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Libya Is Slowly Blooming for Foreign Archeologists

December 06, 1987|JENNIFER PARMELEE | Associated Press

ROME — Like a flower unfolding one petal at a time, Libya is slowly reopening the door to foreign help in digging up--and showing off--its vast array of archeological treasures.

From the beautiful Temple of Zeus on the northern coast, once the largest Greek temple in Africa and often compared to the Parthenon in Athens, to important prehistoric paintings and carvings in the southernmost reaches of the Sahara, the North African country is richly veined with history.

At a recent conference in Rome on archeological finds in northern Libya, Ali Khadori, chairman of the Libyan Department of Antiquities, issued an invitation to foreign help.

Help Sought

"The archeological sites in Libya . . . constitute the patrimony of all humanity and we need to safeguard it," he said. "(Libyan leader) Moammar Kadafi is promoting this very strongly. We're asking all certified archeologists and other specialists, from Britain and other countries, to contact us to work on projects."

Khadori's department, with help from the Italians and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), also put on a major exhibition at Rome's Museo della Civilta Romana of photographs, scale models and the history of archeological jewels from Libya's coastal areas.

Archeologists say the show, which opened Nov. 4 and runs to Dec. 14, is the largest to date of Libyan archeology outside the tightly closed country. Politics have interfered in Libyan archeology in recent years.

One case involved the Libyan Valleys Project, a survey of Roman-era fortified farms that flourished 2,000 years ago on now sparsely populated arid land bordering the desert.

Involved UNESCO Funds

The project, aimed at discovering how those farms functioned, was given top priority by Kadafi as part of his dreams of "making the desert bloom."

"If archeology is to be practiced at all," Kadafi said, "then at least let it be relevant to the needs of the people today."

The work involved funds from UNESCO, but also a British archeological team. And when diplomatic relations between Libya and Britain collapsed in April, 1984, with the shooting of a British policewoman from inside the Libyan Embassy in London, the project was put on hold.

Other archeological work has been postponed as well, a trend that may have also reflected loss of oil revenues, which dropped off sharply in the past few years.

More Projects Expected

But next spring, the Libyan Valleys Project is scheduled to continue its work along the Saharan fringe about 125 miles south of Tripoli, according to Libyan officials and archeologists involved in the project. Other such projects are expected to follow.

At present, the only people able to see Libya's treasures are Libyans themselves and foreign workers, since tourism is not officially encouraged.

A third visible sign of the renewed Libyan interest is the opening in Tripoli, the capital, of a new archeological museum, which Khadori says is scheduled for March.

Elegantly designed within the historic Al Hamra Castle, with Italian marble floors, painstakingly designed exhibits and a wealth of treasures, the museum will cost Libya and UNESCO about $40 million, according to Khadori.

Search for Native Roots

"It shows they are putting their money where their mouth is," said Prof. John Lloyd of Sheffield University in Britain, who worked on Libyan sites until 10 years ago. "It does argue that they are prepared to make a sizable investment" in archeology.

Inherent in Libya's revived interest in archeology is a determined search for native Libyan and Islamic roots--as opposed to colonial culture that was imposed on the country.

The new Tripoli museum, which this writer was allowed to see during a visit earlier this year to Libya, carefully emphasizes Arab contributions, such as colorful and intricate mosaics crafted by Libyan artists in the Roman period, from the 1st Century BC to the 4th Century, and beautifully constructed markets and theaters in the ancient seaside city of Leptis Magna.

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