CNN reported today that UNESCO heritage site, Leptis Magna, may be at risk if NATO forces receive evidence that Moammar Gadhafi is hiding military equipment amongst the ruins. Rebel forces claim that Gadhafi is using the site, which is located halfway between Tripoli and Misrata.
Commander Mike Bracken, a spokesman for NATO, said it “would be a concern for us that Gadhafi and pro-Gadhafi forces would choose to contravene international law in hiding themselves in such a location.”
These current events particularly resonated for me having just read ‘Monuments Men’ the account of allied forces to preserve world heritage during World War II. North Africa was the beginning of the Allied campaign and a learning experience in the propaganda potential of cultural heritage. In January 1943 the battle between British and Axis powers had been raging across the North African desert for three years. It wasn’t until October 1942 that the tides turned towards the British with the defeat of Italian-German forces at the Second Battle of El Alamein. The British finally broke through the Axis lines and began to push towards Tripoli.
“By January 1943, they had reached Leptis Magna, a sprawling Roman ruin only sixty-four miles east of Tripoli. It was here that Lieutenant Colonel sir Robert Eric Mortimer Wheeler, Royal Artillery, British North African Army, beheld the majesty of Emperor Lucius Septimius Severus’s imperial city: the imposing gate of the basilica, the hundreds of columns that marked the old marketplace, the enormous sloping amphitheater, with the blue waters of the Mediterranean sparkling in the background. At the height of its power at the turn of the third century AD — when Emperor Severus had showered money on his hometown in an attempt to make it the cultural and economic capital of Africa — Leptis Maga had been a port, but in the last seventeen hundred years the harbor had silted up and become a hardpan of clay, a dull and empty world. Here, Mortimer Wheeler thought, is power. And a reminder of our mortality. (Robert Edsel, Monuments Men, p.33)”
The British had lost the ruins two years before in 1941 to the Italians led by the German general Erwin Rommel. Italians had published the propaganda pamphlet Che cosa hanno fatto gli Inglesi in Cirenaica — What the English have done in Cyrenaica. The propaganda piece showed imaged of defaced walls at the Cyrene Museum, smashed statues, and damaged artifacts which the Italians claimed that happened at the hands of British and Australian soldiers. The British discovered these claims were false when they recaptured Cyrene, four hundred miles east of Leptis Maga. Although the claims had been false the British had spent the past two years defending themselves with little proof the contradict the claims. It was Mortimer Wheeler, a trained archaeologist and director of the London Museum, learning from the mistakes of Cyrene, who ensured that Leptis Magna was preserved.
Fortune willing, Leptis Magna will survive another war to see another day.