Monday, June 20, 2011

"Archaeological shields"

Kimberly Alderman at the Cultural Property and Archaeology Law blog has a post about UN efforts to protect two archaeological sites, Ghadamès and Leptis Magna,  from the war in Libya:
The United Nations cultural organization has called on the warring parties in Libya to protect two World Heritage List sites, one of which has reportedly been shelled already and the other that is said to be a potential target of NATO air attacks. The Old Town of Ghadamès, known as “the pearl of the desert,” was shelled by Government forces over the weekend, according to media reports. Other reports have said that NATO has refused to rule out the possibility of bombing the Roman town of Leptis Magna, east of Tripoli, which allegedly has warehouses of Government arms.

“The Director-General of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Irina Bokova, today called on parties involved in the armed conflict in Libya to ensure the protection of the World Heritage site of the Old Town of Ghadamès and its immediate surroundings,” the agency said in a press release.
“She also appealed to the parties involved not to expose the World Heritage site of Leptis Magna to destruction and damage, following reports that this site is also under threat.”
Ghadamès, an oasis town, is one of the oldest pre-Saharan cities, and an outstanding example of a traditional settlement that also contains Roman ruins, UNESCO said. Leptis Magna, an old Roman seaport, is one of the most spectacular and unspoiled Roman ruins in the Mediterranean region.
I'm not familiar with Ghadamès.  Beyond the UN statement, Alderman says that the city "was depopulated in the 1990s, leaving the city in danger due to lack of maintenance.  It was exposed to far worse danger when it was recently shelled by the Libyan government."

Since I am obsessed with all things Roman, I know much more about Leptis Magna, home of the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus, namesake of the mostly incompetent Severan dynasty.  Alderman gives a rundown:

Leptis Magna was enlarged and embellished by Septimius Severus, who was born there and later became emperor. It was one of the most beautiful cities of the Roman Empire, with its imposing public monuments, harbour, market-place, storehouses, shops and residential districts.

The city was the subject of an unfortunate incident recounted by Ammianus Marcellinus.  From Wikipedia:

During the Crisis of the Third Century, when trade declined precipitously, Leptis Magna's importance also fell into a decline, and by the middle of the fourth century, large parts of the city had been abandoned. Ammianus Marcellinus recounts that the crisis was worsened by a corrupt Roman governor named Romanus during a major tribal raid who demanded bribes to protect the city. The ruined city could not pay these and complained to the emperor Valentianian. Romanus then bribed people at court and arranged for the Leptan envoys to be punished "for bringing false accusations".
Unfortunately for the Empire, such corruption was widespread -- the disastrous Battle of Adrianople in 378 was largely due to the corruption, fecklessness and incompentence of the local Roman commander, Lupicinus -- helped to poison the relationship between the Roman government and its people, with debilitating effects.  Leptis Magna paid dearly for Romanus' sins.

This is a case where NATO is stuck.  They undoubtedly do not want to attack such historic sites, but a declaration that they will not will encourage Gadhafi to store munitions and mass troops in those locations, perhaps turning them into defensive positions.  Gadhafi has no scruples whatsoever when it comes to such things and will gladly use these sites as "archaeological shields."

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