Remember when I wrote about how construction workers in Thessaloniki happened upon a very well preserved 70-meter section of a Roman marble-paved road while building an underground train station? Do you also remember how the entire project was turned upside down to preserve the road? Yeah, not so much in Libya.

An excavator at work in late July [Credit: Areej Khattab]
Several reports have come in that local residents of the area surrounding the Kyrene necropolis recently destroyed part of the necropolis, an ancient Greek city in north-eastern Libya, to make way for houses and shops. Kyrene (Κυρήνη) dates back to about 700 BC and was the oldest and largest Greek colony in eastern Libya, a region now known as 'Cyrenaica'. Only the nearly ten square meter necropolis remains of the ancient city of Kyrene. The necropolis was in use between 600 and 400 BC, and includes 1,200 burial vaults dug into the bedrock and thousands of individual sarcophagi that lie on the ground. Kyrene was named UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982.
Local whistleblower Ahmed Hussein, an archaeology professor at Bayda University in eastern Libya, has taken it upon himself to make the world aware about what is happening to the ancient site. In his own words:
"I have been trying everything to stop this disaster. I appealed, in vain, to the archaeological authorities as well as the local authorities. I contacted one of the brigades in charge of the city’s security, who informed me that they could intervene only if the authorities made an official request, but they haven’t made the slightest move to get involved… I even called the Culture Minister on his mobile phone. I left a message but I haven’t heard anything yet."

Ahmed Hussein inspecting tombs destroyed in July 2013 [Credit: Areej Khattab]
Hussein explains what is already lost, and what the local residents plan to do with the ground they have now claimed:
"About 200 vaults and tombs were destroyed, as well as a section of a viaduct that dates back to approximately 200 A.D. Ancient artifacts were thrown into a nearby river as if they were mere rubbish. They plan on selling the land in parcels of 500 square meters to real estate developers and private individuals. The latter will be able to build homes and shops. Since these tracts of land are sold without any official documents, they go for very cheap prices, such as 15,000 dinars [about 8,900 euros] per tract. However, it is well known that 500 square meter tracts in this area are valued at about 100,000 dinars [about 59,000 euros], at least when they are sold legally."
It appears that, in Libya, customs and practices tend to carry more weight than the written law. Custom say that this land traditionally belongs to families who live in nearby farms. There are no official documents to support the claim, yet their claims are not contested by the government. As such, the authorities have yet to respond to the destructions, or word of local building plans.
500 square meter tracts marked off in order to sell them [Credit: Areej Khattab]
Obviously, this is a great loss. According to myth, the nymph-huntress Kyrene (Κυρηνη) was spotted by Apollon while wrestling with and subsequently strangling a lion in the jungle. He immediately fell in love with the courageous heroin and seized the girl before carrying her off to the Hill of Myrtles (Myrtoessa) in Libyan North Africa where the Hellenes later founded the colony of Kyrene in her honor. The area itself seems to have been occupied already or prior to the arrival of the settlers, as even older archeological finds under the Classical buildings indicate. The archeological remnants by these civilizations is also threatened by the current destruction.
The city of Kyrene rose to greatness over the export of the Silphium plant, or silphion, a member of the giant fennel family], which once grew only in Kyrene. Classical physicians and herbalists recommended the plant as both contraceptive and abortive, as well as a remedy for coughs. The plant was heavily cultivated and became more valuable than its weight in silver. The plant went extinct by the second century AD, which meant a great loss of income for the city. Cut into a cliff faces overlooking the Green Mountain plateau and all around Kyrene are thousands of tombs and individual sarcophagi that were built and used from the 6th century BC onwards, first by the Hellenes, then added to by the Romans and Byzantines up to the 6th century AD. Some of the tombs still contain traces of their distinctive Hellenistic facades. The Necropolis of Kyrene was one of the most extensive cemeteries in the ancient world, and part of it is now lost.
There is no word yet about what is to be done now to see to it the necropolis is not further destroyed, and there is no word on punishing the perpetrators. With Libya's current regulations and unrest, I am sure the preservation of the necropolis is low on the agenda nationally--but perhaps internationally, some pressure can be put on the Libyan government. The site is, after all, an UNESCO World Heritage Site. For now, all we can do is spread the word. I will keep you updated on further developments.