Roman sites in Libya survived the war mostly unscathed, initial reports show

Roman sites in Libya, Roman, Lepcis Magna
The recent fighting in Libya that toppled Gaddafi destroyed many lives and laid waste to many neighborhoods. Now that the country is beginning to rebuild, Libyans are taking stock of other effects of the war.

Libya’s beautiful Roman remains, it appears, got off easy. Earlier this week, the Guardian reported that the Roman cities of Lepcis Magna and Sabratha both survived the war without any significant damage. This news came from Dr. Hafed Walda, a Libyan scholar working at King’s College, London. Dr. Walda has excavated and studied Lepcis Magna for more than 15 years.

On the other hand, the new government displayed a cache of Roman artifacts that it says were going to be sold on the international antiquities market to finance Gaddafi’s fight to stay in power. They were found on the day Tripoli fell to the rebels in the trunk of a car driven by Gaddafi loyalists as they tried to escape. No word on what happened to the pro-Gaddafi fighters. One can imagine.

This brings up the question of how many more artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites, and if any made it abroad into the hands of unscrupulous collectors. Iraq and Afghanistan lost a huge amount of their heritage this way. Much of it disappeared after the main fighting, when armed bands looted what they could before a new regime was installed.

%Gallery-140657%Thousands of coins dating to the Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic periods have gone missing from a collection in Benghazi, the new Libyan government reports.

These are, of course, only initial reports in a country still subject to much chaos and uncertainty. Time will tell how much of Libya’s rich archaeological heritage has survived to attract the next generation of tourists.

I want to be one of the first of that new generation. Libya has always been high on my list of places to see and my wife and I were in the beginning stages of planning a trip there when all hell broke loose. Instead I spent two months out of harm’s way in Harar, Ethiopia.

For anyone interested in history and archaeology, Libya is a great place to go. The nation has five UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The two most popular are the Roman cities of Lepcis Magna and Sabratha. Both are on the coast and were founded by the Phoenicians. Libya was an important province in the Roman Empire and these two sites reflect that with their theaters, broad avenues, and large temples. Lepcis Magna was especially grand because it was the birthplace of the Emperor Septimius Severus (reigned 193-211).

Other UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Libya include the Greek colony of Cyrene, the prehistoric rock art of Tadrart Acacus, and the traditional architecture in the oasis town of Ghadamès.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Ivory Coast national museum ransacked

Ivory CoastDuring the civil war earlier in the year, the national museum in Abidjan, capital of the Ivory Coast, was nearly stripped bare by looters, Art Daily reports.

An estimated $8.5 million worth of art and artifacts were taken while the city suffered bitter warfare between political factions. Some of the most severe fighting swirled around the museum itself, which was used as a sniper’s nest.

Once famous among African museums for its fine collection of art, it is now a pale semblance of its former self, with all the most valuable artifacts gone. The Ivory Coast is home to a rich variety of cultures and a long history of ancient civilizations. A wide variety of arts are practiced there, including making masks like the one shown in this photo courtesy Guérin Nicolas. Luckily, this particular mask is in the Museum Rietberg in Zurich where it remains safe.

Civil unrest and cultural looting go hand in hand. In places like Iraq and Afghanistan, criminals have taken advantage of the chaos and lack of law enforcement to steal their own heritage and sell it on the international antiquities market. By doing so, they take away evidence of their common history, thus making it easier for factions to emphasize their differences and renew the cycle of violence.

Heritage sites in Cambodia and Tanzania get preservation grants

Tanzania
Two UNESCO World Heritage sites have received major funding to save them from decay, Art Daily reports.

The sites are Phnom Bakheng in Cambodia and Kilwa Kisiwani in Tanzania. Phnom Bakheng temple is part of the famous Angkor Archaeological Park, which includes Angkor Wat temple complex. Phnom Bakheng was built in the late ninth to early tenth centuries AD.

Kilwa Kisiwani in Tanzania, shown here in this Wikimedia Commons image, is less known but historically important. This trading center was founded at the same time that Phnom Bakheng was being built. The site includes a fort, a grand mosque, palaces, and lots of other buildings. This entrepôt brought together Africans, Arabs, and Europeans and created a blend of cultures that can be seen in its crumbling architecture.

Both sites are feeling the weight of time and are in desperate need of preservation. Phnom Bakheng is in special danger because of the large number of visitors it gets. The World Monuments Fund has received grants for both from U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation to the tune of $450,000 for Phnom Bakheng and $700,000 for Kilwa Kisiwani. The World Monuments Fund is earmarking an additional $150,000 for Phnom Bakheng.

While a world-famous place like Angkor Archaeological Park getting funding isn’t a huge surprise, the fact that a lesser-known but equally important site such as Kilwa Kisiwani is getting preserved is good news. The majority of visitors I’ve met in Africa went there for the wildlife and culture, both of which are fascinating, yet are generally unaware of Africa’s rich and complex history. The lions are lovely and the gazelle are great, but you also need to see the pyramids of Sudan and the cave paintings of Somaliland.

Ancient palace discovered in Sudan

Sudan
Archaeologists digging in the ancient city of Meroë in the Sudan have discovered what they believe is a palace dating to 900 BC.

The team discovered the building under the remains of a later palace. It’s believed to be the oldest building yet discovered at the site, which was once the capital of the Kingdom of Kush. Kush had several great cities and exported iron all the way to China. From 747-656 BC, the Kushites ruled Egypt as the twenty-fifth dynasty. The empire lasted from about 1000 BC to 350 AD before being conquered by the Empire of Axum in Ethiopia.

Meroë is one of the greatest archaeological sites in Africa. It has more than 200 pyramids, although they’re smaller than the largest Egyptian pyramids.

For a long time Meroë and Kush were understudied in favor of the more famous Egyptian civilization. Now scholars are beginning to realize that this Sudanese civilization contributed a lot to Egyptian culture.

Meroë is two-and-a-half hours north of Khartoum and it’s feasable to do in a long day trip. If you’re not going to the Sudan, the British Museum in London has a whole room dedicated to this civilization and its art.

Image courtesy Sven-steffenarndt via Wikimedia Commons

Lucy, the First Human, Is on Tour

Lucy, the first known human, is on tour. Her bones made a debut on Friday at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in an exhibit called “Lucy’s Legacy: The Treasures of Ethiopia.” The exhibit, slated to appear in 9 other venues in the United States over the next few years, is not just about Lucy, but about the wealth of human existence that has come from Ethiopia. It reminds me a bit of the Africa exhibit at the Smithsonian National Musuem of Natural History that I saw this summer, on a quick road trip, except focused on one area of Africa.

For inanimate objects, these Lucy’s bones have been making a stir ever since they were discovered back in 1974. Think science vs religion–not all religions, just those who struggle with the idea of when human beings first came into existence and how it happened in the first place. Some scientists are also not pleased as punch about this exhibit. Richard Leaky, for one, is pitching a fit. He doesn’t think that bones as important as these should ever be out in the general public. Heaven knows what will happen. Besides, that, in his opinion, this exhibit is exploiting Lucy. She was once a walking on the earth human being for Pete’s sake and worth more dignity than being on display in a glass case. (my wording)

Then there are those who believe that the exhibit will step up the interest in scientific discovery, the true origins of humans and encourage school age kids and the not scientist adult population to learn factual information about science and human history. With the Creation Museum opening this year in Northern Kentucky, maybe Lucy will help balance out what the public has access to.

The Ethiopian government is quite keen on promoting interest in Ethiopia with this exhibit and was willing to let the bones travel out of the country. The exhibit caught my attention. If Lucy comes anywhere near my neighborhood, I’m in. The 3-D history, art and science lesson from actual artifacts and explanatory text always interests me, and I’ll look at Lucy’s bones with the utmost respect and awe.

For more details about Lucy’s significance and the fuss that her tour has created, check out this Chicago Tribune article by William Mullen. There are more details about the conflicts over the exhibit that call into play the various perceptions and needs people have as we struggle to be open and share.