Archaeological site of Ghirza

Date of Submission: 20/07/2020
Criteria: (ii)(iii)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of Libya to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Coordinates: N30 56 48.25 E14 33 3.85
Ref.: 6486

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Ghirza is a frontier site situated in the pre-desertic region of Tripolitania in Western Libya, about 250 km southeast from the coast. It measures circa 500 m north-east and 300 m south-west (Brogan and Smith 1984). The site consists of a cluster of circa 40 structures ranging from small, one-room buildings to large fortifications, a temple and two burial grounds with richly decorated mausolea made of ashlar. Each necropolis contains a monument whose function is still unknown and that might indicate the two leading families in Ghirza. This concentration of mausolea compared to other pre-desert settlements seems to indicate Ghirza as a privileged centre with significant interactions with bigger coastal settlements.

A large temple of an unknown deity sits at the edge of the settlement. The presence of numerous offerings such as bowls, fragmented statues and altars suggests, in both the emple and mausolea, an active cult.

The funerary structures are architecturally homogeneous consisting of temple-like colonnaded arcades surrounding a masonry room with the burial chamber underneath the podium. On the other side, the rich iconographic, artistic and epigraphic repertoire of the mausolea stand out as an original mean of expressing an identity that, at a closer look, easily challenges monolithic concepts such as Roman or Native, a dichotomy that would be too simplistic for a correct interpretation of the site.

Numismatic evidence suggests that the settlement of Ghirza is likely to be placed during the first century AD. However, most of the surviving structures, including the funerary monuments, should be dated between the late third and fourth century AD.

Ghirza lived a period of prosperity especially under emperor Septimius Severus when the settlement became part of a network of military outposts that formed the limes Tripolitanus, the southern frontier of the Roman Empire. Its liminar position allowed it to quickly become a commercial hub with a constant movement of people from the desert to the coastal region and vice versa. This flow created a complex palimpsest that is vividly represented in the iconographic repertoire of the structures. The rich decorations are a product of the indigenous aristocracy that has carefully selected elements from different influences (such as Roman and Punic) to set itself apart from the rest of the community. The nomenclature, for instance, closely mimics that of the Roman aristocracy while the decorative style is closer to the local tradition. Vivid imagery of the agricultural cycle and produce are dominant in all the settlement. Other representations include hunting scenes on camel or foot, grapes, fish and ostrich hunts.

Within the settlement itself, a careful study of the iconography depicted in the so-called North Cemetery and South Cemetery, suggests a different preference in imagery. While frequent busts and portrait sculptures can be found in the Southern cemetery, in its Northern counterpart these are almost absent and there is a stronger focus on inscriptions. All these elements suggest that, probably due to its position, the aristocratic families of Ghirza were able to prosper and compete amongst each other leaving behind a complex funerary palimpsest as a witness.

Brogan, O. and Smith, D. J, 1984. Ghirza. A Libyan Settlement in the Roman Period, Tripoli: Department of Antiquities.
Fontana, S, 1997. Il predeserto tripolitano: mausolei e rappresentazione del potere. Libya
Antiqua - New Series, Volume III, pp. 149-161.
Mattingly, D, 1996. Farming the Desert. The UNESCO Libyan Valleys Archaeological Survey. Volume 2: Gazetteer and Pottery. London: Society for Libyan Studies - Department of Antiquities.
Nikolaus, J, 2016. Beyond Ghirza: Roman-period mausolea in Tripolitania. In: N. Mugnai, N. J. and N. Ray, eds. De Africa Romaque. London: The Society for Libyan Studies, pp. 199-214.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

Due to its constant change in expansion, the boundaries of the Roman Empire have been modified throughout its history, reaching its greatest extent during the 2nd century AD. On the southern frontier, the Roman explorers have crossed the Sahara Desert in order to develop commercial relations with sub-saharan traders. The Southern limes, or limes Tripolitanus​, was reorganised through a reform of Septimius Severus around 200 AD that set up a network of fortified outposts and watchtowers that controlled and protected the frontier. Amongst these, Ghirza is one of the most complex and better preserved examples. The remains of this settlement allow us to paint an articulated picture of how life was along the limes, what technology was introduced by the Roman soldiers and how the indigenous population re-elaborated newly introduced motifs.

Criterion (ii): The settlement of Ghirza constitutes a significant element of the Roman limes along the Sahara Desert. Thanks to its remarkable state of conservation, through the study of the decorative repertoire, the civilian architecture and standing building, it is a witness of intense human and cultural values during the maximum expansion of the Roman Empire. As foreign legions were moved to this area to protect the limes, Roman engineers adapted the technologies already known to them developing new architectures that combined local and imported building techniques. Through the decorative repertoire of the extensive necropoli, it is clear that the limes​was a permeable line where not only military, but also civilians passed through this outpost resulting in a lively exchange of human and cultural values.

Criterion (iii): Ghirza can be considered an exceptional testimony of what was the extension of the Roman Empire on its southern frontier during its apogee. It reflects the expansion policy that the Empire had in the Saharan region, key for the commercial routes that led to sub-saharan Africa. The settlement is also an outstanding example of how, during the colonization, the Roman culture influenced different aspects of the local lifestyle (water management, religion, architecture and social structure) giving us a vivid picture of how foreign soldiers and the local population co-existed in the Saharan environment.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

The nominated site shows a great coherence in its material remains. All the main parts of the settlement, despite the loss of some parts due to heavy wind erosion, are easily recognizable. The site has a national museum annexed where numerous mobile objects are currently stored and a local archaeological office responsible for the safeguarding of the site. Numerous studies and surveys have been conducted in the site making it, overall, a well studied settlement. The nominated site is under the jurisdiction of the Libyan Department of Antiquities and is protected by Libyan law. 

Comparison with other similar properties

The importance of inscribing sites that dotted the Roman limes in the World Heritage List has already been stated with the inscriptions of the Frontiers of the Roman Empire sites in Great Britain and Germany. Despite their geographical distance, sites along the Roman limes, when studied in their entirety, give us a panorama of how the Empire expanded and changed its frontiers during the course of its history, as a consequence of its colonizing ambitions and the inevitable conflicts with the indigenous populations. The Roman limes is today an invisible line despite the heavy influence this border brought to the indigenous culture and technology during its time. The only way to appreciate its complex relationship with the local landscape is through settlements such as Hadrian’s Wall, the Antonine wall and Ghirza itself.