November 3, 2011 – It seems to be like in a Hollywood film as “Ocean’s Eleven” and other famous exponentials of the bank robber’s genre. But this time the topic of the US Dream Factory became an authentic nightmare of archaeologists, art lovers and the new Libyan state. One of the biggest thefts ever that aimed at ancient objects, happened in Benghazi the last spring.
Interpol was alerted about the theft only in July. Information is ambiguous whether the accident occurred in May or in March. The robbers drilled through a concrete ceiling in the National Commercial Bank of Benghazi. In the vault they smashed metal storage cupboards and opened the sealed trunks that contained the “Treasure of Benghazi”.
This treasure was composed of ca 7,700 coins, and of juwels and medallions, bracelets and necklaces, earrings and rings. Around 50 smaller objects among which statuettes, are to be added, some of bronze, others of glass or ivory and a small number of precious stones. The better part of these objects is said to date from Alexander the Great’s epoch. Thus the first articles reported.
But now we hear that the treasure – kept in safe custody in two wooden military chests from the Second World War – was transferred from the bank to another bank building without authorisation. Only one of the two chests arrived, after the container in which they were transported, had been forced open.
Apparently the robbers proceeded very systematically. Hafed Walada, a Libyan archaeologist teaching at King’s College, London, stated: “I have the feeling this must have been an inside job. The treasure was there for many years, not many people knew about it.”
But what actually is the “Treasure of Benghazi”? Serenella Ensoli, archaeologist at the Second University of Naples and a specialist in Libyan antiquities, stated the lost treasure to be “a very serious loss for archaeological heritage on a global scale”. The value of the treasure is “inestimable” because of its historical value. “The collection is not well studied, it is a huge loss for Libya’s heritage.”
Classical archaeologist Dorothy Lobel King criticized this statement arguing that many of the objects have been published and are even put online – but not the coins. Based on old inventories she casts doubt on the assertion that the treasure comprised gold coins at all.
But still we read that the treasure comprises 364 gold coins besides 2,433 silver coins, 4,484 bronze coins, 306 jewels and 43 other antiquities. Precisely of these “other antiquities” Ms King was able to trace numerous old photographs.
The so-called treasure was excavated in the beginning of the 20th century by Italian archaeologists. Part of it came from the temple of Artemis in Cyrene, an ancient city nearby Benghazi. There, findings from the 7th and 6th centuries BC were mainly ceramics but also some gold plaques – but no coins. All the coins are from more recent epochs, many from the Islamic period, and were found in other finding spots.
During the Second World War these artefacts had been exposed in the Colonial Museum of the Ministry of Italian Africa in Rome. It was only in 1961 that eventually the objects returned to Libya, where they were locked in the bank.
Now Interpol and UNESCO are at pains to find the treasure of Benghazi. But valuable time has been lost. There are rumors that the Transitional Council kept quiet about the event trying to avoid negative headlines. There is no hot lead, and archaeologists believe it improbable to find the objects once they have been brought out of the country.
Although the coins never have been photographed, bronze coins at the Libyan black market arose suspect of originating from the treasure. When the police detected a peasant in Egypt smuggling over 500 gold coins and a gold statuette, everyone hoped to have regained part of the treasure. Libyans who live in Egypt immediately collected money to buy the statuette back for their home country. But all these attributions are highly speculative. And after fifty years in the strongbox and as far as it appears without any decent publication, it seems quite difficult to identify which coins were part of this mysterious treasure and which not.
Benghazi director of antiquities, Yussuf ben Nasr, told Reuters: “These are priceless national treasures, pieces of our history that have been lost … There’s not much we can do except ask institutions around the world to help us acquire Libyan antiquities if they turn up, so they can be returned. We continue to search sites across the country, taking inventories of what is missing, and telling schoolchildren and the Boy Scouts about the missing treasure.”
As in other areas of civil war, actually it is not the very phase of war, which threatens the antiquities. Indeed, a team of experts of the UNESCO declared in September, that the excavations in Libya have not been damaged badly by the civil conflict. Though the critical time is just arriving: The weak government and the mass of weapons in circulation advantage plundering.
Because of this, Hafed Walada has started a project: He has contacted a Libyan officer to explain the importance of guarding the ancient monuments. Let’s hope that Libya will be able to prevent future looting.
In the case of the treasure of Benghazi this hope has come too late, yet. Excavated a hundred years ago, it had been protected not only against thieves but also against scholars and interested visitors. But in the very end the strongboxes did not detain the robbers…
Some journals published on this robbery. Here …
… here …
… and here.
Archaeologist Dorothy King lists many of the archaeological findings from the temple of Cyrene in her blog.