Libya's historic treasures survive the revolution
By Caroline Hawley
BBC News, Tripoli
3 November 2011
Many of Libya's national treasures remain locked away for safekeeping
One day, in the not too distant future, visitors may flock to see the giant white marble statues of the Roman emperors, Claudius and Augustus, that grace Tripoli's National Museum.
Today the galleries that house them, and the ornate mosaics from the vast Roman site of Leptis Magna 120 km (75 miles) east of Tripoli, are completely deserted.
Outside the museum, at the edge of Martyr's Square, a stall sells revolutionary souvenirs - necklaces and wristbands in the black, red and green of the new Libya.
But the arched wooden door to the museum, now festooned with graffiti proclaiming Libya "free", is firmly shut.
"We don't feel it's safe enough yet to re-open," says Mustafa Turjman, head of research at the national department of archaeology, as he shows me around.
"We prefer to be patient rather than to open early and expose our precious things to any risk."
"We are not sure if our borders are safe and professional criminals could take advantage of this instability," he says.
The new authorities are now working with Unesco and Interpol to try to recover a collection of priceless coins, jewellery and small statues which was reported stolen in May from a bank vault in the eastern city.
The "treasure of Benghazi" spans Libya's Roman, Greek and Islamic past.
Libyan archaeologist Hafed Walda of King's College, London, says that a pneumatic drill appears to have been used to reach the artefacts through a concrete ceiling.
He believes it was an inside job.
"It's a huge loss for Libya and the world," he says.
But it appears to have been an isolated case in what Dr Walda calls the "rosy picture" of how almost all of Libya's rich heritage survived the conflict that led to the overthrow of Col Muammar Gaddafi.
With the fate of the museum in Baghdad after the US-led invasion in 2003 very much in mind, officials at the Tripoli museum took special precautions with its most precious items.
Coins, jewellery and small busts were hidden away behind concealed walls and in other secret places.
The larger statues could not be moved, yet they still escaped unscathed.
"We actually expected more damage but even during eight months of war, our archaeological sites were untouched," says Salah al-Hassi, chairman of Libya's antiquities department.
"People - young and old - even volunteered to protect them."
The only artefacts damaged in Libya's National Museum were symbols of the Gaddafi era, such as this 1960s VW Beetle, driven by the former leader
The only damage inside the museum itself was the result of revolutionary vandalism.
The windows of the turquoise Volkswagen Beetle which a young Muammar Gaddafi used to drive in the 1960s have been smashed.
The headlights of the military jeep he used in 1969 to drive from a military camp in Benghazi to proclaim his revolution have also been damaged.
Small shards of glass still lie on the floor.
The former regime forced museum staff to give the cars pride of place in the main hall.
"We didn't want to," says museum director Fathiya al-Hawassi.
"But when someone from the Revolutionary Committee rang me up, it was too dangerous to say no."
On the steps of the museum's administration block, housed in the offices of the last Italian governor of Tripoli, jagged glass juts from a giant gilded frame - empty now of its picture of the man who ruled Libya for 42 years.
Col Gaddafi's proclamation of the 1969 revolution is among the items defaced
Col Gaddafi had a whole gallery devoted to his professed achievements.
However, the verses of his much-ridiculed Green Book no longer hang from the walls, and on the ground floor black paint defaces the declaration of his 1969 revolution.
The man whom he toppled, King Idris - Libya's monarch between 1951 and 1969, merited no mention in the country's national museum.
Now, it is all traces of the once ubiquitous Muammar Gaddafi which are being expunged, as a new chapter is written in Libyan history.
Can the history of Col Gaddafi's rule be told when the museum opens its doors again?
Mustafa Turjman shakes his head.
"It's too soon," he says. "The wounds are still bleeding and we don't want to re-open them."
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