Authoritarian regimes have always sought to reshape history to their own advantageby Ian Irvine / December 29, 2015 / Leave a comment
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Reports in December suggested that Islamic State (IS) forces have taken control of the town of Sabratha in Libya. It lies on the Mediterranean coast, 50 miles west of Tripoli and was one of the three ancient cities which give the area its historic name, Tripolitania. Its extensive archaeological remains are a Unesco world heritage site and the incursion of IS has raised fears that they may be under threat of destruction. The news reports have all run photographs of its impressive theatre, one of the largest in the Roman empire, a three-storey structure from the third century AD, capable of seating 5,000.
IS has already demolished temples in Palmyra in Syria, and Nimrud in Iraq, as well as many churches and Shia mosques and shrines. This iconcoclasm is done in accordance with its Salafist ideology—which requires the removal of evidence of what they see as polytheism. But IS’s sophisticated propagandists are well aware that these acts of cultural cleansing generate considerable media coverage.
If the theatre is destroyed, it would not be the first time that the ruins of Sabratha have been used for propaganda. The theatre owes its existence to the part it played in Mussolini’s imperial ambitions. As a result of the Italo-Turkish War of 1911-12, Italy took control of several Ottoman provinces in north Africa and formed them into modern Libya. After Mussolini became dictator in 1925 there was a growing preoccupation with the monuments and achievements of the ancient Roman Empire. The idea of what was called Romanita was used to place national greatness in an historical context and justify the fascist project of an Italian empire around Mare Nostrum (our sea).
A great deal of money was spent on archaeology at home and abroad, excavating and restoring Roman sites. (Many of the city of Rome’s medieval remains were destroyed in order to reach the monuments beneath them.) In Libya the sites of Sabratha and the vast Leptis Magna further east became busy archaeological ant-heaps. These cities had greatly prospered during the reign of the first African-born Roman Emperor Septimius Severus (193-211AD; died in York) and there were rich pickings.
On his first visit to Libya in 1926 Mussolini visited Sabratha and…