The challenge of preservation in Libya
In sparsely populated Libya, old buildings have never had to be destroyed to make way for new ones, and what has been abandoned is soon covered with Saharan sand carried in by the ghibli wind each year. The consequence is that Libya is a palimpsest of Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Berber, Christian, Ottoman, and Islamic cultures. Giuma Anag, director of Libya’s Bureau of Antiquities, has championed the cause of archaeology to a government often uninterested in its own cultural heritage. Anag talked with writer Andrew Solomon about his efforts to ensure the survival and protection of some of the world’s greatest monuments.
How has archaeology fared in today’s Libya?
The view of Libyan authorities has been that the living must be served, while ancient sites that have waited thousands of years can continue to wait. Unfortunately, this policy does not take into account the rapid decay of the exposed sites in modern times.
What is the impact of oil exploration on archaeology?
It’s frequently disastrous. Traditionally, oil has had free reign. Many areas have been mutilated, especially prehistoric sites and rock art. Fortunately, the leader’s son, Seif-al-Islam al-Qaddafi, is an exponent of cultural diplomacy and is our great champion. He has supported our request that archaeological surveys be carried out prior to economic activities. A huge body such as our state apparatus takes time to turn around, but it’s starting to happen. We would like to think that in the long term our activities could be underwritten at least in part by the oil wealth
In historic terms, what role did colonialism play in the development of Libyan archaeology?
The Italians who colonized Libya in the first half of the twentieth century treated the Roman remains on Libyan soil as the basis for a specious claim to a historical right to the country. They were therefore highly motivated to excavate Roman cities and Roman ruins, and they uncovered an enormous amount of material. Unfortunately, they were not interested in anything that didn’t fit with their claims, and so they destroyed many surface layers that would have been rich indeed for more careful archaeologists.
What are your concerns as Libya opens up to tourism?
At a time when the Libyan Minister of Tourism describes tourism as “the new oil,” there is a huge question to be resolved: whether the increase in visitors coming to see these sites will result in their preservation or in their being trampled to death. Even the three great sites — Leptis Magna, Cyrene, and Sabratha — are unpoliced and unprotected, and lack any kind of signs or directions to regulate the behavior of visitors. We need to declare national parks to preserve our natural and cultural heritage. We hope that we can encourage responsible cultural tourism and avoid the kind of mass tourism for which we simply don’t have the infrastructure.
Has there been looting at Libyan sites? When one visits, it seems as though one could easily walk off with whatever one wanted to take.
There are a lot of illegal excavations and illicit trafficking. It’s hard to know the extent of the loss. Some inveterate Italian looters, the Castiglione brothers, were taken to court for theft in 1983 and found guilty. A statue of Hades from Cyrene came up for auction in Maastricht a few years ago, and an American friend tipped us off and we got it back. We need to increase policing and electronic monitoring of sites and museums. We would like, also, to see a cultural property treaty with the United States, as with other nations; that would be a strong disincentive.
Though you have a vast amount of material exposed, aren’t archaeologists from here and abroad interested in further excavations?
We need to allow some scholarly investigation of what remains unexcavated, and it would be appropriate to determine how much is buried and where it is buried so that we can safeguard it. Our priority must be to preserve what is already exposed, and to develop the archaeological map of Libya. Since the Italians exposed and so endangered all this material, they have a moral imperative to work with us on these projects, but we welcome international friends from any foreign place. Please, send us anyone who can help; there are more than enough projects to occupy everyone!