The postponement of Libya’s presidential election in December last year shattered archaeologists’ hopes of an “urgent change of pace” in sustaining the country’s deteriorating heritage.
But a major exhibition that is currently on display across the North African country aims to set the stage for an “explosion” of archaeological activity once political stability finally returns. One of the objectives is to highlight the Italian-Libyan archaeological partnerships for more than a century.
Funded by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and organized by the MedA archeology foundation, Italy-Libya: a shared archeology opened at the Red Castle Museum in Tripoli (in the Tripolitania region) in September and will move to an Ottoman-era building in Benghazi, Cyrenaica on March 1. A new exhibition is planned in a still undefined location in Fezzan, the third main province of Libya.
Curators have not included any real artifacts due to security concerns and the fact that many have been stored for their safety. Instead, exhibits showing texts, photos, posters, maps and diagrams offer a comprehensive overview of Italian archaeological activity in Libya, starting with the first excavations by Italian archaeologist Federico Halbherr in 1910. , and the intensification of Mussolini’s excavation work from the 1920s.
The show coincides with wider attempts by Italy and Libya to rekindle historic ties. Italy ruled Libya from 1911 to 1943 and the two countries enjoy strong economic ties, with Libya providing 8% of Italy’s natural gas supply in 2019.
Today, as the bloodshed that surrounded Gaddafi’s fall in 2011 fades, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi has positioned Italy as a key player in the eventual reconstruction of Libya, Italy to play a leading role in essential infrastructure projects, including the reconstruction of Tripoli airport.
Archeology will also help fuel Libya’s economic recovery, said Luisa Musso, MedA President and Roma Tre University Mission Director in Libya. The arts journal. Libya’s rich archaeological heritage, which includes five UNESCO-protected sites including the Greek site of Cyrene and the Roman ruins of Leptis Magna, had attracted growing numbers of visitors before civil war broke out in 2011. Tourism in the country has increased by more than 20% since 2004 to 2007, according to UN figures.
Gone are the days of skydiving for a restoration project and saying “goodbye”
Luisa Musso, President, MedA
However, the violence and lawlessness that followed put Libyan heritage at risk, leading to a sharp increase in looting and a slowdown in restoration work. Despite the upheaval, Italian archaeologists continue to work in Libya, with 14 missions supported by the Italian Foreign Ministry currently underway in the country. But there is now a large backlog of restoration work, and the task of reorganizing archaeological catalogs is “colossal,” says Musso.
The exhibition highlights the important role of Libyan archaeologists in joint missions alongside their Italian colleagues. Developing stronger partnerships will help create more enduring archaeological traditions in the country, Musso said, adding that greater international cooperation between country-specific missions is also needed. Public and private investment for short-term archaeological projects should be redirected to longer-term projects for planned intervention, she adds.
In February, Stephanie Williams, the UN’s special adviser on Libya, said elections in the country should take place “as soon as possible”, according to reports.. But Musso suggests that “as soon as the country opens up, there will be an explosion of [archaeological] job”.
MedA is currently seeking financial support for a Libyan restoration school where Italian experts would train natives. “Gone are the days of you parachuting into a restoration project and saying ‘bye bye’,” says Musso. “Today, restoration also means education.”