Written by: Lillia McEnaney

Libya is a “hotspot for research into the human past.” The country is home to the Sahara Desert, a vast and unforgiving landscape that holds some of the oldest rock art sites and archaeological ruins in the world. The country holds a diverse array of archaeological sites, spanning from Greek and Roman architecture to Neolithic rock art. Due to the political turmoil that has plagued the country, archaeological “fieldwork is “at a standstill“. Even today, years after the Libyan Revolution, the violence has not subsided. This spans violations of basic human rights, the lack of freedom of expression and press, and the destruction of cultural heritage and infrastructure, among countless others.

After Gaddafi took control of Libya in 1969, systematic archaeological excavation came to a standstill, as Libyan cultural heritage was seen as a threat to the regime. Many Libyans, after seeing the events in Egyptian museums, took steps to protect heritage after their own Libyan Revolution.

Theater of Leptis Magna (2nd century BC), the well preserved ancient city along the Mediterranean Sea, located 120 km Est of Tripoli, Libya. Image and caption via Wikimedia Commons

Theater of Leptis Magna (2nd century BC), the well preserved ancient city along the Mediterranean Sea, located 120 km Est of Tripoli, Libya. Image and caption via Wikimedia Commons

Libya is home to countless archaeological sites of value to the people of Libya and the world, including Greek and Roman archaeological sites, mosques, cemeteries, churches, museums, and libraries. Five of these sites have been listed as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO, all considered endangered due to armed conflict and looting. Three of the five UNESCO World Heritage Sites are the Greek and Roman sites of Cyrene, Leptis Magna, and Sabratha. A colony of the Greek of Thera, Cyrene “was one of the principal cities in the Hellenic world.” Its history spans thousands of years, from the Greeks to the Romans, and was a capital of the Roman Empire until 365. Similarly to Cyrene, Leptis Magna was a prominent city in the Roman Empire. It held grand public monuments, a harbor, storehouses, a marketplace, shops, and a large residential district. Lastly, the Phoenician city of Sabratha facilitated trade between the Numidian Kingdom of Massinissa in Africa before invasion by the Roman Empire. After being Romanized, it was rebuilt in the second and third centuries A.D.

The Temple of Zeus at Cyrene, Libya. Image via Wikimedia Commons

The Temple of Zeus at Cyrene, Libya. Image via Wikimedia Commons

In addition to these sites, the Old Town of Ghadames and the Rock Art Sites of Tadrart Acacus are also protected by UNESCO. The Old Town of Ghadamès, or “the pearl of the desert,” is one of the oldest cities in the region, and has a distinctive regional domestic architectural style. Each floor in a home has distinct function; “the ground floor is used to store supplies; then another floor for the family, overhanging covered alleys that create what is almost an underground network of passageways; and, at the top, open-air terraces reserved for the women.” Lastly, the Rock Art Sites of Tadrart Acacus hold cave paintings that were created between 12,000 B.C. to A.D. 100. The cave paintings are depicted in varying styles, and demonstrate significant environmental and cultural changes. Unfortunately, many of the Rock Art Sites of Tadrart Acacus were vandalized in 2009, and many other instances of graffiti have been reported since. Currently, it is impossible to visit the site as there are no commercial flights or working roads that lead to the region.

In July 2016, UNESCO placed these five sites on the List of World Heritage in Danger because of “damage caused by the conflict […] and the threat of further damage it poses.” The List of World Heritage in Danger is “designed to inform the international community of conditions which threaten the very characteristics for which properties were inscribed on the World Heritage List and rally the support of the international community for their protection.”

Libyan archaeological sites are susceptible to both human and environmental threats. Libya is specifically vulnerable to natural threats due to the environmental condition of the country’s landscape. Conditions such as extremely temperature fluctuations and erosion caused by wind can significantly damage archaeological sites and ruins. Additionally, rock art sites, such as Tadrart Acacus, have suffered significant damage not only because of the environment and political unrest, but because of irresponsible tourists and locals. There are modern graffiti over the original paintings, as well as evidence of urination on images, water damage, and cut-out sections. Archaeological sites such as this and other historical towns are also threatened by infrastructure development, agriculture, and exploitation of natural resources.

Bas-Relief (on bottom of stage), theater in Sabratha city 2nd century A.D. Libya. Image and caption via Wikimedia Commons

Bas-Relief (on bottom of stage), theater in Sabratha city 2nd century A.D. Libya. Image and caption via Wikimedia Commons

In addition to the threats that commercialization and natural causes perpetuate, the trafficking of Libyan cultural and archaeological materials is problematic. The trafficking and deliberate destruction of Libyan cultural heritage follows similar patterns as in Syria and Iraq, though it receives far less attention. In 2011, 7,700 coins were stolen from a vault in Benghazi; this has been called one of the “greatest thefts in archaeological history.” In 2012, Islamist militants destroyed and looted countless graves and Sufi shrines throughout the country. In 2014, “gunmen in Tripoli stripped the 18th-century Karamanli Mosque of its intricate ceramic tiles and marble decorations, while Sabha castle was blasted by rockets.” ISIS affiliate organizations continue to destroy and loot archaeological sites throughout the country, organizing plundering operations that feed the international market of illicit antiquities, fund terrorist activities, and rob the Libyan people of their past. Libyan museums are also victims of the same pattern of looting. The Bengahzi Museum, the Museum of Libya, the Misurata Museum, the Apolloina Museum, and the Tolmeitha Museum were all heavily looted before the start of 2012.


Currently, Libyan cultural heritage is protected by Law No. 3 of 1424 P. B. (1994) for the Protection of Antiquities, Museums, Old Cities, and Historical Buildings, and by Regulatory Decree No. 152 for the Protection of Antiquities, Museums, Old Cities, and Historical Buildings. The multilateral agreement, the Organization of African Unity’s Cultural Charter for Africa of 1976, aids the Libyan government in the protection of archaeological resources. Lastly, international legislation such as The Hague Convention of 1954, the UNESCO Convection of 1970, the UNESCO Convection of 1972, and the UNESCO Convection of 2001 also legally protect the region. Day-to-day, the Libyan Department of Antiquity is responsible for all cultural and archaeological sites in the country. This Department is in need of reorganization and staffing.

Recent Efforts

In May 2016, the Libyan Department of Antiquities, the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), and UNESCO hosted a three-day workshop, The International Experts Meeting on Safeguarding Libyan Cultural Heritage. The goal of the workshop was to “identify practical actions to engage civil society, customs and security services in protecting Libya’s numerous cultural heritage sites and in combating illicit trafficking through projects designed to safeguard the country’s shared cultural assets.” Attendees of the workshop drafted an action plan that addressed the protection of archaeological sites, museum collections and archives, historic cities, and intangible heritage. Specifically, they hoped to modernize data management technological standards, to author enhanced legal provisions, to further enforce existing legislation, and to develop modernized security methods for collections, archives, buildings and sites. Additionally, they hoped to implement digital archaeological outreach programs to the public, schools, and non-Libyan media.

ICOM recently published an Emergency Red List of Libyan Cultural Objects At Risk. The list includes sculptures and reliefs that were produced between the 5th century BC to AD 642. Rock art, reliefs, plaques, steles and inlays, as well as bone and ivory, limestone and marble and ceramic and metal materials are at a significant risk. Architectural elements such as wall paintings and stone elements are also highlighted. Lastly, vessels and containers, accessories and instruments, and coins are also included on the list.

Today, it is clear that many Libyans care deeply for their cultural heritage. Libyans have come together to protect and safeguard sites that were threatened by looting and destruction. In other parts of the country, local communities work to conserve some of the heritage that has damaged by the recent wave of destruction.

UNESCO General Director Irina Bokva has spoken out: “these attacks cannot be seen as isolated or collateral damages. They take place in a global context of repeated and deliberate attacks against cultural heritage, in Libya and elsewhere, threatening social cohesion and fueling violence and division within society.” Martin Kobler, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) echoes Bovka’s statement and said: “[t]he role of culture as a soft power is central to peace building and development. It is critical to achieving social cohesion.” He added, “[c]ivil society’s role in the planning and implementation of this action plan will be vital to its success. It is also crucial to engage youth in efforts to advance cultural heritage preservation of Libya’s immensely rich cultural heritage.”

Additionally, archaeologist Di Lerina has noted that even though archaeological excavations in Libya might be impossible for generations, it is important to continue to study Libyan collections in museums, collections, and laboratories. Specifically, he notes that museum collections with Libyan artifacts should be digitized for the public and scholars, so more people can learn about the country’s heritage. Lastly, an internet archive of rock-art sites should be built, which would reinvigorate Libyan archaeologists, who feel “isolated” in the current political climate. Di Lerina underscores the “need to support Libyan archaeologists and scientists,” and argues that archaeologists in other parts in the world must demand funding for Libyan research. It is clear that the “slow but steady disappearance of Libya’s cultural witnesses of the past has rendered evident the need for immediate action that will help protect them.”

Rock paintings in Tadrart Acacus region of Libya dated from 12,000 BC to 100 AD. There are paintings and carvings of animals such as giraffes and elephants reflecting the dramatic climatic changes in the area. Image and caption via Wikimedia Commons

Rock paintings in Tadrart Acacus region of Libya dated from 12,000 BC to 100 AD. Image and caption via Wikimedia Commons

The revolution gave many Libyans hope that cultural heritage could serve as “a gateway to a shared national identity, a major revenue source and a focus for forging relationships with the rest of the world. Those hopes have been dashed.” Today, it is clear that in going to “work among the black smoke of grenades, the men and women of the Libyan Department of Antiquities are doing their best.” To learn more about antiquities trafficking in Libya, read our blog, and to get further involved, consider working with or donating to SAFE.