New excavations across downtown Beirut, Saifi and Martyr’s Square

New excavations across downtown Beirut, Saifi and Martyr’s Square

Archaeological excavations have been mushrooming across downtown Beirut over recent months, providing a glimpse at how the city looked and functioned in ancient times.

Site 1:

The most visible and perhaps most interesting of these is a bustling site located near the Saifi neighborhood:

Photo: Typhanie Cochrane

The site is quite dense and appears to resemble a once vibrant neighborhood, market or industrial city:

Photo: Typhanie Cochrane

Some 900 artifacts have already been recovered from the site, according to an article that appeared in L’Orient Le Jour, which also featured this facisnating drone photo as well as some images of the discoveries:

Among the finds is a first century wall, structures related to roman pottery workshops, well preserved ovens for tile-making, storage silos and vases for transporting oil and wine, a large pond (a possible rare public laundry pool) and a temple for the worship of Minerva, patroness of artisans, according to the article.

The L’Orient article noted that excavations could go on “until 2018” – does this mean a decision has been taken to dismantle and destroy the site as it appears here?

After all the piece of land is owned by SGBL Bank, which plans to build a new headquarters tower here, designed by Italian starchitech, Renzo Piano.

Site 2:

Just a few blocks away, Piano, who seems to be doing well in Beirut (with hundreds of millions of dollars of projects across the city), has also designed a long awaited Beirut archaeology museum, delayed for over two decades since its announcement in the 1990s. It is to be built near the An Nahar building, yet ironically, archaeology was discovered while constructing this archaeological museum.

Photo: Typhanie Cochrane
Notice in the background of this shot we can see the previous dig in Saifi, just behind the parking lot. Photo: Typhanie Cochrane 

Site 3:

Finally, a new excavation has just got started also in the Saifi area, not far from previous excavations at the Paul restaurant in Gemmayze.

The site is also across the street and a block up the road from the Saifi Plaza construction site, where a number of ruins also discovered, but have since been cleared away.

In fact, it is the proximity to other excavations which helps us better understand these sites, fill in blanks and provide a global view of ancient Beirut and its many layers of history.

However, increasingly many of these sites are being wiped out, replaced by lucrative real estate projects, tied to political and business elites. Sites that have already been wiped out include the famous chariot race track of ancient Roman Beirut, a site believed to have been a Phoenician era dry dock (potentially one of the world’s oldest shipyards) the remains of Beirut’s Roman theatre, as well as Hellenistic neighborhoods and other sites, including one in which I was assaulted by multi-million dollar developers for merely trying to take a photo of ruins on site.

I’ve created a quick map showing the three new excavations detailed in this post and how the relate to other nearby excavations that I have covered previously, both those that still exist as well as those that have been cleared and built over.

The sites in red are the three new and ongoing excavations detailed in this post.

-The sites in yellow are recent excavations whose fate remains unclear.

-The sites in blue are previous excavations that are currently on display, but with limited access or explanations.

-The sites in white have already been cleared and no longer exist. 

In fact even the few sites that have been preserved contain no signs or information detailing the discoveries to give the public a chance to appreciate them.

And note this map is only a glimpse of a wider reality in the city limited to sites I have personally witnessed or reported on in the last six to seven years. There are tons of sites just east of this map in the Ashrafieh neighborhood, as well as on the western side of downtown, such as the aforementioned demolished Beirut Roman Chariot Race track and Phoenician port site. Meanwhile the fate of many recently excavated sites such as the Roman Gate ruins at Riad Al Solh and the (royal?) Roman cemetery on the Beirut Digital District  property remain uncertain. Across the city and the country, dozens if not scores of archaeology sites have disappeared over recent decades, in favor of new high rise towers.

Stay tuned for more of our continuing coverage on archaeology in the city, what stays, what goes and who decides the fate of our historic spaces. Hint: It has a lot to do with money, power and real estate.

7 COMMENTS

    • Thanks for the question! I’ve updated the description. The sites in white have been cleared and no longer exist.

  1. The discovery of ruins under the future Museum of Civilisations was hardly ‘ironic’. The area next to what is now the Annahar building has long been known as the site of the Phoenecian tell, the first core of the city and situated on what used to be a seafront cliff. It was uncovered when the Rivoli was demolished after the war. Piano’s museum is designed specifically with this in mind and is being built in a way that will permit visitors to view and to explore the remains of the tell. While this may not be ideal, given the original plans for this plot, we should consider ourselves lucky that the hulking tower once envisaged and which would have obliterated one of the world’s oldest urban sites, did not finally get the go ahead. It’s great that you are cataloguing the calamities, but it’s also worth celebrating the (partial) wins.

  2. Thanks Warren but how could the Piano museum be designed specifically to showcase ruins on site if they had not been discovered until construction began, well after the museum was designed? This is what happens across the city: plans are drawn up before archaeology is surveyed-that’s because archaeology is only surveyed once construction begins, otherwise the planning and parceling of plots would be done around the archaeology or with the archaeology in mind (a major critique of Solidere’s real estate focus) rather than vice versa, i.e. the archaeology having to be moved, buried or removed entirely to accommodate for the construction.

    It’s not clear yet if these ruins are related to those discovered at the adjacent Phoenician tell you mentioned, on the cliff closer to the sea. The museum plot is further inland. Was there a project planned for the Phoenician tell that would ‘obliterate the site’ as you noted? That would be interesting because it would violate the basic protections afforded to the Phoenician tell throughout the reconstruction process of the 1990s and early 2000s. The only project I remember was Phoenicia Village towers, which is on a separate plot closer to the Rivoli site which is currently a parking lot today. It would have been across the street from the museum, not on the museum plot. You can see it here: http://wikimapia.org/1502846/Phoenician-Village#/photo/878853I Thus the Piano project, which is clearly visible in the artist impression, seems to have predated the Phoenician Village and is not a replacement of it or victory of any sort, but located on a different plot altogether. That project was actually stopped (or paused?) due to issues with the cashflow from investors and nothing to do with heritage protection. See this piece in the Daily Star: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/Business/Lebanon/2006/Sep-06/42422-phoenicia-village-wont-rise-just-yet.ashx

    It’s not clear if the project will restart or if another project will be planned for that plot, so not sure there is cause for celebration there.

    On the other hand, what is interesting about the Piano project is that there was actually an open competition in the early 2000s over the design of the Beirut History Museum and the proposals would supposedly be displayed and debated. This seemed to be a reaction to the idea Solidere was not involving the public in its planning of the city (characterized by an abundance of foreign celebrity architect commissions like Piano). What happened to the competition results and the planned debates? Was this all a PR show if Piano had already been commissioned?

    In terms of victories for public space, there have been few, largely spearheaded by activists not government or corporate bodies to my knowledge, and you can find links to some of those within the post.

    • You are doing an amazing job! I congratulate you on your energy and determination! I just wish we could do more and not just “archive” our lost heritage this way. What I find surprising, is why are the archeologists so quiet and not going to the media to expose what they are facing?
      Regarding the museum, you are right the design was created before the latest discoveries were made, and no changes were done to the Piano design to take them into account! Appatently the main archeologist struggled with Solidere. The foundations will certainly destroy some of the ruins below! She managed to save a few things though. Apparently there was a very important discovery which showed the different layers of Beirut history well preserved one on top of the other, that could have been a great section to show at the museum, but it was located beneath where they created this new road (right to the side of the museum to be). Thankfully they agreed not to destroy it, and created an insulation layer over it right before creating the road. I hope they will still remember its beneath the road in the future and not destroy it when they dig the roads again for whatever reasons (sewage pipes, electricity or whatever..)

      • Thanks very much, that’s very interesting. I had once heard from an archeologist that only ‘a meter or so’ of the Phoenician wall was damaged during building the road- I had not heard there were other damages. It’s all strange because this road seems to make little sense in terms of helping traffic flow, because it is parallel by only a few meters to another road that leads to the same place. I’d love to hear more about what the struggle was over and why the road was so important or could not have been moved slightly! I watched the building of it and didn’t see the insulation layer- I hope it is there and protected as you say. It is so hard to get people to speak, especially those working on excavations as they fear for their jobs, if not lives! Very strange indeed for a topic that should be widely shared and enjoyed by the public. Feel free to get in touch at the ‘contact us’ button to send a direct email to me if you have any other insights or contacts you prefer to share privately. Thanks again for your feedback!

        • I think the road might be indirectly part of the approved design of the museum with roads on all its sides? Not sure, or more importantly part of the overall design of “Martyr’s Square Grand Axis” urban plan that includes an extension of the road in front of Virgin all the way to the lower section. It was created practically in a rush even though the archaeologists were still trying to come up with alternatives.
          Apparently, they had petitioned the Directorate of Antiquities and Solidere to delay the construction, and proposed an elevated bridge instead, so that the stratified section that showed the entire succession of civilizations in one peice could be incorporated into the museum design. But supposedly they ended up finding a middle ground and agreed to securely bury that section and safeguard it under the road itself. Which is kind of an achievement honestly if this did actually happen . At least it wasnt destroyed 🙂
          But some of the remaing stuff will definately be damaged coz they need to build underground galleries for the museum and like you said the design was approved before the latest discoveries..

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