Libyan Heritage and the Revolution: International investigation comes back positive.

Nov 24, 2011



The International Committee of the Blue Shield (ICBS) is a network of non-governmental organisations working to prevent the damage or loss of important cultural heritage sites and objects in the event of armed conflict or civil unrest. An historical and cultural Red Cross, so to speak.

As the conflict in Libya came to its closing stages, concerns were raised over the safety of the country's not-insignificant collection of cultural heritage objects and places, and how they might have faired during the course of the revolution. As a state of lawlessness and desperation usually pervades situations of this nature, these concerns were not unfounded. However, what members of the Blue Shield organisation uncovered in their recent forays into the country was surprisingly positive.

The mission to Libya served a twin purpose; firstly, it was to perform a damage assessment and to give perspective on the situation as a whole, and secondly to deal with post-conflict problems like looting, vandalism and illegal excavation, while providing support and a show of international solidarity to Libyan authorities who endured the conflict. This kind of support serves as a vehicle for awareness of the situation both locally and internationally, which, it is hoped, will get governments and international agencies working with local authorities to install long-term protective measures.

The first of the two trips was made in September of this year, and came across an strangely organised landscape. Passport checks at the regular roadblocks were friendly, by and large, and the team found that several prominent sites were still well-guarded. Many of the sites investigated in and around Tripoli had sustained minor damage and looting, but not much more. It was during this leg of the trip that some truly heroic stories emerged; an NTC brigade which decided in several cases not to engage nearby Gaddafi militia units because they were worried about damaging an ancient Roman amphitheatre, museum staff with the presence of mind to spirit away important pieces as the fighting neared their building, welding their buildings shut, and one case where shepherds were invited on to museum property to help as lookouts.

Two months later, on another trip, this time to the area surrounding Benghazi, the team came across the worst of the looting and damage; the theft of the famous Benghazi Treasure from a bank vault in the city, and the Roman settlement area called Umm al Shuga, which had been severely damaged by looters with heavy equipment.

If the report is anything to go by, however, it seems incidents like these are quite rare, and any real damage is balanced out by the fact that much of what had been looted was recovered, and, once again, by the positive side of things coming to light; local government, set up during the early stages, prioritising the protection of their heritage in the middle of the conflict, involving normal Libyans in the protection of their past, and acts of individual heroism by museum security and staff in the face of armed attackers. Many of the institutions housing important objects either hid what was valuable, or welded themselves shut, decisions which payed out in the long run. In other cases, sheer luck seems to be on the side of these sites, with battles raging in and around them, but causing little actual damage.

The reports paint quite a positive picture, by and large, as normal Libyans seem to be taking responsibility for their heritage, preventing the kind of loss which usually happens in areas ravaged by civil war, and, with the support of organisations like the ICBS, as well as other international bodies, the future of Libya's heritage is looking good.


You can read the full reports on the ICBS website:

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