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Libya: Ruination of the ruins

By Iason AthanasiadisCorrespondent / June 23, 2009

The ruins at Leptis Magna are regularly looted.

Iason Athanasiadis

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A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

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AL KHUMS, LIBYA – Libya has some of the world’s most extraordinary Roman antiquities, yet negligence and understaffed antiquities boards have resulted in ancient cities choked with rubbish and plagued by looting.

“The museums are in wretched shape,” said Donald White, an archaeologist who has excavated in Libya’s Cyrenaica region since the 1960s. “The sites need lots of remedial work to get them up and running.”

When Mr. White last visited a site, he came across a local man smoking a cigarette with one hand and hacking a marble head off with the other. Bystanders were unruffled by White’s outrage. They informed him that the man was a regular who maintained parallel amateur excavations on several holes around the site.

“All the statues we had excavated from the sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone were on the field unguarded, being looted regularly, or in poorly secured storerooms,” another archaeologist added.

Deep in the Sahara, the prehistoric rock carvings of Wadi Metkhandoush are under threat by the vibrations pulsing out from nearby oil drilling. That is when entrepreneurial locals are not removing them haphazardly to sell them to tourists.

Stolen treasures are spirited across the Egyptian border to Cairo or across the Mediterranean in small boats used to ferry Africans illegally to Italy.

Once in Europe, they find their way to the secretive chain of luxury dealers and high-end auction houses stretching from Basel to London and New York. Dealers forge source documents and sell them to museums and private collectors.

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