A work cessation order at Beirut’s Roman Hippodrome site has been overruled and the dismantlement of ruins belonging to the 2,000 year old chariot racing stadium is set to go forward this week.
Last month preservationists had succeeded in gaining the temporary cessation order from the Beirut Governor’s office, as covered in my extensive piece on the hippodrome this week in the BBC. But things have changed since the article was submitted.
At the time of writing, activists had won a small victory, forcing bulldozers deployed last month off the site. But now the bulldozers are back and a team is preparing for the removal of the Hippodrome wall as seen in these recent pictures of the site, late last week:
The developer wants to build luxury homes on the plot and needs to remove the wall to do so. The wall, which is about 4 meters tall (now buried), is believed to be part of the oval-shaped stands that would surround the race track, which may have looked something like this:
The uncovered portion of the wall seen in previous pictures (which the developer is preparing to remove) is actually just one segment of a much longer stretch buried in several plots in the Wadi Abu Jamil area–now one of the most expensive real estate markets in Beirut.
From the developer’s plot (known as 834) the wall continues in both directions. It runs underneath the downtown synagogue (white, red-roofed building):
And then cuts across several more plots as seen by the yellow doted line:
Above we can see the red-roofed synagogue standing alone in the grassy area. Immediately to the right of the synagogue is the developer’s plot, 834
Going left from 834, the wall runs underneath the synagogue and then out through the grassy area on the other side known as plot 1370.
Plot 1370 is seen here a few years back, before the grass had grown:
The wall is buried but you can see the trace of it running through the center. In the foreground we can see the paved Spina or central island of the hippodrome. Part of the stands have also been found on 1370, which is also slated for development, but is currently disputed in the courts.
Then continuing left of 1370, past the cross street, the wall then runs under a garden with a circular walking path (below) and may be found partially under the road and under a cluster of buildings further left of that. More of the hippodrome could be found under a parking lot on the far left of the satellite photo (near Ahlia School). The hippodrome stadium then curves around with the road, coming back above the synagogue, where another part of the stands have been found (as indicated by the red color on in the previous satellite photo)
Meanwhile heading in the opposite direction– right of the developer’s plot and away from the synagogue– the wall continues toward the yellow building in the background and then curves around:
The conclusion, activists say, is that excavations should continue on multiple plots and that the hippodrome should become an open-air site, where visitors could get a sweeping view of the remaining race path and learn about the monumental importance of ancient Berytus, which was showered with patronage by the Herod dynasty.
In addition to the hippodrome, archeologists have also found what they believe to be the remains of a vast Roman theatre on a nearby plot (also slated for development) where some 1,400 gladiators fought on a single day, according to the first century historian, Josephus.
There are also many columns on site, belonging to the hippodrome and theatre that could be re-erected and used to tell the story of the place.
But under a controversial scheme, the antiquities department at the Ministry of Culture has approved (in the absence of a general director) construction across the remaining hippodrome grounds, so long as the developer reintegrates the wall into the basement level of the luxury housing development. But even archeologists admit the public will have very limited access to the ruins and it is unclear how much will be preserved.
I will write more about this in a follow-up post. In the meantime, for background on the problematic system in which the ministry operates, see the second part of my BBC piece. The fear is that many more sites are being destroyed nationwide with little to stop developers from having their way.