Everywhere you look in the Old City of Tripoli you see banners and flags of the new Libya, red, green and black with the Islamic star and crescent. There is a vibrant market here, perhaps more vibrant because the banking system remains dysfunctional some 20 months after the successful revolution that overthrew Moammar Gaddafi after a 42-year long dictatorship. The market also reveals the manifold diversity of Libyan heritage and identity: people from every part of the world who have come to this southern Mediterranean trading port for perhaps three thousand years: from Phoenicia, Greece, Rome, Sub-Saharan Africa, Arabia, Byzantium, Egypt, Turkey and more.
Under Gaddafi, history began when he came to power in 1969 but when we met with the Deputy Prime Minister he told us vociferously and repeatedly that he wanted Libyans to appreciate the incredible depth and richness of their heritage. This country is a crossroads: central to the Mediterranean trade of the ancient world; key to the Arabian trade routes across North Africa; marked by caravan routes and oases used for over a thousand years by Amazigh (Berber) traders; and one of several access points to the massive African interior. Libya’s World Heritage sites include both the amazing coastal ruins of Punic, Greek, Roman and Byzantine origin as well as the caravan points of the interior like Ghadames, central to the spread and preservation of Islam.
Famous theater at Sabratha, reconstructed by Fascist Italy in 1930s
Roman mosaic tilework in baths near the theater, Sabratha
Caesars from Sabratha in the National Museum, Tripoli
The roman Emperors Septimus Severus and Caracalla came from Libya, and Tripoli’s famous red castle is studded with ancient Roman columns, used as building material here as in Rome itself, until the dawn of historical consciousness two hundred years ago.
Under the dictator, historical consciousness was limited by political control. Many of the Greek and Roman sites were simply assigned to various Western archaeologists, as if there was little local identification with them. This of course is the opposite of the modern approach to heritage conservation that we practice at Global Heritage Fund. The only way to sustainably preserve heritage – tangible or intangible – is to engage the community in that enterprise from the beginning, and to realize the economic benefits of that enterprise IN the community.
Arch of Marcus Aurelius in Old City, Tripoli
architectural fragments near Aurelian arch, Tripoli
View into mosque, Old City Tripoli
Tilework at mosque, Old City Tripoli
Tilework in Byzantine basilica, Sabratha museum
Our approach, led by our Chairman Dan Thorne, was not to choose a site but to ask the Libyan officials where Global Heritage Fund could be of help. Our goal as we enter our second decade as an international conservancy is to “lead with expertise” by bringing the best experts not only in architecture, conservation science and archaeology, but also education, training, tourism, and economic development. The officials we met with, from the Department of Antiquities to the Minister of Culture and Deputy Prime Minister himself, all agreed with this approach and were incredibly welcoming of our input. We will be presenting them with a menu of possible projects, including a national database and condition assessment of heritage sites; a high-level convening of international heritage experts; to more detailed work at individual sites, such as Cyrene, which GHF supported in the past and for which a conservation management plan was drafted. We hope to complete that plan now.
Meeting with Minister of Culture Habib. Photo by Bob Stanton.
Global Heritage Fund team with Minister of Culture, Head of Antiquities and officials at Aurelian arch. Photo by Bob Stanton.
The challenge in heritage conservation in Libya remains the same as in many places: how do you successfully integrate the community into the process? How do you economically activate the site in a way that sustains its conservation without introducing new threats? How do you insure that conservation science is practiced at the highest standard while at the same time insuring that the long-term stewards of the site are the primary voice in its preservation and disposition?
mosque in Old City, Tripoli
synagogue in Old City, Tripoli
Immersion baptistery at Byzantine church, Sabratha
Tourism will come to Libya once the security situation stabilizes. It is an hour’s flight from Rome, and the ruins are stunning by any standard. Moreover, there was no heritage lost during the six-month revolution, a dramatic contrast to the loss that occurred in Iraq or that is currently occurring in Syria. The National Museum was untouched, for example, with the notable exception of Gaddafi’s VW Beetle, which was smashed.
The heads and arms were lost centuries ago
The Leptis Magna room in the National Museum
Mosaic with architecture in National Museum
The challenges in Libya are exacerbated by the deliberate disruption of heritage engineered by the dictator and by regional factionalism and challenges to the new government. On the plus side, the country has no debt and significant oil resources. At the same time, the Deputy Prime Minister insisted that the future of Libya lies not in natural resources; not in agriculture; not in industry, but in the service economy. This means that the resource that must be developed is the people, and the key to this development is education. He told us of his plans to rebuild the educational system, and the central role that heritage must play in that development.
Courtyard in the Red Castle, Tripoli
Seeing heritage in this way was inspiring, for our team, which of course includes Libyans. Heritage is not a luxury but a foundation of civilized society; a source of identity and nation-building; a source of pride and income.
Thanks to our team in Libya, led by Board Chair Dan Thorne, UK Board Member Alia al-Senussi, Hafed Walda, Bob Stanton and myself. Thanks also to Board members Paul and Mary Slawson for their support.