Friday, October 31, 1997
BEIRUT'S ARCHAEOLOGICAL DISASTER
by Fareed Abou-Haidar
In the July-August 1996 issue of Archaeology magazine, there was a report on
the archaeological excavations in downtown Beirut. I had known about this
report for a while, thanks to someone's unhappy comments on SCL, but only
recently did I finally order this back issue from Archaeology magazine's
It is not a pretty picture. The article by Albert F.H. Naccache, a professor at the Lebanese University, is very depressing and reveals the ugly truth that propaganda in Beirut has been attempting to hide. Some of the photographs are not for the faint of heart.
Excavations in downtown Beirut began in October 1993. I happened to be there on a visit, and I witnessed the very first results of the work, the revelation of the vaulted basement of the Ottoman-era Petit Serail, which had been destroyed in the 1950s to make way for a parking lot in Martyrs Square. I was heartened by the sights and the optimistic media reports. I sincerely thought that all that was found would be saved, either on-site or through careful removal to another place.
In August 1995, I returned to Beirut and saw the extensive digs. There were areas of impressive ruins that had been unearthed, especially in the area of the old souks northwest of Martyrs Square. I mourned the destruction of the old souks, most of which had survived the war in salvageable form, but I figured that the ancient ruins underneath were more valuable. But, visible beyond the digs was a huge, barren hole that had been dug to bedrock level and below. I wondered what had been found there, and I naively thought that whatever had been discovered had been carefully documented and removed before the bulldozers came in. Still, there were reports that some finds had been abused, including a sarcophagus that had been shattered by bulldozers near the Murr tower. In fact, I saw its pieces, saved by archaeologists, in a storage area for artifacts in the downtown area. I also saw Roman columns below street level in front of the old Municipality Building (Baladiyyeh) that had been excavated; they showed fresh damage from bulldozer teeth.
The Archaeology magazine article recounts the sordid story. In short, the original plans for downtown Beirut called for excavating only two percent of the area, a violation of Lebanon's antiquities law that calls for excavating all known sites before construction can proceed. There was a race between archaeologists and the bulldozers in certain areas. UNESCO was invited to handle the archaeological excavations, and it made a very inadequate proposal. In March 1992, John Schofield of the Museum of London Archaeological Services, who was at the AUB at the time, made an alternate plan. Already, architectural landmarks had been demolished, including several of the old souks and the ornate Police Building on Martyrs Square; that building had been specifically targeted for restoration. In November 1992, a new plan was made for excavating downtown Beirut, one that would be managed by UNESCO but would fail to protect everything. In fact, in some areas, "the bulldozers would be monitored by archaeologists." This all took place despite the efforts of Naccache and others to come out with a strong plan.UNESCO's manager of excavations in Beirut declared that "archaeologists would follow the bulldozers."
In June 1994, with just a few months before infrastructure work was to start, archaeological excavations began in the old souks area. Archaeologists were able to excavate only a small area (3588 out of 71760 square yards), and infrastructure work began six weeks ahead of schedule. Some 282,000 cubic feet of Beirut's ancient tell had been bulldozed and dumped in the sea, without it ever being excavated for archaeological remains, before UNESCO's monitor was notified a week too late. The remains of the fort of Beirut near the port were destroyed. Despite the best efforts of Naccache and other archaeologists, 3.5 million cubic feet had been lost by May 1995. Naccache called this "the greatest archaeological disaster of the century." His views were later ignored by the media, and a propaganda campaign was stepped up; favorable reports appeared in international media. By January 1997, 7 million cubic feet of Beirut's past had been destroyed.
The pictures accompanying the article say it all. One shows a Phoenician neighborhood in the old souks area sitting like a raised peninsula surrounded by a huge hole that had been dug below the bedrock. Only 25 percent of that area had been excavated before the bulldozers moved in. Another shows a backhoe literally looming over the heads of archaeologists working a dig. Yet another shows the ancient walls of Beirut, damaged by road construction. An 18th Century BC tomb of a child was cut through by bulldozers.
This begs the question: Why? Beirut's downtown area was in ruins and unused for fifteen years of war; some delays to allow the excavation of artifacts would not have spelled the end of Lebanon. Why the sudden rush to rebuild, at the expense of archaeology? We blew a unique chance to meticulously excavate every square meter of downtown Beirut and document and save or move everything found. For what? That huge hole going through the bedrock in the old souks area will become an underground garage. Once more, cars rule! Would it not have been better to build above-ground garage buildings (disguised to look like real buildings, with stores on the ground floor) than to destroy such a vast area? In Paris, ancient ruins were found in the square in front of Notre Dame cathedral. They were excavated, then covered with a concrete ceiling on top of which the old square was rebuilt. Visitors can go down and view the ruins, professionally lit with floodlights. The same could have been done under the streets, buildings, and, yes, parking garages of Beirut.
This is the same profit-motivated mentality that has resulted in the destruction of Lebanon's landscape by pollution, quarries, tree cutting, and mindless construction. Will Lebanon's way of thinking ever change? It's already too late for huge swaths of Beirut's irreplaceable history, 5000 years in the making, gone in a few months.
You can order the July-August 1996 issue of Archaeology magazine at http://www.he.net/~archaeol/index.htm, or find it at your local university or public library.