’Jewel of Roman Empire’ faces Libya dangers

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A Spanish archaeological mission recently visited Sabratha and signed an agreement to restore some areas, including the theater. (AFP)
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Officials said Sabratha suffers from stone erosion and degradation. (AFP)
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Today, the site around 70 kilometers (45 miles) from the capital lies eerily abandoned, encircled by parched grass and weeds. (AFP)
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UNESCO declared Sabratha to be at risk in July 2016, along with four other Libyan sites on its World Heritage list. (AFP)
Updated 03 October 2018
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’Jewel of Roman Empire’ faces Libya dangers

  • Experts fear worse is to come for the country’s historic sites, as armed groups continue to vie for ascendancy
  • Alongside armed conflict, several protected Libyan sites are threatened by uncontrolled urban expansion

SABRATHA, Libya: Perched on the edge of Libya’s Mediterranean coast, the ancient city of Sabratha remains an awe-inspiring spectacle, the pink columns of its amphitheater towering above turquoise waters.
But the world heritage site is classed as “endangered” by UNESCO, its majestic structures pockmarked by mortar and small arms fire.
Shell casings and bullets still litter the surrounding earth, a year after clashes between rival armed groups.
Locals say snipers positioned themselves at the top of the amphitheater, once a jewel of the Roman Empire.
Bringing bloodshed back to the gladiatorial arena some 18 centuries after it was built, 39 people were killed and 300 wounded in the fighting.
Today, the site around 70 kilometers (45 miles) from the capital lies eerily abandoned, encircled by parched grass and weeds.
Since the toppling and killing of Libya’s dictator Muammar Qaddafi in a 2011 uprising, Sabratha has become a key departure point for illegal migration.
Smugglers and militias have profited amply from a chronic security vacuum.
It is from the long and deserted shores a few kilometers (miles) from ancient Sabratha that most migrants start their perilous boat journeys toward Europe.


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 organization based its decision on two factors — “damage already caused” and vulnerability to future destruction.
It noted 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.
Libya’s archaeological heritage is at great risk, warns Mohamad Al-Chakchouki, head of the North African country’s department of antiquities.
The “entrenchment of armed groups inside archaeological sites and the battles which have unfolded near the sites, including Sabratha, pose a permanent danger,” he told AFP.
The conservation of sites was once entrusted to Western teams.
But these experts have not traveled to Libya “for four years, because of the chaos and insecurity,” said Chakchouki.
Spread out over 90 hectares (220 acres), 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 classed as endangered by UNESCO two years ago.
At the mercy of the scorching summer sun and the salty sea breeze, Sabratha suffers from stone erosion and degradation, said Mohamad Abu Ajela, an official at the city’s office of antiquities.
But the “damage caused by man is a greater fear,” he said.
A Spanish archaeological mission recently visited Sabratha and signed an agreement to restore some areas, including the theater.
But completion of the work “depends on the security situation,” Ajela said.


Alongside armed conflict, 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.
Several thefts of ancient objects have been reported.
In March, Spain’s interior ministry announced the seizure “of numerous works of art” from the Cyrenaica and Tripolitania regions, including seven mosaics, sarcophagi and pieces of Egyptian origin.
Madrid said it had proof that two necropolizes were looted by “terrorist groups.”
Officials in the antiquities department attempt to save what they can, often through desperate measures.
Museums have closed — including in Tripoli — and some archaeological treasures have been transferred to a “safe place,” Chakchouki said.


UAE gift helps French palace reopen ‘forgotten theater’

Updated 18 June 2019
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UAE gift helps French palace reopen ‘forgotten theater’

  • Now called the Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan Theatre, it is the latest example of the close relations between Paris and Abu Dhabi
  • The UAE capital already hosts the Louvre Abu Dhabi, opened by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and President Emmanuel Macron in 2017

FONTAINEBLEAU: An exquisite 19th-century French theater outside Paris that fell into disuse for one and half centuries has been restored with the help of a €10 million donation from oil-rich Abu Dhabi.
The Napoleon III theater at Fontainebleau Palace south of Paris was built between 1853 and 1856 under the reign of the nephew of emperor Napoleon I.
It opened in 1857 but was used only a dozen times, which has helped preserve its gilded adornments, before being abandoned in 1870 after the fall of Napoleon III.
But during a state visit to France in 2007, Sheikh Khalifa, ruler of Abu Dhabi and president of the United Arab Emirates, was reportedly entranced by the abandoned theater and offered €10 million ($11.2 million) on the spot for its restoration.
After a project that has lasted 12 years the theater is now being reopened.
An official inauguration is expected soon, hosted by French Culture Minister Franck Riester and attended by UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan.
Now called the Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan Theatre, it is the latest example of the close relations between Paris and Abu Dhabi.
The UAE capital already hosts the Louvre Abu Dhabi, opened by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and President Emmanuel Macron in 2017, the first foreign institution to carry the name of the great Paris museum.
For all its ornate beauty, the theater has hardly ever been used for its orginal purpose, hosting only a dozen performances between 1857 and 1868, each attended by around 400 people.
“While it had been forgotten, the theater was in an almost perfect state,” said the head of the Fontainebleau Palace, Jean-Francois Hebert.
“Let us not waste this jewel, and show this extraordinary place of decorative arts,” he added.
According to the palace, the theater is “probably the last in Europe to have kept almost all its original machinery, lighting and decor.”
Having such a theater was the desire of Napoleon III’s wife Eugenie. But after the defeat, his capture in the Franco-Prussian war in 1870 and the declaration of France’s Third Republic, the theater fell into virtual oblivion.
Following the renovation, the theater will mainly be a place to visit and admire, rather than for regularly holding concerts.
“The aim is not to give the theater back to its first vocation” given its “very fragile structure,” said Hebert.
Short shows and recitals may be performed in exceptional cases, under the tightest security measures and fire regulations. But regular guided tours will allow visitors to discover the site, including the stage sets.
The restoration aimed to use as little new material as possible, with 80 percent of the original material preserved.
The opulent central chandelier — three meters high and 2.5 meters wide — has been restored to its original form.