Libyan cultural heritage in danger of going the Iraqi way

Strong accusations by Russian expert

Published on 30 August 2011

Author(s): The Hindu/Vladimir Radyuhin

Type:  News

Looters and NATO forces are to blame, says Russian expert on West Asia

Libya's priceless historical heritage is in danger of being destroyed in the same way Iraq's cultural riches perished during the United States invasion, a Russian expert on West Asia has warned.

Nikolai Sologubovsky, Orientalist, writer and film-maker, said massive looting and destruction of ancient artefacts was underway in Libya.

Being shipped to Europe

“The al-Jamahiriya National Museum in Tripoli has been looted and antiquities are being shipped out by sea to Europe,” the scholar told Russian television. The National Museum houses some of Libya's most treasured archaeological and historical heritage. The collection includes invaluable samples of Neolithic, prehistoric, Berber, Garamantian, Phoenician, Punic, Greek, Roman and Byzantine culture.

Mr. Sologubovsky, who studied Libya's archeological sites and spent several months in Libya this year as a correspondent for a Moscow tabloid, said cave paintings in the Acacus Mountains that go back 14,000 years were being destroyed by looters.

“They press silk cloth soaked in special chemical solution against rock frescoes and the paint sticks to the cloth and comes off the cave wall,” he said.

NATO bombing

The scholar accused NATO forces of destroying some of Libya's most spectacular architectural sites. “NATO aircraft have bombed Leptis Magna and Sabratha under the pretext that Qadhafi forces were hiding weapons there,” said Mr. Sologobovsky, who is deputy head of a Russian committee of solidarity with the people of Libya and Syria set up earlier this year.

Leptis Magna was one of the most beautiful cities of the Roman Empire and Sabratha was a Phoenician trading post. Both are more than 2,500 years old, and are on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list. Following their bombing by NATO aircraft on August 16 and 17, Mr. Sologubovsky wrote: “NATO is acting with complete impunity and is methodically turning defiant Libya into desert.”

Rebel supporters burn Green books.jpg
Rebel supporters burn Green books that contain the political philosophy of Moammar Qadhafi, in the main square of the Qasr Bin Ghashir district in Tripoli, Libya, on Saturday [Credit: AP]

Earlier this summer, the government in Tripoli asked Egypt and other neighbouring countries to block the smuggling of artefacts from Libya, but the looting continued unabated. Egypt's own cultural treasures were plundered when looters ransacked archaeological sites, carrying away over 1,000 artefacts, and stole a statue of King Tutankhamun and dozens of other precious objects from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo during the “Arab Spring” revolution.

Last week, the United Nation's cultural body called for protection of Libya's “invaluable cultural heritage” and warned international art dealers and museums to look out for artefacts that may have been looted from Libya.

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova said in a statement that dealers should be “particularly wary of objects from Libya in the present circumstances.” “Experience shows that there is a serious danger of destruction during times of social upheaval,” the UNESCO chief said, “It has taught us to look out for looting by unscrupulous individuals, that often damages the integrity of artefacts and of archaeological sites.”

Mr. Sologubovsky said the UNESCO appeal came too late, too little. “Plunder of Libya's cultural heritage has been going on since February. I'm afraid it faces the same tragic fate as Iraq's antiquities, which were plundered by the victorious U.S. military,” said the Russian scholar.

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