Ancient Culture Under Attack

On Oct. 22, Professor Emerita Jaimee P. Uhlenbrock presented a lecture focused on archaeology in conflict zones, especially in Cyrene, Libya, the wealthiest ancient Greek city-state in North Africa.

Uhlenbrock explained that her work in Cyrene involved studying Greek, small-scale, terra cotta sculptures from the Extramural Sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone. Since her last visit there in 1981, she has not been able to return due to deteriorating political tensions between the United States and Libya. As a result of the recent conflict in Libya, she is not even sure if the material that she has been studying is still safe.

Aside from uncontrolled looting, Uhlenbrock says, the archaeological site of Cyrene, near the modern town of Shahat, is being devastated by small groups of powerful business individuals seeking to profit from land rich in heritage.

“I hear of stories of bulldozers going over tombs because of tourism, the people of Shahat want more land,” she said. “There is no government to control it so demolition continues without legal consequence. Cyrene is now overrun by militia and the uneducated. Unfortunately, they don’t have an appreciation for their history.”

The destruction of the cultural heritage in some areas of Libya and the potential for continuing that destruction is of grave concern.  Uhlenbrock explained that what has been happening in Syria has been happening in Libya; what has been happening in Egypt has been happening in Libya, denoting the danger to cultural identity these countries face in the spiraling loss of political control that has taken hold since the advent of the Arab Spring in 2011.

Recently, programmatic destruction of Sufi shrines ensued in Libya because they belonged to Sufi saints and not Shiite.

“People don’t really talk about mosques being destroyed … [but] they are being destroyed so that their tiles and painted decoration can be sold on the black market to fund terrorism,” Uhlenbrock said.

Uhlenbrock  said that we do not have to be silent in the face of such a profound loss of world heritage as is happening in Syria, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, among many other places; there are websites dedicated to raise awareness of illegal activities, such as

Uhlenbrock said that people should be aware of the fact that context matters. With an international awareness of the importance of cultural heritage at its highest level in decades, efforts are being undertaken to curb the violence and destruction that is characterizing conflict zones and to protect the cultural heritage of those zones.

Sarah Laspada, a fourth-year metals and art history major who attended the lecture, said that she is probably among many who are not aware of the devastation occurring in high conflict areas.

“I have never been one that is updated on current events about the world, and I’m ashamed to say I don’t keep up on it,” she said. “It’s sad but good to know, good to keep up on.”

Alayna Klein, a second-year theater arts major, said that everything presented in this lecture was new to her.

Dani Epstein, a second-year art major, agreed these topics “are not talked about in the news as much.”

Uhlenbrock stressed that being updated on international issues specific to cultural heritage preservation and archeology is important.

“It raises a powerful voice. And when that voice gets loud enough, it can’t be ignored,” she said. “It goes along with loss of lives and livelihood, which are more serious because we are talking about heritage, about human beings.”

With vandalizing tombs, demolishing ancient art, and terrorizing local peoples, culture and religion may be held as a freedom of the past.

“Cultural identity is being imposed on many people by those who say that my way is the right way. People should be able to choose whatever religious expression is part of their identity,” Uhlenbrock said. “When you have an area of the world that has a specific identity, which has been erased, you have people who feel isolated, rootless, alone in the world; I’m not saying this absolutely happens to everybody.”

Today, social media and international news on the internet can expand our understanding of world events that rely heavily on our dedication to stay attentive to events which impact our absorption of cultural information.

Uhlenbrock also recommended visiting to learn more about world heritage preservation efforts and international agreements that safeguard excavated materials, as well as keeping informed about how government intervention, or lack of, can impact our safeguarding of irreplaceable art.