Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Did Libyan Artifacts Survive the Revolution?



When the strategic coastal port of Alexandria, Egypt was conquered, its vast library and a one of the wonders of the ancient world was burned by Julius Caesar, effectively destroying the combined knowledge of the world up to that time.

In many cases, the victors try to erase any trace of the previous rulers.

That doesn’t seem to be the case in Libya, where the seven month old revolution seems intent on preserving the key elements of its society – the oil industry infrastructure, the ancient historic sites and the records and evidence of crimes committed by the Gadhafi regime. While on oil terminal was set afire by an errant rocket, it doesn't appear there is major damage to the oil facilities in the country.

In that regard, most of the American artifacts at Tripoli are also relatively safe, at least from the ravages of the revolution – including the national museum at the old castle fort, the Old Protestant Cemetery, where remains of five of the men of the USS Intrepid are buried, and Martyr’s Square, where eight Intrepid men remain buried under a parking lot.

Then there are the Tripoli harbor sites of the wrecks of both the ketch Intrepid and the frigate Philadelphia, both of which have reportedly been covered over with cement by the Libyans, which will act to preserve them.

Other than the fort and the square, the historic artifacts in Tripoli that are of interest to Americans are only a few hundred years old, which to the Libyans is like yesterday, as their history dates back four thousand years and through multiple eras and civilizations – Cartridge, Rome, Ottoman, Karamanli Dynasty, Italian Colonial, a monarchy and the Gadhafi regime.

In a scene from the movie Patton, George C. Scott as Patton, drives to some ancient ruins along Libya’s coast and reflects on the battles that were fought there over the same land. And many of his soldiers are buried at the American cemetery at Tunis, administered by the American Battlefield Monument Commissions (ABMC), which is located a few miles from where the current revolution started. It appears to remain secure and undamaged.

Patton’s chief rival, German Gen. Erwin Rommell came to North Africa at Tripoli Harbor, and can be seen in photos plotting strategy over a table set up outdoors. There are also photos of British troops at the square, the old castle fort and the ubiquitous pillars, all having survived the war.

The oldest art found in South Libya are the pre-historic petrographs of hunting scenes, some still being uncovered by the shifting desert sands, while Pre-Roman Cartridge ruins and the best examples of Roman cities can be found along the Libyan coast – incredible inlaid tile baths and theaters in the round that overlook the sea.

At the beginning of the recent turmoil there was a lot of concern that the battles would spill into the historic arena, or the victor or the vanquished would destroy everything in their wake.

Just as the Taliban destroyed ancient Buddas just because they didn’t understand them, and the rampant looting of the museum at Baghdad that took place during the invasion of Iraq, the Cairo Museum in Egypt was saved from looters during the revolution by people who linked arms and created a human fence around the building. But not before some vandals got in and destroyed some irreplaceable statues.

In Libya it seems like both sides studiously avoided the destruction of the infrastructure – oil processing plants and ancient ruins, both of which were extremely vulnerable to the violence of war. They turned off the internet but didn’t destroy it, and while Gadhafi Loyalists took refuge at ancient ruins and historic sites, knowing the NATO wouldn’t attack them there, the primary sites – appear to have survived relatively intact.

While the rebels seem to have been well trained and directed not to enter homes unless they were fired upon, once the defenders at Gadafhi’s home and compound were defeated, the area was thoroughly looted by the rebels and the local civilians.

Other historic sites appear to have been saved and secured, including the national museum at the Old Castle Fort, Green/Martyr’s Square and the Old Protestant Cemetery. It would also be nice to know the status of the airport, the golf course there, and the Marriot Hotel, a $36 million American hotel that opened the week before the revolution began in February.

There were reports that Loyalist snipers were firing from the roof of the Marriott on August 22, and the rebels returned fire. Another report indicated that rebels "with British passports" set fire to the hotel that day.

But SD, on the scene at the moment, asked about the condition of the Marriott hotel, reports, "Hi Bill. No it is fine. I can see it from here right now. no damage at
all as far as we know of course it has been closed since Feb and I havent been inside but
nothing obvious."

The national museum, besides holding ancient Roman art and artifacts, also has the Volkswagon bug that Gadhafi drove into Tripoli during the September 1969 coup.

The head of the national museum – the Director of Antiquities Dr. Guima Ang, left his post a year or so before the revolution, possibly over differences with the Gadhafi regime over the construction at ancient historic sites.

It is paramount that the new Director of Antiquities, whoever it is, be seriously responsible for the protection of historic sites, including the museum, Martyr’s Square, Old Protestant Cemetery and the ancient historic sites throughout Libya.

Simon Denyer, the Washington Post reporter in Tripoli, says that he drives past the Old Protestant Cemetery every day, and it remains locked and secure.

Tripoli, Libya

'Now we have to hurry to do everything we want. Everyone from his place. Me, from this museum." Fatheia al Howasi, the director of Libya's National Museum since 2007, is soft-spoken, determined, and refreshingly honest in her serviceable English. She is also eager to get to work bringing the museum up to international standards and reopening it to the Libyan public—it has been closed since the revolution started in Benghazi on Feb. 17.

Though the capital grows calmer every day, life is far from normal; armed men are ubiquitous and there is a serious shortage of cash. On Sunday, Ms. Howasi led me on an all-too-brief tour of the five-story structure, built in 1988 with Unesco help inside Tripoli's 17th-century Saraya al Hamra, or Red Palace.

A 1984 graduate of Benghazi's Garyounis University who has spent her entire career in Tripoli's Department of Antiquities, Ms. Howasi tells the recent history of the museum without drama. While the museum was closed, she visited every day and her staff of 70 looked after the physical plant. When Moammar Gadhafi fled Tripoli on Aug. 19 and the uprising began, Ms. Howasi and the staff hid "some important small pieces"—a half-dozen glass display cases are still empty—but otherwise took no extraordinary measures.

Soon, revolutionary fighters from the Nafusa Mountains and nearby Zawiyah poured into Tripoli. (One of the major brigades that entered Tripoli hails from Zintan, Ms. Howasi's hometown.)

"Some thuwar [revolutionaries] came into the museum," she says, but they damaged only the exhibits in the six galleries devoted to Gadhafi and smashed the windows of two of Gadhafi's cars that are incongruously exhibited among Roman artifacts in one of the main galleries on the ground floor.

(One is a lime-green Volkswagen Beetle from the 1960s.) Upstairs, the area that once held Gadhafi mementos is now empty. When I expressed the hope that the history of the Gadhafi period would not be lost to the next generation of Libyans, Ms. Howasi quickly agreed: "These things are for another time, but we need to remember and correct."

Ms. Howasi says that the Gadhafi exhibits were the extent of the regime's interference with the museum's exhibition contents, though she also admits that the reason so few of the Arabic signs are translated into English is that the museum "was not allowed to write by English" during one period when Gadhafi burned foreign-language textbooks and forbade the teaching of foreign languages in schools. When he changed his mind in recent years, "somebody start and stop, somebody start and stop." This, too, is typically Libyan: There is a sort of national attention-deficit disorder, perhaps the result of 42 years under a madly capricious ruler. When I visited, Ms. Howasi was unable to find any English guide or catalog to the museum.

While there are no classical pieces of earth-shattering importance—a fair amount of Libya's classical heritage made its way to Italian and other European museums during the Italian occupation—there are vibrant, dynamic mosaics of daily life from the ancient cities of Leptis Magna and Sabratha, many centered around fishing and sea creatures, and important panels from the arch of Septimius Severus at Leptis Magna. The mosaics compare with the best in Tunisia, with tiny fragments that capture light and allow for great naturalism. But the Roman glass on show is mediocre, and even if the empty cases that once held jewelry and other small artifacts were full, they would not compare in extent with the holdings of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, not to mention the Italian museums. The Islamic artifacts are substandard, which probably reflects the fact that Libya was a backwater for most of the postclassical period.

The well-traveled foreign visitor will be most thrilled by the pieces from Libya's indigenous civilizations, mainly unfamiliar to Westerners. There is a fascinating bijou third-century mausoleum and panels of bas reliefs from Ghirza, south of Misrata, whose endearingly naive depictions of animals and foliage show a fusion of local and Greek art. There are also artifacts from the mysterious Garamantian desert empire, thought to be a Berber civilization. Work is still being done on the remote desert sites where these objects were found. The exhibits on Libya's rich prehistoric heritage only hint at its splendor and importance. The vast desert covering most of the country below the Mediterranean coast contains some of the world's finest prehistoric rock art—represented here mainly by photographs and reproductions—along with shards of the indigenous pottery and the 5,400-year-old mummy of a 7-year-old girl found in the Acacus Mountains in 1958.

Libyan cultural and educational institutions usually have a Rip Van Winkle quality, with decades-old signage, little Web presence, and an insular orientation—and the museum is typical. Libyans are not big on maintenance, and many of the light bulbs were out when I visited. But Ms. Howasi is quick to note that most of the improvements she hopes for are cosmetic. In her opinion, the museum does not need a major cash infusion. She did not ask for foreign help. (That is much more necessary to conserve Libya's neglected archaeological treasures, as Saleh Alagab, head of the Department of Antiquities, has noted.) Ms. Howasi's attitude, which is common here, reflects the pride and self-confidence of a people who won their freedom with their own blood. And the fact that the museum's treasures were respected by the revolutionaries is an encouraging sign for Libya's future.

Ms. Marlowe, a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute, blogs at World Affairs.

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