When Libya opened to the West in 2003, it was widely hailed as a crucial first step by a “terrorist” regime coming in from the cold. But along with the legitimate companies vying to capture Libya’s lucrative markets, international antiquities-smuggling gangs were waiting for their chance to pilfer the country’s Roman ruins, which are some of the most pristine in the world.
This trade, which first began in 1987 with the opening of the Egyptian border, has accelerated since 2003 with an unprecedented gutting of Libya’s ancient heritage sites underway since.
“There’s been an explosion in looting all over the Mediterranean, but in North Africa it’s really becoming quite a problem,” said Gaetano Palumbo, the North Africa programme director for the World Monuments Fund, a New York-based organisation.
Ancient ports, villas and entire Roman cities have been uncovered by western archaeologists after being buried under the Saharan sand for centuries.
Farther inland, preserved Roman farming communities or semi-fortified towers wait to be discovered. The structures are inlaid with elaborate mosaics and covered with inscriptions, providing valuable insights into the everyday life of what was one of the Roman Empire’s wealthiest provinces.
“It’s not difficult to get on to these sites,” said Joyce Reynolds, a 90-year-old retired epigraphist at Cambridge University who first excavated in Libya in 1951. “Even those which are in principle protected are very ... easy to get into.”
Libyan antiquities officials seek to downplay the extent of the looting, though they admit to a few spectacular heists such as the disappearance in 2000 of 15 statue heads from Cyrene, an ancient Greek city. But even these admissions gloss over the far more destructive daily ransacking of the sites by local crooks.
One such small-time raider is Fathi Ismail, a local who operates inside Cyrene, a Ptolemaic site, selling the Hellenic coins he scavenges from the ground to tourists. His prices range from 10 to 50 dinars (Dh11-59) per coin, but he boasts that the “real money is in the heads of statues that lie buried below”.
Often, digging out the ancient artefacts does not even require particular effort: rain storms wash away the topsoil, dislodging the ample treasures lying beneath. At other times, industrious badgers tunnelling underground eject them as they dig.
An artefact’s journey from the Libyan sands to the gleaming auction rooms of Zurich and New York is like a trip up the human food chain which starts with the dirt-poor sand-scavengers in the south, such as Mr Ismail, and then on to the Egyptian gangs that smuggle the goods to Cairo and Alexandria, ending with the ultimate recipients – the wealthy and cultured in western Europe and North America who have a taste for collecting human heritage.
“There are estimates that the business of smuggling antiquities provides the largest turnover in the world, second only to oil and equal to arms sales,” said the Cambridge University professor and Lord of Kaimsthorn, Colin Renfrew, who leads international efforts to stem the looting of antiquities. “But you can’t put a figure on a secret trade.”
Libyan officials will admit off the record that looting has severely damaged the spectacular and extensive Roman ruins spread across their country’s 2,000km-long Mediterranean coastline. But they shy away from direct criticism for fear of incurring their government’s wrath or of offending Egypt, Libya’s neighbour and ally.
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