The unlikely saviours of Libya’s Roman remains

Despite having no background in archaeology, a former Libyan electricity employee gathered a band of fighters who dedicated themselves to preserving the ancient Roman city, a Unesco World Heritage site.

A Libyan man stands guard in the ancient Roman city of Leptis Magna in Al Khums. Mahmud Turkia/AFP
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LEPTIS MAGNA // 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 saviour, protecting it from looting and vandalism amid the chaos that has rocked the country since the 2011 downfall of former leader Muammar Qaddafi.

Despite having no background in archaeology, Mr 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 Mr Hribish’s group.

“A bank can be rebuilt, but our monuments and our history are things we can’t replace.”

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 theatre 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, favoured his hometown and turned it into one of the most beautiful cities in the empire.

He endowed it with splendid monuments including a vast basilica over 30 metres high, and renovated the thermal baths built during the reign of Hadrian (76-138 AD). The open-air pool is still intact to this day.

Mr Hribish, who is from the nearby city of Khoms, fears for the site’s safety.

ISIL, which destroyed priceless artefacts in Syria and Iraq, is still active in Libya despite having been ousted from Sirte, their former stronghold in the country.

Mr Hribish was “appalled” when ISIL blew up Unesco-listed Roman-era temples and looted ancient relics in Syria’s Palmyra.

But, he says, “we are much more worried about looting and acts of vandalism” at Leptis Magna.

Unlike Libya’s other historical sites Leptis Magna has so far “been protected from acts of looting and we are continuing to monitor it”, he adds.

“We will not allow IS or anyone else to touch it.”

In 2015, Mr Hribish’s men discovered and defused a bomb weighing several kilograms in a cafe close to the site.

But with multiple armed groups struggling for power in Libya, Mr Hribish doubts it was put there by ISIL.

Extremists are not the only threat to the site, he says, 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 says, adding that he knows “every stone of the site”.

According to Mr Hribish, he blocked plans to build an unlicensed row of shops immediately next to precious remains.

“At the start, we thought our mission would be a short-term thing. We expected a state would be built that could guarantee that the country’s archaeological sites would be protected,” he says.

Libya remains divided between rival governments and militias waging a bitter struggle for power.

Mr Hribish says he supports the restoration of Libya’s monarchy which was overthrown in the coup that brought Qaddafi to power in 1969.

“We will continue with our mission until a real state is built,” he says.

But his colleagues complain they are defending the site with the most basic means.

“There are no surveillance cameras, no fence, not even fire extinguishers,” says Ali Ghazi, 26.

Mr Ghazi, who is unemployed, tells of the “nightmare” of putting out grass fires in the summer.

“Some people tried putting them out by beating them with sticks, while others brought in buckets of seawater,” he says.

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 says.

“Qaddafi marginalised 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.”

* Agence France-Presse