A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, February 19, 2016

Sabratha's Long History

Today's US airstrike against ISIS at Sabratha in Libya offers an opportunity to note the deep history of this Libyan town. The attack, the US  says, was aimed at an ISIS training camp and particularly targeted Noureddine Chouchane, a Tunisian terrorist accused of plotting the attacks on the Bardo Museum and the beach at Sousse last year.
Roman theater, Sabratha
Sabratha, in northwestern Libya not far from Tunisia, is  a mid-sized city on the coast. But near the town are the ruins of ancient Sabratha, originally founded by the Phoenicians, later a major Roman city flourishing under the Severan Emperors, who were of Libyan origin.

Founded around 500 BC by the Phoenicians, later under Numidian rule, Sabratha with the arrival of Rome began a rise to become one of the "three cities" (Tripolis) from which Tripolitania would take its name: from west to east Sabratha, Oea (the modern Tripoli), and Leptis Magna.

The Emperor Septimius Severus was from Leptis Magna, and the Tripolis reached its golden age under the ensuing Severan Emperors. In the Byzantine era, Justinian built a basilica there, but after the Arab conquest, trade shifted in favor of Oea, to which the broader name Tripolis (Tarabulus in Arabic), became applied exclusively, and Sabratha to its west and Leptis Magna to its east declined. One result is that the Roman ruins at Sabratha and (especially) at Leptis were better preserved.

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