Cyrene, libya // When Libya opened to the West in 2003, it was widely hailed as a crucial first step by a "terrorist" regime coming in from the cold. But along with the legitimate companies vying to capture Libya's lucrative markets, international antiquities-smuggling gangs were waiting for their chance to pilfer the country's Roman ruins, which are some of the most pristine in the world.
This trade, which first began in 1987 with the opening of the Egyptian border, has accelerated since 2003 with an unprecedented gutting of Libya's ancient heritage sites underway since. "There's been an explosion in looting all over the Mediterranean, but in North Africa it's really becoming quite a problem," said Gaetano Palumbo, the North Africa programme director for the World Monuments Fund, a New York-based organisation.
Ancient ports, villas and entire Roman cities have been uncovered by western archaeologists after being buried under the Saharan sand for centuries. Farther inland, preserved Roman farming communities or semi-fortified towers wait to be discovered. The structures are inlaid with elaborate mosaics and covered with inscriptions, providing valuable insights into the everyday life of what was one of the Roman Empire's wealthiest provinces.
"It's not difficult to get on to these sites," said Joyce Reynolds, a 90-year-old retired epigraphist at Cambridge University who first excavated in Libya in 1951. "Even those which are in principle protected are very ... easy to get into." Libyan antiquities officials seek to downplay the extent of the looting, though they admit to a few spectacular heists such as the disappearance in 2000 of 15 statue heads from Cyrene, an ancient Greek city. But even these admissions gloss over the far more destructive daily ransacking of the sites by local crooks.
One such small-time raider is Fathi Ismail, a local who operates inside Cyrene, a Ptolemaic site, selling the Hellenic coins he scavenges from the ground to tourists. His prices range from 10 to 50 dinars (Dh11-59) per coin, but he boasts that the "real money is in the heads of statues that lie buried below". Often, digging out the ancient artefacts does not even require particular effort: rain storms wash away the topsoil, dislodging the ample treasures lying beneath. At other times, industrious badgers tunnelling underground eject them as they dig.
An artefact's journey from the Libyan sands to the gleaming auction rooms of Zurich and New York is like a trip up the human food chain which starts with the dirt-poor sand-scavengers in the south, such as Mr Ismail, and then on to the Egyptian gangs that smuggle the goods to Cairo and Alexandria, ending with the ultimate recipients - the wealthy and cultured in western Europe and North America who have a taste for collecting human heritage.
"There are estimates that the business of smuggling antiquities provides the largest turnover in the world, second only to oil and equal to arms sales," said the Cambridge University professor and Lord of Kaimsthorn, Colin Renfrew, who leads international efforts to stem the looting of antiquities. "But you can't put a figure on a secret trade." Libyan officials will admit off the record that looting has severely damaged the spectacular and extensive Roman ruins spread across their country's 2,000km-long Mediterranean coastline. But they shy away from direct criticism for fear of incurring their government's wrath or of offending Egypt, Libya's neighbour and ally.
Foreign experts and art collectors who spoke to The National indicated that most antiquities are smuggled out of Libya across the porous land border with Egypt. Once in Cairo, much of the time they are spirited out by foreign diplomats who have access to their embassy's diplomatic pouch. Alternatively, boats smuggle them across the Mediterranean to Europe. "Antiquities usually leave the Middle East by ships from Haifa headed to New York," said Eleni Papaefthymiou, an Athens-based art historian and expert in ancient coins. "From Greece, coins, busts or entire statues are stored in agricultural produce lorries, disguised among sacks of potatoes and peaches.
"From Libya they leave by boat to Italy and Marseille," Ms Papaefthymiou said. "Large statues that weigh up to five tonnes are removed in cargo ships leaving from ports run by co-opted customs officers." A wide-ranging deal between Libya and its former colonial master, Italy, in February, secured reparations for Libyan antiquities taken north across the Mediterranean during Italy's occupation of the region. In 2008 Italy returned a rare statue of Venus after Muammar Qadafi, Libya's leader, allegedly threatened to ban Italian companies from his country.
But the prevailing sentiment towards the pre-Islamic sites in this fervently faithful and almost exclusively Muslim country is disinterest. Even at Leptis Magna, a sprawling, almost intact city that is the crown jewel in Libya's Roman heritage, lackadaisical policemen monitor the occasional clutches of tourists wandering through. Locals shepherd flocks of sheep through ruins strewn with empty plastic bottles or across pebbled beaches littered with ancient pottery shards, column-heads and inscriptions.
When Donald White, an archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania who has excavated Libyan sites since the 1960s, last visited Cyrene, he came across a man hacking a marble head off of a statue with one hand while he smoked a cigarette with the other. "The burr under my saddle is not the theft or disintegration of these sites so much as all the money that was supposed to end up in beautifying or modernising the country and ends up in the hands of other people instead," Mr White said. "Money is the ultimate corruptor."
Antiquities officials in Cyrenaica province complain that the number of their department's employees has shrunk from 500 in the 1970s to just 90 today. Salaries do not exceed $150 (Dh550) per month, making the prospect of selling antiquities for easy cash ever more attractive. Some officials place the blame for the widespread neglect on the government. "They are more interested in oil than in ancient artefacts," said Fadel Mohammed, an archaeologist and former government consultant who now runs a tourist agency. "I've tried my best to get support for what we're doing, but I find myself fighting for this all alone."
Mr Qadafi's son, Saif-ul-Islam, however, has announced an ambitious ecotourism project dubbed "Green Mountain" that will incorporate the archaeological sites. Back at Cyrene, Mr Ismail is upset that the Libyan guides leading a Japanese group through the ruins have not allowed him to make his pitch to the tourists. Looking nervously around for any guards, he complains about how following his line of business is becoming increasingly difficult as the government has taken more steps to guard the sites after the plans for Green Mountain were announced.
"There is no freedom in this country, no democracy like abroad," he raged, rubbing his back and neck-muscles strained by the digging. "Where's my freedom to sell these things that I discovered with my own hard toil?"