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Sabratha is located in Libya
Location in Libya
Coordinates: 32°47′32″N 12°29′3″E / 32.79222°N 12.48417°E / 32.79222; 12.48417
Country  Libya
Region Tripolitania
District Zawiya
Elevation[1] 30 ft (10 m)
Population (2004)[1]
 • Total 102,038
Time zone UTC + 2
UNESCO World Heritage Site
Archaeological Site of Sabratha
Name as inscribed on the World Heritage List
Sabratha - the theatre
Type Cultural
Criteria iii
Reference 184
UNESCO region Arab States
Inscription history
Inscription 1982 (6th Session)

Sabratha, Sabratah or Siburata (Arabic: صبراتة‎), in the Zawiya District[2] in the northwestern corner of modern Libya, was the westernmost of the "three cities" (Sabratha, Oea and Leptis Magna) of ancient Tripolitania.[3] From 2001 to 2007 it was the capital of the former Sabratha wa Sorman District. It lies on the Mediterranean coast about 66 km (41 mi) west of Tripoli. The extant archaeological site was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982.

Ancient Sabratha[edit]

Sabratha's port was established, perhaps about 500 BC, as a Phoenician trading-post that served as a coastal outlet for the products of the African hinterland. The Phoenicians gave it the Lybico-Berber name 'Sbrt'n',[4] which suggests that there may have been a native berber village built there prior to the Phoenicians' arrival. Sabratha became part of the short-lived Numidian Kingdom of Massinissa before being conquered by the Romans.

Sabratha was included in the Roman Africa province under Augustus' successors, when was fully Romanized and later rebuilt-enlarged in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. Flavia Domitilla, wife to emperor Vespasian (69‑79 AD) and mother of emperors Titus (79-81 AD) and Domitian (81-96 AD), was born in Sabratha from Italian colonists who moved there.[5]

Although Leptis Magna was raised to the status of a colony by the emperor Trajan, it appears that the citizens of Sabratha retained their old Punic form of government, headed by two suphetes, until perhaps the reign of Antoninus Pius (138‑161 A.D.), at which time Sabratha also was made a Roman colony and the suphetes became "Duoviri". Oea did not receive this favor until about 164 A.D. The civic pride which prosperity and the new imperial recognition brought to the citizens of Sabratha, who now maintained shipping offices at Ostia on the Tiber, led them to emulate their sister city Leptis in refurbishing the public structures of their city.Following the example of Leptis Magna, the architects of Sabratha imported quantities of Greek marble for their new works which appears to have been initiated during the last half of the second century A.D. It was during this time or shortly afterwards that the temple at the northeast end of the Forum was completely rebuilt on a larger scale.....K. Matthews[6]

The Emperor Septimius Severus was born nearby in Leptis Magna, and Sabratha reached its monumental peak during the rule of the Severans when had a population of more than 25,000 inhabitants. It was the end of a transaharan route that reached Cydamus and the Ahaggar mountains, bringing to the port of Sabratha many items (ivory, etc.) from black Africa. Most of the Sabratha inhabitants kept using the Phoenician dialect (mixed with autochthonous Libyan-berber words) until the end of the third century, even if Latin was the official language and the one used by the elite in the city. In the fourth and fifth century Sabratha was nearly fully Latin speaking, according to historian Theodore Mommsen.[7]

But in the sixth century, when the city was ruled by the Byzantines, only a third of them were able to speak Latin and all the others spoke berber (while Phoenician disappeared). And the Christian religion coexisted with the pagan religion of the Berber-Phoenicians until the mid third century. Historian Mommsen even wrote that Christianity only in the fourth century was worshipped by all the citizens of Sabratha: it prospered mainly because Rome stopped bandits from plundering the countryside. But even because the Roman Empire -mainly under Trajan and Septimius Severus- curbed unrest among local tribal groups with the creation of the Limes Tripolitanus and with the creation and development of cities (like Gaerisa) ans forts (like Garbia) with Centenaria farms around the southern periphery of Oea area.

The city was badly damaged by earthquakes during the 4th century, particularly the quake of AD 365. It was rebuilt on a more modest scale by Byzantine governors. Within the Byzantine walls Sabratha was reduced in size, but enjoyed a new Christian revival with the construction of beautiful churches.[8]

In that section of the city close to the edge of the water and north of the Theatre area, two additional Christian basilicas were erected during the later period. Built above the remains of earlier structures, the southernmost and largest of these two churches followed the standard basilica form with a baptistry added on the north end and a small courtyard to the east, surrounded by a colonnade and evidently utilizing an area formerly occupy id by a series of bathing rooms. The more northern basilica was also typical in plan and was built over an earlier church, which in turn stood on the site of an unidentified rectangular structure...Perhaps the best known Christian basilica in Sabratha is that built by order of the emperor Justinian I and mentioned in the works of his courtier Procopius. This stood to the northwest of the Curia and the Forum. Its construction the builders drew upon ruins of pagan temples and early imperial monuments, some of which now stood outside the limits of the Byzantine city wall, built during the sixth century to protect the much-shrunken town of Sabratha.K. Matthews

Within a hundred years of the Arab full conquest of the Maghreb around 700 AD, trade had shifted to other ports and Sabratha dwindled to a small village and nearly disappeared.

The archaeological site[edit]

Map of Sabratha

Besides its magnificent late 3rd century theatre that retains its three-storey architectural backdrop, Sabratha has temples dedicated to Liber Pater, Serapis and Isis. There is a Christian basilica of the time of Justinian and also remnants of some of the mosaic floors that enriched elite dwellings of Roman North Africa (for example, at the Villa Sileen, near Khoms). However, these are most clearly preserved in the coloured patterns of the seaward (or Forum) baths, directly overlooking the shore, and in the black and white floors of the Theatre baths.

WWII Aerial photo of Sabratha's theatre (fr)

In the area west of Roman Sabratha lies the Forum with some temples and other monuments. Among these, the temple of Antonine, temple of Jupiter and the Christian basilica built by Justinian I with a nice mosaic floor (visible in the museum). Some well-preserved colored mosaics are visible in the ruins overlooking the beach. Other interesting Roman monuments are: the Temple of Liber Pater, the Temple of Serapis, the Temple of Hercules and, near the sea, the Temple of Isis.

In the west, on this side of Byzantine walls that surround the Forum and Roman temples, is the mausoleum of Bes. It belongs to the second century BC and architecture Punic - Hellenistic. This mausoleum was largely rebuilt by Italian archaeologists in Libya after 1920.

Less than a kilometer away from the site to the west, on the outskirts of the town, are the remains of 'amphitheater built in the second century AD Roman that could accommodate about 10,000 spectators. The steps are fairly well preserved and are visible underground tunnels used to let the wild beasts in the arena.

There is an adjacent museum containing some treasures from Sabratha, but others can be seen in the national museum in Tripoli.

Modern Sabratha[edit]

Modern Sabratha is a city of nearly 100,000 inhabitants. Wefaq Sabratha is the football club, playing at Sabratha Stadium.

In 1943, during the Second World War, archaeologist Max Mallowan, husband of novelist Agatha Christie, was based at Sabratha as an assistant to the Senior Civil Affairs Officer of the Western Province of Tripolitania. His main task was to oversee the allocation of grain rations, but it was, in the words of Christie's biographer, a "glorious attachment", during which Mallowan lived in an Italian villa with a patio overlooking the sea and dined on fresh tunny fish and olives.[9]

In 2011, the town became involved in the Libyan Civil War. At first seeming to have rebelled against the government, with sword-wielding townspeople fighting against soldiers with guns,[10] as of 2 March it had been retaken by pro-Gaddafi forces.[11][12] However, the town was recaptured by the rebels in August 2011.[13]

In 2014 there are reports of increased criminality:[14] in Jan 2014, the bodies of two foreign nationals were discovered on Tallil Seyahi Beach on the outskirts of the city, according to the Sabratha Media Center. An initial police investigation shows the two were having a picnic in a somewhat remote area near a partially built resort. A photo posted on the Sabratha Media Center Facebook page purports to show the man and woman, who are lying face down in the sand. Near the bodies is a blanket that is spread out, with food and drinks strewn about. A backpack sat nearby. The identities and the nationalities of the two, described only as a man and a woman, have not been released.


Panoramic image of a part of the archaeological site
Panoramic image of the theatre of the archaeological site

Photo gallery[edit]


  1. ^ a b Wolfram Alpha
  2. ^ شعبيات الجماهيرية العظمى – Sha'biyat of Great Jamahiriya, accessed 20 July 2009, in Arabic
  3. ^ Sabratha (p. 188-199)
  4. ^ Septimus Severus page 2
  5. ^ Suetonius: Divus Vespasianus, 3
  6. ^ Kenneth Matthews: Sabratha
  7. ^ Theodore Mommsen."The Provinces of the Roman Empire" section: Africa
  8. ^ Sabratha (in French)
  9. ^ Janet Morgan (1984) Agatha Christie: a Biography
  10. ^ The Great Swordfight of Sabratha: How Libyan freedom fighters clashed with Gaddafi's army with 2ft scimitars
  11. ^ Amid pro-regime chants, some tell a different tale in contested Libyan town
  12. ^ Report: Libya deploys troops in Sabratah after protests
  13. ^
  14. ^


  • Bartoccini, Renato. Le ricerche archeologiche in Tripolitania, in "Rivista della Tripolitania, I" (1924), n. 1-2, pp. 59–73
  • Bullo, Silvia. Provincia Africa: le città e il territorio dalla caduta di Cartagine a Nerone.Vol-4. Ed. L'ERMA di BRETSCHNEIDER. Roma, 2002 ISBN 8882651681
  • Di Vita, Antonino. Quaderni di archeologia della Libia, Volume 5 Section: "Diffusione Cristianesimo nell'interno della Tripolitania" .Publisher L'ERMA di BRETSCHNEIDER, 1967 ISBN 887062062X
  • Matthews, Kenneth D. (1957) Cities in the Sand, Leptis Magna and Sabratha in Roman Africa University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, OCLC 414295
  • Mommsen, Theodore. The Provinces of the Roman Empire. Section: Africa. Ed. Barnes & Noble. New York, 2004
  • Robin, Daniel. The Early Churches in North Africa (The Holy Seed). Tamarisk Publications. Chester, 1993 ISBN 978 0 9538565 3 4
  • Ward, Philip (1970) Sabratha: A Guide for Visitors Oleander Press, Cambridge, UK, ISBN 0-902675-05-2

External links[edit]

See also[edit]

Coordinates: 32°47′32″N 12°29′3″E / 32.79222°N 12.48417°E / 32.79222; 12.48417