By Will Raynolds
The Old City of Tripoli remains one of the most complete historic port cities along the North African coast. Established by the Phoenicians as Oea in the seventh century BC, and later incorporated into the Roman confederation of three cities (Tripolis) that also included Leptis Magna and Sebratha, the city has long flourished.
While some vestiges of its early history remain visible, much of the current configuration of the historic core of Tripoli dates to the 16th-18th centuries AD, when the city played a prominent role in Mediterranean trade. In 1985, a government-sponsored project to rehabilitate the Old City began, with most of the effort concentrated on the highly visible buildings surrounding Midan as Sa’ah, featuring the Ottoman clock tower, as well as those buildings adjacent to Bab al Bahr and the Roman Arch of Marcus Aurelius. Meanwhile, the less-visible properties in the center of the historic core continued to deteriorate and occasionally collapsed. In such cases, the footprint of the collapsed building was generally converted into a public dump.
Though it failed to reverse the prevailing trends in the Old City, this project was the precursor to the creation of an independent entity, the Historic Cities Authority (HCA), in 2006. This organization was charged with the management of three historic cities in particular: the Old City of Tripoli, the Old City of Benghazi and Ghadames.
In the aftermath of the Revolution in 2011, the HCA expanded its national presence to include ten regional offices. Their aspiration was to continue to verify the compliance of the law protecting historic buildings around the country while offering consultative planning and design services free of charge to the people and institutions inhabiting historic buildings. Since the outbreak of the Libyan Civil War in 2014, the Old City has been threatened as residents and speculative developers have taken advantage of prevailing chaos in Tripoli to illegally dismantle historic buildings and replace them with new constructions.
The HCA maintains a close relationship with the Department of Antiquities (DoA), and relies on the Department’s conservation team as well as local contractors to carry out restoration work. Currently, the HCA has no operating budget to implement projects and it has monitored the deteriorating conditions in the Old City of Tripoli with increasing concern. For the past six months, it has been meeting regularly with representatives of both the municipality and a civil society organization called the Old City Association to discuss ways in which they might address this threat.
According to the General Director of the Historic Cities Authority, Assadik Ergeg, a general lack of awareness on the part of residents of Tripoli as well as the complete lack of enforcement on the part of local security forces have both contributed to a permissive atmosphere in which these violations have occurred.
Beyond calling greater attention to the threats facing the Old City and working more closely with the security forces of Tripoli to try to put a stop to this illegal cycle of demolition and construction, the HCA currently seeks assistance. The HCA seeks outside expertise to help train staff and volunteers so that they are better able to map and monitor the condition of historic cities throughout Libya, mounting a more convincing response to the challenges in Tripoli identified in this report as well as the more acute need in the Old City of Benghazi, which has been heavily damaged by the past three years of fighting (see ASOR CHI Special Report on the Old City of Benghazi). Following such training, the HCA plans to identify priority stabilization and conservation projects and create work plans so that these projects can be implemented when funding from internal and external sources becomes available.
After the publication of ASOR CHI LHI 17-0004 regarding the demolition of Funduq al Khoji in our May 2017 Monthly Report, ASOR CHI received a more comprehensive description of other instances of illegal construction in the Old City. The author, Seif ad Din al Hesnawi, is a member of the Tripoli office of the Libyan Department of Antiquities (DoA). Though DoA’s authority does not extend over the historic buildings of Tripoli (they are officially the responsibility of the Libyan HCA), he wrote his report as a concerned citizen and colleague.
Al Hesnawi has identified thirteen instances in which historic buildings have been illegally dismantled and, in many cases, replaced by new construction. This trend is not unique to the Old City of Tripoli, and ASOR CHI has reported a similar instance in the historic core of Derna (see ASOR CHI LHI 17-0001 in the April 2017 Monthly Report).
Given the relative paucity of reporting on Libyan cultural heritage in conventional news media, ASOR CHI has elected to present al Hesnawi’s report in its original (Available Here), along with an English translation (Available Here). ASOR CHI has conducted an analysis of DigitalGlobe imagery to narrow the timeline of the events, and this analysis has been added to the English version of the report. To further enrich our reporting on Libya, we will strive to publish similar accounts in the future.