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Libyan Archaeologists Battle to Save Ancient Heritage Sites

Islamic State's recent targeting of ancient cultural sites and relics in Iraq and Syria has stirred worries that Libya's irreplaceable heritage could be next.
Photo by Ben Curtis/AP

The fight to save much of Libya's spectacular cultural heritage is run from an obscure corner of Tripoli's shuttered National Museum, in a small room located at the end of a series of worn but still picturesque courtyards and passages in what's left of the Antiquities Department.

There, one recent April morning, a group of tired-looking middle-aged men sat around a dusty conference table and explained to VICE News the details of their thinly-funded efforts to protect the country's ancient ruins and artifacts from destruction at the hands of vandals, extremist militants, and unscrupulous developers.


The men in the Tripoli museum's antiquities department had been horrified as they watched video of Islamic State (IS) militants in Iraq destroy ancient relics and sites for apparent ideological reasons earlier this year, gleefully smashing statues in the Mosul museum with sledgehammers and using bulldozers and explosives to level the ruins of the nearby ancient city of Nimrud.

In the aftermath of the deliberate, targeted destruction of ancient artifacts and antiquities in Mosul and Nimrud, many wondered if some of Libya's unique historical treasures could be targeted next. IS has taken advantage of Libya's precarious security situation to establish a presence in a number of areas, including Sirte, and Derna.

The National Museum closed at the beginning of the 2011 armed uprising that eventually overthrew long-time dictator Muammar Qaddafi. And it stayed closed as a brief, tenuous post-war peace slid into a civil war that effectively split the country and allowed extremist militants to gain a foothold amid the chaos. Libya is now effectively divided between two warring governments, the Tobruk-based House of Representatives, which won parliamentary elections in 2014, and the General National Congress in Tripoli, which refuses to recognize those election results.

Libya's place in world history has ensured that there are many such treasures. Long the gateway between the Mediterranean and northwest Africa, it is home to relics, tombs, churches and temples left behind by the many peoples and civilizations that ruled all or part of it, including Romans, Greeks, Byzantines, Umayyads, Ottomans, and,  in the early 20th century, the Italians.


Five UNESCO world heritage sites now lie within Libya's borders as a result. These include the sprawling Roman ruins of Leptis Magna, the ancient Greek enclave of Cyrene and the cave paintings of Tadrat Acacus, which date back to 12,000 B.C.

Related: Islamic State Video 'Smashing Idols' Shows the Demolition of Yet Another Ancient City

Hardline Islamist militias are suspected of targeting historic or artistic objects in the country, including removing an Italian-era bronze statue of a naked woman petting a gazelle from a Tripoli roundabout. Gunmen stole tiles and marbles from Tripoli's 18th century Karamanli mosque, while extremists desecrated Sufi shrines and British military graves.

But the most impressive and arguably most important ancient sites, like Leptis Magna and Cyrene, have remained unmolested.

In an effort to ensure the sites remain undisturbed, Tripoli Museum's department of antiquities formed a "crisis committee" in February, shortly after the destruction of statues and relics in Mosul was made public. Mohamed Faraj, who heads the initiative, told VICE News that it was an "unprecedented" step to avoid the dangers posed by the current security situation.

"It is well known that the country faces [a] time of unrest and the conflict is visible wherever you go," he said, leaning over a desk stacked with printouts and letters. "The web of attacks and damage that took place in Libya and the surrounding area made the department take further steps to protect museums and sites from the risk of destruction."


So far, he says, IS does not pose the threat in Libya that it does in Iraq, but there are many dangers. Not all of them related to extremism.

"Our fears are from all sorts of things: vandalism, lack of awareness and attacks based on ideology," he says. The biggest worry, he adds, is perhaps the most mundane: urban expansion onto archaeological sites. Cities have always been built on the best land available, he says. Now, an unscrupulous developer can bulldoze ruins to take some of this prime ground for themselves.

Infrastructure no longer exists to keep anything safe. Even the department of antiquities itself has stopped receiving government funding, and is now largely dependent on civil society handouts alongside some government committees with discretionary cash.

The lack of resources is being felt on the ground. At Leptis Magna, untamed weeds are ruining mosaic floorings, pushing aside tiles that have been in place for centuries. Rubbish floats in the dank green water that fills pools in the remains of the large bath complex. Vandals recently pushed over a column in the imposing amphitheatre, sending it smashing into the re-floored stage area, while others scrawled graffiti on ancient walls and damaged the market area.

Tour guide Khalifa Ali knows the city better than most. The genial 72-year-old grew up on the site and recalls seeing Sophia Loren and John Wayne filming 1957 adventure movie Legend of the Lost on the site. Ali showed VICE News around the site, sadly pointing out damage and neglect. He's open about the danger it now faces and blames the deteriorating security situation. There used to be 200 tourist police guarding the site round the clock, he says. Now, there are only six.


"There's a lack of laws here, and lack of laws means anyone can have a weapons," he complains. "They have guns and say they bring freedom," he says sarcastically referring to militia members. "Thank you for showing us the meaning of freedom."

Leptis Magna's amphitheatre. Photo by John Beck

Ezzeddin Ahmad Fagi, 38, an Antiquities Department archaeologist responsible for Leptis Magna, says that his staff don't have the resources to keep the site safe or even perform basic maintenance. His team attempts to administer security checks and what urgent repairs they can manage with the personnel and materials they have on hand, but it isn't enough.

"The maintenance to be completely honest…can only be considered first aid," he told VICE News over strong coffee in a deserted cafe on site. "We have very little means to work with."

There are qualified personnel who could do more, he adds, but there's no financial support to allow them to do so.

"For it to undergo the repair that it needs will take huge resources, this is something for many countries, many universities to be involved in," Fagi said.

That kind of environment hasn't been in place for almost four decades, however. He laughs when asked about international visitors. "There's nothing, nothing, only diplomatic missions or foreigners who live near here."

The last major repairs to the site were completed under the Italian administration in the 1930s. Little took place during the Qadaffi era, and that which did, wasn't done correctly and caused artifacts to be lost, Fagi says.


So far, he adds, the damage has only been caused by teenagers "with a lack of respect." He cautions, however, that the danger may escalate, Leptis is close to Khoums, a coastal city which now has a strong extremist presence and he doesn't rule out strikes by IS or its affiliates. "We can expect anything, it's a dirty war," he cautions.

Related: The Islamic State Is On the Verge of Capturing an Ancient Syrian City Full of Priceless Artifacts

But safeguarding Leptis and other sites will prove difficult for the international community. Tripoli's GNC is not internationally recognized, so dealing with it will prove difficult for UNESCO and other such organizations. Meanwhile the security situation and travel bans mean that few are willing to send personnel there.

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova said last year that the body would "spare no efforts in supporting Libyans to protect their rich cultural heritage," but back in Tripoli some members of the crisis committee are sceptical.

One member, Mohammed Fakround, told VICE News that international organizations should be on the ground helping out, saying they have a "moral obligation" to stay and help with what he sees as a global, rather than just Libyan, issue.

"We need to feel that our friends and colleagues are supporting us and behind us," Fakround said. "We don't need a phone call asking what happened in Leptis Magna [if something does]. We need warnings that in Libya international heritage is in danger. Our feeling is that we are working on international culture, that doesn't just concern Libya, this is an international responsibility."

Follow John Beck on Twitter: @jm_beck