U.S., Libya join forces to protect Libya’s cultural heritage

Libya is home to some of the world’s great ancient treasures, from the ancient Greek archeological site of Cyrene to the Old Town of Ghadamès, one of the oldest cities in existence. The U.S. and Libya are working together to make sure cultural artifacts stay in Libya and out of the hands of looters and terrorists.

Two men seated signing a document (State Dept.)
The State Department’s Steven Goldstein (right) and Libyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Lutfi Almughrabi sign a pact on cultural property protection. (State Dept.)

The two governments recently signed a landmark agreement that makes it illegal to bring certain archaeological and cultural items from Libya into the United States without official documentation, or risk confiscation by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials.

The agreement “solidifies U.S. and Libya’s joint collaboration to combat looting and trafficking of cultural objects originating from Libya,” Steven Goldstein, an official with the U.S. Department of State, said at the February 23 signing.

The U.S. has agreements with 17 countries to protect and repatriate illegally exported cultural property. The goals of these cultural property agreements are:

  • To reduce the incentive to pillage.
  • To help countries protect their cultural heritage.
  • To increase collaboration and exchange of materials between international museums and cultural institutions.
Broken walls, columns and rocks (© Giuseppe Masci/AGF/UIG/Getty Images)
Founded as a Greek colony circa 630 B.C.E., Cyrene is now an archaeological site on Libya’s eastern coast. Cyrene was placed on UNESCO’s “List of World Heritage in Danger” in 2016. (© Giuseppe Masci/AGF/UIG/Getty Images)

Libya’s cultural wealth under threat

Rocked by years of instability and violence, Libya’s rich cultural heritage sites have slowly and steadily been plundered by terrorists and transnational organized criminal groups, which illegally sell these precious artifacts to fund their activities. At risk are imperial Roman mosaics and wall paintings, marble and stone Greek sculptures, and Islamic artifacts including mosque lamps, coins with Arabic inscriptions and ceramics.

‘This is not an easy matter’

“Under the difficult security situation in Libya and the political division, the country lost much of its archaeological and cultural wealth,” Lutfi Almughrabi, an official with the Libyan government, said through an interpreter at the signing. The international community, including the United States, is working to recover Libya’s stolen property as well as prevent further looting. “However, this is not an easy matter,” Almughrabi said.

Almughrabi said he had just returned from Spain, where a number of Libyan archaeological artifacts were located. The governments of Libya and Spain are working on returning the items to Libya. “Our focus now is on bringing back stability and security to Libya and cutting all routes of financing to terrorist groups and criminal groups in order to eradicate them and end their presence,” Almughrabi said.

“Our policy is clear,” Goldstein reminded the audience. “The unlawful destruction of cultural heritage and the trafficking of cultural property are unacceptable.”