Vandalism and neglect haunt Libya’s ancient heritage sites

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A general view of the ancient ruins of the Greek and Roman city of Cyrene, in Libya. The war-torn couuntry is home to five of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites, listed for their outstanding universal value. Reuters

SHAHAT (Reuters) – Graffiti covers the ruins of Cyrene in eastern Libya, a city founded by Greeks more than 2,600 years ago that once attracted tourists but is now neglected and the target of vandals.

Insecurity and looting has hit Libya’s archaeological sites in the chaos and fighting that has followed the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, as rival groups struggle to consolidate control of the country.

Libya is home to five of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites, listed for their outstanding universal value. The sites include the ruins of the Roman city of Leptis Magna and Sabratha, which is famous for its amphitheatre.

There are also prehistoric rock carvings in the Akakous mountains deep in the southern Sahara desert near the border with Algeria.

In the east, tourists once trekked to Cyrene, a site founded by Greeks and later expanded by Romans, nestled in the mountains some 200 km (124 miles) east of Benghazi.

But with foreign tourists gone and the sites visited only by Libyan families on weekend trips, locals have seized land at the sites and vandals have even smeared graffiti on columns and walls.

Ahmad Hussein, the head of the antiquities department of a parallel administration in charge of eastern Libya said effort to preserve ruins is further hampered by the fact that Libya has two governments. One administration backed by the United Nations sits in Tripoli, while the east has a parallel government.

In a rare positive sign, Mr Hussein said that about 1,700 artifacts had been returned since 2011 after they were looted inside the country. Many other items are smuggled abroad though.

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