Beirut’s lost Roman hippodrome unearthed, to be dismantled

Beirut’s lost Roman hippodrome unearthed, to be dismantled

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“There are four known Roman hippodromes in the Middle East,” a veteran archeologist recently told me. “In Beirut, they are destroying the fifth.”
He was referring to the very recent discovery of a potentially 2,000-year-old chariot race track and the decision by Lebanon’s culture minister to allow for luxury apartments to be built over it.
Here are some new pictures of the long-awaited discovery:
Archeologists believe this could be a foundation wall of the hippodrome stands, where spectators used to watch the races.

The dig is located in the Wadi Abou Jamil neighborhood, just next to the Maghen Abraham Synagogue, the white building in the background:

Here is an aerial shot of the neighborhood. The newly excavated wall is just right of the synagogue:

And here is an estimated path of the hippodrome, recently featured in an MTV report:

Small bulldozers are currently being used to excavate the hippodrome foundations, in preparation to dismantle some of them:

But this is problematic because relics could–and most probably are– being damaged in the process, the archeologist told me.

You can see the civilization layers, the white trace lines on the side of the wall, indicating different periods. Relics found on site, near the wall, could help date it:

But the ground is haphazardly littered in fragments. One piece of pottery is even visible in the path of the bulldozer, just to the left of its track wheel:

Here is a closer view:

The plot is literally swimming in shards of the past that could be used to tell the story of the place.

But it seems heavy machinery is being used to cut paths through the brush:

I’m not sure if this jackhammer attachment is also being used:

The archeologist also feared the bulldozer could damage parts of the wall:
He seemed to indicate all these were signs of a rush job.
Despite the significance to Lebanese, world and Roman history, Minister Gaby Layoun recently signed off on a plan to build luxury homes on the hippodrome grounds. This sketch was aired by MTV of the multimillion dollar residential project, dubbed RHR, to be built over the site.

According to MTV, the project is partly owned by current cabinet minister Marwan Kheireddine,  who also runs Al Mawarid Bank and the local Virgin megastore franchise, according to Wikipedia.

Culture Minister Layoun plans to create a narrow glass opening inside the luxury complex, where part of the wall will be returned after construction for public viewing:

 But this thinking runs contrary to the views of the last three culture ministers, who did not approve any developments on the site and have argued that it must be preserved in its entirety.
In fact there are a lot more ruins on the plot, which is also thought to contain part of a Roman theatre, located just right of the hippodrome.  See green arrow:
Plus, a second wall also is visible on the site, though still buried in rock:
The site also contains tombs:
And what could be a canal network:

Meanwhile, the adjacent plot–where more new homes will be built– is a treasure trove of Roman columns and room-like structures that could certainly be part of the hippodrome and theatre complex. Most, if not all of this area will have to be cleared for construction:

Activists feel all these areas contain clues to the past and are not confident that archeological evacuations have been carried out to the full extent. Like previous ministers, they feel the entire area should be preserved in situ (on site.)

News reports indicate there are only four other hippodromes in the region– and with the Tyre hippodrome, Lebanon would be the only country with two.

Another lingering question about this site is the presence of concrete columns sunk about one meter from the ancient walls:

These seem to have been piled deep into the bedrock in recent years.

Who built these and could they have also damaged the hippodrome remains?

Can publicizing this story put pressure on the minister to preserve the site, as was the case ruins believed to belong to Beirut’s  Roman gate and Byzantine church shared widely from this blog earlier this year?

More to come…

UPDATE: See my story about this site in the BBC to learn more about its historical significance and some interesting background on how ruins are handled in Lebanon.

UPDATE 2: The hippodrome wall has been partially removed. But activists insist that the fight will go on.

 

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1 COMMENT

  1. It’s very sad to hear this. I hope the government manages to recover the important parts and traces to this ancient culture…

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