Smuggling antiquities: A threat to strip away Libya’s historical resources

Stone and bronze artifacts dating back to the Roman era were seized by the anti-crime deterrent apparatus during a security operation that included the pursuit of a gang that traded antiquities and smuggled them outside the country. The apparatus revealed the registration cards issued by the Antiquities Authority for these pieces, which means that they were stolen from museums or official stores and were not the result of illegal excavations and searches.

These networks specialize in smuggling antiquities. One of them was previously seized by the Public Prosecutor after investigating the theft of eleven historical documents written in gold water in the Aramaic language by a group of citizens and foreign expatriates who sought to form an organized gang to commit the crime of stealing and trafficking in Libyan antiquities in its various forms, in an expansion of trafficking in cultural property and trespassing on real estate antiquities, in light of the weak security guard entrusted to employees of the Antiquities Authority.

There are many threats to the safety of archaeological sites in Libya, as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization UNESCO has previously listed five Libyan World Heritage sites on the endangered list, namely the cities of Shahat, Ghadames, Lebda (Lptis Magna) and Sabratha, in addition to the caves of the Acacus Mountains, which contain paintings and drawings dating back tens of thousands of years. Over the years, some of them were deliberately distorted in a flagrant assault on a site of great importance in the history of human development.

The archaeological sites in which the country abounds have fallen victim to encroachments resulting from urban sprawl, as is the case in the monuments of Shahat, which occupies a significant area in the Green Mountain without the presence of barriers that prevent citizens from architectural expansion near it, while some of the tombs and ancient houses in the city of Ghadames, which are described as the Pearl of the Desert, declared attacks by extremist religious groups saw the archaeological inscriptions and decorations attached to the Tuareg culture and which adorn the doors and walls as a kind of talisman of magic and sorcery, which prompted them to distort and remove some of them without any interference from the concerned authorities.

Other archaeological sites found themselves in the crosshairs of clashes and armed conflicts, such as the ancient city of Sabratha, which holds a unique mixture of Numidian and Roman antiquities, and was hit, to some extent, by shrapnel and random projectiles before the city became relatively stable, while Benghazi lost its historical metropolis after it was the scene of bloody confrontations earlier with the absence of maintenance and restoration work, despite the association of some of its features with the modern Libyan memory of the beginnings of the independence state, in addition to the attacks led by ISIS on sites and shrines in the city of Derna before confronting the terrorists militarily.

Gangs of antiquities smuggling are active in partnership with foreigners, as smuggled Libyan artifacts are offered in public auctions, making it very difficult to recover them, especially for those that were illegally excavated in random sites and do not have registration cards approved by the Antiquities Authority, but the privacy of some archaeological sites in Libya and their unique style may sometimes help in knowing their source and facilitating the process of retrieval, as in the case of artifacts, funerary stone heads, urns and pottery pieces that the United States returned to Libya early last month, after they were illegally extracted and shipped to the United States before they were identified by archaeologists who collaborated with the Attorney General’s Office in Manhattan, New York, thus returning them to the Museums of the Antiquities Authority in Tripoli.

Libya faces the danger of a lack of popular awareness of the importance of sites and artifacts and the flourishing of fatwas and religious visions promoted by some extremists related to the sanctity of antiquities, which license some people to destroy, or take them for sale abroad, with international reports talking about the involvement of fundamentalist organizations in the sale of antiquities to be exploited in support of terrorists activities, which may prompt the Public Prosecutor and the law enforcement agencies to open deeper investigations into this phenomenon, whose threads extend to organized crime networks, targeting the identity and heritage of Libya’s civilization deep in history.

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