Fathi Ismail is upset. Just a few moments ago, the middle-aged local was strolling lackadaisically with his five-year-old son around the exquisite archaeological site of Cyrene, training a toy pistol at the weatherworn statues standing on the ledges of this Greek military training ground in modern-day Libya. His carefree gait changed when he saw me. Lifting the folds of his grey acrylic dishdasha like a dress, he hurried over solicitously with a fixed smile and an outstretched hand. An ancient Greek coin glints on his palm. Thirty dinars (HK$190) is his opening offer - and then we bargain. He drops his price quickly and cheerfully, happier to have found an Arabic-speaking customer than at the prospect of a sale. Life as small fry in the Libyan antiquities business is hard: many of the locals are not impressed by the country's pre-Islamic past and tour guides jealously protect their well-padded foreign charges. 'Most of the guides oblige but some are tiresome,' Ismail says, describing how he approaches tourists to sell them antique coins dredged up from the site's fertile earth. 'One even whipped out his mobile and threatened to call the police.' Ismail has many coins. He pulls a white plastic bag out of the inner recesses of his dishdasha and spills its contents onto the smooth surface of a column. A dozen Roman and Greek coins tumble out, the emperors' heads glinting from the bronze and gold even after two millennia. This is nothing, Ismail says. The real money is in the heads of statues lying buried. All they need to emerge from centuries of slumber is a drenching downpour to wash them to the surface. As for the coins, many are found in piles of freshly turned earth ejected by hundreds of badgers toiling in their networks of tunnels. Still, you can't always depend on luck, says Ismail, as his face clouds over. He has to work. And such a lot of work for so little reward. 'There is no freedom in this country, no democracy like abroad,' he rages, complaining that all the digging is straining his ageing back. 'Where's my freedom to sell these things that I discover with my own hard toil?' Ismail is one of the many freelance and contract looters that Dr Fadel Ali Mohammed, former director of the Department of Antiquities for Libya's Cyrenaica region, would rather do without. But in an almost exclusively Islamic country, where regime rhetoric has, for the past 40 years, painted everything European as being synonymous with colonialism, raising public awareness is a thankless task. Mohammed thinks differently from other Libyans. An archaeologist who received his PhD at Athens University, he spent his formative years in the Greek capital, in the 1970s. 'In the beginning, my fellow countrymen thought I was crazy,' says Mohammed of his romance with the inanimate world of antiquity and its sensual statues. 'They said that I couldn't possibly be Libyan, such was my fascination with the Hellenistic [Greek] period.' Standing in a storeroom packed with Cyrene's treasures, Mohammed lays a proprietorial hand on the slim waist of a statue of Venus and strokes it thoughtfully. 'But now that tourism's taking off,' he smiles, 'they're starting to realise that antiquity is going to be huger than oil.' JUST 200KM SOUTH OF the Greek island of Crete, the north shore of Cyrenaica has historically been a trade entrepot. Shards of pottery and marble columns - traces of the splendid Greek cities that once formed the Pentapolis (five cities, chief among which was Cyrene) of the Roman province of Libya Superior - litter its coastline. While the locals have stepped over them for centuries, more and more are disappearing with the arrival of mass tourism, drawn by Cyrene's Unesco World Heritage status. Once compared favourably to Athens, Cyrene, founded in 631BC and destroyed by an earthquake in AD365, was a major port city boasting a distinguished line of philosophers, a temple of Zeus larger than the Greek capital's Parthenon, five theatres and sprawling villas decorated with extensive mosaics. Cyrenaica, Libya's eastern region, has been somewhat neglected by Tripoli. As the birthplace of deposed King Idris, it is being punished by the regime for the allegiance its residents still hold for the monarch ousted by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in a 1969 coup. Libya's small population, its dry climate and the desert sands that have hidden the ruins of its Roman cities for centuries have all helped preserve the country's archaeological treasures. Ancient ports, villas and entire cities are emerging while, inland, preserved Roman farming communities or semi-fortified towers wait to be discovered. They are most probably laid with elaborate mosaics or strewn with inscriptions that will shed insight into the everyday life of what was one of the Roman empire's wealthiest provinces. However, since an international embargo was lifted after Gaddafi acceded to western demands in 2003, Libya has been exposed to more than just economic opportunity; its ancient treasures have become the focus of salivating international art dealers. 'There are estimates that the business of smuggling antiquities provides a turnover in the world second only to oil and equal to arms sales,' says Cambridge University's Professor Colin Renfrew, who leads international efforts to stem the looting of antiquities. 'But you can't put a figure on a secret trade.' When Libya opened its borders with Egypt in 1987, sophisticated North African smuggling networks moved into the country and began systematically stripping it of its heritage. Although there is evidence of little-known early-to-middle Stone Age societies being in Libya when its vast Sahara Desert was a savannah 150,000 years ago, the real money market exists in trading Greek and Roman antiquities. An artefact's journey from the Libyan sands to the gleaming modern auction rooms of Zurich or New York is like a journey up the human food chain: from dirt-poor sand-scavengers such as Fathi Ismail and the Egyptian gangs that smuggle the goods to Cairo and Alexandria to the ultimate recipients: the wealthy and cultured in northern Europe and North America. Libyan antiquities officials play down the extent of looting. They admit to a few spectacular or undeniable heists, such as the disappearance in 2000 of 15 statue heads from the storerooms of the University of Pennsylvania in Cyrene, but gloss over the far more damaging daily ransacking of the sites by local crooks. 'All the statues we had excavated from the sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone were on the field unguarded, being looted regularly, or in poorly secured storerooms,' one archaeologist says of his recent visit to a site he had worked on. When Donald White, an American archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania who has been excavating Libyan sites since 1961, last visited Cyrene, he came across a local man smoking a cigarette with one hand and hacking a marble head off with the other. Bystanders were unmoved by White's outrage. They informed him that the man was a regular who maintained parallel amateur excavations around the site. 'Had I been a Libyan I'd have been at it too,' says Theodore Buttrey, a coin expert at Cambridge University's Fitzwilliam Museum. '[In the mid-80s], the local representatives of the Ministry of Culture were so apathetic that when the roof of the site museum fell in they just left it - a huge hole in the ceiling to the sky, cabinets still full of exhibits, the cases covered with debris. 'The museum director used to take whole days off, which he spent sitting in his car at the edge of the great escarpment smoking and staring off into space.' White says, '[The larger looted artefacts] had to be hoisted into some kind of a vehicle, driven over to Egypt and passed over the border. The Libyans' reaction was to seal windows and doors with cement, lock up the museum and throw away the key.' The Cyrene Archaeological Museum remains inaccessible to casual visitors today and if it had not been for Mohammed and his exertions, the area could well have lost all its statues. WHILE STILL A STUDENT in Athens, Mohammed keenly followed the Greek campaign to force the British Museum to return the Parthenon's frieze, known as the Elgin Marbles. Actress Melina Mercouri spearheaded the initiative, travelling to London as Greece's minister of culture to demand the restitution of the marbles. But the museum directors were unmoved. Mohammed was pained to see Mercouri shed tears at her failure but the attempt taught him a lesson. 'She had no money behind her,' he says. 'But Libya does. It could threaten to boycott economic activity with a certain country.' He's not being explicit but that country is most probably former colonial ruler Italy. Last year, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was forced by Gaddafi to return a unique statue of Aphrodite. Failure to do so would have led to Italian companies being penalised in the awarding of contracts, threatened Libya's de facto leader. Tripoli and Rome ratified a US$10 billion political and economic treaty this year that ranges from infrastructure to immigration and military sales. Under the terms of the treaty, Italy will control Libya's borders in order to limit the flood of immigrants making the nightly journey across the Mediterranean to Europe while, in the opposite direction, will come all Libyan antiquities removed by Rome during the colonial period (1911-1943). As head of antiquities for Cyrenaica, Mohammed's remit included the Pentapolis. After 1987, looting became a fact of life in the region, which lies next to the Egyptian border. Mohammed began scouring Cyrenaica, collecting the most vulnerable statues. He knew that should they be removed without ever having been registered in international antiquities databases, it would be impossible to prove their origin. Even if discovered, the Libyan government would have no way of proving they belonged to it. It was a race against time. Over seven months, Mohammed retrieved 7,000 pieces and painstakingly identified, registered and locked them in storerooms. Following a tip-off in 2004, Mohammed travelled to Switzerland to reclaim three exquisite statue heads belonging to a marble triptych of the Three Graces, looted in the 70s. 'I travelled to Basel to visit the salesrooms flogging looted antiquities,' says Mohammed. 'I posed as a Greek trader so that they would show me the good stuff they keep in their storerooms.' Sensing a trick, the owners brought out a fluent Greek-speaking assistant. Mohammed thought fast and claimed his irregular accent was because he was a Cypriot who had lived abroad for many years. Anxious to make a sale, staff fell for the fib and led him down to the storerooms, where they pulled out wooden cases containing works procured from North African Arab smugglers. 'When they brought the heads out of the box, I broke down and cried,' Mohammed says, brandishing a series of tatty photographs showing him kissing one of the busts on its mouth. 'They photographed me doing this, surprised that I could love something inanimate so much.' Mohammed says he turned the gallery owners - who wanted US$60,000 per head - over to Interpol. His risk-taking paid off and he struck a great blow for developing countries seeking to repatriate looted antiquities. 'Don't I deserve the Onassis Prize [for Culture] for this?' Mohammed asks. Abdulqader Mziene thinks not. 'Fadel's a nice man but he likes to embellish stories,' says the director of the Cyrene Archaeological Museum. 'All he did was get sent by the Libyan government in an official capacity to recognise the heads and retrieve them. They bought the pieces back from the traders.' Furthermore, Mziene adds, Mohammed is not only not the caring guardian of his country's heritage he paints himself to be but he has used his government contacts to cash in on the tourism boom by setting up a construction company that builds tourist villages, his current occupation. However, Mziene, too, has his detractors, some doubting his own dedication to the cause. 'How are these mosaics lifted wholesale and reach Christie's or auction houses in Zurich?' asks a Greek academic with first-hand knowledge of looting. 'While the western archaeologists are away, usually in agreement with the museum guards and sometimes with the directors, the band of robbers pull off the job and remove the antiquities,' she adds. The collusion of authorities is almost essential given that the operations must be well-choreographed and getaway vehicles arranged for antiquities that are usually heavy, bulky and delicate. CHOCOLATE WRAPPERS and soft-drink cans litter Cyrene's Temple of Apollo. Stacks of rubbish several historical layers deep lie excavated in freshly dug ditches. This is the detritus of a Bedouin society struggling with modernity. The state of antiquities in Libya remains parlous, with few police and a dwindling number of staff guarding some of the most important sites on Earth. And in-flowing tourist dollars are not being used as they should be. 'The problem is that the west has tried to get as much as it can while it can and often not worked in the best interests of the country,' says White. 'The burr under my saddle is not the theft or disintegration of these sites so much as all the money that was supposed to end up beautifying or modernising the country and which ends up in the hands of other people instead,' he says, noting ambitious eco-tourism projects announced by Saif al-Islam Muammar al-Gaddafi, the second son of the country's leader. 'Money is the ultimate corruptor.'