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

15 January 2016

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.

Lepcis Maga in 2010.

Lepcis Maga in 2010. Photo: Maggie Gray

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.

View of the Sanctuary of Apollo at Cyrene

View of the Sanctuary of Apollo at Cyrene Photo: Professor Susan Kane, University of Oberlin

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.

Faceless statue of Persephone rising from the underworld. This figure once adorned a tomb at Cyrene (c. 350-150 BC)

Faceless statue of Persephone rising from the underworld. This figure once adorned a tomb at Cyrene (c. 350-150 BC) SLS/Cassels archive 2014.0029.

Dr Susan Walker is President of the Society for Libyan Studies, Honorary Curator (formerly Sackler Keeper) of Antiquities at the Ashmolean Museum and Emerita Fellow of Wolfson College, University of Oxford. She is currently co-directing a project Libyan Antiquities at Risk, developing a reference website of funerary sculpture from Libya, much at risk of trafficking on the illegal antiquities market.


  1. Lynne Charoenkitsuksun Jan 16 2016 at 12:37 pm

    Thank you to Dr. Susan Walker for her absorbing but all too brief article on the Libyan archaeology sites. The content of the story and the quality of the photographs, which are fascinating for various reasons anyway, are impressive. Good Luck to her with her present project and work.

  2. Dennis A, Dispenza Jan 19 2016 at 6:00 pm

    It’s unfortunate that in recent years there has been so much loss in Antiquities in the Near and Middle East. The loss to Archaeology is irreplaceable and a terrible blot on the history of these times. What is the cause of this? Mostly human greed, avarice, and stupid, mindless religious fanaticism; far from entering Paradise, people who destroy and vandalize will most likely be expelled from what ever after life there might be.

  3. Really bad should we lose the ancient cities in that country .
    I used to be in Leptis Magna and Sabratha as a tourist some ten years ago.
    Impressed! It was nice to look to these provincial cities after visit to Rome .

  4. As a young serviceman in the Royal Air Force I lived in Tobruk town in Tripoli Street, not far from the Church in the square and central gardens. The single storey tiled cool floor could have held a dance it seemed so large. Even with window fly-screens, sand still found its way into the rooms. In 1965-67 everywhere was quite dilapidated with local residents living in bombed buildings with galvanised sheeting making temporary doors. We had a bowser vehicle delivering our precious water supply which had to be boiled prior to drinking. I worked in the Italian bakery on camp which was powered by wwI Army generator. We produced bread for all the combined services as well as civilians and working inside the tall ceiling spacious was wonderful for losing weight; we sweated buckets. King Idris was leader at the time and I saw the bearded elderly man several times being escorted by CYDEF motorcyclists with black Mercedes in procession. We swum every day in the large harbour and dived for cordite sticks which were dried, set fire and made brief fireworks sound followed by dense acrid white/grey smoke. My 2 years in Libya will NEVER be forgotten and can only pray to see the country as it is NOW (modernised and commercial) than the run-down war-torn area of decades ago. I was also posted at El Adem, 15 miles in the desert. But that is another story.

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