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Foreign Visitors Avoiding Libya’s Ancient Ruins

Graffiti markings cover the walls of a Greek amphitheater in the ancient city of Cyrene in eastern Libya.

The city is now struggling with attacks on historic buildings and failure to care for national treasures. Some local people have slowly - and illegally -- taken control of the land that surrounds these structures.

Years ago, visitors from around the world went to Cyrene to see the Greek temples and other ancient structures. Now there are only empty businesses and eateries along the road that leads to the 2,600-year-old city.

Looting has hit Libya’s archaeological treasures since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. That was when the country entered into a period of unrest, with opposing administrations competing for control in different areas.

Cyrene is one of five United Nations World Heritage sites in the country listed for their value.

Greek tradition says the city was founded as a settlement about 2,750 years ago. Nearby ruins include Leptis Magna, which is considered by many historians to be the best preserved Roman ruins in the world.

Cyrene sits some 200 kilometers east of Benghazi. The Apollina, another ancient ruin, is just 20 kilometers away.

With foreign visitors gone and the government’s antiquities department suffering budget shortages, vandals have painted graffiti on ruins and stolen artifacts. Some treasures such as statues listed in guidebooks from before 2011 are no longer there.

Many artifacts have been taken overseas, says Ahmad Hussein. He heads the antiquities department of an administration in control of eastern Libya.

Unable to stop the stealing, his office has been registering artifacts. This has helped to recover some national treasures in Europe, he said.

There was better protection of antiquities before 2011. Some of the discoveries date back to Italian colonial rule in Libya. Parts of the colonists’ equipment are still there.

In 2005, archaeologists discovered 76 perfect Roman statues at Cyrene. They were hidden deep in the ground. Romans built the statues between the years 100 and 200 AD. After an earthquake covered them up in 375 AD, they remained hidden for 1,630 years.

Now the area is visited only by local militiamen, who use the ruins as battle cover.

“There has been a lot of destruction in recent years,” said Ismail Miftah, a farmer living next to Cyrene. “Ordinary people don’t appreciate the ancient heritage.”

I’m Susan Shand.


Words in This Story

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

loot – v. to steal during a time of crisis or war

antiquity – n. objects from ancient times

artifact – n. a simple object made by people in the past

AD – adv. used to note a period of time since the beginning of Christianity; short for the Latin term anno Domini

preserve – v. to protect

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