Libya's cultural heritage seems safe for now

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In the heat of the fighting you would think saving Libya’s cultural heritage was the last thing anyone was thinking about. But Joris Kila of the University of Amsterdam travels to war-torn countries to do just that, whenever it is safe enough to go. Recently he went to Libya.

So far, there does not seem to have been any large-scale looting of art and museums. However, the situation in the south of the country, where the conflict is still going on, is less clear.

On his recent visit to Libya Mr Kila found that, as far as he could see, there was little damage. He went at his own expense, “because there was no time to do a year's fundraising, like UNESCO does.”

“Generally the most important sites are safe, for instance Leptis Magna and Sabratha. We are now looking at Benghazi, but initial reports indicate there is no serious damage there either. We do not know much about the south of Libya, where there are cave paintings and an ancient Arabian city, because you cannot go there. It is too far away and there is still fighting going on.”

Intervention by international scientists has certainly helped protect Libya’s heritage. Just before the air attacks took place, NATO was given the coordinates of the most important cultural sites and museums. The ‘no strike list’ for pilots appears to have worked. Precision bombing of a radar position destroyed it, but a nearby Roman castle was left undamaged apart from a couple of bullet holes.

Unique sites
Tourists generally see the ancient sites on the coast, Dutch historian Jona Lendering says. The ancient Greek cities of Cirene and Apollonia and in the northwest Leptis Magna and Sabratha, with their beautiful architecture and theatres. But there are archaeological sites in the desert which are much more interesting.

Mr Kila talks enthusiastically about the southern city of Wadi Ghirza, where the Romans designed an ingenious system to catch and store rainwater falling in a short amount of time.

“That was done in the third century AD using dams, wells and cisterns. It is amazing that the whole landscape was adapted to suit the needs of the Roman rulers, who wanted to build a fort against the Garamantes. When you go there now you cannot imagine that wood was chopped there to heat a bathhouse. Now there is only steppe, where forestry was once possible.”

Little interest
The southern archaeological sites are difficult to reach, which is both an advantage and a disadvantage. It would take some planning to organise a robbery, but at the same time, there is little surveillance. And many artefacts have not been registered or photographed.

Now that Muammar Gaddafi has fallen, looting and smuggling could break out. It does not look as though the dictator has taken treasures with him.

“We heard that Gaddafi was not particularly interested in the ancient treasures. He was more involved in luxury and destruction, which is an advantage. But then, you never know whether nothing was stolen by the family during any of the attempts to flee. But our information from Libya is that this does not appear to be the case.”

Active role
That is why it is so important to get there early, Joris Kila says. You have to establish what is happening during the conflict. When UNESCO comes to take a look in one-and-a-half year’s time, all the clues will have been wiped clean. He thinks the UN organisation should take a more pro-active role.

On Friday, UNESCO will convene to discuss Libya with delegates from Interpol. Mr Kila and his colleagues will report their findings. He wants to return to inspect the sites again. But he would rather not say when. “We don’t want to give anyone ideas, because it is not completely safe yet.”


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