Three months after Storm Daniel, what happened to Libya’s flood-damaged heritage sites?

Cyrenaica region, a World Heritage Site, sustained significant damage to many of its historic sites and monuments

Ruins at the site of the ancient Greco-Roman city of Cyrene (Shahhat) in eastern Libya, about 60 kilometres west of Derna after Storm Daniel. AFP
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At the Tocra walls of the ancient coastal town of Tocra, journalist Khalil Al-Barghathi and a group of young men remove the mud, clay and wood that washed into the area when Storm Daniel made landfall on the north-east coast of Libya in September.

It is one of many historic landmarks peppering the Green Mountain, Al Jabal Al Akhdar region of Cyrenaica, that stretches about 230km eastward all the way to Derna.

The region was listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1982.

"We grew up within the walls of this fortress,” Mr Al-Barghathi, 35, told The National as he gazed towards the town’s only archaeological museum, Al-Agouria, which houses more than 300 antiquities from Byzantine-era collections and excavations in the area.

Located in Al-Marj district, 70km east of Benghazi, Torca, known in Arabic as Al-Agouriya, was founded in about 631 BC, in the Greek era.

“We were raised on the importance of preserving and protecting this history from theft and vandalism, so it saddens me to see how much damage was caused by the floods,” he said.

According to the Libyan Antiquities Authority, the archaeological sites cover several hectares and include monumental Greek temples (including the Temple of Zeus, the biggest in Africa), stoas (covered walkways), theatres, bathhouses, and palatial residences.

The city is also surrounded by the Necropolis of Cyrene and is protected by an outer wall built in the first and second centuries AD.

Churches in the area date back to the Byzantine era.

An important tourist destination in Libya, this area was accessed through rugged slopes and narrow roads, allowing only one car to enter or leave at a time.

When Storm Daniel struck, destroying two major dams, large amounts of water were released into the already inundated region, killing more than 4,300 and displacing 40,000, according to figures published in October by the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha).

Libya's historic sites three months after Storm Daniel struck

Libya's historic sites three months after Storm Daniel struck

"As the powerful floodwaters rushed down the mountains, it caused soil erosion almost five metres deep in parts of Cyrene,” Anouji Al-Urfi, head of the Crisis Committee of the Libyan Antiquities Authority told The National.

Cyrene is one of five ancient Greek cities in the Cyrenaica region near present-day Green Mountain.

“It [flooding] also caused the collapse of parts of the Grand Theatre and drowned several parts of the Apollo complex, Wadi Ghadir Street, and Ain Al-Hufrah, among others, in mud, clay, and water. The water swept away ancient pottery, minted coins and small statues”.

Mr Al-Urfi said that part of Wadi Al-Kuf bridge, which was built in the early 1900s to connect the mountain cities of Al Marj and Al Bayda, was also destroyed.

“The bridge was built near Wadi Al-Kuf caves, which were historically inhabited by ancient Libyan tribes but are known as the base of anti-colonial resistance against Italian occupation led by martyr Sheikh Omar Al-Mukhtar and his fighters,” said Mr Al-Urfi, noting that up until the storm hit, families would visit the location to take pictures near Al-Mukhtar’s monument.

While the damage to the city of Cyrene threatened some ancient structures, the erosion also revealed new archaeological sites, according to Adel Boufjra, an antiquities inspector in the district of Shahhat in Green Mountain.

"The strong floods uncovered new archaeological layers and water channels, including a water drainage system dating back to the Roman era, consisting of about 400m of channels from the heart of the mountain all the way to the Greek baths in Cyrene," Mr Boufjra told The National.

Mr Al-Urfi said that the floods revealed parts of the ancient wall of the city of Darnis (modern-day Derna), which was founded by the Greeks between 330 and 323 BC, as well as archaeological caves possibly dating back to prehistoric times.

Urgent action

The Islamic World Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation Icesco has expressed its willingness to fund the restoration of the damaged heritage sites, Mr Al-Urfi said. This includes Ottoman-era mosques and the 11th-century Sahaba Cemetery, which reportedly held the remains of 73 companions of Prophet Mohammed.

We need to act now to contain the impact of this natural disaster
Hafeez Al-Walda, University Professor

“Libya’s Government of National Unity [based in Tripoli] has also formed a crisis committee consisting of the Libyan Antiquities Authority and several other government institutions, to assess the damage to these sites,” Mr Al-Urfi said.

With the help of several foreign missions – Italian, French, Dutch, American, and Greek – he added, the government will take steps to restore these sites.

“While the damage has not been totally devastating, quick action must be taken to stop it from getting worse,” said university professor Hafeez Al-Walda, who is also a member of the Antiquities Authority in Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city in the north-east.

“The damage will accumulate over time as a result of soil erosion, the collapse of some sites, and the mud and clay deposits on some other sites in Tolmeitha, Tobruk, and Susah,” Mr Al-Walda told The National.

“The impacted sites include mosaics, fortresses and water tanks, some of the largest in North Africa dating back to the Greek era,” he said.

“We need to act now to contain the impact of this natural disaster.”

This article was published in collaboration with Egab.

Updated: December 04, 2023, 10:43 AM