LIBYA – THE BENGHAZI TREASURE – WHAT WAS IT AND WHO TOOK IT?
On 1st November 2011 the readers of the ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ may have been interested in Nick Meo’s piece headlined ‘Treasure of Benghazi…… theft may be one of biggest in history’. Nick told them; ‘A priceless collection of nearly 8000 ancient gold, silver and bronze coins has been stolen from a bank vault in the Libyan city of Benghazi’.
Since then the story of the ‘Treasure of Benghazi’ has reflected the unforeseen consequences of the Arab Spring and the damaging effects of the illicit trade in antiquities, said to be the third most lucrative crime after drug running and arms smuggling.
It may be useful to add something about the history of East Libya as a background to the Benghazi Treasure story. In 631 BC the fertile land east of Benghazi, known as the Jebel al Akhdar, received a colony from the Greek island of Thera, now Santorini, which had become overpopulated and was in the throes of a famine. The Therans were soon joined by other colonists from Aegean islands. The colony was successful and gave rise to four daughter colonies, Euhesperides (later Berenice and now Benghazi), Appolonia (the port of Cyrene on the coast below the great city itself), Taucheira (now called Tochra, the ruins of which guard the Tochra pass up into the Jebel al Akhdar) and Ptolemais. These five communities together were sometimes known as Libya Pentapolis.
The level of civilisation in Cyrene was notably high as the great ruins, still seen in the Jebel al Akhdar, amply testify. The fertile region, which surrounds it, was brilliantly cultivated and supplied the Greek city states with livestock, wine, apples and olive oil. In 96 BC the Greek influence in Cyrene began to dwindle, and the last Greek ruler, Ptolemy XII Apion, left it to the Romans in his will. It remained a Roman province for around 300 years.
The best inventory of the lost Benghazi Treasure is given by Martin Bailey in his piece entitled; ‘Interpol confirms Libyan treasure was looted’ in ‘The Art Newspaper’, Issue 229 dated November 2011. He states that it consists of three collections of archaeologically excavated material and is thought to comprise ’364 gold coins, 2,433 silver coins, 4,484 bronze coins, 306 pieces of jewellery and 43 other antiquities’. The coins come from the Mieleu collection.
The Benghazi Treasure contained the most important antiquities to be excavated in Eastern Libya during the Italian occupation which lasted from 1911 until 1942. The finest of the items were found in 1917 at the Temple of Artemis in Cyrene. Dating from the fifth and sixth centuries BC, they included gold earrings, embossed heads and a plaque depicting a battle. Other treasures were excavated in 1937 from the Palace of Columns in Ptolemais.
In 1942, when the British 8th Army was advancing on Libya, Italian archaeologists packed up the treasure and sent it to Rome. In 1961, during the reign of King Idris, the collection was returned to Benghazi were a museum to house it was planned. It failed to materialise. In the meantime the sealed boxes containing the treasure were placed in a vault in the National Commercial Bank on Omar al-Mukhtar Street where they remained until the February 2011 revolution when Gaddafi’s forces were removed from the city.
The bulk of the treasure has vanished, though who took it remains a mystery. Details of the robbery are slowly emerging. The Treasure was largely in sealed boxes placed in metal storage cupboards in a strong room at the National Commercial Bank of Benghazi. On 25th May 2011 thieves drilled a narrow hole through the concrete ceiling and entered the strong room. They broke open the metal storage cupboards and the red wax seals on the wooden trunks housing the collection. The thieves made away with all but ten per cent of the objects originally housed in the vault.
The story now takes a sinister turn. The bank officials did not report the theft until October 2011, over six months later. Fadel al-Hasi, Libya’s acting minister for antiquities, told the BBC there were suspicions that the robbery was an inside job. The robbers clearly knew where the boxes were and what was in them. They left other valuable items in the vault untouched. Suspicion falls on employees of the Libyan Department of Antiquities or the bank’s employees. The later have been questioned several times. Mr al-Hasi has, belatedly, alerted Interpol and international antiquities markets are being monitored.
There were a number of possibilities for the disposal of the treasure. If it was an inside job it might have been stolen to order. Looted and illegal antiquities pass from plunderers to dealers who value them and arrange for them to be moved on to the markets. The enormous increase in the volume of this trade over the past twenty years has caused the large-scale plundering of archaeological sites and museums around the world.
There are those, like Paul Bennett of ‘The Society for Libyan Studies’, who are certain that there are organized bands of antiquity thieves going across the Libya border into Egypt. A number of Roman antiquities was recovered last year when a convoy of forces loyal to Qaddafi were intercepted on the road to Tripoli airport. The loot included 17 stone heads and some terracotta fragments.
Rumours are beginning to emerge. Some early reports indicated that 500 coins from the Benghazi Treasure turned up in Egypt and others have appeared on the black market in Libya. Nick Meo (see above) has reported that an Egyptian farmer was caught with over 500 coins and a gold figurine that may to have come from the Benghazi Treasure.
We have a fair idea of what the ‘treasure’ was but not of who took it or where it has gone.