Leptis Magna: Ignored, Neglected, and Looted, Yet Still Remains a Marvel of Antiquity – Al Marsad

One of the finest examples of Roman ruins along the Mediterranean, Leptis Magna is a good sign for Libya: ignored, neglected, looted—yet it has stood the test of time and is proof that whatever war takes place a piece of history can’t so easily be swiped off the map.

Leptis Magna from the air.

(LIBYA, 16 March 2021) – The ancient city of Leptis Magna sits abandoned on the shores of the Mediterranean. With Libya being torn apart by civil war for almost a decade now, the strife of war has made sure no tourists pass by. These ancient Roman remains sit quietly while only a few locals visit, for a day out or a teenage rendezvous, or the locals intent on preserving their heritage.

In an article published in The Times, Louise Calleghan writes on the risks around the preservation of Leptis Magna. “Ten years after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya remains plagued with instability and conflict. Despite the efforts of local archaeologists its breathtaking cultural heritage—from Leptis Magna to the remains of early Islamic desert dynasties deep in the Sahara—has suffered along with it.”

Head of Medusa, Leptis Magna


The origins of Leptis Magna date back to the seventh century BC under the Phoenicians. It was then expanded under the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus who was a native of the city. It experienced a battered history over the centuries: from the continuous attacks from the Berbers and it finally fell to the Vandals in 439AD. After the Muslims took over in 647 it was pretty much abandoned. Its impressive ruins were excavated during the last century and into this century, revealing some of the finest Roman ruins on the Mediterranean.

Only seventy five miles from Tripoli, this extraordinary site ought to be full of tourists and history lovers, yet it remains abandoned and bereft of signs of life. War obviously has kept everyone away, and now the Pandemic continues the boycott.

The theatre of Leptis Magna

In the light of this positive vibe with the creation of the new Government of National Unity, followed hopefully by elections, it is hoped that indeed Leptis Magna will see again eager visitors admiring its astonishing ruins. But several factors cast doubt on that, firstly, the graffiti and general lack of care and respect from those picnicking around and rubbishing the ground and drawing on its walls; but, worse, is the state of the Ministry of Antiquities, as Calleghan quotes a UK archaeology expert: “In neither regime, really, are they well funded to do the job of protection,” said David Mattingly, a professor of Roman archaeology at Leicester University. He adds, “They are doing their very best, but there is inevitable damage going on.”

The ruins of the market, Leptis Magna

Love-story style graffiti aside, a more serious issue hampering protection is the fact that archaeologists and experts cannot access the site, due to the war and now the pandemic, meaning that the artefacts are not being cared for and can deteriorate in the hot climate.


A third risk factor that may contribute to its decay is the greed of developers, who are taking advantage of the government neglect and it isn’t unknown for opportunists to take actual artefacts and sell them elsewhere for a price. The city therefore is at constant risk of being looted, and, to add to its list of woes, it is also at risk of being engulfed by the urban sprawl from the growing nearby town of Khoms.

Detail from the Arch of Septimius Severus, Leptis Magna

The crime of looting is not new to Leptis Magna, as it has lost much due to the unbridled greed of others who think nothing of taking off with an artefact and legging it home with them‑even Louis XIV felt no qualms about taking for his Versailles Palace around 600 columns.

For Libyans Leptis Magna has evoked two poles of reaction: from the likes of Gaddafi, a refusal to acknowledge it since it bore all the hallmarks of imperialism; while many Libyans conversely saw it as a place of great Libyan pride and many a Libyan school child visited and admired every bit of it.

The Arch of Septimius Severus, Leptis Magna

Post-Gaddafi the city has survived pretty much unhurt, thanks to the protective stance of the locals keen to repel all looters, graffiti artists and opportunists.

Libya’s Leptis Magna has pulled off a remarkable feat: by being ignored during these warring years it has basically remained intact. It is a good sign for Libya that through all Libya’s wear and tear and now baring a battered landscape, one of the oldest cities of ruins in the Mediterranean managed to survive—a piece of history unwilling to vanish against all odds.



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