On the front line of Islamic State’s war on history
Abdel Salam Shallouf was a little boy when he first visited the Greco-Roman site of Cyrene. It inspired him to devote his life to his country’s ancient history, and study to become a professor.
Aged 75 and ailing, wearing a traditional long robe and battered dark red fez, on Sunday he welcomed the idea of showing round a group of foreigners – he doesn’t get many opportunities these days.
Like many Libyans, he’s been forced by war out of his home and into temporary accommodation. Fighting between militia factions has also deterred tourists from visiting the ruins.
The face of King Battus, the founder of Cyrene in 636 BC, was missing, hacked off to reveal a rough, light, sandy-coloured stone surface.
“Some people need money, especially the young people, so they scavenge without permission,” said Abdel Salam, “They sell to gangs all over the world trading in antiquities.”
Cyrene is stunning. As you climb above the massive columns of the temple to Apollo and the Roman amphitheatre, you look out over green farmland towards the bright blue of the Mediterranean.
For a moment you feel you might be in Italy – but you’re not, you’re in Libya, home to some of the world’s most spectacular heritage sites and most violent, anarchic, thoughtless militiamen, as well as Islamists loyal to Islamic State militants.
Cyrene is in danger, and the attacks on Assyrian sites near Mosul in Iraq have heightened the fears of archaeologists and historians.
Graffiti, sprayed last year, reads: “Destroy the idols”. Islamists, including Islamic State militants and Salafists following the strict form of Islam found in Saudi Arabia, see pre-Islamic structures as sacrilege.
They have already destroyed shrines sacred to Sufis and other Muslims. Islamic State militants controls Derna, a town 50 miles east of Cyrene.
“The Muslims didn’t destroy the pyramids in Egypt,” he pointed out. “They came to Cyrene and Leptis Magna but they didn’t destroy them. They didn’t touch one stone.”
Libya’s archaeologists convened a meeting yesterday to discuss how to guard the sites.
“What happened in Iraq is an alarm for us to take all the measures to protect our heritage before same thing happens here,” said Salah Agab, a former chairman of the Department of Antiquities at Cyrene. “Now Libya is wide open. We have no strong museums or archaeological police.”
Libya has no central government so no law and order, but one big problem, they agreed, was that not enough Libyans understand the value of their own heritage.
Local people can’t be expected to guard against Islamic State militants, but they could stop stealing artefacts and building houses in the ancient Greek necropolis.
As we left, I watched a small boy in a red sweater climb on the stone lion at the foot of the temple of Apollo. Maybe he’s an Abdel Salam in the making, I thought, maybe he’ll be so enchanted by this glorious place that he wants to devote his life to preserving it.
But first Cyrene has to survive the anarchy of Libya today.
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Pictures by Adam Dobby and Osama Alfitori