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Libya's other wealth: Archaeological treasures

By Libby Lewis, CNN
  • Libya's ancient sites may be threatened by the fighting over the past few months
  • Experts say the time right after the conflict could be just as vulnerable
  • One archaeologist has tried to talk to the rebels one-on-one to raise awareness
  • Archaeology
  • Libya
  • History

(CNN) -- Before Moammar Gadhafi, there were the Phoenicians. And the Greeks. The Romans. The first Arabs. They're a reminder that no civilization -- and no leader -- is forever.

The Libyan transitional leaders have a lot to deal with once they stop being rebels, and begin shaping a new Libya: Keeping law and order, setting up a rudimentary government, dealing with money -- and oil.

But what about Libya's other wealth? Its archaeological treasures?

They are all over the country.

In the south, in Acacus, rock paintings 12,000 years old cross an entire mountain range.

In the east, the city of Cyrene holds a thousand years of history -- Roman general Mark Antony once gave it to Cleopatra.

And along the coast, the splendid ruins of Leptis Magna that were buried for centuries under the sand was said to be one of the most beautiful cities of the Roman Empire.

What will happen to these sites in the days ahead? If you look at history, their fate does not bode well.

"We're very worried," said Francesco Bandarin of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO.

Treasure already stolen

UNESCO is like the world's watchdog for protecting historical cultural sites and property.

You might think the worst time for preserving cultural sites are when the shooting and the bombing are under way. Not so, Bandarin said, from his office in Paris.

"The conflict moment is one thing," Bandarin said. "But the post-conflict moment is more risky. There isn't an administration, you have lots of weapons all over -- and then you have the take. This is what happened in Egypt, in Iraq, in Afghanistan -- that's exactly what happens."

It's already happened in Libya. Bandarin said someone stole the most important treasure of gold and silver from the time of Alexander the Great from Benghazi -- after the city was liberated from Gadhafi.

"It's called the treasure of Benghazi ... It was in a bank in Benghazi," he said. "Can you believe that this treasure has disappeared?"

Gadhafi's forces and the opposition fought around the Roman ruins at Leptis Magna and at the ancient theater and temples at Sabratha. It's not yet clear how much damage there is.

"We can't wait to get in there and find out," Bandarin said.

Connecting the past to the future

For now, UNESCO has only its moral authority to lean on to secure the cultural heritage sites, which include five that are listed on UNESCO's World Heritage List.

One archaeologist has been on a quiet campaign to convince Libya's new leaders to make this a priority.

Hafed Walda was born in Libya and he's based in London. A Libyan friend convinced a rebel Army officer to call Walda to talk about Libya's cultural sites -- and the need to protect them.

The officer has a high school education -- and military training in Gadhafi's Army. He didn't study the Phoenicians or the Greeks in school.

"He knows the Romans, and that's it," Walda said from his office in London.

Walda said his first talk with the officer, back in March, was about the need for the rebels to protect the sites -- for future generations of Libyans. He said the officer was polite -- but blunt.

"He came out clean. He said, 'People are more important. And I cannot really tell my officers to put too much work on this, when they're worried about their families and their areas and their children.'"

But the officer agreed to talk to the archaeologist again. They kept talking - night after night.

They've spoken maybe 20 or 30 times over Skype.

The archaeologist told the officer bits of history -- but he tried not to lecture.

"I started talking about the old city in Tripoli, because he can relate to that. It's been there since the Phoenicians. So I said, you have this treasure, and you're not aware of what you have! You have the modern Libya, the Turkish Libya, and the Islamic Libya.

"So I hit on the Islamic period, because he's quite a religious man. It helps that I know the place -- so I talked about some of the Islamic places and he felt part of it. Then I talked about how they were built on top of the other things -- the Byzantines, the Romans and the Phoenicians.

"I said, 'OK, how would you feel if they bombed the Mosque of the Camel [Tripoli's oldest mosque]'?"

And Walda told the officer that that mosque was built with old Roman columns, from Roman times. He wanted the officer to know how connected everything is.

"And that's when it began to click for him, because this is what he knows."

Walda says now, the officer is a convert to protecting Libya's archaeological sites and property. But he is only one Army officer.

Walda doesn't know if it will make any difference in the coming days. But he said he had to try.

UNESCO is poised to send in a team to examine the damage to the sites as soon as it's safe to do so, and they're planning a large international meeting in October to explore the future of Libya's archaeological sites.

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