Looters attack Libyan ruins

Once a major city of the ancient world, Cyrene, today rests in ruins in Libya. Now open again to the world, the site is victimized by looters, the bane of archaeologists everywhere.

Governed at different times by Greek colonists, Egyptian lords and Roman emperors, Cyrene's rulers included Alexander the Great, Marc Antony and Cleopatra. In "one of the great catastrophes of history," according to a 1981 International Council on Monuments and Sites report, the city was finally conquered by an earthquake and tidal wave in 365 A.D.

The city was founded around 440 B.C. by Greek colonists from Thera, the island best known for the eruption of the volcano Santorini around 1600 B.C. The eruption is thought to have destroyed the Minoan civilization and perhaps inspired the legend of Atlantis.

Earlier this month, Iason Athanasiadis, an experienced cultural reporter who has covered stories throughout the Middle East, reported on looting at Cyrene for The National, a publication in the United Arab Emirates. A World Heritage Site, the looting of Cyrene and nearby sites "has accelerated since 2003, with an unprecedented gutting of Libya's ancient heritage sites ," he wrote.

For this column, I had hoped to talk to Iason, 30, about his reporting from Libya. However on June 17, he was detained in Tehran, where he had reported on events there, while trying to board a plane out of Iran. So, his reporting will have to speak for him.

A Greek citizen, Iason knows from political disputes. Perhaps the most famous international one in Greece is the long-running battle with the United Kingdom over the Elgin Marbles, a sculpture collection now residing in the British Museum. Greek authorities last month opened a museum in Athens to house the Marbles, which were removed from Parthenon from 1801 to 1804.

Libya's desert air, and disinterest, has led to spectacular preservation of sites like Cyrene and Leptis Magna, an almost intact Roman city.

The 1981 monuments council report concluded: "Cyrene, which was described by geographers from Herodotus to Synesius, its praises sung by Pindar and Callimathus, is not only one of the cities of the Mediterranean world around which myths, legends and stories have been woven over more than a thousand years, but it is also one of the most impressive ruin complexes in the entire world."

When it was the ancient Roman province of "Cyrenaica," the city enjoyed a milder climate and widespread irrigation in the days of the Roman Empire. The region was one of the breadbaskets of Rome, which made its loss to the barbarian Vandals in 439 AD, one of the final wounds to the Western Roman Empire.

At Cyrene, Athanasiadis found that poor villagers are digging up sites for coins, statue's heads and other artifacts to sell to middle-men in Egypt, who sell them to art dealers in Europe. However, earlier this year, Libya announced eco-tourism plans for Cyrene and other sites. One looter complained the announcement has led to a crackdown on his sales pitches to tourists.

So, a plaything of politics for centuries, Cyrene's fate still rests on the vagaries of history, much like the people who live there, study its ruins or report on its fortunes.