In Benghazi’s historic center, many of the landmark Ottoman and Italian-era buildings have been wrecked by years of war.
Officials say that they are determined to restore this architectural heritage but face a daunting challenge in a country with a crippled economy still mired in conflict and politically divided.
“The municipal council’s goal,” said Osama al-Kaza, projects manager at the city authority, “is to restore any building that still has its soul to its natural state.”
He has his work cut out for him.
The front of the Italian-built palace, from which King Idris declared Libya’s independence from Italy in 1951, is riddled with bullet and shell holes, its wooden window frames blown out and its plaster blackened by smoke.
In a building that housed the city’s first printing press, dating from 1865, a carved stone doorway has been filled with gray breeze-blocks and the facade is badly chipped. Historic Ottoman-era mosques lie empty and strewn with debris.
About 650 kilometers east of the capital Tripoli, Benghazi is where Libya’s uprising started seven years ago, triggering a nationwide revolt that toppled Moammar Gadhafi after four decades in power. That moment of hope was soon eclipsed as Libya fell into turmoil and Benghazi witnessed a campaign of bombings and assassinations, followed by a war that lasted from 2014 until late 2017.
The eastern-based Libyan National Army fought Islamists and other opponents in protracted street battles in parts of the city. The final months of fighting were focused in Benghazi’s oldest neighborhoods between the city center and the port.
The LNA used heavy artillery and airstrikes to try to root out rival fighters holed up in downtown residential streets. The LNA’s opponents used bombs and booby traps, some of which are yet to be cleared so that residents can return and reconstruction work begin.
The city is due to stage an international conference this month in an effort to drum up support for the restoration effort.
“We need to bring the old city back to life and mobilize all our efforts and endowments,” Benghazi historian and writer Fathi al-Sahli said. “The situation isn’t easy and will require billions” of Libyan dinars of funding.
“These buildings show that Benghazi had a special cultural legacy. As guardians of Benghazi we hold the competent authorities responsible for maintaining these buildings and we will not let them disappear.”