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Libyans battle to protect ancient treasures from looting

By Nic Robertson, CNN
updated 11:19 AM EDT, Thu October 13, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • In Libyan city of Khoms, guards protected priceless Roman treasures during revolution
  • Tribute to Roman emperor responsible for town stands astride great roadways
  • But a day's drive to east in Benghazi, museum's most valuable exhibits were stolen
  • UNESCO fears items taken from Libya will not be returned, as happened in Iraq in 2003

Benghazi, Libya (CNN) -- Walking along the tree-lined gravel track towards one of the Roman Empire's greatest architectural legacies, little can prepare you for what you are about to experience.

As you emerge from the shade of the tall poplars the towering stone edifice that guards Leptis Magna's approaches appears. It is simultaneously stunning and evocative. Like a blow to the sternum, it quickens the heart.

Septimus Severus's gate, a tribute to the Roman emperor responsible for much of what remains today, stands astride great Roman roadways.

Severus, like the country's most recent modern day ruler Moammar Gadhafi, spent lavishly on his hometown transforming it reputedly into the third greatest city in Africa, rivaling Carthage and Alexandria.

Here that empire feels real. The roads east and west marched alongside Africa's coast, and the roads south to the desert deeper in to African continent and the road north to the harbor, the Mediterranean sea and the wealth of the Roman empire beyond.

To stand at the gates today is for me at least to be transported back in time. So clear are the carving on the great archway, so real the roads radiating outwards and so vast the town struggling out of the sand all around it feels almost alive.

That it has survived several millennia of war and turmoil so well is testament to bygone generations of Libyans. That is has emerged unscathed from the revolution to over throw Gadhafi has everything to do with their descendants.

Local townspeople aided by the site's archeological police patrolled 24/7. The Leptis Magna museum scattered its precious artifacts around various tightly secured warehouses.

Its director went one step further, distributing a thoroughly documented inventory to friends in the capital an hour's drive away, so even if the town were destroyed during the war its history would not be lost. Indiana Jones would have been impressed.

The looting of the Baghdad museum was very heavy. Despite mobilizing all actors it has been very difficult to get a big part of the collection back.
Archeological expert Louise Haxthausen

And it explains why UNESCO's senior crisis first responder, lawyer and archeological expert Louise Haxthausen was so happy during her recent visit. No signs of damage and its treasures intact. But it's a different story a day's drive to the east in Benghazi.

Haxthausen says the museum there has had some of its most valuable and historic exhibits stolen, and to make matters worse for tracking them no photographic documentation has so far come to light.

List of missing exhibits: Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

More than 7,000 rare and valuable coins dating back to Alexander the Great comprise 90% of the so-called "Benghazi treasures." The other items in the collection are various artifacts from the same period. All of them are uniquely important and utterly irreplaceable.

Haxthausen says UNESCO is playing a lead role in helping the investigation "we are working very closely with Interpol on this. Interpol sends out alerts to customs to the police officers with a clear description of that collection and then hopefully they can seize them."

But the effort doesn't stop there, she says. Lists of the artifacts are being publicized and she says "we are also in contact with auction houses of course with dealers, with collectors, and we warn them of the situation so that if it comes on market they will know this is the result of illicit trafficking."

Interpol alert on stolen treasures from Libya

But what worries the UNESCO expert is that she has seen looting during conflict before and once items are taken out of the country getting them back can be nearly impossible. She cites the wartime theft in 2003 of numerous treasures from the Baghdad museum in Iraq.

Most experts, she says, believe the looting was the work of professional, organized international illicit traffickers. "The looting of the Baghdad museum was very heavy and it has been very difficult. Despite mobilizing all actors it has been very difficult to get a big part of the collection back."

The biggest problem she says is that without, or with very limited documentation it can be hard to prove the items' rightful owners, and if they are out of the country even harder to prove where they came from.

It's what makes Leptis Magna's story such a success: they did everything right. Septimus Severus's generous legacy lives on another generation.

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