Byzantine-era churches restored in Libya following vandalism by ISIS

North Africa

Churches in Libya dating back to the fifth century are being restored following the damage that was done to them by ISIS and other militant groups.

On the coast of Libya, a project is underway to revive two ancient churches dating back to Libya’s Byzantine era. These two churches were inaugurated inaugurated in the fifth century, at a time when the Byzantine rulers of Libya were promoting Christianity throughout the country. During Libya’s bloody civil war, the churches were destroyed. Despite challenges and obstacles remaining today, efforts to renovate the ancient archaeological sites have not been hampered.

These two churches, located in the city of Shehat, were built by the Emperor Justinian I and had huge importance in the Christian world during the fifth century AD. One archaeologist at the site told reporters that despite much-needed restoration work, the marble pillars of one of the churches is still standing, with the mosaics surrounding it also still visible. 

The churches at Shehat have become the focus of this restoration project in the aftermath of the destruction that was caused to them in 2015 when ISIS and other extremist groups were operating in the region. ISIS and similar groups caused massive destruction to some of Libya’s most treasured archaeological sites, which had charmed visitors with their beauty and unique tales.

For example, ISIS also destroyed Sufi shrines near Tripoli, Libya, in March 2015 using sledgehammers and bulldozers. In 2016, a group of armed volunteers began patrolling the 50-hectare UNESCO World Heritage site of Leptis Magna in the country, to safeguard the Roman remains from looting, vandalism and possible attacks from jihadists. 

Libya is not the only country where ISIS has taken to the systematic destruction of cultural heritage. Deliberate acts of theft and vandalism have also been conducted by the group in Iraq and Syria. Throughout 2014, mosques around Iraq were targeted, including the famous Nuri Mosque in Mosul, as well as tombs and shrines, including that of the prophet Jonah, located in Mosul.

Most notably in Syria, ISIS demolished the ancient Lion of Al-lāt statue in Palmyra, along with several other statues, the 1st-century Temple of Baalshamin and the Temple of Bel with explosives.