The Acacus Mountains, known as Tadrart Akakus by locals, are located in the Fezzan region of southwestern Libya, within the Sahara Desert.
They are renowned for thousands of paintings and sculptures on cave walls, mountains, and rocks, depicting animals such as giraffes, elephants, and ostriches, as well as various scenes of ancient human life, including people and horses.
Throughout these ancient epochs, the walls of Acacus remained a place revered by generations. In the second half of the twentieth century, acts of destruction and vandalism began to occur, coinciding with increased tourist activity in the area.
In 2008, a driver from a tourism company was expelled following a dispute with an Italian woman who owned the company. Seeking revenge, he returned and vandalised 125 panels with spray paint.
Archaeologists advised that the paint should be left until it naturally fades away due to weathering, despite the time it will take to clear.
Also, in an attempt to leave a lasting memory of themselves for future generations, some vandalizers ‘thought outside the box’ and inscribed their names on Acacus civilization’s panels that are 5,000 years old, believing that future generations will remember them just as they remember past civilizations.
The protection of antiquities and the Libyan law
Tampering with antiquities is considered a crime. According to the Libyan Law No.10 of 1983 for the Protection of Antiquities, any act that results in the destruction or damage of antiquities or historical sites is criminalised. Possible penalties for those who commit this crime include fines and imprisonment.
Meanwhile, a group of enthusiasts and activists in the tourism sector are advocating for the issuance of stricter laws and harsher punishments against those who violate antiquities, in order to deter offenders.
There is a lack of seriousness in the enforcement of the current law as vandals and perpetrators of antiquity damage remain outside of prosecution and accountability.
From a security and administrative perspective, there is an overlap of responsibilities and subordination between the Ministry of Tourism and the Ministry of Culture, exacerbating difficulties and problems.
Bashir Al-Sheikh, a citizen and blogger from the city of Ghat the nearest city to Acacus, spoke passionately to The New Arab: “The most important challenge facing the archaeological sites in the Mountains is vandalism and graffiti on the walls of the caves. Unfortunately, this often occurs due to the ignorance of local tourists about the value of this civilizational heritage. Here, I blame the state and the concerned authorities, represented by the Antiquities Protection Agency, for their negligence in performing their duties.”
Bashir continued, “Exploratory trips have been suspended for over ten years, and there is a lack of studies, research, and research centres to support and develop tourism in the country, especially in the south and specifically in this region.
“There are still many buried artefacts under the sands. It is the responsibility of the state to provide security and strive to revive international tourism. If they are serious about supporting tourism, the security situation will not pose a significant threat with the joint efforts of the state and the citizens.”
Khaled Abdul Salam, a teacher from Al-‘Awaynat, also blamed the responsible authorities and said they should provide the tourist police with all modern equipment and devices and train specialised personnel, especially since the area is an open-air museum in the middle of the desert, requiring more security support.
Andalan Amghar Al-Hamdani is one of the desert guards, a guardian of the treasures of prehistoric civilization.
He and his children live next to the arch of Avaazagar in the depths of the Libyan desert. Their role is to confront the artefact thieves and vandals in the mountains.
They consider this place, along with the Tuareg local inhabitants, as the homeland of their ancestors, and they fear that if they were to leave, others would settle in and potentially harm these valuable engraved archaeological markings.
They believe that by being close to these historical engravings, they are protecting a precious treasure. Andalan has departed, but his children remain there to safeguard the mountains.
A Libyan child mummy is one of the most significant discoveries found in the Akakus Mountains. The mummy belongs to a Libyan child named Uan Muhuggiag, who was no more than two years old.
It was found wrapped in animal skin and was discovered by an Italian archaeologist in 1958. The mummy has been preserved for around 5,500 years, supposedly before the ancient Egyptians invented the technique of mummification.
Currently, the mummy is displayed in the National Museum in the capital city of Tripoli.
Illegal hunting and oil companies are among the biggest challenges facing the Akakus Mountains. For extended periods, the oil companies operating in the southern Libyan desert have disregarded environmental preservation standards and the safety of the local population. Their impacts on the area remain, with no benefit reaped by the citizens.
The accumulated environmental damage, tampering with the landscape, and its rich historical heritage spanning centuries continue unabated. Another significant challenge is the rampant illegal hunting by greedy hunters.
This mountain range, spanning an area of 3,923.961 hectares, boasts a diverse wildlife population and is home to rare species such as Barbary sheep and deer, which have inhabited the area for thousands of years. These animals are now facing extinction and deliberate killing by hunters who constantly shoot at them, causing harm to the caves and mountains as well.
UNESCO, which classified the Akakus Mountains as the 287th site on the World Heritage List, recognising its exceptional universal value, has also included it on the list of endangered sites.
In its latest report in 2021, UNESCO attributed this to several factors, including deliberate destruction, illegal activities, and war.
Despite this, the mountains do not receive sufficient attention from the relevant authorities, while the citizens exert their utmost efforts to protect them and complain about the negligence of the concerned parties.
Khaled Kanu, a 41-year-old resident of Ghat, expressed to The New Arab that a historical monument like this requires practical solutions, not just reports.
He questioned the role of UNESCO and how it can allow destructive individuals and greedy hunters to harm a historical monument. He emphasised that UNESCO should fulfil its responsibility, knowing that the country is in a state of chaos and conflict.
“The southern region of Libya remains an unexplored virgin area with valuable archaeological sites dating back to prehistoric times, such as Amazigh rock art, Akakus, and Jarma. It is an unknown land that is trampled upon by the hands of vandals and destroyers. It is awaiting a serious step to protect and explore it.”