The Libyan Experience in Preserving the Medieval Heritage (archaeological and manuscript) : what has been achieved, what the current situation is and what we propose
by Salah Agab (Arabic) and Sébastien Garnier (English)
The Libyan Experience in Preserving the Medieval Heritage (Archaeological and Manuscript): what has been achieved, what the current situation is and what we propose.
Dr Salah Agab (Permanent Delegate of Libya to UNESCO, Paris)
Dr Salah Agab is the Permanent Delegate of Libya to UNESCO (Paris). He took his PhD in 2004 at the University of Milan, having received his training in Classical Archaeology. He held positions at both the Libyan Antiquities Authority — which he led between 2009 and 2013, or where he monitored the field researches between 2016 and 2018 — and the Libyan University where he directed e.g. the Department of Archaeology at the Omar al-Mukhtar University in Beida between 2006 and 2007. He took part in many excavation campaigns within Libyan and international teams. He has published many scientific articles in renowned journals (Quaderni di Archeologia della Libya, Libya Antiqua or Libyan Studies).
Past excavations and studies are precisous data, e.g. travellers of the 17th and 18th centuries who would provide descriptions of the places they crossed. The Italian occupation somehow neglected the question of “heritage” for what followed the Greco-Roman civilization. After WWII, we should mention first the works of Richard Goodchild and David Oates, then of Charles Daniels, David Whitehouse and Géza Fehérvári. With the independence, nationals started looking into the issue, like Abdulhamid Abdussaid, Masʿūd Shaghlūf or ʿAlī al-Ballūsh.
Among the oldest witnesses, we could evoke the fort (stronghold) of Tocra — discovered after WWII — that was reused by the Muslim conquerors in the 2nd half of the 1st/7th century and became a permanent settlement. On the whole, one should keep in mind the great variety of the medieval cultural patrimony.
The National Administration and how they care about this patrimony
The Libyan Antiquities Authority was created in the aftermath of the independence (1951) and the first law to protect cultural heritage was promulgated in 1953, the same year Libya joined UNESCO. Then started the first studies about the preservation of the remnants of the Middle Ages: teams excavated the Fatimid castle of Ajdabiya, the Islamic cities of Sirte and Zuwayla, along with scientific publications.
What are the current challenges?
There are natural challenges, due to erosion and climatic changes, on the one side, but also to the poor quality of the materials employed in their building.
There are human challenges, especially the urban sprawl, the abandonment of sites, the extremist ideologies, the administrative inadequacies and a lack in consciouness.
The impact of war on the medieval heritage
The direct consequences result from armed clashes that took place in some monuments or targeted them, causing damages. The indirect effects derive from the political instability and its negativeness on the state action, e.g. the delisting of sites.
What has been achieved?
Here are some examples on which the future can be built up:
- the excavations in the medieval city of Sirte; we are talking about Medinat al-Sultan, 54 km in the south-east of modern Sirte
- the creation of the Historic Cities Authority (جهاز إدارة المدن التاريخية)
- the creation of the Ghadamis City Promotion and Development Authority (جهاز تنمية وتطوير مدينة غدامس)
- the launch of various studies focusing on fortifications and citadels
- the renovation project of the Islamic museum
- the renovation project to turn the Qayqab castle into a museum of immaterial heritage
- the increase of the specialized staff working on the Islamic archaeology
The immaterial heritage and its importance
A lot of social practices still bear imprints of the Middle Ages (and even of older periods). Today’s Libyan patrimony can teach us a lot about occupations and traditions that originated in this past. The methodology we want to support is a regressing one, going backwards from our present in order to reach the Pre-Ottoman era. The Djebel Nefusa can be seen as a case-study.
The documents and manuscripts
These are certainly the evidences which historians mostly rely on when they aim at framing a picture of the medieval epoch, notably when it comes to depicting the landscape, the monuments and the human activities. However, the Libyan situation compared to its neighbours is far from easy: many pieces have either been stolen or plundered in a war context, but also decayed and suffered bad care.
This said, we should remind the audience of the main deposits:
- The Ghadames Center for Manuscripts (مركز غدامس للمخطوطات) is one of the best local undertakings and it benefits of rich documentary deposits due to the situation of the oasis on trade roads during centuries and thanks to the dry climate which helped preserving thousands of items at least.
- The Center of Historical Studies (the former مركز الجهاد) specialized in the conservation of documents and manuscripts and gathering collections from different branches that had operated separately before, e.g. the Body of Awqāf (هيئة الأوقاف) or the Authority of Antiquities (مصلحة الآثار). On the whole it comprises 6630 manuscripts among them 1670 are originals.
- The University Library of Benghazi had opened in the new premices of this institution in 1974. It keeps about 2750 manuscripts; 900 of them come from the zaouia of Jaghbub (the Senussi’s headquarters at a time).
- The National Library (دار الكتب الوطنية) is cataloging 120 mss currently.
The role of UNESCO to preserve the medieval cultural heritage
- The organization establishes a list called “World Heritage Sites”. The classification of endangered ones alerts the persons in charge that they should take steps to restore these landmarks or areas. A study-case is Ghadames whose old town was inscribed in 1986 under a UNESCO convention (https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/362/). The local actors succeeded in implementing the requested measures and Ghadames should be removed from the “List of World Heritage in Danger” (https://whc.unesco.org/en/danger/).
- The Libyan delegation cooperates with international experts to treat documents and manuscripts as part of the IFAP platform. This “Information for all Programme” (https://en.unesco.org/programme/ifap) aims at sharing data in the knowledge society by digitizing and making these accessible to everyone.
- The Libyan delegation also closely collaborates with the University of Benghazi to train their staff with specialists in order to preserve their collections according to professional standards.
- We also mention various programmes developed in the aftermath of the 2011 Revolution to sustain the teams engaged in the fields of protection and cataloging.
- Besides, some Islamic sites have been recorded on the preliminary list of ALECSO (the Arab League of Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (المنظمة العربية للتربية والثقافة والعلوم).
- Last but not least, UNESCO urges the Libyan legislative and executive authorities to validate the existing cultural agreements.
What is in sight…
The identified monuments have to be registered, restored and preserved. Excavation campaigns will be relentlessly encouraged for the Islamic period. Moreover, looking into the administration of the cultural heritage seems necessary. One should not dismiss the rich inspiration that must be retrieved from the neighbouring experiences: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Mali and Egypt, they all share common features, materials and climatic conditions with Libya.
How can the medieval cultural heritage raise the consciousness about the importance of heritage?
The definition of heritage in Libya was bound with the colonial framework and hence limited itself to the classical era and dismissed what followed, but also what was locally relevant. Reconnecting the people to a closer epoch can make them understand the weight of older phases, but also have them better grasp the involvement of local actors. It will finally prove vital to reshape in the educative programmes and at the university the periodization on which the history of the country has been built.
A global national vision is required to sketch what it means to preserve the Libyan medieval heritage. It demands the elaboration of a national inventory that would precisely record the medieval cultural heritage. Then follows a key operation: this heritage has to be digitized and made accessible to the public.
The monitoring of the whole process should be a joint procedure where the local players have been empowered and share full responsibility in the management of conservation, restoration and investment. This will be accompanied by training programmes enhancing the skills of the various technician staffs in charge with these three domains.
The Libyan authorities must be urged on participating in international agreements in the field. The ultimate goal is to raise the consciousness and the appraisal of the medieval cultural heritage.
The ppt of the presentation is available infra with the kind permission of Dr Salah Agab. We renew our warm thanks for his rich presentation.
Citer ce billet
Sébastien Garnier (2022, 20 octobre). The Libyan Experience in Preserving the Medieval Heritage (archaeological and manuscript) : what has been achieved, what the current situation is and what we propose. LibMed. Consulté le 24 février 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/qvrs