Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Art and Artifacts

By Bill Kelly (

When the strategic coastal port of Alexandria, Egypt was conquered, its ancient library and a one of the wonders of the civilized world was intentionally destroyed, officially declaring the death and destruction of the combined knowledge of the world up to that time.

The new regime wanted to start with a clean slate, but that doesn’t seem to be the case in Libya, where the seven month old revolution seems intent on preserving the key elements of its society – the oil industry infrastructure, the ancient historic sites and the records and evidence of crimes committed by the Gadhafi regime.

In that regard, most of the American artifacts at Tripoli are relatively safe, at least from the ravages of the revolution – including the national museum at the old castle fort, the Old Protestant Cemetery, where remains of five of the men of the USS Intrepid are buried, and Green/Martyr’s Square, where eight Intrepid men remain buried under a parking lot.

Then there are the Tripoli harbor sites of the wrecks of both the Intrepid and the large frigate Philadelphia, both of which have reportedly been covered over with cement by the Libyans, which will act to preserve them.

Other than the fort and the square, the historic artifacts in Tripoli that are of interest to Americans are only a few hundred years old, which to the Libyans is like yesterday, as their history dates back four thousand years and through multiple eras and civilizations – Cartridge, Rome, Ottoman Turks, the Karamanli Dynasty, Italian Colonial, a monarchy and the Gadhafi regime.

In a scene from the movie Patton, George C. Scott as Patton, drives to some ancient ruins along Libya’s coast and reflects on the ancient battles that were fought over the same land. And the American cemetery at Tunis, administered by the American Battlefield Monument Commissions (ABMC), which is located a few miles from where the current revolution started, appears to remain secure and undamaged.

Patton’s chief rival, German Gen. Erwin Rommell came to North Africa at Tripoli Harbor, and can be seen in photos plotting strategy over a table set up outdoors. There are also photos of British troops at the square, the old castle fort and the ubiquitous pillars.

The oldest art found in South Libya are the petrographs of hunting scenes, while Pre-Roman Cartridge ruins and the best examples of Roman – era cities can be found along the Libyan coast – incredible inlaid tile baths and theaters in the round that overlook the sea.

At the beginning of the turmoil there was a lot of concern that the battles would spill into the historic arena, or the victor or the vanquished would destroy everything in their wake.

Or, as the Taliban destroyed duel ancient Buddas just because they didn’t understand them, and the rampant looting of the museum at Baghdad during the invasion of Iraq, the Cairo Museum in Egypt was for the most part saved from looters during the revolution by people who linked arms and created a human fence around the building. But not before some vandals got in and destroyed some irreplaceable statues.

In Libya it seems like both sides studiously avoided the destruction of the infrastructure – oil processing plants and ancient ruins, both of which were vulnerable. They turned off the internet, didn’t destroy it, - and while Gadhafi Loyalists took refuge at ancient ruins and historic sites, knowing the NATO wouldn’t attack them there, the primary sites – appear to have survived relatively intact.

While the rebels seem to have been well trained and directed not to enter homes unless they were fired upon, once they defeated the defenders at Gadafhi’s home and compound, the area was thoroughly looted by the rebels as well as the local civilians.

Other historic sites appear to have been saved and were secured, including the national museum at the Old Castle Fort, Green/Martyr’s Square and the Old Protestant Cemetery. I’d also like to know the status of the airport, the golf course there, and the Marriot Hotel, a $36 million, 30 some floor hotel that opened the week before the revolution began in February.

The national museum, besides holding ancient Roman art and artifacts, also has the VW bug that Gadhafi drove into Tripoli during the September 1969 coup.

The head of the national museum – the Director of Antiquities Dr. Guima Ang, left his post a year or so before the revolution, possibly over differences with the Gadhafi regime over the construction at ancient historic sites.

It is paramount that the new Director of Antiquities, whoever they are, be seriously responsible for the protection of historic sites, including the museum, Martyr’s Square, Old Protestant Cemetery and the ancient historic sites throughout Libya.

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