Libya’s Roman and Greek heritage is disappearing as we speak according to a report in the UAE English language paper The National.
Sites such as Leptis Magna, Cyrene and Sabratha have been extremely well preserved by Libya’s dry climate and the encroachment of the Sahara, which covered them for centuries. Mosaics, temples, theatres and Roman homes remain very much intact in these ancient cities, providing valuable evidence of the Roman empire’s occupation of Northern Africa during the first to the fifth centuries AD, as well as the pre-Roman Punic and Greek habitations.
But a lack of government funding and scant security has left these sites vulnerable to looting by art smuggling cartels, as well as locals digging for Roman coins to sell to tourists. In 2000, the heads of 15 statues disappeared from Cyrene (once a Roman town built at the site of an original Greek settlement). According to The National’s correspondent Iason Athanasiadis, looting originally started back in 1987 when Libya opened its border with Egypt. Since Libya’s improved relations with western Europe in 2003, the problem has accelerated, with what Athanasiadis calls an unprecedented gutting of Libyas ancient heritage sites.
To give an idea of the scale of the problem, Colin Renfrew of Cambridge University, who is working to stop international antiquities thefts, told Athanasiadis: There are estimates that the business of smuggling antiquities provides the largest turnover in the world, second only to oil and equal to arms sales. But you cant put a figure on a secret trade.
In fact this problem has been going on for a long time and has also been reported by the BBC: Libya fears for its stolen heritage. However, the problem is now escalating.
Libya, which officially renounced terrorism and weapons of mass destruction in 2003, has since sought to make tourism one of its main bread-winners. This seems unlikely to happen if the government continues to allow the country’s heritage to disappear.
Photo by Xavier de Jaurguiberry.