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Libyan antiquities at risk from political instability, conflict

After years of neglect and looting, authorities in Libya are showing growing interest in protecting the country’s heritage and archaeological sites.
This picture taken on March 10, 2021, shows a view of a Dionysiac stone sarcophagus depicting the god Dionysius riding a lion.

Aftershocks from the Libya conflict continue to reverberate through the country’s archaeological sector. Dozens of rare and unique artifacts are being smuggled abroad amid mounting warnings from officials and specialists of the demise of this sector, which was once a source of attraction for foreign tourists.

Despite the state of division that still hangs over Libya’s political scene in the absence of a unified central authority, efforts are being exerted to pull the Libyan antiquities back from the edge of disappearance.

On March 31, Tripoli-based authorities successfully recovered nine pieces of antiquities from the United States that were looted following the 2011 uprising that toppled late dictator Muammar Gadhafi. 

More recently, the undersecretary of the Ministry of Local Government for Municipal Affairs of the Tripoli-based Government of National Unity, Mustafa Ahmed Salem, met June 22 with the head of the museums department at the Antiquities Department, Faraj al-Talawi, to discuss the government’s plan to restore and maintain archaeological sites that had been vandalized and neglected during the years of conflict

In this context, Hafed Walda, head of the Smuggled Antiquities Committee affiliated with the Tripoli-based government, told Al-Monitor that Libyan antiquities have been receiving one blow after another in recent years due to the turbulent security situation and the lack of awareness of the value of this heritage.

Walda, who served as Libya's delegate to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), told Al-Monitor, “In 2011 alone, about 7,700 coins were stolen from the vault of the Commercial Bank in Benghazi. This was one of the most major archaeological thefts in history.”

Libyan officials provide conflicting figures about the count of rare artifacts smuggled since 2011, when Gadhafi fell after NATO’s military intervention in the North African country.

Smuggling and looting of antiquities has yet to be controlled as the country further slides into political and institutional division.

In turn, Ahmed Hussein Younes, head of the Department of Antiquities in the East, told Al-Monitor, “The fate of antiquities in Libya is in fact unknown. Successive governments have neglected this sector while also failing to develop other vital sectors such as health or education.”

Younes estimated that between 500 and 1,000 precious archaeological artifacts have been smuggled outside the country since 2011. “Security agencies and departments are working to retrieve these pieces. They have managed to locate some pieces but have yet to bring them home. Some antiquity pieces are being put out for sale on social media.”

Back in May, Libyan authorities in Tripoli announced the arrest of two people who tried to smuggle antiquities dating back to the Roman era.

The dire situation of the antiquities sector in Libya prompted UNESCO to place five World Heritage sites of Libya on the List of World Heritage in Danger on July 14, 2016. The concerned sites are Archaeological Site of Cyrene, Archaeological Site of Leptis Magna, Archaeological Site of Sabratha, Rock-Art Sites of Tadrart Acacus and the Old Town of Ghadames.

Some of these sites were subjected to vandalism by individuals, while being badly damaged as a result of armed clashes. This was the case of the ancient Roman Theater in the city of Sabratha in September 2017, which was damaged due to clashes among rival militias in the city.

Antiquities smuggling is not limited to the west of the country, where militias and warlords are in control. It also takes place in the east, where forces of military strongman Khalifa Hifter are in control.

An investigative report prepared by the American Society of Overseas Research on illegal archaeological excavations in the east revealed that Hifter's fighters were also involved in excavating archaeological sites and putting the uncovered antiquities for sale. 

Hifter has not made any comment on this information so far.

According to the report, a total of more than 9,800 various pieces of antiquities have been looted from various locations across Libya between 2011 and 2020. 

Libyan officials and researchers believe the ongoing impunity of smugglers and looters will encourage the continued sabotage of historic monuments and archaeological sites.

For Ahmed Issa Faraj, a university professor and head of the scientific committee of the Federation of Libyan World Heritage Municipalities, “The drain of archaeological heritage in Libya will continue and perhaps in an upward manner, in light of uncontrolled looting and smuggling and the lack of any punishment for those who destroyed archaeological sites in recent years.”

Speaking to Al-Monitor, Faraj warned that if the Department of Antiquities keeps neglecting the sector and turning a bling eye to the ongoing smuggling and looting, any hope of the revival of this sector would be in vain.

The continued smuggling and sabotage of antiquities will diminish all chances of removing the five Libyan archaeological sites from the list of World Heritage in Danger. Last year, Libya renewed its call for UNESCO to remove the Old Town of Ghadames from the list of threatened sites, but UNESCO refused.

“If Libya does not find political and security stability, these sites will not be removed from the list of threatened sites,” Younes said.

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