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Published on 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."
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
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."
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 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.
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
"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."
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