Sunday, September 11, 2011

Tripoli Antiquities Saved From Revolution?

Giant statues from the Roman empire era, hewn from marble 2,000 years ago, at Libya's National Museum in Tripoli. These important artifacts remained untouched, unvandalised and unlooted during the revolution. Photograph: Sean Smith for the Guardian

Muammar Gaddafi's Volkswagen Beetle from the sixties was one of the few items at Libya's national museum, at Tripoli's Red castle, to be vandalised during the revolution. Photograph: Sean Smith for the Guardian

In Tripoli's museum of antiquity only Gaddafi is lost in revolution

David Smith in Tripoli Sunday 11 September 2011

Libyan antiquities museum escaped ravages of revolution, but former dictator becomes an artifact of modern history

Hewn from marble 2,000 years ago, the giant statues of the Roman emperors Augustus, Claudius and Tiberius command the floor at Libya's National Museum. But they have to settle for ground level. Muammar Gaddafi reserved the top floor for himself.

Gaddafi opened the Jamahiriya Museum in Tripoli 23 years ago on Sunday. And he made sure visitors were left in no doubt that the flowering of Roman, Byzantine and Islamic cultures were mere historical footnotes to his own ascent as "king of kings".

Brushing aside curators' preference for classical antiquity, Libya's leader gave pride of place in the first gallery to the Volkswagen Beetle he drove in the sixties and the open-top Jeep that swept him to power in 1969. Both have been vandalised and their future is uncertain in a post-Gaddafi Libya, where his ubiquitous image has been furiously purged from everything but banknotes.

At 11.30pm on 20 August 2011, as rebels launched their first attack on the Libyan capital, 20 armed men entered the museum, located in the Red Castle, at the corner of former Green Square.
They believed that the lecture theatre there had a secret underground tunnel leading to one of Gaddafi's residences on the Mediterranean coast.

That was untrue, but the rebels spotted the colonel's vintage cars and, as elsewhere, wreaked their revenge. The windows of the sky blue Beetle were smashed; thousands of shards of glass now lie on the floor and over the dark upholstered seats where the ambitious young Gaddafi sat, driving officers to meetings and distributing political pamphlets. The headlamps are also damaged but the period gearstick, glovebox, running boards, speedometer and steering wheel remain intact.

Staff at the museum, which has been closed since February, had no choice but to let the rebels enter.

Mustafa Turjman, head of research at the national department of archaeology, said: "It was a revolution – you can't resist. It was better to let the rebels in than have them enter by force. When they saw the objects belonging to Gaddafi they couldn't resist."

But the vandalism was swiftly quelled by a plea. Mohamed Shakshuki, acting president of archaeology, said: "When I said, 'don't touch them', they stopped and left them. Some were educated people, like doctors, and they stopped the younger ones from making more damage. We were sad about what happened but thanks to God it was limited and can be restored."

Shakshuki hopes to preserve the vehicles – though not in this museum. "Staff never wanted to display the cars but we could not refuse," he said. "We don't consider them part of the classical collection. In the future, however, we will expose them to the public because they are part of our history."

Upstairs were galleries where Gaddafi had airbrushed out of history King Idris, the country's monarch between 1951 and 1969, and Libya's early years of independence, instead devoting rooms to verses from his Green Book, agricultural and housing projects, gifts from foreign leaders, and thousands of photographs. These, too, escaped destruction.

"The rebels asked staff to remove all the things belonging to Gaddafi," Shakshuki said. "We were happy to do it because this museum is for classical antiquity. The objects of Gaddafi were forced upon us. He wanted to take advantage of the classical things, which were the main attraction for tourists, so they would pass and see his objects and activities. Now we will keep them in storage. There are specialists in modern history who will take these on later."

In fact, the entire museum, one of world culture's best-kept secrets, with its stupendous collection of antiquities, escaped lightly, compared with its counterparts in Baghdad and Cairo.
Although there is graffiti in places and one broken window, just a cloak and a rifle, used in the Libyan resistance against Italian occupation, were stolen. These were of negligible value.

Staff say they had time to prepare, spending two months registering, recording and transferring the most precious artefacts into storage at another site. These include 250 pieces of Greek and Roman pottery and sculpture, and 1,500 Greek and Ottoman gold, silver and bronze coins.

Numerous other treasures remain in the building at the 16th century castle, hinting at Libya's potential for tourism once peace and stability are achieved. The collection includes prehistoric paintings, spectacular mosaics, traditional desert clothes and interiors, and dozens of sculptures from the Roman city Leptis Magna, ranging from an exquisite 2nd-century statue of Apollo to an expansive wall relief depicting the emperor Septimius Severus.

Like other kings of kings before him, Gaddafi has endured the turn of history's wheel. His long-suffering museum staff did not appear to mind.

"He did not care," Turjman said. "There were a lot of other priorities on his mind. The cultural fields, as usual, were at the back."

Libya's other wealth: Archaeological treasures

By Libby Lewis, CNN

(CNN) -- Before Moammar Gadhafi, there were the Phoenicians. And the Greeks. The Romans. The first Arabs. They're a reminder that no civilization -- and no leader -- is forever.

The Libyan transitional leaders have a lot to deal with once they stop being rebels, and begin shaping a new Libya: Keeping law and order, setting up a rudimentary government, dealing with money -- and oil.

But what about Libya's other wealth? Its archaeological treasures?
They are all over the country.

In the south, in Acacus, rock paintings 12,000 years old cross an entire mountain range.
In the east, the city of Cyrene holds a thousand years of history -- Roman general Mark Antony once gave it to Cleopatra.

And along the coast, the splendid ruins of Leptis Magna that were buried for centuries under the sand was said to be one of the most beautiful cities of the Roman Empire.

What will happen to these sites in the days ahead? If you look at history, their fate does not bode well.

"We're very worried," said Francesco Bandarin of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO.

Treasure already stolen

UNESCO is like the world's watchdog for protecting historical cultural sites and property.
You might think the worst time for preserving cultural sites are when the shooting and the bombing are under way. Not so, Bandarin said, from his office in Paris.

"The conflict moment is one thing," Bandarin said. "But the post-conflict moment is more risky. There isn't an administration, you have lots of weapons all over -- and then you have the take. This is what happened in Egypt, in Iraq, in Afghanistan -- that's exactly what happens."

It's already happened in Libya. Bandarin said someone stole the most important treasure of gold and silver from the time of Alexander the Great from Benghazi -- after the city was liberated from Gadhafi.

"It's called the treasure of Benghazi ... It was in a bank in Benghazi," he said. "Can you believe that this treasure has disappeared?"

Gadhafi's forces and the opposition fought around the Roman ruins at Leptis Magna and at the ancient theater and temples at Sabratha. It's not yet clear how much damage there is.
"We can't wait to get in there and find out," Bandarin said.

Connecting the past to the future

For now, UNESCO has only its moral authority to lean on to secure the cultural heritage sites, which include five that are listed on UNESCO's World Heritage List.

One archaeologist has been on a quiet campaign to convince Libya's new leaders to make this a priority.

Hafed Walda was born in Libya and he's based in London. A Libyan friend convinced a rebel Army officer to call Walda to talk about Libya's cultural sites -- and the need to protect them.

The officer has a high school education -- and military training in Gadhafi's Army. He didn't study the Phoenicians or the Greeks in school.

"He knows the Romans, and that's it," Walda said from his office in London.

Walda said his first talk with the officer, back in March, was about the need for the rebels to protect the sites -- for future generations of Libyans. He said the officer was polite -- but blunt.

"He came out clean. He said, 'People are more important. And I cannot really tell my officers to put too much work on this, when they're worried about their families and their areas and their children.'"

But the officer agreed to talk to the archaeologist again. They kept talking - night after night.
They've spoken maybe 20 or 30 times over Skype.

The archaeologist told the officer bits of history -- but he tried not to lecture.

"I started talking about the old city in Tripoli, because he can relate to that. It's been there since the Phoenicians. So I said, you have this treasure, and you're not aware of what you have! You have the modern Libya, the Turkish Libya, and the Islamic Libya.

"So I hit on the Islamic period, because he's quite a religious man. It helps that I know the place -- so I talked about some of the Islamic places and he felt part of it. Then I talked about how they were built on top of the other things -- the Byzantines, the Romans and the Phoenicians.

"I said, 'OK, how would you feel if they bombed the Mosque of the Camel [Tripoli's oldest mosque]'?"

And Walda told the officer that that mosque was built with old Roman columns, from Roman times. He wanted the officer to know how connected everything is.

"And that's when it began to click for him, because this is what he knows."
Walda says now, the officer is a convert to protecting Libya's archaeological sites and property. But he is only one Army officer.

Walda doesn't know if it will make any difference in the coming days. But he said he had to try.

UNESCO is poised to send in a team to examine the damage to the sites as soon as it's safe to do so, and they're planning a large international meeting in October to explore the future of Libya's archaeological sites.

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