’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.


Where We Are Going Today: Shatllah

Updated 22 March 2019
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Where We Are Going Today: Shatllah

  • Shatllah’s prices are reasonable, while the assistants are very friendly, knowledgeable and helpful

Do you need to add a little life and color to your surroundings? Houseplants are often said to be a source of positivity, and Shatllah has taken this concept to the next level.

Forget the idea of a lonely looking plant in a boring beige pot; this shop adds beautifully designed containers and creative touches that turn them into delightful decorations that are almost works of art. One in particular that caught my eye was designed to look like a tiny garden, complete with a miniature table and chair.

Shatllah’s creations make for perfect gifts, which is how I discovered the shop, in Jeddah’s Al-Zahra’a district, while looking for a present for a friend who loves houseplants. I was so impressed with its wares that I ended up buying some for myself as well. After all, who would not rather have a living plant decorating their home rather than artificial flowers or other fake items?

Shatllah’s prices are reasonable, while the assistants are very friendly, knowledgeable and helpful. They are more than happy to offer advice on picking the perfect plant and how to take care of it when you get it home.