Cyrene dates back to about 700 B.C. and was the oldest and largest Greek colony in eastern Libya, a region now known as Cyrenaica. Of the city’s former glory remains an enormous necropolis — nearly 10 square kilometers in size — used between 600 and 400 B.C. The necropolis includes 1,200 burial vaults dug into the bedrock and thousands of individual sarcophagi that lie on the ground.
The city is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, but local farmers have laid claim to certain parts of the necropolis and recently destroyed a section with the help of excavators in order to make way for new houses.
Ahmed Hussein, an archaeology professor in Bayda University in eastern Libya, inspected the place and talked to France 24-International News about the situation there.
“In Libya, customs and practices tend to carry more weight than the written law. This land traditionally belongs to families who live in nearby farms. They have no official documents that prove that they own the land, yet their claims are not contested. Under Muammar Gaddafi, these families did not dare try to act on these claims. But now, they have transformed the archaeological site into a construction zone,” he explained.
“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,” professor Hussein said.
He pointed out how much he tried to stop the necropolis’ destruction and pointed out that the authorities are not willing to act in order to prevent the destruction of this invaluable archaeological heritage:
“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.”
Hussein concluded: “Now, part of this ancient necropolis is forever lost. And the situation is likely to get worse if the government continues to do nothing, because it will encourage other families to destroy cemeteries located on their land.”