Incident Report Feature: Sabratha

Militia clashes in Sabratha reportedly spilled into the archaeological site, resulting in widespread damage.

The Theater of Sabratha (Rome Across Europe)

Situated on Libya’s Tripolitanian Coast, Sabratha was one of a triad of cities, along with Oea (modern Tripoli) and Leptis Magna, which gave the name of Tripolis to this region [1]. Sabratha was founded between the 7th and 5th centuries BCE as a minor Phoenician trading post, likely chosen for its natural harbor [2]. It became a proper town around the 4th century, when the first stone monuments were built, though few pre-Roman monuments are extant [3].

The city was subsequently absorbed into the short-lived Numidian Kingdom of Massinissa before being Romanized. Many buildings were built or rebuilt in the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE using imported Greek marble. Several temples, including those dedicated to Hercules and Serapis, were constructed during this period [4].  Sabratha became a Roman colony during the reign of Antoninus Pius (r. 138–161 CE) [5].

Sabratha’s Roman theater, one of the largest in North Africa, was constructed between 150–200 [6]. It was started during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, continued by his son Commodus, and completed with a lavish stage by Septimius Severus, who was born in nearby Leptis Magna. The theater has 25 entrances and could seat approximately 5,000 spectators [7]. Due to its reconstruction by Italian archaeologists in the 1930s, the Roman structure is largely intact.

Beginning in 365, Sabratha slowly declined in importance as a result of barbarian raids and a devastating earthquake [8]. The last restoration of buildings occurred in the first part of the 5th century in the forum basilica. Several churches were constructed during the reign of Justinian (r. 527–565), but the city was still much smaller than it had been in its heyday [9]. Sabratha was captured soon after the Arab conquest of the region in 643 and eventually abandoned [10].

Much of what can be seen at Sabratha today was partially or wholly reconstructed during Italian rule of Libya in the early 20th century, including under Mussolini, who gave speeches from the ancient theatre. The site was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1982, and on the World Heritage in Danger List in 2016.

Sabratha and ISIS

Sabratha largely escaped harm after the beginning of the Libyan revolution in February 2011. In the oldest available DigitalGlobe satellite imagery of the site, dating from March 17, 2013 to November 20, 2013, the site is in fair condition. Modern buildings and agricultural development south and west of the site encroach upon peripheral aspects of the archaeological area, and some structures in the northern reaches of the site have partially eroded into the sea.

Concern for the archaeological site grew in early 2014 when ISIS militants gained a foothold in nearby Tripoli, then controlled by the Islamist-backed General National Congress (GNC). ISIS also reportedly established training camps close to Sabratha. In December 2015, militants reportedly associated either with ISIS or the Islamist militia group Ansar al-Sharia seized the main road to Sabratha and set up checkpoints, entering  the city in dozens of pickup trucks. This was apparently in an attempt to retrieve several fighters recently arrested by the local police. The group’s control over the city was short-lived, and the local government accused the international press of exaggerating the presence of militant groups in Sabratha.

In late February 2016, ISIS militants briefly took control of the modern town of Sabratha in retaliation for a US airstrike on a nearby ISIS facility. This resulted in intermittent clashes between ISIS militants and local militias, until significant numbers of ISIS fighters apparently fled across the border into Tunisia. No damage was reported to the archaeological site at this time.

September and October 2017 saw intense fighting in the area between the Anas Dabbashi (or Amu) Brigade and the Anti-ISIS Operations Room (AIOR), a force under the authority of the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli and closely aligned with the Libyan National Army (LNA). The AIOR announced its control of Sabratha and declared its loyalty to the GNA. This fighting resulted in the first reported combat damage to the archaeological site of Sabratha. Initial reports of damage circulated on Facebook, with a photograph that appears to document the aftermath of a rocket-propelled grenade that detonated against the side of the Roman Theater.

Damage to the exterior wall of theater above eastern entrance to stage (Sabratha/Facebook; September 17, 2017)

On September 21, 2017, Mohammed Shakshouki, the new director of the Libyan Department of Antiquities (DoA), sent an email to all foreign archaeological missions in Libya explaining that despite the ongoing fighting in modern Sabratha, the DoA superintendent in the city was able to confirm that the site was largely out of harm’s way. However, due to the intensity of the fighting, DoA staff and the Sabratha Tourist Police were forced to temporarily abandon the site. Both local and international authorities called for a ceasefire and for all belligerent parties to respect the sanctity of the archaeological site.

Fighting in and around the archaeological site subsided in early October. Abd al-Hakim al-Harizi of the Sabratha Tourist Police returned to Sabratha, conducted an initial damage assessment, and facilitated access for a delegation from Libyan DoA headquarters in Tripoli.

According to Hafed Walda, the Libyan representative to UNESCO in Paris, Sabratha suffered pervasive superficial damage. Damaged monuments include the theater, a column next to the Liber Pater Temple, and the Mausoleum of Bes.

Member of delegation with damaged column next to Liber Pater Temple (seen in top right field) (Hafed Walda/Facebook; October 9, 2017)

Damage to workshop behind Punic Museum (DoA Tripoli; October 11, 2017)

In addition, an errant rocket-propelled grenade appears to have detonated the fuel tanks in one of the workshops behind the Punic Museum, damaging the building and its roof. This damage is also confirmed by DigitalGlobe satellite imagery from October 8, 2017.

The Roman Theater sustained enough superficial damage that, in Walda’s estimation, it now requires a thorough structural assessment. His photographs show bullet holes in the standing architecture, evidence of the use of high caliber weapons, and tank tracks throughout the site.

In addition to the damage inflicted by the fighting, Walda also reported seeing a significant quantity of deflated rubber rafts and debris from informal campsites on the coast near with the archaeological site, suggesting that Sabratha has recently been used as a base for human smuggling operations. DoA Tripoli plans to dispatch a more thorough, multi-day damage assessment mission to the site in weeks to come in order to thoroughly document the status of the site.

For the full Incident Report discussing the state of Sabratha, see ASOR CHI September 2017 Monthly Report and ASOR CHI October 2017 Monthly Report.

Damage to eastern exterior wall of theater (Hafed Walda/Facebook; October 9, 2017)


[1] Matthews, K. (1957) Cities in the Sand: Leptis Magna and Sabratha in Roman Africa. University of Pennsylvania Press. 48.

[2] Mattingly, D. (1995) Tripolitania. London: B.T. Batsford. 206.

[3] Parker, P. (2009) The Empire Stops Here. Random House. 449

[4] Matthews (1957): 50.

[5] Ibid. 49.

[6] Parker (2009): 449.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Mattingly (1995): 299.

[9] Matthews (1957): 53.

[10] Mattingly (1995): 345.

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