venus of cyrene

Archaeological Plunder,  Robbery & Vandalism

This short report about the desecration of Libya's archaeological heritage is prepared by Temehu.com to provide an introduction to the subject of archaeological plunder, heists and vandalism in Libya from the 17th century to the present. To help improve this incomplete report and compile a preliminary list of antiquities hoarded out of the country, Temehu.com invites all Libyans to assist with whatever information relating to this badly neglected and yet the most important aspect of Libya's rare archaeological heritage.

The destruction of archaeological heritage in ancient times was often motivated by the clash of civilisations, justifiably bringing to ruin so many ancient archaeological marvels under the pretext of cultural rivalry. Today's tolerance and awareness of the true value of human history can only regret the misfortunes illuminating the pages of history.

The ancient and modern wars on the Berber, Egyptian and Sumerian civilisations, without a doubt, had dispersed most of their archaeological heritage, as much as they had reduced many of their remaining parts to "cumulus rubble". This may explain why so many of the statues and idols you see today in Libya and Egypt's museums had their noses broken, their ears knocked off, defaced, limbless, headless, cracked, bruised and all the other signs of violent conflict their masters came to endure from the mortals they so hard protected to come about as offspring.

Needless to say, political or any other desecration of archaeological sites today is outlawed and classified under the acts of terrorism, as in the case of the recent destruction of Buddhist statues and sacred temples; and therefore one dares not, any more, call for the destruction of such heritage in the open. But behind closed doors greed still plays the role it had always played in human history, as was the fate of so many looted tombs from around the world.

The archaeological sites of the Berber Garamantian civilisation in Fezzan were robbed long before archaeologists got to them to unravel some of their desert mysteries. Yet, our ancestors were well aware of the nature of the beast they hoped to evade as some of the Garamantian pyramids escaped looting because the sacred treasures were deceptively buried outside the tombs. The Ancient Egyptians, too, knew about tomb raiders and mummy traders from the future, as they went to great lengths to hide their tombs in the valley of the kings and beneath the desert's sand. Many of these sites are now being discovered by satellites in the sky, and it is only a matter of time before they too will come in contact with air! The most difficult to locate however are those hidden deep amongst & beneath the endless ridges of the mountain chains, which may well succeed in achieving their hoped-for destiny – never to breathe the air of the living again.

We have no good reason today to assume the practice of looting the sacred heritage of the ancestors ever ceased to exist, if it has not become an art of autocratic crime. Wars create political vacuums of grey areas that easily lend themselves to exploitation by white-collar dealers and the gurus of the black market. 

Take, for example, the disastrous looting of Libya and Egypt's treasures during the World Wars – way beyond imagination; the looting of the Berber Sahara by many European explorers and colonial tomb raiders; the ransacking of the Sumerian heritage during the Iraq war; and, of course, one of the largest thefts of archaeological material in history that took place in Benghazi, in Libya, during the early months of the February 2011 war, when the city was awash with NTC fighters and foreign special forces.


17th, 18th & 19th Century Plunder of Libyan Antiquities

The following section contains records and names of persons and organisations reportedly involved in the procurement and shipping of Libyan antiquities, and therefore Temehu.com shall not be held responsible for any of the information found in the report. The following section is based on a report by Professor Khaled Muhammed Alhadar (followed up by Tareq Assanousi and Saleh Atawati), a member of the teaching board at Gar Yunes University, in Benghazi, Libya. The report was presented at Assaray Alhamra Museum in Tripoli (23/12/2009), and was said to detail 14 years of research into the subject. To read the summary of the report in Arabic please follow this url: khaledelhaddar.maktoobblog.com/1616257/ملخص-محاضرة-أ-خالد-محمد-الهدار-عن-الاثا/

According to this report, stolen and procured Libyan archaeological treasures are found in 50 museums from around the world including in Egypt, Lebanon, Malta, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Spain, France, Britain, Scotland, Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, Canada and America. The professor presented a document showing a pact made by the governor of Tripoli and the French government in 1692, which allowed the French to transport marble columns from Leptis Magna to France, to be used for building royal castles. Similarly, Yousef Pasha sent 40 columns from Leptis Magna to Windsor Castle as a mere gesture of generosity. Forty columns were also sent to Malta. A few years later, another pact was granted to Turkey to furnish its empty museum in Istanbul with Libyan antiquities including 13 rock engravings that were hacked-off the wall of the Ghirza temples – the pre-Roman Berber settlement in the pre-desert. Consular staff too were reportedly implicated in the business, as they funded explorers and grave-diggers to hunt for rare items. The British consulate was said to have transported 140 archaeological artifacts from Benghazi and Tokra alone, and 30 chests (or boxes) laden with archaeological treasures from Tripoli were sent to the British Museum in London. The English consul "George Dennis" and vice-consul "Wood" were mentioned in the report. But the biggest archaeological heist of the time was the theft of 380 archaeological pieces in 1847, sent by Deputy  Consul "De Borvil", to the French Library, before they ended up in the Louvre Museum. The artifacts included 32 Leptis columns, pottery pieces, statues, engravings (including one of the Berber Princess Bernice), and even wall frescoes that were hacked off with saws, just like modern travellers recently did cut cave paintings off the rocks of the Sahara (as reported by Henri Lhote and others). While the English reportedly preferred to finance excavation assignments, Dutch consular staff however were digging the graves with their own hands, as in the case of Dutch Consul "Van Burghel" who dug some graves in Cyrene in 1830, and helped himself to some decorated burial pottery, now displayed in Leiden Museum, in Amsterdam. [That was the summary of the report. More extracts are listed in the first list below.]

The fascination with North African marble goes back to Roman times, when the Romans transported massive amounts of marble columns and slabs from Carthage – then the most advanced city around the entire Mediterranean sea – the city the Romans grew to be jealous of, with many of its gigantic buildings built entirely of marble and polished floors. After the Romans' destruction of the (then archaeological) rival North African capital, the marble rubble supplied Europe with the best quality marble there was. The reconstructed Mausoleum of Bes in Sabratha's archaeological site is now taking the place of the original dismantled by the Byzantines who used its blocks to build a wall in the 6th century; while their modern descendents, the Italians of the early 20th century, openly continued the exportation of marble columns and pieces from Sabratha and Leptis Magna, in total disregard for the sovereignty of the country they came to harvest, and even were said to have used archaeological stones to build civil roads to facilitate the transportation of both troops and goods.

Mr. Kamal Shtewi, the manager of Assaraya Alhamra Museum in Tripoli, told the BBC in 2006 that most of the items looted recently from museums and excavation sites were looted by "organised gangs", and that among the items taken were those uncovered during seismic surveys in the desert by "oil companies". He confirmed 90 items were stolen since 1988, but he says the true figure could be much higher since among the sites attacked were unauthorised excavations and poorly guarded sites and museums. A good example of these unprotected sites include the newly discovered site in Abukemmash, west of Zuwarah, near the Tunisian border, where reportedly Moroccan and other foreign subcontractors laboured their way through the contents of the tombs, temples and rooms that never saw the light before.

Among the most devastating acts of archaeological plunder is the widespread practice of looting the Sahara by some modern tourists and adventure travellers; just like many of the early pioneers and explorers did. It is not so much the monetary value of the artifacts looted, including prehistoric flint tools, stone axes, arrows, fossils, stone querns and mortars, coins, shells and beads among other 'items'. It is the anthropological data that is lost forever, since scientists need to study the exact locations and the exact positions in which they were found. For example, some sections of prehistoric paintings and engravings were hacked off with saws, while some paintings had their 'patinas' lifted off the surface by means of using glued canvas:– the criminals cover a canvas with sticky substance and press it against the target painting, still covered with millennial pigments and dust, before they pull the canvas away, complete with a reversed copy, entirely made of original patina, and smuggled out of Libya.

Some of these visitors were recently convicted in Algeria for smuggling prehistoric artifacts from the Algerian desert; while the Libyan government imposed the company of guides and "Tourism Police" to safeguard the treasures of the Libyan desert for the very same reason, many law-abiding tourists failed to realise, and instead criticised the Libyan government for making tourism very difficult and understandably "awkward" to enjoy. It might be of interest to know that the government's decision was in fact based on a request from the Libyan Archaeology Department when it urged the General People's Congress (GPC) to introduce strict laws to halt the widespread of archaeological theft then plighting Libya before their eyes.

Of course, it would be unfair and incomplete not to mention the fact that Libyans too were widely reported inside Libya by Libyans to be implicated in the collection of archaeological artifacts from the Sahara and from the various unguarded archaeological sites strewn across Libya's vast landscape. We urge all caring Libyans to return all items to the Archaeology Department and help preserve Libya's rare heritage.


List of Looted & Shipped Archaeological Items Mentioned in Khaled's Report

  • 1 statue of a lady from Benghazi; destiny: France, in 1695;  considered the first statute to reach Europe from Libya.
  • 1 statue of Athena and Cupid; destiny: Istanbul, Turkey.
  • 13 rock engravings from Ghirza Temples; destiny Istanbul, Turkey.
  • 1 statue from Cyrene; destiny Istanbul, Turkey.
  • 1 Corinthian Cup from Demeter's temple in Tokra; destiny: Ontario, Canada.
  • 1 cremation jar; destiny: Vienna, Austria.
  • 1 grave stone from Leptis Magna; destiny Istanbul, Turkey.
  • x number of artifacts from Ptolemais; destiny: Museum of the Oriental Institute, Chicago, USA.
  • 1 glass bottle from Cyrene; destiny: Boston Museum, USA.
  • 1 statue of Minerva Nike; destiny: State Museum of Pennsylvania, USA.
  • 1 rare statue of Venus, depicting the goddess of love squeezing her hair plats; destiny: museum of the University of Pennsylvania, USA.
  • x number of ancient coins from Cyrene; destiny: Boston Museum, USA.
  • 600 pieces dating to prehistory; destiny: Vatican Museum, Italy (during WWII).
  • 140 unclassified pieces from Benghazi; destiny: Britain, 1856, sent by English Consulate to the British Museum.
  • 30 statues and/or statuettes (Krakota ?) from Benghazi; destiny: Britain, 1856, sent by Consulate to the British Museum.
  • 40 pots from Benghazi and Tokra, destiny: Britain, sent by Consulate to the British Museum.
  • 30 chests full of archaeological artifacts excavated by the English Consul "Warrington" inside the house he lived in at the time in Tripoli; destiny: British Museum, London, UK.
  • 5 chests full of archaeological artifacts collected in Cyrene; destiny: Scotland, sent by "Warrington": items include decorated pottery, statue, and engravings.
  • 118 statues and/or statuettes from Benghazi and Tokra, destiny: Britain, sent by Consulate to the British Museum.
  • 40 statuettes form Benghazi and Tokra, destiny: Britain, sent by Consulate to the British Museum.
  • 40 columns from Leptis Magna; destiny: Windsor Castle, England.
  • 380 pieces from Benghazi; destiny: France; sent by Deputy  Consul "De Borvil", 1847, to the French Library, then to the Louvre Museum. These items include:

    • 1 statue of the Berber Princess Bernice offering sacrifices to the gods.
    • x paintings from the Valley Belghdeer cemetery in Cyrene (cut off the wall with a saw).
    • x statues and/or statuettes of Emperor Gaius.
    • pottery decorated with carts.

  • Inscription decree of Byzantine Emperor Anastasios, inscribed in the Ptolemais sand-stone blocks; destiny: Louvre Museum, Paris.
  • 3 columns from Leptis Magna; destiny: France, sent by French consul in 1774.
  • 29 columns from Leptis Magna; destiny: France, sent by French consul in 1866.
  • 148 engravings (probably the largest number of engravings to be shipped in one go); destiny: British Museum, collected from Cyrene by British Royal Navy "Smith" (funded by Warrington).
  • 10 inscriptions, destiny: British Museum, collected from Cyrene by British Royal Navy "Smith".
  • 1 statue of Bacchus, destiny: British Museum (BM Reg. no 617- 25, 2), from Cyrene, by British Royal Navy "Smith".
  • 1 statue of Apollo carrying guitar-like instrument, destiny: British Museum, from Cyrene, by British Royal Navy "Smith".
  • 3 statues and/or statuettes of Aphrodite, destiny: British Museum, from Cyrene, by British Royal Navy "Smith".
  • x statues and/or statuettes of Roman emperors, destiny: British Museum, from Cyrene, by British Royal Navy "Smith".
  • x statues and/or statuettes of citizens, destiny: British Museum, from Cyrene, by British Royal Navy "Smith".
  • 1 bronze head of Berber or African complexions, dating to the 4th century BC,  destiny: British Museum, taken from Cyrene by British Royal Navy "Smith".
  • x number of terracotta pieces and coins, destiny: Copenhagen Museum, Denmark.
  • x number of terracotta pieces and coins, destiny: Madrid, Spain.
  • x number of funerary statues from Cyrene; destiny: Crete.
  • x number of funerary statues from Cyrene; destiny: Greece.
  • x number of funerary statues from Cyrene; destiny: Malta.
  • collection of artifacts from the "Richard Norton"  collection, 1911; destiny: Swansea Museum, UK.
  • 25 cups (Albanthiniya cups, used as trophies for winners in the Albanthiniya Games); destiny: Manchester Museum (England), Louvre (Paris), Berlin (Germany), New York and Detroit, (USA), Brussels (Belgium) and Alexandria (Egypt). Libya still has 5 cups left in the country, giving a total of 30 cups. The cups are 60 centimetre high.
  • x number of decorated burial pottery pieces from Cyrene; destiny: Leiden Museum, in Amsterdam, Netherlands, excavated by Dutch Consul, "Van Burghel", in 1830.

x = "unknown number".


List of 20th & 21st Century Looted Antiquities

The following list of stolen items is based on various reports of the heists and thefts that had taken place in Libya in the 20th and the 21st centuries, including some items from the Benghazi Treasure. It was reported that the Italian archaeologist Serenella Ensoli, a specialist in Libyan antiquities, is compiling a list of the items making up the Treasure of Benghazi; apparently aided with a list returned with the treasure from Italy after the treasure was first stolen by the Italians in 1942. The 15 stone head-sculptures listed below were published by the Archaeological Institute of America in their site: archaeology.org/online/features/cyrene/. Other sources include Libyan media, archaeological journals, Reuters, and the BBC.

  • 7700 items (some say 8000): the reported content of Benghazi Treasure, including the following 6 items:
    • 4484 bronze coins: Benghazi Treasure; February War, 2011, Cyrenaica.
    • 2433 silver coins: Benghazi Treasure; February War, 2011, Cyrenaica.
    • 364 gold coins: Benghazi Treasure; February War, 2011, Cyrenaica.
    • 306 pieces of ancient jewellery (including necklaces, bracelets, anklets, rings, earrings, gold armbands and precious stones): Benghazi Treasure; February War, 2011, Cyrenaica.
    • 43 other antiquities (including statuettes and figurines of bronze, glass and ivory, embossed heads, and a plaque depicting a battle): Benghazi Treasure; February War, 2011, Cyrenaica.
    • 1 statuette of Love-god Cupid: Benghazi Treasure; February War, 2011, Cyrenaica.

  • 15 stone sculptures stolen from Cyrene, including:

    • Enthroned female statuette; Mid-Late 6th c BC.
    • Head of a female statuette; Late Classical.
    • Head from a statue of a female Child; Hadrianic - Early Antonine.
    • Head of a female statuette; Late Classical.
    • Head from a statuette of Alexander the Great; Mid - Late Hellenistic.
    • Head of a male statue; Early Second Century AD.
    • Head of a female statue; Late Trajanic - Early Hadrianic.
    • Head of a female statuette; Early Hellenistic.
    • Head of a female statue; Late second century AD.
    • Head of a male statue; Late First - Early Second Century AD.
    • Head of a female statuette; Late Hellenistic - Early Roman.
    • Head of a female statuette; Hellenistic.
    • Head of a female statuette; Late Hellenistic - Early Roman.
  • 1 statue of Venus of Cyrene, taken by Italian troops from Cyrene during the world wars. Returned to Libya in 2008.
  • 1 mosaic piece, stolen from Cyrene; February War, 2011, Cyrenaica.
  • 3 or 4 Roman amphorae, stolen from Apollonia Museum; February War, 2011, Cyrenaica.
  • 1 cloak, stolen from Assaraya Alhamra Museum; February War, 2011, Tripoli
  • 1 rifle, used during the war against the Italians, stolen from Assaraya Alhamra Museum, Tripoli; February War, 2011, Tripoli.
  • 1 Roman terracotta lamp, personifying the god of wine, taken by two British soldiers in 1950s, Benghazi. This item has now been returned.
  • 1 bronze prow of a Greek ship, taken by two British soldiers during diving excursion off the coast of Benghazi, 1950s. This item has now been returned.
  • 1 statue of Venus of Leptis Magna; returned to Libya in 1999.
  • 90 pieces (including pottery vessels and statues), stolen from museums and unauthorised excavation sites since 1988 (source: Kamal Shtewi, manager of Assaraya Alhamra Museum in 2006).
  • 1 sack full of archaeological artifacts, Roman "with very strong Berber influence"; February War, Tripoli, intercepted 23/8/2011; returned on 26/11/2011 including:

    • 17 stone heads, said to have been detached from full statues
    • 2 terracotta fragments
    • 1 tile (painted with an image of what looked like a dog)
    • 1 female figurine (thought to represent fertility)



1942: Theft of The Benghazi Treasure

Not many really knew anything about the Benghazi Treasure until it became headlines in October 2011, after it was stolen for the second time. It was then and now known only to a very few! The Benghazi Treasure was shipped to Italy in 1942 or 1943, during the Italian and allied wars 'on' Libya, before it was retuned seventeen years later, even though there is no way anyone can confirm the same contents were actually returned. The treasure was apparently returned with a list of the items returned but had no photos. (See below for the second theft of the same treasure in 2011.)


1999: Theft of 15 Stone Heads From Cyrene


image of some of the statues stoles from cyrene

Image from http://www.archaeology.org/online/features/cyrene/
Some of the 15 sculptures stolen from Cyrene.
Please click on the image to see enlarged images at Archaeology.org.

According to Archaeology.org (30th of January 2001), "at least 15 stone heads have been stolen from the storerooms of the former University of Pennsylvania Expedition to Cyrene."  The sculptures were apparently excavated by the University Museum from the temples of the goddesses Demeter and Persephone between 1969 and 1981; and were stolen either in late 1999 or early in 2000. Archaeology.org said in its website that the sculptures were described in an article published by Libya Antiqua 9 (1997) and 13-14 (1976-77), American Journal of Archaeology 79 (1975) and 80 (1976), and Expedition 18 (1976), pp. 22-23. Two sculptures were returned shortly after the website www.cyrenethefts.org went live. The website, set up by Donald White and Susan Kane, has now disappeared from the online world.


February 2011: Archaeological Plunder & Robberies During The War in Libya

As soon as the war came to an end, the headlines were quick to announce one of the biggest heists of archaeological material in history, namely the Benghazi Treasure. Museums were also vandalised and robbed during the February 2011 war, including Assaraya Alhamra, Cyrene and Apollonia. Initial assessments at Leptis Magna and Cyrene found little damage, while Libya’s new minister of antiquities, Fadel Ali Mohammed, did confirm some "minimal damage" in Sabratha. Ptolemais also sustained some minor damage. Quite a number of banks too were apparently hit during the war, some of which are showing heavy damage, breach of security and massive holes – but there are no reports of any robberies! There was another incident of archaeological theft that took place in Tripoli on the 23rd of August 2011, and this incident is named (only) in this report by the name: "The Berber Treasure" (see below for more on this).

So far these are the known incidents of archaeological and museum damage, vandalism and robberies that took place during and after the February 2011 war. There is no complete survey of desert sites as yet.

  1. The Benghazi Treasure, National Commercial Bank, Omar al-Mukhtar Street - Benghazi.
  2. "The Berber Treasure", Airport Road - Tripoli.
  3. Assaraya Alhamra Museum: vandalism & theft - Tripoli.
  4. Cyrene Museum: theft - Cyrene
  5. Ptolemais: minor damage - Ptolemais.
  6. Apollonia Museum: theft - Apollonia.
  7. Sabratha archaeological site: minimal damage to the site - Sabratha.
  8. Leptis Magna new museum: wall cracks appeared, probably due to nearby blasts - Leptis Magna.
  9. Assultan, Sirte: one of the Philaeni Brothers bronze statue riddled with bullet holes - Assultan.
  10. Christian War Graves Cemetery: vandalised - Benghazi.
  11. Muslim shrines: graves removed from some mosques, and a number of tombs were vandalised - Libya.
  12. Gazelle Fountain: attacked with a missile - Tripoli.
  13. There was an 'attempt' to destroy the statue of the Berber Roman Emperor Septimius Severus in Leptis Magna in 2012.



2011: One of The Largest Heists of Archaeological Material in History: Benghazi Treasure

31 October 2011:

At the outset of the war in Libya most Libyans said Libya's archaeological heritage will be safe from preying eyes and that Libya will not be like Iraq. But while Libyans still healing their "deepest wounds", as the war was coming to an end, one of the largest thefts of archaeological material in history was unfolding before their eyes.

Robbers armed either with jackhammers or other digging tools stormed the bank and dug a hole as they bored their way through the reinforced concrete ceiling of an underground storage chamber inside the protected bank (see video, below). Vaults of rare gold and silver coins, vintage jewellery, ancient marble statuettes, including that of Love-god Cupid, were emptied of their contents.

At least 7700 pieces were reportedly robbed and quickly disappeared out of the country; some of which later turned up in the nearby busy Egyptian black market. Experts say it is impossible to estimate the value of the hoard, since there is no full list of the items stolen nor any price tag can be placed on such irreplaceable items; but London's Sunday Times said a single ancient Greek coin from Carthage was sold last month at an auction in Paris for the record price of  $431,000.

On the following day of  the news, the Art Newspaper (Issue 229, November 2011) wrote in its website: "Interpol confirms Libyan treasure was looted." The report says the Benghazi Treasure was stolen from the bank on the 25th of May 2011 and that Interpol had alerted police.

Apparently two padlocked WII military chests and a safe were stored in the vaults of the National Commercial Bank, in Omar al-Mukhtar Street, in the centre of Benghazi; safekeeping 306 pieces of ancient jewellery (including necklaces, bracelets, anklets, rings, earrings, gold armbands and precious stones), 2433 silver coins, 364 gold coins, 4484 bronze coins, and 43 other antiquities including statuettes and figurines of bronze, glass and ivory, medallions, embossed heads, and a plaque depicting a battle among many other "Things", have all gone.

For some reason, nearly three months after the uprising started in Benghazi, and while reportedly the city was awash with NTC fighters and Special Forces, an unauthorised decision was made somewhere in that city, or elsewhere, to move the treasure to another bank nearby Dujal Hotel in Benghazi.

Well, only one chest arrived; the fate of the other containers is presumably known only to the drivers and their masters. Experts in the field suspect the thieves had moved all the unwanted items to the chest that happened to arrive at its new destination, while all the gold, silver, ancient jewellery and other valuable material were driven to their intended destination –> out of free Libya. 



The Benghazi Treasure has never been displayed in Libya. Its contents come from the various archaeological sites and temples of Cyrenaica. It seems that all the finest finds and valuable items ended up in the treasure the Libyans never saw; and therefore is a loss beyond scope.

As if armed conflicts go hand in hand with archaeological robberies and human rights abuses, the Benghazi Treasure was shipped to Italy in 1942/1943, during the Italian and allied wars in, or on, Libya – which the Cyrenaicans then heavily resisted. The priceless chests eventually ended up in Val Brenta, in the Dolomites, in May 1944.

Seventeen years later the same treasure was said to have been returned to Libya, although there is no way any one can verify the exact same contents were actually returned – not that that matters so much now after the treasure had disappeared, once again, during conflict.

There was no dedicated attempt from neither the King's palace nor Gaddafi's government to fully document and safeguard the treasure, and so there it remained in the bank awaiting its obfuscated destiny and intrusive opportunists. The disaster is that most of the finest finds found and discoveries made during the last 50 years or so were also added to the same (cursed) Treasure of Benghazi and therefore its final contents are well beyond imagination – nearly 100 years of collection vanished suddenly.

Whether the robbers were in a hurry or the operation was an inside job is hard to say; although Hafed Walada, a Libyan archaeologist from King’s College, in London, suspects the latter. Quoted by the Telegraph he says that the treasure is known only to a very few people and that the robbers had even ignored cash that was in the vaults; while The London Evening Post wrote:

"The Benghazi raid had occurred soon after an arson attack on the bank. At first this was believed to have been part of the uprising . . . but it may have been linked to the well organised robbery." 

NTC's Fadel Ali Mohammed was the chairman of the archaeology department in Benghazi at the time and did report the operation to the attorney-general on the 2nd of June 2011, as well as he sought assistance from Italy's FM Franco Frattini. However, Hafed Walda was quoted by the London Evening Post to have said that "Fadel Ali Mohammed  . . . first raised the alarm with the United Nations heritage watchdog UNESCO in July". *** 

While The Telegraph says "Libya's National Transitional Council is believed to have kept it quiet for fear of tarnishing their image at a time when they were engaged in a desperate battle for survival against the regime of Col Muammar Gaddafi." **** 

Details of the robbery emerged later at a conference held by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which took place in Paris in late October 2011 – nearly 5 months after the well-executed heist had taken place – enough time to transport the hoard to the moon and back 25 times.

"It's a disaster", said Yussuf Ben Nasr, director of antiquities for the city of Benghazi, Reuters wrote. *

British Libyan antiquities expert Paul Bennet says it was the biggest theft he has seen.

Italian Serenella Ensoli described the Libyan Job as a very serious loss on a global scale.

While UNESCO's Irina Bukova declared the operation "“one of the largest thefts of archaeological material in history." **




"The Berber Treasure" *

23 August 2011:


stone heads of Berber figurines
(Photo: AP: Associated Press / Abdel Magid al-Fergany)
Some of the stone heads display in the return ceremony.

According to a report published by Reuters, a sack full of stolen archaeological artifacts was found in a vehicle which was part of a government convoy travelling on the airport road, apparently fleeing the capital Tripoli after the city first fell to the fighters in late August. The unit was stopped by the forces guarding the airport, and a heavy battle ensued. All the items found in the sack were said to date back to the Roman period but "with very strong local influence". This means that the items belong to the Berber period and represent Berber culture, since Libyans often find it hard to speak about the (sensitive) Berber issue, and hence the culture is always referred to by the name "Libyan culture", and the Berbers by the name "ancient Libyans" or "Libyan people". For example, here is what Saleh Algabe, director of the Antiquities Department in the new Libyan government, reported by Reuters to have said about this particular treasure:

"It (the collection) is important because it is very rare,"  . . . " These pieces confirm the contribution of the Libyan people to early human civilization."

The items, which included a female figurine, 17 stone heads (said to have been detached from statues), 2nd-century terracotta fragments, and a painted tile with an image of a dog, were displayed in a public ceremony at Assaraya Alhamra Museum when NTC security officials handed them over to the Antiquities Department in Tripoli, on the 26th of November 2011. The items apparently were intercepted on the 23rd of August 2011 – nearly 3 months earlier!  When the officials were asked about this delay, Mustafa Terjuman replied that the head of the NTC unit responsible for the arrest of the soldiers who took the artifacts was injured in the fighting soon afterwards, for which he needed treatment abroad, and that he only alerted the government about the haul after his return.

* This unnamed incident is named in this report: "The Berber Treasure". The name is based on the type of the content of the haul, and does not exist outside this report.




2011: Assaraya Alhamra Museum: Vandalism & Theft

Shortly after the capture of the capital Tripoli by the fighters, internet sites and blogs circulated the claims that massive looting was underway in Libya,  Leptis Magna was bombed, and that prehistoric art sites were vandalised during the recent events in Libya. The claims originally came from the Russian Nikolai Sologubovsky, apparently a deputy head of a Russian committee of solidarity with the people of Libya and Syria, who told Russian television that the National Museum in Tripoli has been looted and antiquities were being shipped out by sea to Europe. The vandalism of rock art sites was confirmed, but this was taking place even long before the war, as covered by Temehu.com here.

At first, many sources rejected the vandalism as unsubstantiated claims, while UN's Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, warned international art dealers to keep an eye on archaeological and/or ancient artifacts that may have been smuggled out of Libya. The sciencemag.com wrote:

"Claims of Mass Libyan Looting Rejected by Archaeologists: The antiquities in the major sites are unscathed," says Hafed Walda, an archaeologist at King's College London, who has been in frequent contact with his Libyan colleagues during the recent arrival of rebels in the capital city last week. "But a few sites in the interior sustained minor damage and are in need of assessments".

Source: news.sciencemag.org/scienceinsider/2011/09/claims-of-mass-libyan-looting.html.

Then on the 11th of September 2011, the Guardian confirms the news that Assaraya Alhamra Museum was indeed vandalised and items were stolen. In an article titled: "In Tripoli's museum of antiquity only Gaddafi is lost in revolution", the guardian.co.uk wrote:

"At 11.30pm on 20 August 2011, as rebels launched their first attack on the Libyan capital, 20 armed men entered the museum . . . the rebels spotted the colonel's vintage cars and, as elsewhere, wreaked their revenge. The windows of the sky blue Beetle were smashed; thousands of shards of glass now lie on the floor  . . . The headlamps are also damaged but the period gearstick, glovebox, running boards, speedometer and steering wheel remain intact. Staff at the museum . . . had no choice but to let the rebels enter. Mustafa Turjman, head of research at the national department of archaeology, said: "It was a revolution – you can't resist . . . But the vandalism was swiftly quelled by a plea . . . Although there is graffiti in places and one broken window, just a cloak and a rifle, used in the Libyan resistance against Italian occupation, were stolen."  Read the full report at:

However, there were several attempts during the fasting month of Ramadan to attack the museum and loot its contents, but the courage of the guard Ibrahim Hamad Saleh El-Zintani, and other Libyans who helped him, had succeeded in protecting the site by placing heavy rocks and scaffolding behind the gates. And just in case the looters did manage to break in, the guard and the staff at the museum built and painted a false wall in one museum wing, to divert looters away from certain sections of the building - the Garamantes of today!



(4, 5 & 6)

2011: Cyrene & Apollonia Museums Robbed

According to several media reports, a mosaic piece was stolen from Cyrene, and three Roman amphorae were taken from the Museum of Apollonia in Susa, Eastern Libya; although one source says four amphorae were taken. Blueshield said the thief was caught, but so far the loot had not been retrieved. The archaeological site of Ptolemais has also sustained "minor damage".




2011: Leptis Magna Archaeological Site & Museum: Minor Damage

The claims circulated across the internet regarding bombing Leptis Magna were later shown to be not true.  However, it emerged later that the bombing nearby did cause some reverberating damage, since the laws of physics dictate that the vibration of blasts travel through the ground. Some of the bombs used in the war were said to weight 14.5 tonnes a piece. Blueshield 2011 Libya Report confirmed that the new museum in Leptis Magna had indeed sustained several cracks in the wall, possibly from shocks of aerial bombardment in the vicinity of the city. A link to Blueshield's Libya report is found below.




2011: Sabratha Archaeological Site Slightly Damaged

The uprising in Sabratha was quashed very quickly by the Libyan government. In one battle, lasting nearly three days. News soon came out that the archaeological site was hit. However the damage confirmed by Libyans appears to have been caused by the fighting on the ground. Only a proper investigation would reveal the exact causes of each incident. According to the Guardian newspaper, Libya’s new minister of antiquities, Fadel Ali Mohammed, visited Sabratha in early September and reported that there was "minimal damage".  Blueshield however did confirm that the offices at the archaeological site were apparently looted, but both museums remained untouched. Offices in museums and archaeological sites often contain some archaeological artifacts just arrived or about to be processed and conserved. A covered underground tunnel was slightly damaged, with the roof caved in, and the perimeter fence was broken down in many places. Other reports coming from Libya also confirmed that the ancient theater inside the archaeological site had marks of three bullet holes.


damage to the fence around Sabratha archaeological site

The fence around Sabratha archaeological site damaged at several location around the perimeter.
Image from Blueshield's Libya 2011 Report.


According to the 2011 report by Blueshield:

"In Sabratha, one of the most important sites in Libya, there had been posts from Army Brigade 219 that occupied the place from early July until the 17th of August. They established several firing positions and observation posts. Some damage from small arms fire on the amphitheatre can be found which is minor. There is also some minor damage from anti aircraft fire. The biggest damage happened to the perimeter fence which was broken down in many places to get a better killing ground for the Army Brigade."

Download a copy of the Blueshield's Libya 2011 Report




Assultan: the Philaeni Brothers bronze statues

bronze statue sultan

The brothers before the war. Read the heroic story of the Phimaeni Brothers at:

One of the Philaeni brothers showing bullet holes sustained during the war. It is not clear when exactly the damage occurred, but a heavy fight between government soldiers and fighters took place on the 24th of September 2011 [*]. To see a photo of the statue with the bullet holes, see: trust.org/alertnet/news/libyan-forces-advance-on-sirte-nato-planes-in-skies/ .
*: reuters.com/article/2011/09/24/libya-sirte-idUKL5E7KO0AQ20110924



Update June 2012


Three Italian fishing boats were seized by Libyan authorities inside Libya's territorial waters. Upon searching the boats the authorities discovered a number of archaeological artifacts and internationally prohibited type of fishing nets. It is not known how many other boats escaped the attention of the authorities in the past year or so, but it is almost certain that there are a number of international organisations that would not hesitate to take advantage of the current situation in Libya.



Libyan Governments' Failure To Protect Libya's Heritage

Libya's attempts during the last government to retrieve some of the stolen artifacts expectedly produced  no noticeable results, apart from a few returned items, some of which mentioned below. The report of the Supervision Authority in Libya blamed the Archaeology Department for failing to implement strict security systems, and also criticised the ministries of Justice and Public Security for not implementing a proper program to find the perpetrators involved in the robberies.

But Mr. Juma Anag, former head of the Archaeology Department, informed the BBC that his department was, "Deprived of the necessary funds to improve" their archaic, inefficient, understaffed, and under-funded systems; and that paying guards $2 a day could easily lead to distracting them from their, "duties by small amounts of money."


Libya TV: Libya's Archaeological Heritage: Past & Present.

Sana Almansori speaks to Dr. Mustafa Alh'awwath and Dr. Omran Khalifa regarding archaeology in Libya.

Dr. Mustafa points out the previous government's neglect and lack of any interest in protecting Libya's archaeological heritage, citing the need to rewrite the law regarding archaeology and to re-create the archaeology department, which he recommends be chaired by Professor Khaled Muhammed Alhadar. At the start he mentioned prehistoric, Phoenician, Greek, Roman and other archaeological remains, but, like before, there was no mention of the Berbers' archaeological heritage; leading the Berbers to call for re-writing Libya's history.


What Should The New Government of Libya Do?

The ruling authorities of today's Libya need to have in place a dedicated body to tackle the issue and reconsider the program to safeguard the existing heritage and recover the stolen treasures.

  • They need to secure the Sahara's vast heritage.
  • They need to secure sunken and off-shore sites still beneath the sea; Tiboda for a start.
  • They need to install surveillance cameras in all sections of all museums & archaeological sites in Libya.
  • They need to protect this program from corruption and foreign greed.
  • They need to start immediately fencing all archaeological sites still unprotected and grazed by sheep.
  • They need to establish a professional department to immediately begin documenting a complete photographic and descriptive catalogue of all remaining archaeological & museum items still in Libya.
  • Most important of all, they need to seriously follow-up all these programs and guarantee the implementation and the progress of all recommendations by all necessary means.
  • This requires the will to allocate substantial funds and put some of the money to good use.
  • This requires self-esteem, expertise and the intent to educate Libyans to work in the field.
  • This must be done today and by Libyans; not by anyone else.
  • This must include, by name, the Berbers and their role in creating Libya's prehistoric civilisations.
  • The completed archive then should be published and made available to museums, libraries and archaeological sites, as well as can be used to update educational curriculums to educate Libyans and the whole world about their true history and rich prehistory; protected as "World Heritage". 
  • This is very urgent and of paramount importance, since the Libyans recently were faced with great difficulties while attempting to secure the return of some of the items stolen from Sabratha's museum for lack of simple paper work; these items were later seized at the Egyptian border in 2003 and ended up in Alexandria Museum because the Libyans could not provide any documentation of any sort to prove to the Egyptians that the items originated in Libya.
  • Libyans need to rise up to the high tides of time with clear mind and focused intent to truly preserve Libya's heritage and build the courage to abandon "ksad".



sheep grazing through rubbish in an archaeological site



Returned Archaeological Artifacts

The ultimate task facing the new government is to establish a special committee dedicated to claiming back at least part of the archaeological heritage smuggled out of the country during the past few centuries. Libya has the money and the contacts to do this, but it seems as always it lacks the focus to effect any serious change. Many countries did succeed in reclaiming some of their stolen heritage via political dialogue and private efforts; since disappointingly UNESCO's Convention of 1970  on the recovery of cultural property calls for the return of artifacts procured only after 1970. Here is what Article 7 of the Convention says:

(ii) at the request of the State Party of origin, to take appropriate steps to recover and return any such cultural property imported after the entry into force of this Convention in both States concerned, provided that the requesting State shall pay just compensation to an innocent purchaser or to a person who has valid title to that property. Requests for recovery and return shall be made through diplomatic offices. The requesting Party shall furnish, at its expense, the documentation and other evidence necessary to establish its claim for recovery and return. The Parties shall impose no customs duties or other charges upon cultural property returned pursuant to this Article. All expenses incident to the return and delivery of the cultural property shall be borne by the requesting Party."

Read the full UNESCO's "Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property 1970".

File size: 10.2 MB.





Venus of Cyrene

Returned in 2008.

Venus of Cyrene

August 30, 2008, named by Libya as "The Libyan-Italian Friendship Day", is the day Italy agreed to pay Libya $5 billion as compensation for its occupation of the country from 1911 to 1943, in a memorandum signed by the Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Gaddafi. Italy will also fund $500 million worth of electronic monitoring devices to help Libya crack down on illegal migrants turning up on Italian shores. However, Berlusconi had also agreed to hand over to Libya the statue of Venus of Cyrene, an ancient statue taken by Italian troops from the ruins of Cyrene during the world wars, that no longer looks like Venus.


Ancient Relics Taken By British Soldiers Returned To Libya

relics returned to Libya
Photo from news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/10175793.stm

2500-year-old items taken by two British soldiers in the 1950s were returned to Libya by the soldiers' families. Among the items were a Roman terracotta lamp, representing the god of wine, and a bronze prow of a Greek ship which was found by the two British soldiers during a diving excursion off the coast of Benghazi in Eastern Libya.



Venus of Leptis Magna

Returned to Libya in 1999.


Cyrene Sculptures

Two of the 15 stone head-sculptures stolen from Cyrene in 1999 or early 2000 were returned.



Khoms Statue

Switzerland has returned to the Libyan Embassy an artifact said to have been part of a small statue of a female torso, originally stolen from an archaeological excavation near Khoms in 1999; before it was bought in the following year by a Swiss collector. The collector handed over the item to the authorities after realising it was reported stolen from Libya.



Update 2016

Libya's archaeological heritage is now in greater danger as a direct result of the chaos and violence inflicted by the UN on what was stable Libya. The destruction of the Libyan government and the security forces allowed criminal gangs and foreign radical groups to run havoc across the country. Likewise the curse inflicted on Iraq and Syria Libya's nurtured terror groups were allowed to profit from Libya's unique archaeological heritage right in the open. Apparently some reports speak of Italian mafia groups selling arms to terror groups in Libya, the Middle East and across Europe too. Why are such groups allowed to openly vandalise world heritage sites as well as spread such violence despite the UN resolutions to protect civilians remains a mystery. Regarding the crisis in Libya the vandalism can be categorised as follows:

Libyan Vandalism

Many Libyans are taking advantage of the installed chaos by grabbing land and building houses without authorisation from the government. The reason is simple: there is no government in Libya to seek authorisation from, they say. Some of these sites are part of existing archaeological sites, such as the case in Cyrene. Any discovered artifacts during digging were sold in the black market, with the exception of a few rare cases of some citizens returning the finds to the relevant authority. There were also reports of people discovering ancient burial sites in areas away from archaeological sites. One cemetery near Abukemmash was looted entirely before the authorities even heard of the site. Five years have elapsed since the destruction of Libya and Libya is yet to see a government that cares about Libya's pagan heritage. There is also another type of attacks on archaeological heritage orchestrated by some religous groups who specialise in religous sites, like sufi tombs, Berber shrines, and Christian cemeteries.

Foreign Organised Vandalism

According to the Daily Beast some Italian mafia groups (the so-called "Italian mob") are doing business with  terrorist groups from Sirte, Libya. The business involves selling arms to terrorists in return for stolen archaeological artifacts. The groups were said to be thriving in southern Italy. The stolen artifacts are brought into Italy on "Chinese-flagged cargo ships coming from Sirte to the Calabria port of Gioia Tauro" [1]. The report further adds that the "weapons are either smuggled back to Libya on the same container ships or left in Europe to be picked up by foreign fighters" [1]. The Daily Beast also stated that the stolen treasures have "been put on the market by Italy’s Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta, who are working with the Neapolitan Camorra criminal gang", and that the "showroom is a Mafia-controlled salami factory in southern Italy" [1].  Items on sale include:

  • a Roman decapitated marble head, at: just $66,000.
  • a Greek statue, at  $880,000.


decapitated marble head

Decapitated Marble Head
Source of photo: http://english.alarabiya.net

The Daily Beast said there are no certificates of authenticity or patrimony for the artifacts on sale. Other reports however say the stolen hoards were given forged documents to facilitate their sale. According to Reuters, Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, told the council that  around 100,000 cultural objects  including 4,500 archaeological sites (including nine World Heritage sites) are under the control of  the terrorists in Syria and Iraq [5].



  1. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/10/18/italian-mob-trades-weapons-with-looted-art-from-isis-in-libya.html
  2. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/10/22/inside-the-hunt-for-libya-s-lost-treasures.html
  3. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/07/isis-destroy-libya-cultural-treasures
  4. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/dec/15/libyas-cultural-heritage-being-destroyed-and-plundered-by-isis
  5. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-antiquities-russia-idUSKCN0X32HK





Berber Nesmenser, Zuwarah, Libya, 23 November 2011.
Updated: June 2012
Updated: November 2016