Jonathan Tremblay: Libya - Civil War Amongst the Roman Ruins

Roundup: Historians' Take

(Jonathan Tremblay is a historian and a Breaking News Editor for the History News Network)

Thousands of years ago, what we know as Libya today was a land of ancient civilizations. From Phoenician and Carthaginian dominion to Hellenistic kingship and finally to Roman hegemony, Vandal colonization and Arab expansion, the land formerly known as the Cyrenaic Peninsula has known millennia of various cultures that left undeniable imprints in the country’s culture and archaeology.

With the civil war raging on in Libya for the better part of four months now, we have mostly focused on rebels versus regime change, Qaddafi versus the West, NATO versus whatever is under their bombs. What we have yet to talk about are the standing treasures of history that, through no fault of their own, now stand on a battlefield.

Between Qaddafi’s stronghold in the Libyan capital of Tripoli and the Rebel position in Misrata stands Leptis Magna, a UNESCO world heritage site, one of the best preserved site of Roman ruins on earth, and a potential hiding place for Qaddafi and his weapons.

Indeed, speakers for NATO have proposed rumours that the ruins may be used as we speak as a refuge for the tyrant, despite that hiding weapons in such a location would constitute a grievous breach of international law. That being said, NATO could not say that they WOULDN’T bomb the hell out of Leptis Magna if these reports became confirmed. They won’t exclude the destruction of the ancient site as a possible option to achieve their (vague and changing) goals.

The historian in me weeps at the possibility but the realist in me sees that if NATO indicates Leptis Magna as off-limits, it would be akin to an invitation for international terrorism to set up headquarters in the Great Pyramid, Angkor Wat and Leptis Magna.

As they stand today, the ruins are directly between Tripoli and Misrata and we would need a miracle for the fighting to simply go around it in a civil war seemingly devoid of much “rules of engagement”. I can only hope that NATO nations, going against the mandate agreed upon of simply protecting civilians, actually find a way to “incapacitate” Moammar Qaddafi in the next few days and then immediately leave the place a stable democracy much like North Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan or Iraq. As long as my ruins still stand (and they will, long after the seven billion people on earth right now pass away), I’ll be happy. I agree that it would be nice to bring the right to self-determination to the country as well.


Blast in the past

War has not been friendly to vestiges of the past. Here are two examples of great architectural carnage, one is apocryphal and actually never happened but it’s a fun story so I’ll add it anyway.

Germany may have been the aggressor during the Second World War but the historical treasures it lost to strategic bombardment by the Americans and British were truly losses for everyone. By July of 1945, the city of Cologne (Köln) was a flattened mass of rubble with air raid bunkers the only thing left standing. No wait, the bunkers were left along with a massive gothic cathedral. The two jutting towers of the Cologne cathedral had even been used as a landmark for bombardment for years but the old girl never fell, never collapsed despite its 800 years of age and the rather sad state of everything else for miles around it. Sure it wasn’t a pretty sight but a decade of renovations following the war left the cathedral standing mightily against the non-existent Cologne skyline. Once again, the city was built around it as the cathedral continues to fascinate in the centre of modern buildings.

Further back in 48 BC, Alexandria, Egypt was still a bastion of Greek-controlled Egypt. It boasted something that had rarely existed prior or since, a manuscript library holding encyclopedic knowledge of everything and everyone in human history up until then (up to 3200 years, more than history since). We are told that Julius Caesar, wanting to trounce his enemies preemptively set fire to his ships at dock…inadvertently burning down half the city and a good share of human knowledge accumulated until then. We barely even know what we lost that day since we have never found the library catalogue but we know it was a lot and we know we may never know it again.

(So the library is still referenced in several sources for several centuries after that “event” and it probably was destroyed in skirmishes between the Romans and local tribe-kingdoms during the fourth century AD. The fake story is actually more detailed and interesting, as fiction, but still.)

All in all, I wave goodbye to the tyrant of four-decades and I ask the rebels to put a tarp over the ruins or something and to take their shoes off around Leptis Magna.



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