Libya’s internal political conflict continues to have ramifications for the country’s archaeological sector, with antiquities in even danger of looting and vandalism, Al-Monitor reported earlier this month.
According to the news source, rare and unique antiquities are being looted and smuggled abroad, in what Al-Monitor calls “one blow after another,” with officials warning that Libya’s archaeological sector is facing collapse.
U.K.-based Libyan archaeologist Hafed Walda informed Al-Monitor that the reasons for the crumbling of the industry are both the “turbulent security situation” and “a lack of awareness” about the antiquities’ heritage value. In the past, Walda served on the Libyan delegation to the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO.
Walda heads the Smuggled Antiquities Committee in the western city of Tripoli, the government base for the U.N.-appointed Prime Minister Abdulhamid AlDabaiba. The opposing government in Tobruk in the east is led by Prime Minister Fathi Bashagha, appointed by Libya’s House of Representatives.
“In 2011 alone, about 7,700 coins were stolen from the vault of the Commercial Bank in Benghazi,” Walda told Al-Monitor. “This was one of the most major archaeological thefts in history.”
It is unclear how many unique archaeological artifacts have been lost to theft and looting. However, Ahmed Hussein, head of the Eastern Department of Antiquities in Tobruk, suggested to Al-Monitor that between 500 and 1,000 pieces have been smuggled out of Libya since 2011, when the country’s former leader, Muammar Gaddafi, was toppled.
Others set Libya’s estimated numbers of lost artifacts much higher.
According to a report by the American Society of Overseas Research, more than 9,800 antiquities were looted across Libya between 2011 and 2020.
“Security agencies and departments are working to retrieve these pieces. They have managed to locate some pieces but have yet to bring them home,” Hussein told Al-Monitor. “Some antiquity pieces are being put out for sale on social media.”
In July 2016, UNESCO placed five Libyan archaeological sites – Cyrene, Leptis Magna, Sabratha, Tadrart Acacus and the Old Town of Ghadames – on the UNESCO list of World Heritage in Danger.
UNESCO states on their website that the sites are on the list “because of damage caused by the conflict affecting the country and the threat of further damage it poses.” Warring militias in Sabratha, for example, ended up damaging an ancient Roman theater.
Because the looting and the smuggling largely goes unpunished, researchers do not believe that the damage to Libya’s historic monuments and antiquities is likely to stop anytime soon.
“The drain of archaeological heritage in Libya will continue, and perhaps in an upward manner, in light of uncontrolled looting and smuggling and the lack of any punishment for those who destroyed archaeological sites in recent years,” Ahmed Issa Faraj, the scientific-committee head at the Federation of Libyan World Heritage Municipalities, told Al-Monitor.
Faraj warned that the current situation could lead to an irreversible death for Libya’s archaeological sector.
Last year, Libya called for UNESCO to take the Old Town of Ghadames in northwestern Libya off its list of endangered heritage sites. The U.N. body refused.
“If Libya does not find political and security stability, these sites will not be removed from the list of threatened sites,” Hussein told Al-Monitor.