The United Kingdom is under mounting criticism for its slow response to Libya’s calls for the return of the Leptis Magna columns, Roman-era treasures Libya alleges were illicitly taken by the British during the 19th century, according to the UAE-based “The National” newspaper.
These significant columns, currently housed on land managed by the Crown Estate in Windsor Great Park outside London, were once integral components of an iconic Roman landmark on Libya’s coast. While the UK maintains these artefacts were gifted by Tripolitania’s leader (modern-day Libya) to the Prince Regent in 1817, they have been unwavering in their refusal to repatriate them. However, Libya firmly believes these historic pieces were improperly obtained.
Distinguished as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Leptis Magna ruins resonate with the legacy of a Roman city nestled against the Mediterranean. Throughout history, this ancient city was plundered; King Louis XIV of France, for instance, relocated nearly 600 of its columns to embellish his Versailles and Paris palaces.
Legal counsel, Mohamed Shaban, advocating for Libya, approached the Crown Estate in October 2021, seeking evidence that the columns were indeed gifts. Speaking to The National, Shaban conveyed his growing frustration over the Crown Estate’s prolonged silence. It’s been two years since his initial communication, and he’s yet to receive a comprehensive reply.
Highlighting the significance of the Crown Estate’s role, as representative of the British monarchy, Shaban found their lack of engagement “particularly disconcerting.” He posed the query: Would the Crown Estate’s response have been the same, had a nation like the USA or the EU presented a comparable request?
Emphasising the intrinsic historical and cultural value these columns hold for Libyans, Shaban called on the UK to redress an age-old grievance, asserting, “These pillars echo the identity of the Libyan people; their return would mend a longstanding rift.”
The story of Leptis Magna’s journey to the UK began when Hanmer Warrington, the British Consul General of Tripoli, apparently became captivated by the sight of the Roman ruins in 1816.
It was the same year that Lord Elgin sold marble sculptures, taken from the Parthenon temple at the Acropolis in Athens to the British government.
Ownership of the Elgin Marbles remains a hotly contested matter between the UK and Greece. Britain is trying to forge a new partnership with Greece, that would allow it to loan back the marble, the chairman of the British Museum, George Osborne, has said.
At the time, Tripolitania was part of the Ottoman Empire and run by Yusuf Karamanli, the governor, known by the title Basha. According to the British account, Warrington persuaded Karamanli to allow him to remove the stones. It is a claim Libya hotly disputes.
Along with William Henry Smyth, a commander in the Royal Navy, Warrington transported the stonework treasures, which include 22 granite columns, to the UK.
Initially, the stones were deposited with the British Museum, but in 1828, they were erected by King George IV’s architect, Sir Jeffry Wyatville at Virginia Water in Windsor Great Park.
Supplanted into an artificially constructed Temple of Augustus, the columns are now a Grade II listed property of the Crown Estate.
Shaban has been involved in repatriating looted artifacts from Libya before, and hopes an amicable solution can be found to resolve the dispute over the columns.
After a 2,000-year-old funerary statue of the Greek goddess, Persephone was stolen from the ancient city of Cyrene in Libya in 2011 and taken to the UK, Shaban represented the country during the legal case to return the artefact.
“This matter is of public interest, and I hope that the Crown would start engaging with us constructively to address the outstanding issues. In matters such as this, we should really consider the impact on our country if people feel we hold onto things that don’t belong to us” said the London-based Shaban.
Labour MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy, who chairs a group of UK politicians from all political parties, calling for the reparation of artefacts to Africa, said it was a matter of treating Libya with “respect.”
“In matters such as this we should really consider the impact to our country if people feel we hold on to things that don’t belong to us,” she told The National.
“It’s fair enough to ask for evidence that it was gifted but, ultimately, if there’s evidence that it was looted then there should be consideration about returning such items.
“It’s a different world we live in, there is no more empire, and we can’t hold on to things that don’t belong to us and were effectively looted.
“I don’t think that anybody in good conscience would want anybody else to think that they had stolen goods in their possession, and the thing to do to make sure nobody thinks that is to provide evidence.”
Ms Ribiero-Addy said many countries just wanted “the respect of ownership” and didn’t necessarily seek the return of all artefacts held in the UK.
She cited the example of the Horniman Museum in London, which agreed to return six artefacts looted by British troops 125 years ago from Benin City to Nigeria. This in turn, allowed some others from the collection to remain on display.
“So, it’s not the case that we’ll empty all the museums if the ownership is returned. It’s all about respect.”
The Crown Estate says the columns “continue to be enjoyed by the millions of visitors to Windsor Great Park”.
“Our understanding is that the Leptis Magna columns were gifted to The Prince Regent in 1817 by the Basha of Tripoli,” said a representative.
“We have commissioned a historian and an Arabic specialist to undertake research to confirm the status of the columns. Unfortunately, this is slow and painstaking work given how documents were recorded over 200 years ago.”