Libya’s Leptis Magna, a neglected UNESCO World Heritage site, barely survives

Leptis Magna (modern-day Khoms, Libya) is most famous for being the birthplace of Septimius Severus in A.D. 145. Severus joined the Roman military and worked his way up in the ranks during the imperatorships of Marcus Aurelius and Commodus.

People walk under the Arch of Sptimus Severus in the ancient Roman city of Leptis Magna near the coastal Libyan city of Al-Khums, 120Km east of the capital. AFPPeople walk under the Arch of Sptimus Severus in the ancient Roman city of Leptis Magna near the coastal Libyan city of Al-Khums, 120Km east of the capital. AFP

Al Khums, Libya–Once among the Roman Empire’s most beautiful cities, Leptis Magna lies neglected and shunned by tourists after a decade of war, but some see its potential for rebirth.

There is no queue at the gate and only a handful of visitors, almost all Libyans, wander among the imposing ruins at the UNESCO World Heritage site.

Visiting the area, a former Roman outpost on the south coast of the Mediterranean, is “a voyage in time, a dive into history”, enthuses Abdessalam Oueba, a Libyan visitor in his 60s.

Founded by the Phoenicians then conquered by Rome, the city was the birthplace of Septimius Severus, who rose to become emperor from 193 until 211.

The ruler waged military campaigns across Europe and into modern-day Iraq before dying in York, England, far from the hometown on which he had lavished resources.

Perched on a hillside with a striking view of the Mediterranean, the well-preserved ruins include a large basilica, a racecourse and a theatre seating up to 15,000 spectators on arched terraces overlooking the sea.

Among the few visiting tourists are Ihab, from Tripoli, who made the 120-kilometre (75-mile) trip to show his children a site he had visited during his own childhood.

“Leptis Magna is beautiful, the most beautiful Roman site outside Italy,” the 34-year-old doctor said under a clear blue sky.

“Yet it’s barely been discovered.”

 ‘Neglect’ 

The violence that wracked Libya after the NATO-backed 2011 revolt that toppled long time ruler Muammar Gadhafi stirred fears for the ancient ruins, prompting United Nations cultural agency UNESCO to place them and four other Libyan sites on a list of global heritage in danger.

But so far, the areas have been mostly spared from the fighting, which has largely paused since an October 2020 ceasefire.

“There haven’t been any direct attacks or threats against Leptis Magna, despite the conflict,” said Azeddine al-Fakih, head of the site’s antiquities department.

Yet it faces other threats: a lack of resources and government support.

“In 2020, we were finally able to launch projects that should have been finished 50 years ago,” he said, listing toilet facilities, offices and a perimeter fence.

“But archaeological digs have stopped, and maintenance operations are rushed and superficial.”

Fakih admitted that after 10 years of conflict and state collapse, Libya’s current unity government “has bigger problems to deal with”

There was almost no tourism in Libya under Gadhafi, whose rule from 1969-2011 depended heavily on the country’s vast oil wealth.

Tense foreign relations and sanctions also discouraged foreign visitors.

Gadhafi began issuing tourist visas for the first time in 2003 and even created a ministry of tourism as the regime began mending ties with the West.

But all that stopped in 2011, when the NATO-uprising plunged the country into years of chaos.