Digging up Beirut

Solidere, the company rebuilding downtown Beirut, has taken a lot of flack for transforming the most ruinous part of the Lebanese capital into posh fantasy land. Whether or not some of this criticism is valid– one would be hard pressed to ignore the archeological benefits of tearing down large chunks of the city, and peeling off layer upon layer of its 5,000 year old history in the process.

In fact, large swaths of the Solidere project are slated to become archeological viewing areas, and at the same time, new digs keeping popping in other places–probably not so ideal for investors. The latest I noticed was in the central parking lot, which is slated to become a futuristic high rise and shopping complex designed by Jean Nouvel:

(photo credit: dezeen)

…but not before the archeologists have their way on part of the plot:


On the street level, to the right of the diggers, I noticed several stacks of black plastic crates filled with artifacts. I asked one of archeologists–a college-aged guy with a long pony tail–what was inside.

“Bones,” he replied, deadpan.

“How old,” I prodded.

“These are from the Muslim period–about 1,200 years ago.”

He later explained that the site was comprised of graves, but the dig was now moving deeper, into the Roman period: “We’re not sure if we’ll find more graves there.”

The dig was being coordinated by the Ministry of Antiquities, he said, and would probably be covered over to make way for the new high rise. But another archeological site just up the road–also on prime real estate–would probably remain in tact, he said optimistically.

The reference was to a dig adjacent to Beirut’s old synagogue, which I had taken pictures of earlier:


According to the archeologist, that site had been a former horse racing stadium. Developers had been given an alternate piece of property, he said, so that the ancient floor could be preserved.


Finally, work on a third Beirut site recently caught my eye in the heart of the downtown seafront area. This fort-like structure has been abandoned for years, couched in between some of the new developments, such as Nabil Gholam’s Foch 94 office complex and other buildings.


Hopefully the nearby pile-driving work has not disrupted its ancient foundation:

Of course there are those who will argue that many new projects have taken less care than those mentioned above–though what I have chosen is a completely random sample.

I’ll never forget a story that was once told to me by an old watchman at the construction site of Beirut’s largest mosque. The sprawling Istanbul-like structure was completed a couple of years ago, but at the time of construction a friend told me he had spotted several ancient structures hidden behind its tall plywood perimeter wall–visible only from his office located in a nearby high rise. So one day, back when I used to work downtown, I decided to ask the watchman on my way to the office, if any ruins did indeed lie behind the wall. “No, they are all gone now,” he replied casually. When I asked where they’d gone, he said they were taken “to Normandy,” a giant landfill site that has been turned into a sea reclamation project. Basically he meant the ruins were trashed.

“How many trucks,” I asked, assuming the site was as big as my friend suggested.”Three” he replied cooly, before leaning back in his plastic chair. (In Lebanon, truck means huge industrial-style dump truck.)

I’m not sure why an old watchman in his dust caked chair would make up such a story. But in Beirut, everyone has a story–it’s hard to know which ones to believe.