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Leptis Magna: The UNESCO World Heritage site you’ve probably never heard of

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The ruins of Leptis Magna, Libya
The ruins of Leptis Magna, Libya   -   Copyright  AFP
By Ben Anthony with AFP

One of the Roman Empire's most beautiful cities, Leptis Magna now lies neglected after a decade of civil war in Libya.

Perched on a hillside above the Mediterranean, the UNESCO World Heritage site includes a large basilica, a racecourse and an amphitheatre which once seated up to 15,000 spectators.

Founded by the Phoenicians before being conquered by Rome, the city was the birthplace of Septimius Severus, who rose to become emperor from 193 AD until 211 AD. Septimius favored his hometown above all other provincial cities. And the wealth he lavished on it made Leptis Magna the third-most important city in Africa, rivaling both Carthage and Alexandria.

Visiting the city now is "a voyage in time, a dive into history", enthuses Abdessalam Oueba, a Libyan tourist in his 60s.

The site remains largely unknown outside of Libya, after years of conflict prohibited tourists from visiting the region. The violence - a consequence of the Libya Revolt of 2011 - ignited fears for the ancient ruins, prompting UNESCO to place it on a list of endangered heritage sites.

But so far, the area has been spared from the fighting.

"There haven't been any direct attacks or threats against Leptis Magna, despite the conflict," said Azeddine al-Fakih, head of the site's antiquities department.

Yet it faces other threats: a lack of resources and government support.

"In 2020, we were finally able to launch projects that should have been finished 50 years ago," he said, listing toilet facilities, offices and a perimeter fence.

Fakih admits that after 10 years of conflict and state collapse, Libya's current unity government "has bigger problems to deal with".

There was almost no tourism in Libya under Kadhafi, whose rule from 1969 - 2011 depended heavily on the country's vast oil wealth. Kadhafi began issuing tourist visas for the first time in 2003, and even created a ministry of tourism as the regime began mending ties with the West. But all that stopped in 2011, when a NATO-backed revolt overthrew Kadhafi, plunging the country into years of chaos.

Now, a year-long lull in violence has sparked hopes the country can move on.

Leptis Magna "could be a source of income if it was managed properly", says Fakih, who believes the ruins could become a world-famous tourist destination. "It could create thousands of jobs, welcome millions of tourists and bring in billions of dollars. There will come a day when the oil runs out, but Leptis Magna will remain."

Watch the video above to find out more.

Video editor • Ben Anthony