Given current threats to antiquities in the region, AJR wants to showcase the importance and richness of these places for the study of antiquity, though we sincerely hope that it will still be possible to view them in person in the future. In this post, Philip Kenrick discusses the antiquities of Libya. ”
Like many other parts of the Middle East and North Africa, Libya has a wealth of material remains from antiquity. Way down in the desert, there is remarkable prehistoric rock-art in the area of the Tadrart Acacus, which has been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Closer to the coast, there are impressive ruins from Classical antiquity, including three more World Heritage sites: Lepcis Magna, Sabratha and Cyrene. It is typical of North Africa that settlement patterns have changed markedly since the time when these cities flourished, with the result that they have been neither built over nor extensively despoiled for building material. These visible remains began to be recorded by European travellers in the 18th and 19th centuries, and excavations were carried out on the major sites by the Italians, who were the colonial power here between 1911 and 1943.
The major sites are well known to history. Lepcis Magna, founded as a Phoenician trading-post in the 8th century BC, was already wealthy before the Roman period because of its control of a fertile hinterland. It was the home town of Septimius Severus, who became Roman emperor in AD 193: he lavished money upon it and was responsible for a vast new civic centre, of a quality that one would have expected to see in Rome itself. The western part of Libya, known as Tripolitania, was dominated by the three coastal cities of Lepcis, Sabratha and Oea. Of these, only the last survived beyond antiquity: it took the name of the region, becoming Tripoli, and has been continuously inhabited until the present day.
Some 800 km to the east, in Cyrenaica, the city of Cyrene had been founded by Greek settlers in the 7th century BC. This became Greek territory, and over the course of the succeeding centuries further important settlements were established, leading in the later centuries BC to a federation of five cities known as Pentapolis. Apart from Cyrene, these included Berenice (previously Euesperides), Taucheira, Ptolemais and Apollonia. Once again, only one of these has persisted throughout history: the sites of Berenice and Euesperides lie a short distance apart beneath the sprawl of modern Benghazi.
Partly as a result of preservation since antiquity, and partly through Italian excavations and reconstruction, the city sites have much to reward the tourist. A Department of Antiquities was established by the Italians, retained by the independent kingdom of Libya (1951-69) and retained also in the Qadhafi years (1969-2011), though starved of funds and of influence and almost powerless to prevent major development projects undertaken by other government departments, where they threatened aspects of cultural heritage. It still has a loyal and dedicated staff, but they are faced with an impossible task to protect and manage the bid Classical sites.
Beyond the limits of the sites already mentioned, the countryside in both Tripolitania and Cyrenaica contains extraordinary riches from antiquity. In this arid climate, with timber a scarce resource, even modest buildings were of stone and hence had a propensity to survive. There are unstudied but well-preserved sites of ancient villages (particularly in Cyrenaica, where over ninety early Christian churches have been identified) and an endless array of ancient farm buildings, some of them with major installations for the processing of olive oil. There are also extensive funerary monuments.
So how is this rich cultural heritage faring in the current state of anarchy and conflict in Libya? I am afraid it is evident that it is not doing very well. The threats may be enumerated roughly as follows.
1. Robbing for sale on the art market.
This does not seem to be a major threat in the west, but in Cyrenaica, which is closer to Egypt (where there are well-established traffickers in antiquities) it is significant. Heads have been cut out of mosaics on the site of Cyrene itself. Around all of the ancient cities there are extensive cemeteries, and these are being plundered for the contents of the tombs, which in the Greek period may be expected to contain portable and very saleable objects. The British Museum has custody at the present time of a funerary statue, imported to the UK for sale by a Jordanian, who claimed that it came from Turkey. He evidently didn’t know that this type of statue is very specific to the Cyrene area and to no other part of the Classical world.
2. Destruction due to development/building work.
This is a very significant threat. At the present time there is no effective planning or building control and many opportunists are building speculatively. One suspect that, in the longer term, they will get their fingers burned by creating a housing glut that no one wants to pay for; but in the mean time, some of them are doing irreparable damage to archaeological sites. A single dramatic example will suffice to illustrate this. The modern village of Massah, some 25 km W of Cyrene, lies alongside an ancient settlement, the name of which was Artamis and which can be seen, from monumental tombs in the vicinity, to have existed at least as early as the 5th century BC. A church of the Byzantine period has also been identified among the ruins. The site as a whole has never been subject to detailed examination or excavation; but until recently one could make out the lines of streets between the fallen buildings, and fallen blocks with carved ornament from substantial public buildings. Now the entire site has been levelled and streets have been laid out for new housing.
3. Damage or destruction due to ignorance.
This is certainly a threat, since (particularly in the Qadhafi years) Libyans have never been taught about or encouraged to value their material heritage, and Qadhafi had no interest in encouraging tourism. If anything, he told them that the ruins of Classical antiquity were evidence of former colonial oppression which should be swept away. Members of the Department of Antiquities (in Cyrene, at least) have taken various initiatives since 2011to talk to schools and to encourage school visits to sites, but this is a job which will take a generation to have a positive effect. Meanwhile, Libyans have become a lot more prosperous than they used to be. One consequence is that they have free time to spend and vehicles to get around in. So they drive into the countryside and leave their mark on anything prominent by means of spray-paint. While this is very regrettable (and seriously damaging to the monuments), it is no less sophisticated than Lord Byron carving his name into a column of the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion in Greece.
4. Damage or destruction for ideological reasons.
This really does not (yet) seem to have been an issue in Libya with regard to Classical antiquities, though IS members/sympathizers are certainly around, and even before they came on the scene religious extremists were doing enormous damage to historic tombs of Muslim holy men. There is naturally some anxiety about the antiquities, and a spray-painted graffito at Cyrene reads ‘Destroy the idols.’ Maybe whoever wrote that was not sure what it meant: they would certainly need to have some heavy machinery, and for the time being their energies are devoted to combat with live opponents.
There are plenty of outside bodies - foreign archaeological missions, UNESCO and the like, who are keen to support the Libyans in regard to heritage protection. But like the political problems, nothing can be done by outsiders other than to advise: the Libyans have to resolve their own problems.
Philip Kenrick is the author of the Libya Archaeological Guides to Tripolitania and Cyrenaica; Honorary Treasurer of the Society for Libyan Studies.