The World Heritage Newsletter

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World Heritage Centre,

No. 9 -- December 1995

Cultural Sites in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya
A little-known - or poorly-known - heritage, preserved partly by the absence of tourism and offering an array of treasures, has observed the rise and fall of brilliant and sophisticated civilizations on this vast territory. Dating from prehistory to Islamic civilization, the five sites added to the World Heritage List between 1982 and 1986 provide a clear illustration that Libya has a heritage whose incalculable value belongs to all humanity.

Three sites, Cyrene, Leptis Magna and Sabratha, bear witness to the life that flourished in Libya during the Punic, Greek, Roman and Byzantine eras. These sites - and particularly Leptis and Cyrene - are attracting attention from many foreign archaeologists, including teams from France, Italy and the United Kingdom.

Unfortunately, the prehistoric site of Tadrart Acacus, a continuation of Tassili n'Ajjer in Algeria, is deteriorating because of tourists or specialist photographers who wet the cave paintings to make the drawings stand out better, or because of vandalism. Although diffidifficult to get to, this site is not guarded and has no protective mechanisms to keep visitors to keep away.

Similarly, the ancient city of Ghadames, known - like Shibam in Yemen - as the 'pearl of the desert', is gradually falling into ruin because its fragile clay houses are not being maintained. The covered streets are becoming unusable and only a few inhabitants are struggling to pass on to future generations this architectural heritage with its unique style of construction and internal decoration.

All these sites deserve special attention, both from researchers (Théodore Monod, a well-known French biologist, went to the Libyan desert in 1991) and from conservation experts. CRATerre, a department of the Grenoble (France) School of Architecture, specializing in clay architecture, could suggest effective ways of saving the Ghadames houses. UNESCO's Division of Water Sciences could devise a project with local experts to protect Leptis Magna against flooding when the Lebda wadi bursts its banks. The technological sponsorship unit of the EDF (the French electricity company) could take an interest in the problem of Sabratha's deteriorating stones.

The sites are listed below in chronological order, as they entered into the history of the country:


The mountainous region of Tadrart Acacus is situated near the country's southwest border, east of the city of Ghat. The site also includes the Murzuch desert which bears traces of the different phases of the palaeolithic era, during which hunters lived surrounded by flora and fauna similar to those that today thrive in tropical regions. Tools have been unearthed across an area covering thousands of kilometres. In the Tadrart Acacus mountains, cave paintings and carvings of various styles are scattered throughout almost all the valleys, representing the various cultural groups that lived there during those long periods of prehistory. This cave art, discovered in the Libyan desert of Fezzan, bears witness to marked climatic changes resulting from the gradual encroachment of the desert. Various European experts have studied these paintings and carvings, but it was Professor Fabrizio Mori who succeeded in clearly distinguishing the different periods represented:

  • carvings on the rock face depicting the outline of large animals from the African savannah (around 12,000 B.C.),
  • stylized paintings using yellow, green and red pigments of asexual figures with rounded heads, shown by using carbon-14 to have been produced some 8000 years B.C.,
  • polychromatic representations of bovine animals and Mediterranean-type human figures (around 4000 B.C.),
  • representations of horses and carts dated at 1500 B.C., believed to refer to the Garamantes tribes mentioned by Herodotus,
  • monochromic paintings corresponding to the introduction of camels into North Africa at the beginning of the Christian era.

Although the carvings have so far withstood the ravages of time and human intervention, the paintings are disappearing.


This site, located in the Gebel Akhdar region, was founded in the seventh century B.C. in an area where Carthaginian influence was predominant. From the fifth to fourth centuries B.C., this Greek trading post, situated inland, knew its most prosperous period and was able gain the goodwill of Alexander the Great, without falling under his sword. Then in 321 B.C. the satrap of Egypt, Ptolemy, easily gained control of the region. In 96 B.C., one of his descendants relinquished the city to the Romans until the start of its decline, after the tidal wave of 365 A.D.. However, between the third and seventh centuries A.D. the building of churches in Cyrenaica, by then a Christian region, the city of Cyrene and especially its port, Apollonia, testified to the prosperity of the area. This wealth was produced by stock raising, agricultural production and considerable maritime trade.

Cyrene, a city steeped in history and legends for a thousand years, is one of the most complex archaeological sites in the Mediterranean region. Like the other Greek cities of Libya it provides an outstanding example of prosperity in the Mediterranean and African worlds, whose attributes it managed harmoniously to combine.

Monument after monument, the relics found by archaeologists illustrate an extremely clear aesthetic ambition and the religious fervour that inspired the people, focused on their protector, Apollo.

The site of Cyrene, which has not yet been fully explored, contains some remarkable relics from the Greco-Roman period. Among the most important are:

  • The Sanctuary and Temple of Apollo, the city's oldest cultural building. During the Imperial Roman era, from Trajan to Hadrian, the abundance of water from Apollo's spring led to the building of baths that contains the site's most impressive statues. The sanctuary included a large number of buildings -including temples, porticos and fountains. Not all of them have been identified yet, nor even excavated.
  • From the Greek theatre to the Roman amphitheatre - west of the Sanctuary of Apollo a huge theatre, a shrine to the Greek god Dionysus, was enlarged during the Roman era and turned into an arena for combats between animals and gladiators.
  • The city itself comprises the Acropolis, which has hardly been explored. At the centre of the Agora, a circular building has been identified as a shrine to Demeter and Persephone; statues of these two goddesses were discovered within the enclosure. This shrine, which lies outside the city walls, was recently excavated by a group of American archaeologists.
  • To the east, on a nearby hill, the Cyrenians built the biggest Greek Doric temple in Africa in the sixth century B.C. - the Sanctuary of Zeus, which is comparable to the Temple of Zeus at Olympia.
  • Finally, the wealth of funerary monuments lends an unforgettable mood to the Cyrenian landscape. A major excavation project in the region has been proposed to the government of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya by the University of Leicester. The aim of the project would be to identify the links existing between Cyrene and the surrounding area in ancient times.


    This site, located on the coast 120 kilometres east of Tripoli, is one of the most extensive archaeological sites in the Mediterranean, measuring 2.5 by 1.5 kilometres.

    The little Phoenician port of Leptis, founded at the start of the first millennium B.C. to trade with the Garamantes people, like the other trading posts on the Gulf of Sirte, such as Sabratha, had a distinguished destiny in the second century A.D. when a Libyan, Septimus Severus, became the Roman Emperor. Thanks to him, Leptis became one of the most beautiful cities in the Roman world and remained the best example of 'Severan' urban development.

    The city was a megalomaniac's dream, for which nothing seemed too big, too beautiful or too grand - marble replaced stucco, granite took the place of sandstone and basalt was replaced by porphyry. Walls resembled ramparts; streets turned into esplanades.

    Leptis was similar to Palmyra and Ephesus: a provincial city with a rural role, like the two other Tripolitanian cities, Sabratha and Oea (now Tripoli).

    Under Roman influence from the fall of Carthage in 146 B.C., Leptis was finally annexed to the Empire in the first century A.D. and a thriving grain trade grew up there.

    In 193 A.D., after a brilliant political and military career both in Rome and within the Empire, Septimus Severus became emperor.

    However, Leptis reached the height of its glory when the Empire started to decline with the first incursions by Vandals in 429. After the Arab invasion, the desert sand once again took possession of the site. In the period between the two world wars, the Italian government paid for a major excavation - 500 men cleared tonnes of sediment and discovered relics that defied imagination.

    The city was intact, preserved for centuries by the sand. After the Second World War, French and British archaeologists joined the Italians in their efforts, but it was only when the site was added to the World Heritage List in 1982 that the work really started. Today, a total of 30 major monuments -Hadrian's baths, the Forum covering a hectare of land, the Severan basilica, the port, the main temples, the marketplace, the theatre - have been restored, along with many minor ones. Renovation of the 15,000-seat amphitheatre is almost complete. Hundreds of sculptures and mosaics have been transferred to the museums of Tripoli and Lebda.

    Unfortunately the civil engineering structures built by the Romans to protect the city from flooding when the Lebda wadi rose have vanished or are no longer effective.

    The site suffered devastating flooding in 1987 and 1988. UNESCO provided emergency aid in the form of equipment to clear the site. Several years were needed to restore this huge site. A flood protection project was proposed by UNESCO in 1990 to put a stop to the problem. However, since September 1994 a British team has started new excavations in the outlying area to the west of the theatre. The team is headed by a professor of Libyan origin, Haled Walda of King's College, London. Meanwhile Professor Buonacasa's Italian teams and the French archaeological expedition led by Professor André Laronde are continuing their excavations in the city centre and the port respectively.


    Located on the coast 60 kilometres east of Tripoli, this city formed a maritime trading triangle with Leptis and Oea between North Africa and the rest of the Mediterranean from Phoenician times until the decline of the Roman Empire. It was a provincial city with a rural role, linking Africa with the Gulf of Sirte via the caravan routes coming from Ghadames.

    An integral part of the ephemeral Numidian kingdom of Massinissa, Sabratha was swallowed up by the Roman province of Africa Nova in 46 B.C.

    The major monuments were built at the height of the city's prosperity in the second and third centuries A.D. The theatre is the most remarkable of these, with its colonnaded stage wall on three levels and its low reliefs in pink and white marble, directly facing the sea.

    The theatre was reconstructed by Italian archaeologists and is now used during the summer for cultural entertainment. However, all the site's pink sandstone structures have been weakened by the ravages of time, especially erosion by sea spray and breezes. The theatre's structural elements were often shored up hastily with the materials available, and the houses on the beach are gradually disappearing, leaving the sea to regain possession of the shore.

    Two museums on the site house objects found during the excavations, such as mosaics from the Byzantine period, statues from the Roman era and Phoenician relics. Some of these objects, most of which were unearthed by Italian archaeologists, are believed to require the attention of experienced conservationists working in suitably equipped laboratories. As with the other sites, it is important to define clearly the boundaries of the Sabratha site and to stop people entering it from the beach.


    'An outstanding example of a traditional human settlement which is representative of a culture and which has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change.' Unfortunately, the old city has become practically a ghost town. Its fragile houses of clay and unfired brick, decorated inside with whitewash and preserving a degree of coolness in the height of summer, are not being maintained, which means this remarkable example of the traditional housing of Ghadames is slowly disappearing. Ghadames and its oasis cover an area of 225 hectares, 10 hectares of which are occupied by houses in the old city. The site of the houses was determined by the location of the Ain-el-Fras spring.

    Roughly circular in shape, the old city is composed of a cluster of houses; those on the outside, with their reinforced external walls, protect the city. This rudimentary enclosure includes gates and projecting bastions. All the houses are built on at least two main levels - the ground floor, reached through a single door opening onto a rectangular room, and the first-floor living quarters linked up over the covered walkways that criss-cross the city like galleries.

    The lessening flow of the Ain-el-Fras spring was partly to blame for the desertion of the old city in favour of the modern town, which was built entirely between 1975 and 1983, as well as for the decline of trade and agriculture. Some inhabitants have kept their homes in the old city for the summer months and the celebration of certain festivals.

    In 1983 a UNESCO intersectoral mission observed the alarming deterioration of some of the houses, and proposals were made to the Government to revive the old city and install modern amenities to encourage former residents to move back into their old homes. So far no follow-up has been given to the proposals.

    In 1990 a feasibility study was presented to UNDP by the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat). Its findings gave serious cause for concern - Habitat made it clear that if conservation work on the houses did not start in the next few years, Ghadames would become an archaeological site.

    In less than ten years, Ghadames has turned into a ghost town visited only by a few lost tourists. It only comes to life during the hot summer months, when the air conditioning in modern homes is unable to cope with the torrid heat of the Sahara and only the clay houses of the old city maintain a degree of coolness.

    The revival of the oasis and its irrigation system is one of the vital conditions for making the gardens of Ghadames bloom again - and for bringing back the inhabitants to maintain the houses and irrigation channels on a regular basis. A national organization to protect the city has authority over any restoration projects and aims to find the resources required to relaunch the city financially, as part of a master plan to develop Libyan cultural sites for tourism.

    Nevertheless, people who have visited Ghadames recently report that the situation in 1995 appears desperate. They say an appeal to the international community could be launched by the Government of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya as soon as possible to prevent the city from disappearing completely.

    With the prospect of opening up the country to cultural tourism to encourage sustainable development and to make its cultural sites better known, a concentrated and concerted effort by the various national bodies responsible for this heritage is needed to make it possible to appeal effectively for expertise and resources from the international community. The Sabratha Theatre, the Forum of Severus at Leptis, the Sanctuary of Zeus at Cyrene, and the houses and covered streets of Ghadames, as well as the cave paintings of Tadrart Acacus, should be preserved for future generations as an outstanding example of Mediterranean culture.

    The World Heritage Newsletter is published by: The World Heritage Centre, UNESCO 7, place de Fontenoy, 75352 Paris 07 SP.

    The Newsletter is available on request; write to this address, giving your name and address.

    Printed by UNESCO
    ISSN No.: 1020-0622

Rock Art Sites of Tadrart Acacus
Archaeological Site of Cyrene
Archaeological Site of Leptis Magna
Archaeological Site of Sabratha
Old Town of Ghadamès

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