Leptis Magna, Libya. Photo Credit: Chapultepec Wikimedia Commons.

Libya’s desert – the northern fringe of what is today the Sahara — was once a green, grassy savanna, dotted with lakes and rivers. Prehistoric rock art, some more than 12,000 years old, depicts elephants, giraffes and crocodiles. Its Mediterranean coast has been occupied for at least 10,000 years.

Beginning about 700 BC, Libya’s coast was an integral part of the larger Mediterranean world. It was settled in turn by Phoenician traders, the Carthaginian empire and the ancient Greeks. By the fourth century BC the Greek city of Cyrene was one of the Greek world’s most prominent artistic and intellectual centers. With the fall of Carthage, Libya gradually became a Roman province. Major cities resembled those found in the rest of the empire, with theaters, baths and forums following traditional Roman layouts.

Today Libya boasts five cultural World Heritage Sites, from the 12,000-year-old rock art of JebelAcacus to the splendid Greek and Roman ruins of Sabratha, Cyrene, and Leptis Magna. Its 1100-mile coastline is littered with ships sunk in antiquity, as well as submerged stone settlements.


Under the Gadaffi regime, Libya’s rich connections to the Greek and Roman world were deliberately ignored. Roman ruins were neglected, their connection to the era of Italian colonialism an unwanted reminder of the past. Instead, Gadaffi emphasized Arab Bedouins as the “true” Libyans.

Libya’s status as an international pariah in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s meant tourism was dramatically underdeveloped, especially compared to next-door neighbor Egypt or even nearby Tunisia. That meant Libyan sites were spared the tourist pressures that have taken such a toll on sites elsewhere in the region, but also left Libya without a significant tourism industry. Thus far, Libyans have had little investment or interest in their own archaeological heritage.

The tourism situation started to change in 2003 with the lifting of international sanctions, but renewed trade and travel restrictions and finally the armed conflict of 2011 that brought down the Gadaffi regime effectively ended tourism and archaeological research in Libya for the time being. The conflict also opened the door for looters to rob museums, including the theftin Benghazi of thousands of ancient coins and Roman-era amphorae.

Experts fear that peace could be more dangerous for Libya’s archaeological sites than war.

Artifacts returned to Libya 2011. Photo Credit: Xinhua/HamzaTurkia

As the country’s situation stabilizes, oil and gas exploration, badly-needed infrastructure projects and other construction threaten as-yet unknown sites. Already, Roman ruins are being pillaged for building stones. Libya remains virtually unexplored by archaeologists; its southern expanses in particular are uncharted.

Libya’s human capacity is also underdeveloped. Most of the archaeological work one in the country has been by foreign missions, most of which have shut down since conflict began in February 2011. Libyan archaeologists, heritage officials, and museum curators could all benefit from training and increased involvement with the international community after decades of isolation.

The silver lining amid the chaos is that Libya has the chance to start fresh and apply legal and political lessons learned elsewhere to its fledgling heritage sector. “Libya’s inchoate government is an opportunity as well as a challenge to reform,” Brookings Institution analyst William Brown wrote recently. “Libya’s roots and economic future are in its culture and the natural world, and it should embrace that heritage now to prosper.”


Since MoammarGadaffi seized power in a 1969 coup, the country was ruled according to his eccentric, isolationist ideology, one that left no room for civil society. His rapid fall in 2011 left Libya in turmoil, its future still uncertain.

Libya at this time of transition is one of the most corrupt countries on Earth, ranked 160th out of 174 by Transparency International. The security situation in Libya remains chaotic and difficult as well. Large numbers of weapons remain in the hands of independent militias, a huge barrier to archaeologists hoping to survey, excavate or secure sites in Libya. As Libyans work to approve a permanent constitution, there is still little formal language governing the country’s heritage sites. The Gadaffi-era Department of Antiquities may continue in a different form.


The Libyan economy relies on gas and oil, which account for 95 percent of export earnings and 80 percent of GDP. The Gadaffi government used its oil revenues to buy arms and sponsor terrorist groups around the world, rather than on infrastructure oron fostering more sustainable industries. That has left much of Libya’s population mired in poverty despite significant oil reserves.

Libya’s economy has faced a roller coaster of politically-related crises over the past 10 years. The country’s tourism sector has been hard hit too: From a 2005 high of $301 million, international sanctions whittled the Libyan tourism sector down 65% by 2007. A tentative recovery was crushed once again by the bloody internal conflict of Libya’s Arab Spring uprising and the subsequent NATO air strikes in February 2011. Libya has essentially been closed to tourists for the past two years. If the security situation can be stabilized, there’s a lot of potential for heritage tourism connected to Libya’s many well-preserved Roman sites.


Libya is a signatory to the 1970 UNESCO Convention. Under the Gadaffi government, the country’s archaeological sites and museums were run by the Libyan Department of Antiquities out of seven regional offices. Security was provided by a special tourism police force. In August 2011, the interim prime minister dissolved the tourism police apparatus and devolved its assets to the Ministry of Interior under the terms of a transitional constitution. However, this decree was overturned months later by the same transitional government. The legal structure and status of Libyan antiquities will remain unclear until a permanent constitution is drafted and approved by a referendum, likely in early 2014.