One of world’s oldest cities found in North Lebanon, may become hotel
Perched on a hill along the rocky coast of North Lebanon, archaeologists have uncovered what they believe is one of the world’s oldest city settlements.
Archaeologists from the American University of Beirut believe the site dates back to the Early Bronze Age in the third millennium BC, a pre-Phoenician period, key to understanding the development of human urbanization.
The sprawling site, which until recently spanned an area of 15,000 square meters, may be connected to the ancient port city of Byblos, a few kilometers south.
Among the discoveries are what is believed to be the world’s oldest scale beam, a major find that could reinforce the view that the site was a very early trading hub, indicated by signs of food storage or warehousing.
Unlike other ruins found across Lebanon, little was ever built on top of the site, giving archaeologists a rare unobstructed peak into the Early Bronze Age without having to decipher which parts of the site may have been damaged or manipulated by subsequent civilizations.
Nine cylinder seals have been found on the site just over the last 10 years, compared to 20 seals found in Byblos after 50 years of excavations.
Here an archaeologist holds up one of the seals that were found:
These were probably rolled on wet clay and baked to produce the following imprints, which also indicate the presence of large animals such as lions that once inhabited the area:
With this many seals found over such a short time, the indication is that so much more may be hidden across this site. Archaeologists are literally digging up new discoveries on every corner of the hill. Notice how close the ruins are to the surface, just inches below the dirt floor.
The settlement was surrounded by fortified walls, towers and a range of building types including large public buildings with administrative equipment, storage buildings, homes of different classes, all connected via a network of roads. Archaeologists say that the planned urbanization and assemblage of different structures over a dense area may indicate a more complicated socio-political system than previously known in the Levant area during this period.
Here is a zoom out revealing how many areas remain un-excavated:
One can only imagine how impressive it would be to unearth the thousands of remaining square meters of archaeology and what secrets the site may hold of the past, such as why the settlement was believed to have been abandoned in the second millennium.
But with dozens of beach resorts and bars now crowding the once-natural and open northern coastline, this massive discovery also sits on prime investment property. Even though it has survived over 5,000 years of human history, there are now fears that the ancient settlement may become the latest victim of modern Lebanese real estate development.
About a third of the 1.5 hectare site was already bulldozed around 2004, as seen in the large flattened area in the foreground:
The destruction was only halted when an archaeology student reportedly spotted the bulldozing and notified officials. Meanwhile, a new resort has already been built near one end of the remaining site and word among locals is that there is a possibility of expansion. (See update below post)
Other landowners are determined to begin construction within the archeological site, locals say.
Last month AUB archaeologists gave a tour of the hill to villagers from the nearby towns of Kfarabida and Faddous with the hope that they may have a stake in preserving it.
But should preserving one of the world’s oldest cities be a strictly local affair? Or should this site be completely excavated and preserved as an internationally-recognized archeological park? Will authorities have the resources and political will to stop further development of the site? Or will they cower to the demands of private capital, as has happened so often in the past?
Archaeologists say a number of ancient sites have already been destroyed along the Lebanese coast to make way for resort developments and this may one of the last that remains of its era. Will it become a rare laboratory for understanding human civilization or another banal concrete hotel with the usual mix of exclusive cabanas and private swimming pools?
I plan to continue researching these questions as part of a crowd-funded investigative reporting project I’m working on with the international journalist network, Press Start. You can support the project here. There is only about a week left to contribute. (Update: the campaign has been extended. You can still contribute!)
UPDATE 2: Philip Feghaly, who has identified himself as the owner of the existing resort built near the end of the site (seen in the photo above), has commented on this post saying that his plan is to install prefabricated structures on the part of the archeological site that exists on his property. He says that this decision was part of a compromise reached with the AUB archeological team. Mr. Feghaly says there will be no destruction of the ruins on his portion of the property because the prefabricated homes will not require any digging into the ruins. However there is still concern among both locals and archeologists that if structures are placed on top of the ruins, that the ruins will remain buried and it is not clear how the public may be able to view or experience them. Also, as stated in the post above, there is more than one property owner involved in the land, and locals have told me that other owners are still eyeing the site for hotel development. In short, the fate of the site remains unclear and despite compromises, no solid plans have been presented for how the public will access this priceless piece of human history.