The postponement of Libya’s presidential election in December last year shattered archaeologists’ hopes of an “urgent change of pace” in the maintenance of the country’s deteriorating heritage.
But a major exhibition that is currently on show across the North African country aims to prepare the ground for an “explosion” of archaeological activity once political stability has finally returned. One aim is to highlight Italo-Libyan archaeological partnerships during more than a century.
Funded by the Italian foreign ministry and curated by the MedA archaeology foundation, Italy-Libya: a shared archaeology opened at the Red Castle Museum in Tripoli (in the Tripolitania region) in September and will be relocated to an Ottoman-era building in Benghazi, Cyrenaica, on 1 March. There are plans for a further display in an as yet undefined location in Fezzan, Libya’s third main province.
The curators have not included real artefacts because of security fears, and due to many having been stored for their safety. Instead, displays showing texts, photos, posters, maps and diagrams offer a sweeping survey of Italian archaeological activity in Libya, starting with the Italian archaeologist Federico Halbherr’s first digs in 1910, and Mussolini’s intensification of excavation work in the 1920s onwards.
The show coincides with broader attempts by Italy and Libya to rekindle historical bonds. Italy ruled Libya from 1911 to 1943 and both countries maintain strong economic ties, with Libya providing 8% of Italy’s natural gas supply in 2019.
Now, as the bloodshed that surrounded Gaddafi’s fall in 2011 subsides, Italian prime minister Mario Draghi has positioned Italy as a key player in Libya’s eventual reconstruction, with Italy set to take a leading role in essential infrastructure projects including the rebuilding of Tripoli airport.
Archaeology will also help fuel Libya’s economic recovery, Luisa Musso, the president of MedA and the director of Roma Tre University’s mission in Libya, tells The Art Newspaper. Libya’s rich archaeological heritage, which comprises five Unesco-protected sites, including the Greek site of Cyrene and Roman ruins of Leptis Magna, had been drawing growing numbers of visitors before the civil war erupted in 2011. Tourism to the country grew over 20% from 2004 to 2007, according to UN figures.
The days when you parachuted in for a restoration project and then said ‘bye bye’ are goneLuisa Musso, president, MedA
However, subsequent violence and lawlessness has imperilled Libya’s heritage, leading to a steep rise in looting and a slowing of restoration work. Despite the upheavals, Italian archaeologists continue to work in Libya, with 14 Italian foreign ministry-backed missions currently underway in the country. But there is now a large backlog of restoration work, and the task of reorganising archaeological catalogues is “colossal”, Musso says.
The exhibition spotlights the important role of Libyan archaeologists in joint missions alongside those of their Italian colleagues. Developing stronger partnerships will help create more sustainable archaeological traditions in the country, Musso says, adding that greater international cooperation between country-specific missions is also required. Public and private investment for short-term archaeology projects should be re-channelled into longer-term projects for planned intervention, she adds.
In February, Stephanie Williams, the UN special advisor on Libya, said elections in the country should be held "in the shortest time possible", according to reports. But Musso suggests that “the moment the country opens up there will be an explosion of [archaeological] work”.
MedA is currently seeking financial support for a Libyan restoration school where Italian experts would train natives. “The days when you parachuted in for a restoration project and then said ‘bye bye’ are gone,” Musso says. “Today, restoration also means education.”