Published on 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.

Follow @lindseyhilsum on Twitter

Pictures by Adam Dobby and Osama Alfitori 

Article topics

, , ,

Tweets by @lindseyhilsum

7 reader comments

  1. Waseem says:

    Libyans will defend their heritage to the last man. However, we should admit that ISIS is made up and well trained to do so. The goal is to destroy Muslims’ history buy creating ISIS then claim to fight them and support them and support who is fighting them. By doing this, you’d have Muslims fighting killing each other and tell the world that Muslims are the source of terrorism whereas the source of terrorism is so obvious and we can relate here to what happened in Afghanistan and Iraq.

  2. Alan says:

    Yet another casualty of ‘humanitarian’ regime change. Thanks to the majority of British MP’s who backed the destruction of Libya in 2011.

  3. lggmj says:

    This is a very touching story with a greater dilemma beneath it. Are we doing enough for states in turmoil such as Libya? We were very happy to fly in and protect freedom during the revolution but how strong is our presence there now? Are there no western countries or organizations that can help. IS militants appear to be alarmingly close, these ruins belong and are significant not only to the people of Libya but to all people of the world, these ruins are what is left of great civilisations on which our modern society was built and founded, without which our lifestyles and cultures would be extremely different. Why are there no soldiers in the area anyway? ISIS are nearby, we need to stop dithering and get boots on the ground before it is too late, Islamic State already appears to be spiralling out of control and action needs to be taken as we all know they pose a massive threat to the whole world, far greater than that of Ghaddaffi whom we were all too happy to fight. This story is one of thousands regarding the potential damage of Islamic State. The fact that earlier Muslim invaders did not demolish these stones clearly shows that ISIS are not Muslims but extremists of the most immoral and dangerous nature.

  4. Angus Mair says:

    I visited Cyrene and Appolonia in about 1975, when I was 10. The memories stay with me – it was a fantastic site then, easily rivalling Rome for wonderful ancient architecture, and a sight less busy! I would dearly love to go back someday.

    I can only hope that IS leave it in peace. It’s astonishing that anyone could have such potential disregard for human history.

    Libya are surely aware of the significance of such sites, and realise that they are currently only custodians in the timeline. I hope all efforts are made to protect them for our descendants after the current flash-in-the-pan attention seekers have gone.

  5. Ian says:

    The Daesh will raze Cyrene when they can free up some of their dolts to do so. They have taken a leaf from the Talibans book wrote in March 2001. This vandalism is not being carried out to cleanse the land of idolatry artefacts. It is being done to bate and enrage foreign governments and peoples, nothing more.
    Their given reason for such destruction is a lie which makes them all the more unsavoury to my thinking at least.

  6. Aidan says:

    I visited Cyrene and Leptis Magna back in late 2003 and was amazed by Libya’s precious sites, and felt the country had a bright future ahead as it opened up to travellers, the people were so welcoming and seemed to be very proud of their heritage. How differently things have turned out , and what a disaster it was to repeat the failures of Bush and Blair by toppling a dictator in the naive belief that nothing could be worse, when clearly it can be, and is.

    Is there any hope that any third party countries could offer to safeguard Libyan cultural treasures during this troubled time, but safeguarding specific items/sculptures from museum collections and sites that are under the most imminent threat, storing them out of harm’s way so they may be returned when some stability is restored? A difficult idea to sell perhaps (a cynic may say they would then never be returned) but in desperate times, desperate measures are worth contemplating……

  7. Aidan says:

    I visited Cyrene and Leptis Magna back in late 2003 and was amazed by Libya’s precious sites, and felt the country had a bright future ahead as it opened up to travellers, the people were so welcoming and seemed to be very proud of their heritage. How differently things have turned out , and what a disaster it was to repeat the failures of Bush and Blair by toppling a dictator in the naive belief that nothing could be worse, when clearly it can be, and is.

    Is there any hope that any third party countries could offer to safeguard Libyan cultural treasures during this troubled time, by safeguarding specific items/sculptures from museum collections and sites that are under the most imminent threat, storing them out of harm’s way so they may be returned when some stability is restored? A difficult idea to sell perhaps (a cynic may say they would then never be returned) but in desperate times, desperate measures are worth contemplating……

Comments are closed.