Libya’s Ancient Cultural Areas Suffer Damage

30 October, 2018

Cyrene is an ancient city in eastern Libya that was founded by the Greeks more than 2,600 years ago. The historic site once appealed to tourists. But today, it suffers greatly from damage and lack of care.

Cyrene is one of Libya's five UNESCO World Heritage sites -- places that are considered to have special cultural or physical importance. UNESCO is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

The sites also include the ruins of the Roman city of Leptis Magna and Sabratha, a site famous for its amphitheater. There are also prehistoric rock cuttings in the Akakous mountains in the southern Sahara Desert, near Libya's border with Algeria.

But since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, insecurity and looting have harmed many of these areas.

Tourist once walked to Cyrene, a city founded by Greeks and later expanded by Romans. It is in the mountains around 200 kilometers east of Benghazi, within the small community of Shahat.

But today, foreign tourists no longer visit Cyrene. Only Libyan families come to its sites.

Some locals have taken the land for themselves. Others have written graffiti on the ancient city's structures and walls.

Local officials are trying to stop the damage. Ahmad Hussein is an official in eastern Libya. He said, "In Cyrene, instead of speaking to one owner, now we speak to 50..."

He said owners have built houses on the ancient sites.

A 2013 law permitted people to reclaim land that was taken from them under Gaddafi's rule. That ruling worsened the problem. Some people took the amount of land they felt they deserved.

Hussein said he wants to hold those people responsible for their actions.

Graffiti on the ancient ruins of the Greek and Roman city of Cyrene, is seen in Shahhat, Libya October 20, 2018. Picture taken October 20, 2018. REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori
Graffiti on the ancient ruins of the Greek and Roman city of Cyrene, is seen in Shahhat, Libya October 20, 2018. Picture taken October 20, 2018. REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori

Two governments, few visitors

Protecting sites like Cyrene has become more difficult in part because Libya has two governments. One government, in Tripoli, is supported by the United Nations. Eastern Libya has another government.

There has been some success, however. Hussein said about 1,700 objects that were stolen from historic sites have been returned. The returned objects had been looted inside the country. Many other objects have been illegally taken out of the country.

Leptis Magna is an ancient site in northwestern Libya. It has mostly avoided damage because of local people who are fans of history. The site, which is near the city of Misrata, is also more secure than other places.

The site of Sabratha has been repeatedly hit by fighting between warring groups. Last year, UNESCO appealed for help in protecting the site. But the site received no help.

In Tripoli, the capital, one director is trying to save 18 Roman graves. The graves are around 1,700 years old. They were found in 1958 in the western town of Janzour.

The director is al-Amari Ramadan Mabrouk. He said, "There is no support for this site."

Sometimes, Libyan families come to the site. But mostly, the graves remain covered with spiders and dust.

Mabrouk said, "I cannot give a number for tourists who visit Libya...but I can say that, before 2011, tourism was popular in Libya."

I'm Alice Bryant.

Ayman al-Warfalli reported this story for Reuters. Alice Bryant adapted it for Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.

Words in This Story

siten. the place where something, such as a building, is, was or will be located

touristn. a person who travels to a place for pleasure

ruinsn. the remaining pieces of something that was destroyed

amphitheater n. a large building with seats rising in curved rows around an open space on which games and plays take place

lootv. to steal things from a place during a war or after destruction has been caused by fire, rioting or something else (gerund: looting)

graffitin. pictures or words painted or drawn on a wall or building

grave – n. a hole in the ground for burying a dead body