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National Geographic - UNSEEN LIBYA

New Old Libya - FREE Feature Download

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For decades Libyans lived under a dictator who twisted their past. Now they must imagine their future.

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The bronze likeness of Muammar Qaddafi’s nemesis was lying on his back in a wooden crate shrouded in the darkness of a museum warehouse. His name was Septimius Severus. Like Qaddafi, he was from what is now Libya, and for 18 years bridging the second and third centuries A.D. he ruled the Roman Empire. His birthplace, Leptis Magna—a commercial city 80 miles east of what the Phoenicians once called Oea, or present-day Tripoli—became, in every meaningful way, a second Rome. More than 1,700 years after the emperor’s death, Libya’s Italian colonizers honored him by erecting a statue of the imposing, bearded leader with a torch aloft in his right hand. They installed the statue in Tripoli’s main square (now Martyrs’ Square) in 1933—where it remained for a half century, until another Libyan ruler took umbrage.

“The statue became the mouthpiece of the opposition, because he was the only thing Qaddafi couldn’t punish,” says Hafed Walda, a native Libyan and professor of archaeology at King’s College London. “Every day people would ask, ‘What did Septimius Severus say today?’ He became a figure of annoyance to the regime. So Qaddafi banished him to a rubbish heap. The people of Leptis Magna rescued him and brought him back home.” And that is where I found him, reposing in a wooden box amid gardening tools and discarded window frames, awaiting whatever destination the new Libya might have in store for him.

Qaddafi correctly viewed the statue as a threat. For Septimius Severus stood as a wistful reminder of what Libya had once been: a Mediterranean region of immense cultural and economic wealth, anything but isolated from the world beyond the sea. Spreading over 1,100 miles of coastline, bracketed by highlands that recede into semiarid wadis and finally into the copper vacuum of the desert, Libya had long been a corridor for commerce and art and irrepressible social aspiration. The tri-city region of Tripolitania—Leptis Magna, Sabratah, and Oea—had once provided wheat and olives to the Romans.

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Robert Draper is a contributing writer for the magazine who reports often from Africa. George Steinmetz is an expedition photographer who has documented remote corners of the world for 25 years.