Vandals destroy prehistoric rock art in Libya’s lawless Sahara

TADRART ACACUS, Libya: Vandals have destroyed several pieces of prehistoric rock art in southern Libya, endangering a sprawling tableau of paintings and carvings classified by UNESCO as of “outstanding universal value.”

Located along the lawless southwestern tip of Libya that borders Algeria, the Tadrart Acacus mountain massif is famous for thousands of cave paintings and carvings that have been dated back to 14,000 years.

Painted or carved on rocks over thousands of years, and now sandwiched by spectacular sand dunes, the rock art reveals millennia of changes in the Sahara’s flora and fauna.

Highlights include a huge elephant carved on a rock face as well as giraffes, cows and ostriches rendered in caves that date back to an era when the region’s climate was not that of today’s inhospitable desert.

In a visit to Libya’s remote far south, Reuters found many paintings destroyed or defaced by spray-painted graffiti and carved initials.

Tourist officials in Ghat, the nearest large town, said the vandalism started around 2009 when a former Libyan employee of a foreign tour company sprayed over several paintings in anger.

It seems he had just been fired.

The destruction has accelerated since the 2011 civil war that ousted dictator Moammar Gadhafi and then plunged the sprawling North African country into widespread armed anarchy.

With tourists and archaeologists staying away for want of security in the region, hunters have taken over the Acacus massif, killing much of the wildlife across the rugged landscape.

With the central government based in Tripoli on the northern Mediterranean coast, the state exerts scant authority in the south, where weapons are available anywhere and the nascent armed forces is overmatched by armed tribesmen and militias.

“The destruction is not just affecting the paintings but also the natural reserve. Hunters are to blame,” said Ahmad Sarhan, a Tourist Ministry official in Ghat. “It’s even a problem in Algeria. Authorities are too weak to stop it.”

Wildlife such as gazelles and wolves had been almost extinguished by local hunters, Sarhan added.

“[Acacus] contains some of the most extraordinary scenery in the world and has its unique natural wonders,” UNESCO, the United Nations cultural agency, said on its website. UNESCO has listed Acacus as a World Heritage site, one of 981 worldwide recognized for their outstanding universal value to humanity.

“Many tourists [once] visited the area, in particular Acacus since it is one of the best touristic locations in Libya,” said tour operator Amin al-Ansari. He stood before a cave whose paintings of camels and other animals has been defaced by graffiti.

“The destruction of paintings is regrettable.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 04, 2014, on page 16.




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