June 19, 2011

Current conflict in Libya puts Greek and Roman ruins at risk

by Rez Hamilton, ARCA Blog Contributor

This is an extract taken from, "Military use of ancient ruins during conflict" submitted for ARCA's course, "Art Crime in War" taught by Judge Arthur Tompkins, 2011.

Recently, international news has brought attention to the ancient city of Leptis Magna in modern day Libya, an archeological site that has been valued for its beauty and almost unheard of completeness. Leptis Magna is unfortunately located between two combating strongholds: Tripoli (about sixty miles away from the ancient ruins) and Misratah (currently held by rebel forces), and at the time of this report is still under the hold of Muammar Gaddafi. The current conflict in Libya which has been ongoing for the past several months has recently had journalists and archeologists alarmed that rumors pertaining to the Gaddafi regime’s use of this ancient site as a staging point for munitions and/or for military operational use are true.

Sadly, the ancient site of Leptis Magna has the potential of being irrevocably damaged by modern warfare having previously survived and persevered since the first recorded conflict against the Byzantines in the first millennium BC and just shy of its 30-year anniversary of being an UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Security and Cultural Organization) World Heritage Site. To give some scope to its scale and historical importance, Leptis Magna used to be Roman’s third largest and influential city on the African continent, following Alexandria and Carthage. Another UNESCO site that was declared in Libya during 1982 is Cyrene, which is currently a stronghold of rebel forces and which also has a history of military presence among its ancient ruins during World War II. With NATO’s ongoing conflict against the Muammar Gaddafi regime, a statement has been released which indicates that regardless of the location of resistant positions, NATO forces will strike, which means not even UNESCO heritage sites are safe.

Are the rumors true? According to reporters who attended a Libyan government sponsored tour of Leptis Magna last Wednesday, no military presence of personnel or munitions were seen. However, one must be considerate of the fact that due to the tour being Gaddafi regime sponsored, proof may have been taken away prior to the reporters arrival and/or may have been moved onto or replaced to the site soon after the camera crews had departed. In the meantime, the world must hope that the use of the site as a military show of force or for storage will never come to pass.

A military’s use of ancient ruins during conflict is not new nor is it unusual. One famous example which was used in order to justify the removal of the famed Elgin Marbles now housed in the British Museum in the UK, was when the Turks were using the Parthenon as munitions storage. While in storage, an accidental ignition of some of the weapons directly damaged the site. Ongoing arguments abound on the topic of its repatriation, and on whether or not Lord Elgin saved the marbles from further destruction.

Modern warfare cannot and will not allow the time nor will it lend protection to ancient sites, regardless of conventions and treaties. Nothing is unconditionally safe during conflict and as the record of the current regime has showed its marked carelessness for human life, it is safe to assume that not even ancient relics will be preserved. We can only hope that should any evil befall the ruins as the conflict continues that there will be enough left to put the pieces back together and that no plunder occur in the interim which would scatter the remains to the four corners of the earth for those with little care of provenance and wealthy enough to afford illicit antiquities. Should the plunder come to pass, then the ancient ruins will probably be forever ruined with little chance of ever reacquiring all the pieces to the heralded Leptis Magna, one of the most complete archeological sites known in modern times.

To personally share your thoughts/comments along with any examples of other specific ancient ruins which were used by the military in times of conflict (besides the parthenon), please email me at: rez.hamilton@gmail.com

Works Cited:

· 1943, January. "Leptis Magna at Risk: History Repeats." Project Patrimonio. Word Press, 14 June 2011. Web. 18 June 2011.
· "Archaeological Site of Leptis Magna." UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Web. 18 June 2011.
· Charman-Smith, Mary. "The Ancient Ruins of Leptis Magna, Libya | Eyeflare.com." Eyeflare.com. 31 Jan. 2011. Web. 18 June 2011.
· Coghlan, Tom. "Libyan Leader Muammar Gaddafi Hides Grad Missiles from NATO Raids in the Ruins of Leptis Magna « Shabab Libya." Shabab Libya. The Times, 14 June 2011. Web. 18 June 2011.
· Hewton, Terry. "Libya: Putting Ancient Ruins into a Contemporary PerspectiveAt Leptis Magna Ancient Romans, Early Christians and Modern Libyans Meet." Guardian [London] 23 Nov. 2010, World News sec. Guardian | Guardian.co.uk. 23 Nov. 2010. Web. 18 June 2011. 
· Hughes, Peter. "Libya: Ancient Ruins in African Sand." Telegraph [London] 28 May 2008, Travel: Activity and Adventure sec. Telegraph.co.uk - Telegraph. 28 May 2008. Web. 18 June 2011. .
· Londono, Ernesto, and Michael Birnbaum. "Fear for Libya’s Roman Ruins - The Washington Post." The Washington Post. 16 June 2011. Web. 18 June 2011. .
· Mustich, Emma. "Is Gadhafi Putting Ancient Ruins of Leptis Magna at Risk?" Web log post. The Archaeology News Network. 14 June 2011. Web. 18 June 2011. .
· Tharoor, Ishaan. "With Roman Ruins Under Threat, Libya’s Ancient Past Presses Against Its Present - Global Spin - TIME.com." Global Spin - A Blog about the World, Its People and Its Politics - TIME.com. Time Magazine, 14 June 2011. Web. 18 June 2011. http://globalspin.blogs.time.com/2011/06/14/with-roman-ruins-under-threat-libyas-ancient-past-presses-against-its-present/.

More information about the archaeological site of Leptis Magna may be found on the UNESCO site here.


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