UNESCO and the EU safeguard ancient manuscripts in Libya: Protecting cultural heritage in times of conflict.
It is a cultural treasure that still has not revealed all of its secrets: More than 2,500 ancient manuscripts – some of them dating back to the 15th century – were stored at the University Library of Benghazi. A truly irreplaceable collection. UNESCO, with help from the European Union, and in close cooperation with the Libyan Department of Antiquities and the Director of the Benghazi University, ensured the safeguarding of these unique documents to preserve them for generations to come.
The iconic University of Benghazi, once home to scientific research in 23 faculties and thousands of students, was left in a state of decay after being occupied by ISIL. Despite the efforts of the Libyan cultural authorities to protect their cultural heritage, throughout the country, museums and cultural institutions became targets of destruction while cultural property was trafficked out of the country. A tragic fate shared by the manuscript collection from the University of Benghazi.
In 2017 however, the police in Benghazi found a part of the collection looted away in a house in Ganfouda: 30 collections of manuscripts among which religious, cultural, literary and scientific work. Some of it recent, some of it more than 600 years old. These documents were in a delicate state and in urgent need of preservation to prevent the irrevocable damage of this precious cultural heritage. The University of Benghazi called upon the United Nations to rescue the manuscript collection, and to restore and conserve these delicate documents for future generations. The United Nations Support Mission to Libya shared this urgent request with UNESCO and in coordination with the Department of Antiquities of Libya an expert mission was organized to assess the state of the collection and to facilitate its adequate conservation.
We believe that the opportunity provided by the UNESCO training courses for the education and sustainability of a team of young locals is highly significant!
After Dr. Stavros Andreou, a manuscript conservation expert from Cyprus, was able to take stock of the collection during his first mission in April 2018, he recommended a workshop to train the University Library employees to become experts in manuscript conservation. Under the framework of the project “Protecting Cultural Heritage and Diversity in Complex Emergencies for Stability and Peace”, an on the job training was carried out in July 2019.
Educating young people to safeguard cultural heritage
For his mission in Benghazi, Dr. Andreou gathered 15 University staff members to participate in the training. Under the guidance of UNESCO, the team from the University worked consistently to classify and digitally record each item from the manuscript collection. Then, under careful supervision of the UNESCO expert, the manuscripts were cleaned, dusted and disinfested by applying an oxygen absorber gel and by storing them in plastic vacuum containers. During this training workshop however, only 300 documents could be fully conserved in this way and it is estimated that additional 2,000 vacuum containers are needed to ensure the complete safeguarding of the manuscript collection.
Dr. Stavros mission in July also included a workshop to assess the state of conservation and impart training on first-aid measures for the conservation of the historic documents at the National Library of Tripoli.
The “Protecting Cultural Heritage and Diversity in Complex Emergencies for Stability and Peace” project, funded by the Instrument contributing to Stability and Peace of the European Union, aimed at implementing urgently needed actions in Libya, Iraq, Syria and Yemen to allow for the stabilization and safeguarding of cultural heritage in these countries. It strengthens the positive role that culture can play in promoting resilient, culturally diverse societies, and in developing more sustainable approaches to inclusive peace and stability in transitional contexts.
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