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Once one of the most beautiful cities in the Roman Empire, Leptis Magna is abandoned after decades of civil war in Libya. Although tourists are currently escaping it, some see the possibility of changing it.
A visit to Leptis Magni, a Roman city that juts out on the southern shore of the Mediterranean, “is a journey through time, an immersion in history,” says Abdelsalam Ueba, a Libyan visitor.
The city, founded by the Phoenicians and occupied by the Romans, is the birthplace of Septimius Severus, a Roman emperor from 193 to 211 who fought battles from Iraq to England.
Set on a hill with stunning sea views, the well-preserved remains include a basilica, a racecourse and a theater with a capacity for 15,000 spectators.
Among the few rare foreign tourists is Ihab, from Iraq, who drove 120 kilometers from Tripoli to show children a place that thrilled him as a child.
“Leptis Magna is beautiful, the most beautiful Roman city outside of Italy,” says the 34-year-old doctor.
The violence that ravaged Libya after the overthrow of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 worried UNESCO, which included Leptis Magna on the list of endangered world heritage sites.
However, the area around the ancient Roman city has been largely spared the struggle.
“There have been no direct attacks on Leptis Magna or threats that there will be,” said Azedin al-Kakih, director of the site’s antiques department at the site.
The threats are of another kind: the lack of money for government maintenance and support.
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“In 2020, we launched projects whose completion was planned 50 years ago,” explains Al-Fakih, listing the toilets and the fence.
“But archaeological excavations have stopped and maintenance is only reduced to the surface.”
Fakih admits that after ten years of war and the destruction of the country, the government has “major problems.”
During the Gaddafi regime, the state lived on oil and tourism was almost non-existent.
Tense relations with other countries and sanctions have also discouraged foreign tourists.
Gaddafi began issuing tourist visas in 2003 and even founded the Ministry of Tourism, because the country began to improve relations with the West.
But it all came to a halt in 2011, when a long-term leader was overthrown by a popular uprising with the help of NATO, and the country sank into chaos.
The armistice signed a year ago is being held and this gives hope that the country can move forward.
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Engineer Omar Hidan, who volunteered to promote Leptis Magna, believes in great potential for tourism.
“Leptis Magna has always been neglected by the state and is worth more than ten sources of oil,” he says.
Fakih agrees. It could be a major source of revenue if managed properly.
“Thousands of jobs could be created here, millions of tourists could come and bring in billions of dollars. The day will come when oil resources will dry up and Leptis Magna will stay,” he said.