By now, our collection of images of Qaddafi's rule number in the thousands. The photo albums and the images themselves belong to the Libyan people -- and our role is to ensure their survival for now, working with the new Libyan rebel government. Aside from some rolls of negatives and aging film that were temporarily removed from Libya to be scanned and since returned, all of the images in our growing collection were photographed where they were found, and left in the archives.
While it is important that the archives from the Qaddafi era remain in Libyan hands, the history they illuminate are relevant to us all. They tell a story of Qaddafi's private and public personas, of a cruel tyrant and a warm father, of weddings and state functions, grand speeches and afternoons with the family.
In conjunction with Foreign Policy, we'll be presenting hundreds of these never-before-seen photos, building an online archive for scholars, historians, and curious readers.
The archives actually begin in the era of King Idris, the last ruler of Libya, who was overthrown in a bloodless coup in 1969 led by the young Qaddafi. The red, green, and black flag of King Idriss has now been reclaimed by the Libyan revolutionaries as the symbol of their revolution, but the pomp, inefficiency, and sheer corruption of the rule of King Idris is what led to Qaddafi's then-popular revolution. The images of Queen Fatima, the wife of King Idris, in modern dress, looking somewhat like a Libyan Jackie Kennedy, are particularly striking when seen alongside the current debates in Libya about the role of women in government.
As expected, Muammar al-Qaddafi is the one constant in the archive, and the photos tell the story of his spectacular rise and the tragic consolidation of his personality cult that followed. The handsome, young Qaddafi stands in the midst of the soon-to-flounder waves of Arab nationalism as he first comes to power, sharing the stage with Nasser and the Sudanese leader Gafaar Nimeiri, addressing massive crowds. Or on the beach or in a military bunker, planning for revolutions around the world.
Over the years, Qaddafi becomes the ultimate victim of his own personality cult. In the images from his Green Book conferences and visits with fellow leaders in the Arab world and beyond, he seems bizarrely out of place, a bit too flamboyant to fit in. The hairdo he sports when visiting Syria's dour Hafez al-Assad just seems a bit too wild, the enthusiasm of the crowds at his rallies and speeches just a bit too fabricated, and his own admiring smile looking at images of himself at a local trade show just a bit too self-indulgent. And then there's the physique -- long gone is the lithe and toned young colonel, in his place a paunchy middle aged man, the worse for wear, in sweatsuits and slippers.
The images we found are not just of Qadaffi himself: in the archives, we also found evidence of the strong-hand tactics he used to stay in power. Back in Benghazi, we were given a set of ancient Betamax videotapes that were recorded back in the mid-1980s, showing an infamous public trial and hangings at a sports stadium that signaled the beginning of an intensely repressive period of Qaddafi's rule. Other images show hangings in the Benghazi harbor, beaten prisoners, smuggled weapons, and the mug shots of detained Islamists. Those too are an integral, if more brutal, part of understanding the nature of Qaddafi's regime.