Roman treasures in Libya at risk as ISIS storm Sabratha

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Islamic State fighters seized control yesterday of Sabratha, a UNESCO world heritage site famed for its Roman treasures, to move within 50 miles of the Libyan capital, Tripoli.

Roman treasures in Libya at risk as ISIS storm Sabratha
Sabratha is a UNESCO world heritage site famed for its 
Roman treasures [Credit: The Times]

Travelling in 30 pick-up trucks, the jihadists stormed the coastal city after three of their men were captured by a rival militia on Wednesday night. There are fears for the city’s priceless heritage, including a 3rd-century Roman amphitheatre that is one the best preserved in the world.

Black-clad militants quickly set up checkpoints across the city, easily overpowering the residents. “There was no resistance. No one wanted to provoke them, so they set up their checkpoints and drove about town showing off their weapons,” one terrified resident said. “They wanted to show who really controls the town.”

He said that ISIS already had numerous training camps in the city’s suburbs. “The camps have moved so close to the city centre now we hear them training at night.”

The militants later dismantled their checkpoints and returned to their camps, after successfully retrieving the three jihadists — a Libyan and two Tunisians — who had been taken by a rival militia.

The capture of Sabratha, 300 miles west of their Libyan stronghold in Sirte, illustrates the group’s efforts to turn Libya into a “back-up” caliphate as it comes under increased pressure in Syria and Iraq. Jihadists there have already taken chisels and explosives to famous sites like Palmyra and Nimrud, executing the archaeologists who had dedicated their lives to preserving them. ISIS has celebrated the capture of ancient sites by moving quickly to destroy them.

Roman treasures in Libya at risk as ISIS storm Sabratha
Sabratha is in the top five per cent of archaeological sites
in the world [Credit: WikiCommons]

“Sabratha is in the top 5 per cent of archaeological sites in the world, said David Mattingly, a professor of Roman archaeology at the University of Leicester. He has excavated extensively in Libya and works on a project to protect world heritage sites across North Africa and the Middle East.

“As with Palmyra, it is a Graeco-Roman site, which Islamic State has a particular view on: representation of human form in sculpture and artworks, representatives of idols. Things they prefer to destroy.”

Dating from the 5th century BC, Sabratha was a Phoenician trading post that served as an outlet for the products of the African hinterland. It was Romanised and rebuilt in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD to include the stunning seaside amphitheatre. UNESCO designated Sabratha a world heritage site in 1982. “There has been concern expressed over recent weeks due to the growing Islamic State presence,” Professor Mattingly admitted.

The city boasts a museum and magazine store, and several Christian and early Islamic structures, which could easily be pillaged, he said. “ISIS are not above exploiting the commercial value of these sites. There is huge concern.”

ISIS first appeared in Libya in October last year when local fighters returning from the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts persuaded jihadist groups to pledge their allegiance to Ali Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-declared “caliph” in the eastern city of Derna. The group quickly expanded, exploiting the total collapse of the state. A civil war erupted last summer when an armed coalition of mainly Islamist groups seized Tripoli, forcing the internationally recognised government to flee east.

Roman treasures in Libya at risk as ISIS storm Sabratha
Ruins of Sabratha [Credit: Az Zawiyah]

Baghdadi sent several aides to the country to build the infrastructure of the new “Libya province” of his caliphate, seeing the strategically placed country as “an opportunity to establish a new foothold” outside Syria, the UN said in a report last week.

After a successful uprising by residents of Derna, the militants were forced to shift their focus to the centre of the country. In May, they took control of Sirte, the home town of the toppled dictator Colonel Gaddafi, along with a 120-mile stretch of coastland.

This latest conquest marks their first foray to the deep west of the country — and a worrying expansion of territory that lies across the Mediterranean from southern Europe. Sabratha lies on the coastal road between Tripoli and Tunisia, and a complete takeover of the area would effectively cut off the capital from its western border.

Tunisian intelligences services, which closely monitor the jihadists’ movements, reported in July that ISIS was running training camps in Sabratha. They said the gunmen responsible for an attack on the Bardo National Museum, in Tunis, in February, and the attack at a Sousse beach resort, in June, had been trained in Sabratha. More than 50 tourists were killed in the two attacks, including 31 Britons.

Sabratha residents said yesterday that the majority of the fighters in the city centre were Tunisian.

The storming of Sabratha comes days after ISIS published a gory, eight-minute video of their fighters beheading two men for sorcery in Sirte’s central Green square — once a rallying point of supporters of Gaddafi. Residents said the group had increasingly imposed its oppressive rules, including behavioural and dress codes.

Archaeologists fear a repeat of the cultural vandalism that befell Syria and Iraq. In November, Irina Bokova, the UNESCO director-general, called on all parties to protect Libya’s cultural heritage.

Professor Mattingly repeated that call yesterday. “It is really important that the international community tries its best to support the Libyan Antiquities Authorities,” he said. “The threat is now particularly strong.”

Author: Bel Trew | Source: The Times [December 11, 2015]

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