For the past four months I've been trying to access the ancient site of Leptis Magna, but geopolitics have rather got in the way. Seventy-five miles or so from Tripoli, Leptis has not seen any active conflict — yet. Still, it would have felt not a little self-indulgent for me to drift around the ancient monuments taking notes while all about was on fire.
Now I wish I'd travelled before the conflict began. Rebel forces in Libya report that Muammar Gaddafi is using the site as an archaeological shield. Missiles, launchers and troops are, they say, snuggled among columns, corridors and archways.
Nato forces — in Gaddafi's reckoning — won't bomb them, or his men. Clever. They won't. But if Gaddafi is holding explosives in this world heritage site, a single stray cigarette butt could kick start a sequence that sends it all up in smoke. The loss of Leptis would be unthinkable.
Founded by Phoenician traders in the Bronze Age, the city-complex has been a theatre of power and pleasure, of indulgence and intellect for more than 3,000 years. It is one of the best-preserved ancient sites in the Mediterranean. Ruled by Carthage for centuries, the Romans quickly conquered it. Recent discoveries include an eye-wateringly exquisite series of Roman-period mosaics, where warriors hound animals and a spent gladiator lords it over the corpse of his sparring partner.
It was a local boy, Septimius Severus, who in the 2nd century AD really made Leptis roar, rebuilding the forum and the port — as Roman emperor he promoted the city to the premier league. Leptis is a megalithic incarnation of this region's high-octane, personality-driven history.
Fittingly, I heard the news that Gaddafi had rebranded Leptis as an arsenal at the end of a 26-hour journey back from north-east India, where I'd been investigating the Mahabodhi Temple. The 6th-century AD building marks the spot of the Buddha's enlightenment, but is claimed by both Buddhists and Hindus as a sacred site, and is the source of much acrimony.
Archaeological sites become significant in times of turmoil. The most recent, shocking example of monumental muscle-flexing has been Iraq. Apart from the wartime looting of 4,000 treasures (now a feature of Egypt and Syria too; tomb-raiding pits are pock-marking the sands around sites like Giza), while still in power Saddam Hussain crudely reconstructed the monuments of Babylon.
Just as the original builder, King Nebuchadnezzar, had done 25 centuries before, Saddam stamped bricks for the monument with: ‘In the era of President Saddam Hussain, the protector of Great Iraq, reproducer of its awakening and the builder of its civilisation'.'
Fifteen years later, US forces positioned their camp over the ancient city, cutting across the foundations of the Tower of Babel. Stone and brickwork, pottery and human remains were bulldozed to dig anti-tank trenches.
Despite their vandalism, US soldiers talked of the comfort of operating in the shadow of buildings that had endured millennia. Gaddafi is playing an old game. While he might end up crushing his country's treasures, he is also styling himself as their saviour by placing his arms in their midst.
The Khmer Rouge resolved to destroy every last wicker-basket's-worth of national culture, but left the giant palace complexes of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom to stand proud.
The Taliban announced they were preserving the purity of Afghanistan by dynamiting the Buddhas of Bamiyan, two 6th century monumental statues. Occupying the corridors of bygone power is even more sinister, more telling, than simply razing them to the ground.
Last year I travelled to the steppes on the borders of Siberia and Kazakhstan, where a new Bronze Age civilisation is being discovered. At least 40 lost city-settlements are lying under the grasslands — and the startling thing is that they are all swastika shaped.
The most fully excavated, Arkaim, has yielded pots and stonework also decorated with swastikas. There is a strong chance that this is the location of an early Aryan civilisation. I found myself in extraordinary company there, with many trying to stake their claim to the discoveries, including Russian nationalists, a contingent of the reformed Cossack army plus a scattering of neo-fascist mystics.
The appeal is clear. As one Cossack told me: "The Nazis were right to look for an Aryan master race, they were just searching in the wrong place. It is here. Arkaim shows the master race is us."
Gaddafi's move at Leptis is unavoidably totemic. He has the megalomaniac tendencies of the Roman emperors — so what better to afford him protection than the halls of Roman power? Safeguarding remains such as Leptis is vital not just because of their aesthetic delights but because they remind us of the scale of mankind's ambition — and of the blood, sweat and tears of ordinary folk who spent and lost their lives realising such monuments.
The accumulated human back story of archaeological sites has great mass. It is why men like Gaddafi — who talk big but whose strength, in truth, is one man small — have a love-hate relationship with the triumphs of the past. They either try to hide behind them or wipe them out of existence.
Columns and lintels from Leptis Magna, given as a gift in the early 19th century to George IV, are an anachronistic decoration in Windsor Great Park. Now, it is probably the safest place for them to be.
Bettany Hughes will present a special documentary about the site at Arkaim, Tracking the Aryans, on BBC Radio 3 on June 26.