16 Mar 2015

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.

South gate to the gymmasium
As we wandered around the Gymnasium and the Agora I marvelled at his familiarity – he knew where everything was. And where it wasn’t.

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.

The Agora
The statue to Nike, goddess of victory, was missing a small head with flowing hair on one side – I could see the cut leaving a ledge on the right hand side and the matching head on the left.

“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.”

Abdel Salam Shallouf, professor of ancient history, showing Lindsey how looters have removed a stone head from the side of a statue of nike, Goddess of Victory
There are no guards to stop looters. We came early in the morning before the site opened and slipped in through a hole in the fence.

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.

Feet of stone

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.

Temple of Apollo

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.

Temple of Apollo/ Lion of Cyrene
Abdel Salam gestured over the extensive ruins and talked about the 7th century, when the original Muslims came from Mecca and Medina to conquer Egypt and Libya.

“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.”

Interview next to the Roman baths

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.”

Temple of Zeus

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.

Abdel Salam Shallouf, professor of ancient history, overlooking the amphitheatre of Belghadir

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 

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