The battle to save Libya's World Heritage sites

Story highlights

  • Five sites in Libya have been placed on World Heritage's in danger list
  • Sites range from ancient rock art to Hellenic and Roman cities
  • UNESCO experts say some locations are being partially bulldozed and built upon

(CNN)UNESCO has placed five World Heritage Sites in Libya on its list of locations in danger, citing "damage caused by the conflict affecting the country and the threat of further damage it poses."

Home to some of the Mediterranean's great historic marvels, Libya is caught in a struggle between the government and rival factions -- including ISIS -- vying for control of the oil-rich North African nation. In the crossfire are World Heritage Sites at Cyrene, Leptis Magna, Sabratha, Ghadames and Tadrart Acacus.
    Experts from UNESCO are racing to protect the sites, which range from ancient rock art to Hellenic ruins, from the kind of damage witnessed in Iraq and Syria.

    Irreversible damage

    Cyrene in northeast Libya was once one of the world's principal Hellenic cities. A colony of the Greeks of Thera, it reinvented itself under Roman rule before an earthquake struck in 365 AD. Wrapped up in its ruins is over a 1,000 years of history which is now under threat.
    Current unrest in the region has put Cyrene in danger, but Nada Al Hassan, chief of the Arab states unit at UNESCO, describes bulldozers moving in to the World Heritage Site, vandalizing ancient tombs.
    "A lot of illegal construction has taken place," she told CNN. "This becomes irreversible when people build within a very large archaeological park that hasn't been completely explored [or] excavated."
    File photograph of statues and ruins at Cyrene, where UNESCO say bulldozers have started encroaching on ancient sites.
    She describes "lack of governance" as the reason behind the treatment of the cultural treasure. Elsewhere, Sabratha, once a Phoenician trading post, sits in a combat zone, while Ghadames, known as the 'pearl of the desert' and one of the oldest pre-Saharan cities, is in a "volatile" location, says Al Hassan.
    Placing these locations along with Leptis Magna and Tadrart Acacus on the list of World Heritage sites in danger is an attempt to raise the issue with the international community, says Al Hassan.
    "When you put a site on the danger list, it's easier to find funds for its protection," she explains.
    "It's very important for the Libyan people, to show that we're following up on what's happening with them. We're worried about what's happening in their country and at their sites."

    A course of action

    The UNESCO expert compares the ruins in Libya to World Heritage Sites in Iraq and Syria, similarly on the 'in danger' list, saying the move is a proactive one from the organization.
    "We have gained experience unfortunately, due to the conflict in the Middle East, as to what to do during conflict," Al Hassan says.
    UNESCO was already training heritage police before the unrest began, she says, but subsequent events called for new measures to be taken.
    File photograph of the amphitheatre at Leptis Magna, located in the Libyan coastal city of Lebda.
    "There are ways of securing museums," Al Hassan explains. "You secure the buildings, you hide objects, you increase circles around the building in order for combatants not to reach them... And [then] there are secret places to hide objects. All of this has been done with the Libyans."
    The idea has been floated that if the situation deteriorates, artefacts could be removed from Libya and put out of harm's way on an international traveling exhibit. That plan has yet to materialize as of yet, she says, due to the immense logistics and high cost of insuring these threatened treasures.
    "It's very hard for them," adds Al Hassan of the Libyan conservationists, "they're firefighting all the time."
    Italy is already providing funds for site preservation -- no surprise given some of their Roman origins -- and Al Hassan is hopeful more contributions from the international community will follow.
    File photograph of the old town of Ghadames, known as the 'pearl of the desert' and one of the oldest pre-Saharan cites.
    "It's very important that the international community values them, monitors them and protects them -- and [will] be there when the time of conservation, reconstruction and recovery plans are planned and are possible," she said.
    Al Hassan stresses this is not just an issue of national importance; we all have a shared interest in North Africa and the Middle East's cultural heritage.
    "We are talking about a region that has given the alphabet to the world: where the wheel was invented, where agriculture first existed, where the first urban centers were established," she argues.
    "People have to know that we care about those sites, because they are at the heart of the advancement of our human civilization."