coastal buildings. The erosion of the building caused a want to restore those ancient buildings so that they can last longer for future generations to see. However, according to Baccar and Souq (2007), the restoration processes had been inadequate and potentially caused more damage to the building than there was previously. This is mainly due to the fact that the restoration used sea sand in the mortars, causing the salt to crystalize in the mortar. According to Baccar and Souq (2007), the latest restoration operations carried out on some of the monuments have been successful and and avoided the previous error of using sea sand. Plants and other vegetation growing in the site is also troublesome. The uncontrolled growth of vegetation is taking over the ancient housing sectors of the city and slowly overtaking the ruins (see the photo below). The plan to control the vegetation is to not completely eliminate it, but to maintain it at a safe level so it does not overtake the ruins (Baccar and Souq: 2007)
Warfare and Tourism
Conflict in Libya today is affecting many cultural sites across the country. The country has been in a state of anarchy sin 2011, when rebels ended Col Muammar Gaddafi’s 40-year reign (Sherlock, 2015: Libya slipping). Many people who fought side by side, turned their guns on each other. Battles between different towns broke out, resulting in destruction. The battle between the government and it’s citizens is turning into a scramble for power and resources.
As political instability threatens Libya, tourism to most sites have decreased. “We haven’t had any tourists since the fall of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011,” said Osama Krema, a Libyan tour guide working at the site (Sherlock, 2015: Leptis Magna). Sherlock describes this city as being the “best preserved” Roman city in the world. The people that do visit the site typically only factor in half an hour. But when they enter the site, they can’t believe what they see and cancel their work meetings and stay the rest of the day. Without tourism into the ancient site, it will be difficult to keep the city as pristine as it is now.
In 2011, representatives from different organizations completed two cultural heritage inspections in a mission to save Libya’s heritage (Rush, 2016). These groups found that throughout the main sites in Libya, there was evidence of local people protecting sites and objects in museums. “At Leptis Magna, Ghaddifi forces had attempted to occupy the site, but had been repulsed without damage to the archaeological deposits” (Rush, 2016).
Insight to Global Issues
By studying the different aspects of culture and how Leptis Magna has changed over time, we can gain insight to new information about global issues. Conflict within a country is not a new concept, but learning how to deal with it can allow people to come up with new ideas. Regarding the inner conflict within Libya, researchers can provide insight to address the issues it is causing to archaeological sites regarding tourism and destruction. A main duty of archaeologist is to educate people about the past. However, with the conflicts arising in the countries, they need to come up with a different way to get people excited about going to the different ancient sites. Sabloff discusses in his book Archaeology Matters, different ways in which research can be applied to global issues in modern times (Sabloff, 2008). By studying this ancient site, it could provide important insight to how the culture functioned in the past. For example, during the restoration processes it was discovered that using sea sand in the mortar caused more destruction to the buildings than actually restoring them (Baccar and Souq, 2007). With this knowledge, buildings could be created along the coastline that could be made without sea stand and be stronger and last longer than previous ones.
Studying the past culture at ancient sites can help people learn about the past. It is important for archaeologists to education the public and make their findings interesting so we continue to advance as a society. The sites around the world are not only important to cultural heritage, they can be applied to different aspects of research today. Educating the public could help decrease the damages to sites across the world and potentially decrease the amount of looting. By studying the past and applying it to global issues, we can use it to help solve modern day issues without repeating what has been done before and continue to advance into the future.
Baccar, Mounira and Souq, Francois.
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2016 Key Libyan and International Partners Unite to Adopt an Action Plan for Libya’s Heritage. Electronic Document. http://whc.unesco.org/en/news/1496/ Accessed December 3, 2016.
2016 Archaeological site of Leptis Magna. Electronic Document. http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/183 Accessed December 3, 2016.
2016 World Heritage in Danger List. Electronic Document. http://whc.unesco.org/en/158/ Accessed December 5, 2016.