Archive for the ‘Archeology & Heritage’ Category

Should Iraq’s Archeological Treasures Stay in the West?

Sunday, April 12th, 2015

Originally published April 11, 2015 in The Daily Beast (
Are the treasures of the East best kept in the West? Or could huge fines to states that don’t save cultural patrimony help?

“When I was a boy,” the Iraqi diplomat said, “My parents took me to the Louvre and I saw Hammurabi’s Code. I wondered why it wasn’t in Baghdad. Why did we Iraqis have to go to Paris to see it? Why couldn’t the rest of the world come to us? It made me angry.” He paused. “But after ISIS attacked Nimrud, I was glad that these things were not in Iraq.”

Luckily, some monumental Assyrian sculpture from the extraordinary archeological trove at Nimrud was removed in the 19th century and placed in the British Museum in London and the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hatra wasn’t so lucky. Probably founded about 2,400 years ago under the Seleucids, it became the site of one of the first Arab kingdoms known to history, starting in 156 A.D. Although ruled by Muslims for centuries, it held examples of sculpture from an amazing array of artistic traditions, pre-Islamic Arabic as well as Greek, Caananite and Mesopotamian. Hatra was considered by archeologists to be “the best preserved and most informative example of a Parthian city.” No more. What the Prophet Muhammad’s contemporaries saw fit to preserve, ISIS has destroyed.

Last Friday, ISIS released a video showing its fighters chipping off figurative sculpture from Hatra’s ancient walls. Citing Abraham and Muhammad’s destruction of idols, an ISIS spokesman promised more of the same.

“Some of the infidel organizations say the destruction of these alleged artifacts is a war crime,” he added. “We will destroy your artifacts and idols anywhere, and Islamic State will rule your lands.” Of course, Abraham and Muhammad destroyed idols currently being worshipped by their people, not those worshipped thousands of years ago. The video’s musical accompaniment is also bizarre in that most Islamic purists reject any music other than Quranic chanting. But intellectual consistency has never been ISIS’s strong point.

Now that Islamist madmen are on the loose across great swathes of the Middle East and North Africa, we have reason to value the cultural imperialism of years past. It was rationalized, then, as saving treasures from barbarians. Whatever the truth of the matter in those days, there is no doubt now that the barbarians are back with a vengeance.

Since 2011, Islamist fanatics have demolished Sufi tombs and shrines in Egypt and Libya and destroyed shrines and ancient manuscripts in Mali. Last month’s attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunis murdered 19 people—but the next one might be aimed at the artwork within. Tunisia wants to defend its heritage, but is it strong enough? The police response to the attack has raised questions.

Are such treasures of the human race better preserved for all of us—including Iraqis—in stable countries rather than in situ? If we believe that cultural patrimony belongs to all humankind, should the world try to re-locate threatened masterpieces out of harm’s way? Should countries that have a history of neglecting or destroying their past have it taken away from them, like parents deemed unfit by the courts? What happens when a country asks for help—as Iraq’s antiquities officials have done, asking for U.S. airstrikes to prevent further destruction—and it is refused?

These questions have bubbled up from time to time—but mainly when artifacts were threatened with destruction by the ignorant poor. In the 18th century, British travelers to Italy justified their importation of vast quantities of classical statues by the obvious neglect they faced in Italy. Meanwhile, in Athens, marble statuary of the Parthenon was being burned to extract lime. In 1801 Lord Elgin, then the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, began to remove what became known as the “Elgin Marbles,” with the permission of the Ottoman authorities then occupying Greece, intending them for the British Museum, where they have been on exhibit since 1817. The removal was controversial even at the time, and Greece has never stopped trying to get the reliefs returned. While the Greeks have alleged that the Ottomans had no right to give away the heritage of a country they occupied by force, the British have taken the view that the marbles are artifacts of ancient Athens, not contemporary Greek civilization.

What the Prophet Muhammad’s contemporaries saw fit to preserve, ISIS has destroyed.

There is an unlikely precedent for ISIS’s vandalism: Mao’s Cultural Revolution, where “old culture” was one of the Four Olds to be eradicated. Some classical Chinese architecture was destroyed, and great amounts of artifacts and manuscripts. But the aim of Mao’s dreadful actions was not shocking the Western world; it was “reforming” China. The same is true of the Khmer Rouge, which destroyed over 2,000 temples in Cambodia, though luckily not those of Angkor Wat..

ISIS’s attacks on art and archeology appear to be aimed more at shocking the West than at a local audience. Perhaps they are also aimed at potential recruits. Some of the lure of joining a mindless death cult is presumably that it tramples on as many taboos as possible, including that against destroying artistic masterworks. Although many conservative Muslims disapprove of representational art, they don’t usually sledgehammer it. This activity isn’t sanctioned by mainstream Sunni Islam; the grand imam of al Azhar Institute immediately issued a fatwa condemning ISIS’s vandalism in Mosul.

It’s been alleged that the destruction is mainly for propaganda effect and that ISIS intends to sell most of the works to finance itself. Follow up reports indicate that most, though not all of the Mosul Museum Assyrian sculptures shown being sledge-hammered by ISIS on a video released in late February were replicas; the originals are safe in Baghdad.

If it could be accomplished practically, would it be a good idea to remove vulnerable artworks from areas threatened by ISIS?

It’s not an easy call. Ancient artifacts haven’t always been better off in the West. We have wars, too. Babylon’s Ishtar Gate (reconstructed from the original bricks) had a close call under Allied bombing in 1945. Then, the Soviets expropriated the Pergamon’s collection to “protect” it, and it wasn’t returned until 1958, when it went to East Germany. Some items are still in Russian museums, though Germany has requested their return.

Syria has experienced devastating losses of heritage in the recent civil war. Yet forty 3,000-year old statues from Tell Halaf in Syria, housed in a private museum in Berlin, were pulverized by Allied bombing in 1943. The fragments were hidden in the Pergamon Museum until the 1990s. Only in 2011 were they reconstructed and exhibited.

Although it’s hard to imagine the logistics of a terror raid destroying, say, the remaining Assyrian artifacts in the West, it’s not impossible that ISIS might mount attacks on Western museums.

Secondly, this sort of cultural imperialism has been banned since UNESCO’s 1970 “Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property”. The Convention has been adopted by 128 countries. Article 11 states, “The export and transfer of ownership of cultural property under compulsion arising directly or indirectly from the occupation of a country by a foreign power shall be regarded as illicit.”

Following adoption of the convention, many works acquired by occupying armies have been returned to their countries of origin. For instance, the Venus of Leptis Magna— stolen from Libya by the Italians when they invaded with no justification whatsoever in 1911, and given to that noted humanitarian Hermann Goering— was returned to Italy in 1999 and thence to Libya. So far as we know, it’s safe today—but for how long?

Unfortunately, Iraq never ratified the 1970 Convention or the 1972 Convention on World Heritage. Iraq has also never acceded to the Rome Statute, allowing it to petition the ICC to take action against ISIS; Libya hasn’t either.

Can the international community intervene to save art works at risk? According to the convention, only if the affected country asks for help. Article 11 also means that a foreign army can’t seize antiquities unilaterally, even if its motivation is to save them. This doesn’t bode well if a country is taken over by a group of fanatics, as ISIS threatens to do in Syria and as the Khmer Rouge did in Cambodia.

The legal framework for world cultural heritage hasn’t caught up to the latest outbreak of evil, but sooner or later it will; we live in a globalized, multi-lateral, interventionist world now. There also huge practical issues when the cultural goods to be protected are whole ruined cities, like Nimrud in Iraq, or the large archeological sites in Libya which many experts worry could be next.

There are measures that the international community could take for the moment. In cases where there is still a national government in the area, the government could offer financial rewards to local people who protect heritage and resist destroyers. The government could also announce that it will hold individuals who destroy heritage—and their heirs—legally liable both criminally and civilly. An Englishman who travels to Iraq to join ISIS and is videotaped destroying Iraqi heritage could be sued, even if it is years later, for the $10 million stone lion he destroyed. If he’s killed, his estate would shoulder the liability.

More compellingly, perhaps, the UNESCO conventions could be amended so as to fine states for failing to prevent destruction. I’d suggest fines in the billions, to make the seriousness of the issue clear (and encourage local protectors and whistleblowers). Iraqi soldiers are free to run away from ISIS—but the Iraqi government will then be liable to UNESCO for the damage ISIS caused to world patrimony. Yemeni Houthis are free to overrun their elected government—but if they destroy the mud brick architecture of Sanaa, not only they but the impotent government will pay. (In fact, the Houthis are unlikely to destroy heritage because they don’t have an iconoclast tradition.)

It may sound unfair to hit a weak state when it’s down, but it’s the flipside of all the good intentions of the UNESCO conventions. If a state deserves custody of its treasures, it also has a responsibility for them. In some cases, a weak state’s main assets are its heritage— Yemen isn’t a bad example. It doesn’t produce much of value, but it does have Sanaa.

Implementing punishments like this—and seizing the assets of states that don’t protect their patrimony—would show the people who have stood by as ISIS destroyed their treasures that even if they don’t value them, the world does. It might even convince them to value them, in the same way that they learned to value Western designer brands because the market put a high price on them. And slowly, perhaps, a real appreciation of their heritage would come, and a culture that would once again make treasures which the world holds in awe.

Broken Ruins, Ruined Societies

Tuesday, March 24th, 2015

originally published on The Daily Beast, 3/16/2015 (

Broken Ruins, Ruined Societies: It’s Not Just ISIS Destroying History

Widespread apathy in the Muslim world about the destruction of antiquities, including those central to the history of Islam and the Bible, threatens our global heritage.
The recent vandalization of Nimrud and Hatra by the so-called Islamic State—and the destruction of lesser shrines in Libya by local Islamists, which started in 2012—is not an isolated phenomenon. It stems from deep-seated pathologies afflicting the Muslim world.
Yes, many Arabs and Muslims condemn these actions. But many don’t quite see what the fuss is about—or are willing to defer to those who feel strongly that Islamic taboos trump historical value. And while most of the developed world believes that a 2,000-year-old monument has moral value because it is part of the historical record, much of the Muslim world does not share the Western understanding of “the historical record” or its importance.
It is not only the Islamic State, widely known as ISIS, that is eradicating the Muslim past. Much of Mecca’s history has been bulldozed in recent years. In Mali, hardline Islamist militia Ansar Dine destroyed 1,000-year-old Sufi saints’ tombs and torched priceless ancient manuscripts in Timbuktu in 2012. And the vandalism in Libya began long before ISIS arrived there.
In August 2012 I saw the immediate aftermath of the destruction of a Sufi Muslim shrine by local Islamists just outside the Radisson Blu hotel in Tripoli. A few people did try to stop the demolition, and were beaten for their pains; most people, even archeologists, kept their heads down and did nothing. (Our State Department was courting these same Islamists at the time.)
A number of educated Libyans I know conceded the plausibility of the hardline Wahabi argument that tombs should not be located inside mosques. But that doesn’t mean tombs have to be bulldozed; they could be relocated, especially to a museum where no one would be in danger of the crime of “worshipping” them.
Belatedly, the Egyptian Islamic Institute al Azhar, the greatest mainstream authority in Sunni Islam, issued a fatwa against the destruction of ancient artifacts, dismissing ISIS claims they are “idols” and declaring them “an important part of our collective legacy that must not be harmed.” The Malian government, saved by the French military in 2013 and backed by UNESCO, is making an effort to rebuild some of the heritage sites in Timbuktu wantonly destroyed in 2012, and locals managed to smuggle many of the ancient manuscripts during the jihadist occupation, risking their lives or the amputation of their limbs for doing so.
But none of the so-called moderates in the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya has stepped up to the plate to support conservation measures in Libya. And even where Islamic taboos aren’t an issue, simple greed has led to heritage destruction. In August 2013 in eastern Libya, profiteers destroyed part of a Greek necropolis simply to sell the land underneath.
Most Libyans don’t understand their glorious ruins as hallowed by time, because such an understanding is based on believing in the primacy of the real over the fake or the copy. And that in turn depends on believing in objective reality.
Libyans, like Iraqis and other peoples who have lived under dictators for a very long time, have been exposed to a steady diet of fake news and disinformation. So, there is an inability to imagine that there might be a more-or-less objective truth about historical events, and a lack of interest in discovering that truth and publicizing it. Yes, Libyans—like citizens of other Arab Spring countries—like revealing gossip and financial misdeeds, usually on Facebook; I call it “government by Facebook”; Russians call it “compromat.” But all too many don’t seem to believe in a truth, just in plausible versions. You might call these Libyans naïve post-modernists.
This leads to an inability to condemn the destruction of heritage—and sometimes even to the denial that atrocities have occurred. There’s widespread denial of any event that makes Muslims—especially in one’s own country—look bad. A Libyan friend with a master’s in public health just told me that the ISIS video of the killing of the 21 Egyptian Coptic fisherman was “a fake”; finally, he admitted that it might be real, but claimed that it happened in Egypt, not Libya. I am sure there are many Iraqis who will argue that the videos of the destruction of Nimrud are fake.
There’s widespread denial of any event that makes Muslims—especially in one’s own country—look bad.
The lack of interest in facts leads to a worldview in which everything that happens has a provisional reality; it might or might not be true. (This includes religious dicta: if some fanatic says the Quran allows something, or forbids it, many Muslims will give him the benefit of the doubt.) And this, together with the “inshallah” mentality, which says that if God wills it, it will happen, leads to the fatal passivity in the face of extremism which has been all too common in post-revolutionary Libya—not to mention Iraq.
Libyans lived in Greek colonies and served in the Roman Senate; the Emperor Septimus Severus was a Libyan. Democracy and classical culture are as much part of Libya’s heritage as of Britain’s. The current chaos and rise of Islamic extremists in both Iraq and Libya—and Syria and Yemen—isn’t an argument against the eventual viability of democracy in these countries, or against the West supporting uprisings against Arab tyrants, or against the moral value of the human beings who live in these countries. It is exactly what might be expected from the broken people of a broken culture, who have decades of catching up to the rest of the world ahead of them. There is no time like the present for them to start, and with our support.
There are carrots and sticks that we can use. One of the sticks was recently suggested by Eric Gibson in a Wall Street Journal op-ed: putting some teeth into the sections of the U.N. Hague Convention of 1954 to punish the destruction of cultural heritage as a war crime. Carrots would include making monetary awards to those who preserve cultural heritage in the face of grave risk, like the “book smugglers” of Timbuktu, the Libyans who guarded their classical ruins during the revolution, and those who preserved the artifacts of the Baghdad and Kabul museums. It is of course the Muslim world that has the most to gain from preserving its heritage. Ironically, if ISIS succeeds in its nihilistic goals, it will destroy the evidence of Muslim artistic achievements.

Hello, Libya (Libyan archeology) orig. pub. Jan 23 in The Weekly Standard

Monday, January 23rd, 2012

Hello, Libya
Does the fall of Qaddafi mean the rise of tourism?
Ann Marlowe
January 30, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 19


Thirty years ago, few Americans were aware that Turkey has nearly as many classical Greek ruins as Greece. Today, Libya’s Greek and Roman remains are similarly unknown to Americans.

It’s understandable: Americans were banned from visiting Libya from 1981 until 2004 under sanctions that eventually led Muammar Qaddafi to give up his weapons of mass destruction and partially open the Libyan economy. Relations began to be normalized in 2006; the U.S. embassy opened in Tripoli that year. Group tourism, under strictly controlled conditions, was begun; but Qaddafi’s initial embrace of tourism proved fickle, and after some charter groups were turned away at the Tripoli airport for not having Arabic translations of their passports, numbers dwindled. The last year of revolution brought many more foreign visitors to Libya, but it is safe to say that very few American tourists were among them.

Now, in 2012, as it prepares for its first free, universal-suffrage elections, Libya (especially eastern Libya) would make a fine destination for the adventurous lover of classical civilization. And as Libya stabilizes, Americans will have a new country to discover—with nearly a dozen important sites, most within sight of the striking Mediterranean coastline.

As I write, the western part of the country, home to the best-known sites, Leptis Magna and Sabratha, is significantly less stable than the east, known as Cyrenaica. While a visitor should see both areas, the coast between the Egyptian border and the revolutionary capital of Benghazi offers more variety than the west, including the unique Berber site of Slonta. The ruined cities of Cyrene, Apollonia, and Tolmeitha, and the Christian site of Qasr Libya, compare favorably with any Mediterranean destination—even Greece itself.

Libya has been isolated for decades, and culturally marginal for centuries, but it was central in the classical world. Benghazi, the capital of Cyrenaica (and from February to August 2011 the capital of Free Libya), was the ancient Euesperides, named after the Hesperides, the women guarding the golden apples given to Hera when she married Zeus. The Hesperides are supposed to have lived in a sunken garden, which Richard Goodchild, one of the main mid-20th-century researchers on Cyrenaica, identified with one of the sinkholes that still exist about 10 kilometers from Benghazi. The inland area around Benghazi is supposed to have been the location of the legendary Greek river of the dead, Lethe.

Greek settlers arrived from Santorini to found Cyrene—the namesake city for Cyrenaica—in the 7th century b.c. The city that would later be known as Benghazi, Euesperides, set up a republic around 440 b.c. Alexander the Great tossed the Persians out of Egypt and Cyrenaica in 332 b.c. before founding Alexandria. A few years later, Cyrenaica came under the control of the neighboring Egyptian Ptolemaic dynasty, and was ruled by the Ptolemies or their successors until it was made a Roman province in 74 b.c.

In the Roman years, the Libyan and Roman populations coalesced, and distinctive forms of local architecture sprang up. Libyans sent numerous senators to Rome and gave her an emperor, Septimus Severus, born in Leptis Magna. Inscriptions mingled Latin with Punic, which is related to Phoenician. Christian communities emerged in Cyrenaica relatively early since there was a substantial Jewish presence. Simon of Cyrene carried the cross at Calvary, and St. Mark was a Jew of Cyrene: Local legend holds that he wrote his Gospel in a cave still known as Wadi Marcus near Derna in the Jebel Akhdar Mountains, before going on to become bishop of Alexandria.

Vandal and Arab invasions led to deurbanization and the abandonment of some of the cities of Cyrenaica. Two years after Cairo fell to the Arabs in 641 they entered Libya, and Barca, today’s Al Marj, became their administrative seat. One of the Companions of the Prophet, Rawevfi ben Thabit, was an early governor of Barca. He was buried in 663 at the Great Mosque of Barca, but was later moved to Bayda and a mosque called Sidi Rafa. (Non-Muslims are welcome, but nothing remains of its original construction.) Cyrenaica lapsed into a sleepy irrelevance during the Fatimid period, and when locals rebelled against Cairo in 1040 the Fatimids sent the nomadic Banu Hilal against them. The destruction and desertification they caused ended Libya’s cultural significance.

Indeed, it was not until seven centuries later (1705) that Europeans noted the existence of Cyrene again—and the consequences of European attention were far better for the Europeans than the Libyans. In 1861 two Britons, Robert Murdoch Smith and Edwin Porcher, transported nearly 150 statues to the British Museum. Cyrene was systematically explored, beginning in 1913, when Italian workmen accidentally unearthed a masterwork that was then displayed in Rome’s Campidoglio Museums but returned to Libya in 2008. The colonial government performed a primitive sort of restoration in Cyrene—indeed, across the Libyan littoral—while simultaneously killing as much as a third of the Libyan population.

Because of the intervening world wars, little additional work was done anywhere in Libya until the 1950s, when Libya gained its independence. Then, after just 18 years under King Idris, the Qaddafi era began. And because the colonel viewed the classical sites as artifacts of a hateful colonial past, he was disinclined to take care of them.

The Cyrenaican sites can be approached from the Egyptian border, or by flying to Benghazi and driving toward Egypt. Either way, it’s best to spend at least one night at the seaside hotel in Apollonia, which is built next to the ruins. (Both the four-star Uzu and five-star Tibesti hotels in Benghazi are comfortable, the latter even luxurious.) Benghazi itself is a spirited but badly rundown port, though with the cobalt-blue sea always in the background, and a way of life centered around drinking endless espressos and smoking endless cigarettes, it feels as much Mediterranean as Arabic. Its classical buildings fell victim to a fourth-century earthquake and nomadic, Vandal, and Arab raids in the early Middle Ages. Extensive bombing during World War II, when the city changed hands five times, finished off most of the Ottoman-era buildings. The oldest structures are from the Italian occupation of the 1920s and ’30s, so the lover of antiquity will want to make a speedy getaway to the ruins nearby.

Beginning from Benghazi, the first significant site is Tolmeitha. These ruins may be the largest of any Roman provincial capital, and they are barely excavated. Yet while Cyrene is a world heritage site, the Libyan government’s request to obtain the same status for Tolmeitha was rejected by UNESCO. It was certainly the poorest place I saw on the eastern coast, but also potentially the most beautiful, with palm groves next to the sea and acacias a mile inland near the ruins.

The major part of the ruins of Tolmeitha are about a mile-and-a-half inland on a dirt road that leads back from the sea toward the main highway but does not connect with it. In a scene that can have changed little from classical times, shepherds grazed their flocks and a group of rural women strode happily through the groves of pines and acacias. The not-very-evocative remains of the Arch of Constantine are to your left walking uphill away from the sea, but the first major group of ruins at Tolmeitha is the Villa of Columns. This looks from a distance like a public structure, but it was a private home that included a large pool. The renovation here seems to have been minimal, and so the site is much more interesting than Cyrene or Apollonia. Endless scraps of red, sometimes black, pottery everywhere suggest the vast remains still below ground.

After a short walk southwest the small (four-tier) theater faces not the sea, as is more usual, but the pastoral landscape. And near the theater is the most spectacular part of Tolmeitha: On a small rise is a football-field-sized Greek agora, later a Roman forum. Just a handful of pillars are still standing, but these are much taller than the ones at the Villa of the Columns, and, once you see them, the contrast between private and public spaces is clear. The star attraction, though, is underneath the agora: A huge, well-preserved Roman cistern, the largest in Africa, extends the full size of the forum.

Since Tolmeitha had no fresh water supply, the Romans built a 15-mile aqueduct to provide the cistern with water. In the period of insecurity during the fourth century the aqueduct broke, leading to depopulation; it was repaired by the emperor Justinian. Down a flight of stone steps is a series of linked rectangular rooms, dimly lit by openings to the agora above, and almost as impressive as Istanbul’s underground cistern, though not nearly as lofty.

To reach Qasr Libya, literally “Castle Libya,” a church built in 539 that houses some of Libya’s finest mosaics, I left the coast road and turned in to the mountains. Qasr Libya was known in Roman times as Olbia, then renamed Theodorais to honor Justinian’s wife, Theodora, who grew up in nearby Apollonia. The site was rediscovered by Libyan laborers in 1957. Fifty panels of Qasr Libya’s mosaics—which include a scene showing the lighthouse of Alexandria, about 500 miles away—are housed in a small museum, opened in 1972. A voluntary guard proudly showed me that the front door had been welded shut, to prevent looting, shortly after the 2011 protests began. Unfortunately, the tin roof above the sixth-century “western” church is leaking, with damage to the mosaics below. The “eastern” church next to the museum was firmly shut at the time of my visit, but by an easy climb to the roof you can see the severely elegant stone-block interior.

Tolmeitha can be seen in two or three hours, Qasr Libya in another couple of hours if the mosaics are open. From Qasr Libya it’s almost an hour’s drive east and then inland to Cyrene. Though the original colonists of Cyrene arrived in obedience to a dictate of the oracle at Delphi, much of what can be seen at Cyrene is Roman and dates from the second century a.d. The town had to be rebuilt after the Jewish revolt of 115 to 117 a.d., in which the large Jewish population destroyed huge swaths of Cyrene, focusing particularly on the pagan temples.

About a half mile from the main Cyrene site the Temple of Zeus, built between 540 and 450 b.c., is the most important Greek monument in Africa, bigger than the Parthenon. Sandro Stucchi points to its “optical refinements .  .  . the columns all have different diameters, and their inclination is different” to produce a uniform impression on the viewer from any angle. But the temple’s staggering size makes it difficult to focus on these details; it seems more aimed at impressing than inspiring the viewer. But its absence of soul may be the result of crude restoration: The post-revolt construction was mainly destroyed by an earthquake in 365 and the temple savaged by zealous Christians. Many of the statues were cut into pieces.

Another fascinating aspect of Cyrene is the enormous necropolis, one of the largest in the ancient world, which lines the winding road to Susa/Apollonia. Some of the tombs are huge, many are finely worked, but visiting requires some caution when the road is busy. The tombs I was able to get to were filled with litter and graffiti, but others further from the road are more pristine.

Apollonia has the most beautiful site of any of the pentapolis, with some buildings just yards from the sea. The star attractions are the theater, three sixth-century Christian churches that incorporate earlier architectural elements, and a Byzantine governor’s palace discovered by an American team in 1964. (There’s a small prison underneath, which can be entered by those immune to claustrophobia.) Apollonia today lies much closer to the Mediterranean than it originally did: After the 365 earthquake, the sea reclaimed portions of the town. Some ruins are visible in what’s now the modern harbor. A French archaeological team picked up the challenge in 1954 and have worked there, intermittently, ever since. It isn’t clear who did some of the very sloppy restoration work, or when: Crude mortar joins masonry blocks and even half-columns laid on their side. Cement is slathered in what may have been an effort to prevent water damage.

The Greek theater, renovated under Domitian around 92 a.d., still has its 28 tiers of seats—the biggest Greek theater in Cyrenaica—and a spectacular location looking out to the sea. The Eastern Church, which in its unroofed state looks purely classical and may have been a Temple of Apollo, is the only church where the pillars were still standing when the British began excavations in 1952. There are finely carved crosses in its 18 tall marble pillars—and on their backs, more crudely written bismillahs (the opening verse of the Koran) from the early Arab period. Close to the sea, to the left of the altar as you face it, there is a lovely baptistery, with a cruciform sunken font and a section of marble flooring and baseboard.

But the most mysterious site in eastern Libya is pre-Greek, with connections to Berber art in other North African countries. Slonta, or Aslonta, a dismal market town, contains a ruined grotto temple with 25 feet of bas-relief carvings of tremendous force and freshness. First mentioned in print in 1886, and documented in 1911, it was restored as recently as 1993.