Pre-historic ruins possibly recovered from Beirut tunnel site
Ancient ruins removed this afternoon– archeologists say site could be up to 8,000 years old.
It started with a text message last week:
“Hello, how are you? A friend told me they discovered an antique house while digging in Bechara el Khoury! It’s quite new it seems so maybe they didn’t have time to destroy it…”
Suddenly I remembered that I had seen white tents when driving through the new tunnel underpass at Bechara Khoury (near Sodeco)–which has been under construction for a couple of years now. I took these pictures a few months ago while driving past but didn’t know what to make of them:
So last weekend after getting the text message, I went down to get a closer look. By the time I had got the site it was dusk:
As I walked closer, I could see this:
It was not clear– from where I was standing on the street– what lay beneath the canvas, what had been buried beneath this busy intersection for centuries if not millennia before the recent tunnel excavation. Note the site is only a few meters below the broken old pavement from where I am standing.
From another angle, it appeared there could be objects or formations beneath:
I could also make out was seemed to be a cavern or hole-like structure. An entrance, a roof?
I had planned to come back during the day yesterday but I was caught up at work. So I could only make it back today. And it seemed I was just in time.
The big tent had suddenly been removed:
I went around the other side and a big crate was being lifted from the site:
And a second crate was ready to be hoisted up:
Both seemed to be lifted from the dig, which now looked partially emptied:
Then a woman appeared who seemed to be an archeologist or working on site. She ordered me not to take pictures and put her hand over my lens:
She said it was “forbidden” to take pictures. But why?
Here they were operating a massive crane, hoisting up vehicle sized packages and they expected no one to take pictures? No one living in the hundreds of apartments overlooking this major intersection? No one of the thousands of cars passing by? How could they police that?
“If I see anyone, I must stop them,” she said.
She explained briefly that the site could be up to 8,000 years old, a home or dwelling perhaps. But what is wrong with the public having a look?
“I wish you would have come yesterday, I could have explained the whole site to you.” But how was I or any journalist supposed to know about this site?
Even then pictures would not be allowed, she said. “Go get a permit from the directorate of antiquities,” she advised, frustrated by my questions.
So how would that work? Was she going to keep the ruins suspended in the air until how ever many hours, days or weeks it will take to navigate the Lebanese state bureaucracy and get “official”clearance?
I mean this was news happening in broad day light, massive ruins being hoisted by a massive crane. How can it be legal to ban photography of an open air event in the public domain?
She then argued that the government authorities would need to know “why” I wanted to take the pictures. What does that mean? That only journalists who intend to glorify the ministry get to cover events? Imagine how much news would not be covered if every time an event was happening in public, journalists would have to wait for a bureaucratic process which decides what kind of article they are going to write.
Imagine if no pictures were taken. How would people even know what events were going on to ask permission to cover them?
Worse still, if there is no transparency, no independent documentation of what has been found, how will the public even know the site exists, how will journalists ever know what questions to ask about it; how will authorities ever be held accountable, if no one can watch what they are doing?
Hearing our exchange several workers fanned around us, clearly taking her side and ready to stop me as well. (I have experience getting assaulted by such site workers so I stood my distance.) But surprisingly, one of the workers murmured: “just go take a shot from far away”.
So I did:
In that moment I felt lucky.
I just happened to come on the right day, at the right hour, enduring censorhsip and harassment to watch history lifted out of the ground for the first time in thousands of years:
With no transparency it is only through luck that you may find out what is happening. Unbelievably, the site staff continued to stare and yell at me from across the street. It is sad that some archeologists and the government have adopted this complete secrecy approach.
The idea is that the press will “hurt” their efforts by accusing them of theft. But it seems the opposite is true, that it is censorship, not openness that breeds paranoia and mistrust. As I got in a cab, leaving the site, I told the driver what happened.
His response: “They are thieves! They don’t want you to know what they are finding. Tomorrow they will sell them!”
It sounds like an exaggeration, but judging by the history of demolitions of ruins sites in Beirut, the columns we find used as coffee tables in the homes of the rich or the elaborate mosaics we see on the walls of the fancy private institutions or the Phoenician exhibits in foreign countries–the public has every right to be skeptical. And they have every right to know what is being dug up, who is digging it, who is paying for it and who decided it should be removed and how it will be displayed.
But as it stands, dozens of digs have gone on in the city, with almost nothing published for almost 10 years according to many archeologists I interviewed in a recent BBC piece. (See second part of piece for background.)
I believe the best way to build trust is to be open. Welcome the public, let them take pictures. Tell them what is going on, put pictures online. Let them get excited about their history. Isn’t that what every museum curator, every history teacher dreams of– for people to ask questions, for people line up at the door, to get interested and essentially, just have a look?