TRIPOLI, Libya — From her perch in Tripoli fronting the Mediterranean, the naked woman and her gazelle have been silent witnesses to much of Libya’s past century: colonialism, monarchy, dictatorship and post-revolutionary unrest.
Saving the Tripoli landmark has become a battle in miniature for the new Libya, two years after Moammar Gadhafi was toppled from power in an uprising that left the country in the hands of a weak government and feuding militias.
“The Gazelle is something for all of Tripoli,” said Souad Wheidi, a therapist, referring the statue by its nickname. “She is part of our city’s heritage, she has survived, as have we.”
In the security vacuum that emerged since Gadhafi’s removal and killing in 2011, Islamists have flexed their muscles through attacks on foreign diplomats. They’ve also stolen the corpses of “idolatrous” Muslims and driven bulldozers through mosques and libraries. In August, acting on a tipoff, local authorities deployed police in bullet-proof vests and armed vehicles to prevent a religiously motivated attack against the bronze statue.
Demonstrators marched around it the following day, calling for better protection for the lady and the rest of Libya’s cultural heritage. “It was a small, small, minority who were trying to break it, so we stood there against them,” said Wheidi, who helped organize the protest march.
The threats are part of the fallout from the Arab Spring uprisings that opened the door to democracy in Libya, as well as neighboring Tunisia and Egypt, where works of art have also attracted attention.
Al-Shorouk newspaper reported Wednesday that the statue of the country’s greatest diva, Um Kalthoum, had been covered with a niqab, the all-encompassing veil worn by ultraconservative Muslim women, in the Egyptian city of Mansoura.
In all three North African nations, Islamists have also targeted shrines or other sites they deem offensive to Islam, sparking concerns among antiquities officials of destructive attacks on some of the world’s most valued sites.
According to the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, five Libyan World Heritage sites, including 12,000-year-old rock paintings in the Tadrart Acacus Mountains, the Roman city of Leptis Magna, and the Old City of Ghadames, one of the oldest pre-Saharan cities in existence, are among the sites at risk from deliberate destruction.
At least 70 Sufi sites have been attacked since Gadhafi’s death, according to leaders of the sect, which emphasizes esoteric and mystical elements of Islam using dance and prayer, and is considered idolatrous by some ultraconservative Muslims.
Islamists were driven underground by Gadhafi but have re- emerged since his downfall. The most visible sign of their strength has been in the eastern city of Benghazi, where U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed in September.
The continued existence of the statue suggests Islamists in Tripoli aren’t as confident as in other parts of the country, said Shashank Joshi, associate fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute, in an interview. This makes the statue, installed during the Italian era of 1911-1942, something of a bellwether for militant strength.
“They may know they’d face a greater range of opposition if they destroyed something like that in Tripoli now, where there is more chance of retaliation than elsewhere,” he said.
“She is not intended to be seen as an object of sexual desire, but rather an as allegorical figure,” said David Rifkind, assistant professor at Florida International University, who curated an exhibition on Italian fascist art in North and East Africa last year, in an interview.
The lady represents Italy and the life-giving role of water in a desert being made fertile by aqueducts while the gazelle symbolizes Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, regions united by Italy in 1934 to form modern-day Libya, Rifkind said.
It also challenges assumptions about Tripoli, where a tacit dress code demands arms and legs are covered for modesty.
“People who live in Tripoli consider it to be very important, it’s a symbol of the city,” said Adel Turki, lecturer in Material Science at Bristol University who was born in Tripoli and helped advise on the statue’s cleaning last year. “It is part of the city, people want to protect it.”
The fountain’s original name was “Sorgente di Vita,” or Source of Life, according to the dusty archives of Tripoli’s Red Castle Museum, and was made by Angiolo Vannetti.
Gadhafi spared the lady, as well as two columns on the harbor crowned by statues of Romulus and Remus, the fabled twin founders of Rome, even as he destroyed other reminders of Italian rule. In turn, artwork from Gadhafi’s four-decade rule was pulled down in the revolution.
“She survived Italians, the German army, British rule, the King and Gadhafi, just as we did,” Mohamed Bushera, a taxi driver, tells a passenger on a recent drive past the lady. “Gadhafi built almost nothing in our city in 40 years. We want more beautiful things, not less. We would be angry if the Salafists destroyed her.”