Ancient Prelims cum Mains

Jewel of Roman Empire’ faces danger

The News

  • Libya’s Sabratha, a world heritage site classified as “endangered” by UNESCO two years ago is still facing danger.



  • UNESCO declared Sabratha to be at risk in July 2016, along with four other Libyan sites on its World Heritage list.
  • The UN’s cultural organisation based its decision on two factors- Damage already caused” and vulnerability to future destruction.
  • It was based on the observation that armed groups are present on these sites or in their immediate proximity.
  • Experts fear worse is to come for the country’s historic sites, as armed groups continue to vie for ascendancy.
  • Mohamad al-Chakchouki, head of the North African country’s department of antiquities warned that Libya’s archaeological heritage is at great risk.
  • The entrenchment of armed groups inside archaeological sites and the battles which have unfolded near the sites, including Sabratha, pose a permanent danger.


About Sabratha

  • Spread out over 90 hectares , including a part engulfed by the sea, Sabratha is one of three former cities that constituted Roman Tripolitania.
  • The others are Oea — modern-day Tripoli — and Leptis Magna in western Libya that was one of the sites categorised as endangered by UNESCO two years ago.
  • Sabratha was part of the short-lived Numidian Kingdom of Massinissa before being Romanized and rebuilt in the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D.
  • Sabratha, Sabratah or Siburata of Libya, was the westernmost of the ancient “three cities” of Roman Tripolis.
  • It lies on the Mediterranean coast about 70 km west of modern Tripoli.
  • The extant archaeological site was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982.
  • Perched on the edge of Libya’s Mediterranean coast, the ancient city of Sabratha remains an awe-inspiring spectacle, the pink columns of its amphitheatre towering above turquoise waters.
  • In 2011, the town became involved in the Libyan Civil War.


Threats to the archeological site of Sabratha

  • At the mercy of the scorching summer sun and the salty sea breeze, Sabratha suffers from stone erosion and degradation.
  • However, the damage caused by man is a greater fear.
  • The toppling and killing of Libya’s dictator Moamer Kadhafi in a 2011 uprising, which brought bloodshed back killed 39 people and wounded 300 in the fighting.
  • Since then, Sabratha has become a key departure point for illegal migration.
  • The world heritage site is classed as “endangered” by UNESCO, as its majestic structures are pockmarked by mortar and small arms fire.
  • Shell casings and bullets still litter around it even though a year has passed after the clashes between rival armed groups.
  • Locals say snipers positioned themselves at the top of the amphitheatre, once a jewel of the Roman Empire.
  • Also, several protected Libyan sites are threatened by uncontrolled urban expansion. One example is Cyrene, an ancient Greek city in northeastern Libya.
  • Exploiting the chaos, people have claimed ownership of land and built within the archaeological site’s perimeter.
  • Looting is another threat to these sites, as the lack of security has led to illicit excavation and smuggling of antiquities.
  • Today, the site around 70 kilometres (45 miles) from the capital lies eerily abandoned, encircled by parched grass and weeds.
  • Smugglers and militias have profited amply from a chronic security vacuum.
  • It is from the long and deserted shores a few kilometres (miles) from ancient Sabratha that most migrants start their perilous boat journeys towards Europe.


Challenges in protecting the site

  • The entrenchment of armed groups inside archaeological sites and the battles near these sites pose a permanent danger.
  • The conservation of sites was once entrusted to Western teams but these experts have not travelled to Libya for four years, because of the chaos and insecurity.
  • A Spanish archaeological mission recently visited Sabratha and signed an agreement to restore some areas, including the theatre.
  • However, completion of the work “depends on the security situation.


About Roman Empire

  • The history of the Roman Empire covers the history of ancient Rome from the fall of the Roman Republic in 27 BC until the abdication of the last Western emperor in 476 AD.
  • The Roman Empire was the post-Roman Republic period of the ancient Roman civilization, with a government headed by emperors and large territorial holdings around the Mediterranean Sea in Europe, Africa and Asia.
  • The city of Rome was the largest city in the world.
  • The Empire’s population grew to an estimated 50 to 90 million inhabitants (roughly 20% of the world’s population at the time).
  • The 500-year-old republic which preceded it had been severely destabilized in a series of civil wars and political conflict.
  • Civil wars and executions continued, culminating in the victory of Octavian.
  • Octavian’s power was then unassailable and in 27 BC the Roman Senate formally granted him overarching power and the new title Augustus, effectively marking the end of the Roman Republic.

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