We often worry about extremists groups like ISIS destroying history in the Middle East. But in Beirut, private capital and well-connected developers are also wiping away relics of our ancient past. The following column was first published in Bold Magazine.
By Habib Battah
With its grand chariot races and some 200,000 spectators, the Circus Maximus was the greatest stadium in the Roman empire and remains one of the largest in human history. Today however, it is little more than a sunken green field in the heart of contemporary Rome. Spanning over half a kilometer in length, this plot of land may have seemed lucrative to real estate developers, but the Circus grounds have been preserved as a public park. Compare this to Beirut, where a major Roman chariot race track was recently uncovered but its grounds are now being destroyed to make way for six luxury villas.
In fact, when it was unearthed only a few years ago, Beirut’s Roman racecourse or hippodrome contained far more ruins than can be seen in Rome’s Circus Maximus today. But few Lebanese would have a chance to look at them.
Working secretly behind large construction walls, archaeologists discovered what was believed to be a section of the 2,000 year old stadium seats, the paved central median where an obelisk was placed, dozens of columns, corinthians and carved features as well as a 100 meter stretch of the foundation wall, forming a loop that traces the path of the ancient race circuit. But all this meant little to the villa developer, who incidentally was a minister in cabinet when he began construction.
The minister, Marwan Kheireddine, claimed the land was worth $60 million and thus could not be sacrificed. When asked if preserving the site might also have a value, he shrugged. “Ninety percent of the hippodrome is gone,” he told me during an interview for the BBC a little over a year ago. His colleague, then Culture Minister Gaby Layoun had green-lighted the project, defying three previous culture ministers who had called for the site to be protected.
The Lebanese public, which is largely kept in the dark about archeological discoveries, only got wind of the story through news leaks. A protest was organized and complaint lodged at the Beirut governor’s office, but it was too little too late and construction resumed a few weeks later. Today, a giant crater pierces through the heart of the remaining hippodrome track. Because the site is near the home of former prime minister Saad Hariri, access and photography of the area is strictly prohibited. The destruction can only be seen from Google Earth.
The Beirut race track is believed to have been one of the greatest of five hippodromes in the Levant, a testimony to the importance given to ancient Berytus in the Roman Empire. First century texts reveal that 1,400 gladiators fought there in a single day.
Looking out across the barren Circus Maximus grounds during a recent visit to Rome, I remembered the minister’s words: “What we found is not worth preserving,” he had told me. But who makes that decision and on what criteria is it based?
Why is barren chariot track protected in modern Rome, a city full of well-preserved ruins, while a track with extensive remains is not worthy of preservation in Beirut, where so little is known about the city’s prominent Roman past? Unsurprisingly, neither the developer nor the culture minister have any background in ancient history or archeology. They claim to have relied on experts, but their deliberations were never made public.
It’s not only world history that is at stake. Contemporary Rome is a verdant city full of towering pine trees and gorgeous parks yet planners still felt it was prudent to keep the Circus Maximus as an additional open space. It is also used to host community events and concerts. Last year The Rolling Stones performed on the Circus grounds, drawing over 70,000 fans.
Contemporary Beirut, by contrast, is an urban jungle with a pittance of green or public space. Its pines–once similar to those in Rome– have largely been decimated by development and there are no large parks open to the public. With its grassy hillside and scattered columns, the Beirut hippodrome provided an opportunity not only to preserve national heritage and inspire future generations but also to add some breathing room to a labyrinth of concrete sprawl. One can imagine the space attracting tourists and locals alike– a history class field trip or just a place to enjoy lunch in the city while imagining its storied past. “It could have been a destination,” veteran Dutch archaeologist Hans Curvers, who led the Beirut hippodrome excavation, told me. But now in the hippodrome’s place, there will be more walls and security guards, yet another gated community accessible only to a few millionaires.
Minister Kheireddine, who owns a bank and several other real estate projects, touts the fact that he has offered to host a fraction of the hippodrome wall in his compound’s car garage. The public will supposedly be able to glimpse a portion of its stone surface through a ground window. But the neighborhood is so tightly policed to protect its well-heeled residents that pedestrians are not even allowed anywhere near the street that leads to his project.
The hippodrome is not the only ancient site lost to speculative luxury real estate. Activists and archaeologists say dozens of ruins have been discovered and razed during the post-war reconstruction of central Beirut. Many of those sites have been replaced by the type of glass and steel towers one can find in any city. Drive past them at night you’ll find barely a light on. Obviously few Lebanese can afford their astronomical price tags, and those who can are often wealthy foreign nationals seeking a rarely used vacation home. Why are such projects given more weight than sites that could benefit the local population, who actually live in Lebanon?
The silver lining is that outside the capital, away from the unregulated construction boom, many priceless sites have survived. Among them is the temple of Bacchus in Baalbeck, which is in far better shape than most of what one encounters in Rome. In fact, a temple that looks like Bacchus can only be seen as a 3D rendering in videos shown at Italian museums that give visitors an idea of what ancient Rome once looked like. Detailed descriptions, artist sketches and audio guides can also be found at nearly all sites, bringing the ruins to life and helping visitors further appreciate where they are standing and what they are looking at. But at ancient sites across Lebanon, one can rarely find a text sign, let alone an interactive exhibit. Should we be surprised then, that locals often ignore these wonders, which frequently fall into disrepair, abandoned or laden with piles of garbage?
Over recent years and through the help of social media, activist groups have offered a ray of hope, standing up to well-connected developers by secretly documenting discoveries at construction sites, enduring harassment or physical assault. Those in power should make their lives easier. We know that our political leaders–many of them millionaires– enjoy the attractions of foreign cities, a few even have villas in Italy. Would it be too much to ask them to help celebrate some of those same features at home? Would it be too much to ask our leaders to prioritize national treasures that can be enjoyed for generations over get-rich-quick schemes that will mainly benefit their family and friends?