Libya’s threatened ancient history, and why you need to know about it

07 July 2020 10:26:00 - Last updated: 07 July 2020 10:27:29

Libya has been in the news in recent months as fears increase over the safety of its extraordinary heritage. The country’s treasures – like those of Syria and Iraq – are little known in Europe, but their loss would be a major blow to our shared cultural history. We asked Susan Walker, President of the Society for Libyan Studies, to introduce the most significant sites.

Libya’s modern name echoes the ancient Greek term for north-west Africa. It is the fourth largest country in Africa, bordering Egypt, Sudan, Chad, Niger, Algeria, Tunisia and the Mediterranean Sea.

This vast land, populated today by only six million people, hosts a complex and distinguished history. Afro-Asiatic Berber tribesmen have lived in Libya since remote prehistory. Three coastal cities – Lepcis, Oea (Tripoli) and Sabratha – were established by Phoenician traders from the Levant, who had developed a major regional centre at nearby Carthage in Tunisia by the 5th century BC. Phoenician (Punic) heritage remains a feature of Libya’s cultural heritage. Sabratha, with impressively restored Punic and Roman buildings, lies to the west of the modern capital Tripoli. Tripoli’s name reflects the Greek term for three cities; this name was also given to the Latin-speaking Roman province of Tripolitania.

Libya produced a Roman emperor, Septimius Severus (r. AD 193–211), who achieved power in a dazzlingly orchestrated military coup, only to succumb 18 years later to the damp climate of York. Severus adorned his home city of Lepcis – now called Magna (‘the Great’) – with a grandiose set of public buildings decorated with Greek marbles. Extensively excavated and restored in the 20th century, Lepcis Magna (also known as Leptis Magna) is the most impressive urban complex to survive from the Roman empire.

Eastern Libya was colonised by the Greeks in the 7th century BC on the advice of the oracle of Apollo at Delphi. The Gebel Akhdar (Green Mountain) and adjacent coast supported five cities, with a capital at Cyrene, named after a lion-slaying nymph. Reflecting its origins, Cyrene is Delphi transposed to Africa, set in rugged terraced hills 600m above the sea. Its inhabitants used an archaic, Doric dialect of Greek, and retained into late antiquity a passion for their remote past. Despite a glittering career at Constantinople and Alexandria, the Cyrenaican Bishop Synesius (AD 373–c.414) wrote with affectionate longing for his homeland, awaiting burial amongst his ancestors in their Doric tombs. Beneath the modern city of Benghazi lie the ancient cities of Euesperides and Berenice. To the south lies Ajdabya, a Roman town endowed by the Fatimid caliphate with an important mosque and palace in the 10th century.

Networks of trade linked ancient coastal Libya to the oases of the Sahara, which supported vibrant communities. At Germa in the Fezzan, the Berber Garamantes built pyramid tombs. Gadhames in western Libya preserves even today the traditional way of life of the Berber tribes who, despite much instability and resettlement, form the core of the modern population.