Race Against Time: How luxury developers are wiping out ancient Beirut
A version of this story was published in Monocle Magazine, August 2018
By Habib Battah
Just across the skyscraper-lined Bay of Beirut, in the lush foothills of Mount Lebanon, a little-understood civilization lived in caves for thousands of years. Skeletons found at the site known as Ksar Akil date back more than 40,000 years and might have shed light on the mysteries of early human development during the Paleolithic era — how humankind first used modern technologies, cohabited with Neanderthals and settled in the Middle East before moving to Europe.
But like dozens of prehistoric sites across Lebanon, Ksar Akil and its ancient caves have been demolished. All that remains today is a small rock shelter amid gaping holes in the landscape. The once-green valley has been reduced to a dusty wasteland of sheared-off mountain sides, bulldozers and trucks. The shelter, a silver limestone cliff, darkened with age, now lies buried in weeds beneath a row of apartment buildings jutting out of the cliff side. There are no signs to alert the public of the global importance of this site, let alone to warn nearby bulldozers not to continue ploughing through it.
A team of archaeologists from Oxford University’s Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art, which is conducting a worldwide project on late human evolution, was astonished at the state of Ksar Akil when they visited in 2014. The land around the shelter had been freshly flattened and workers were seen building a wall against what appeared to be newly exposed sections of the site.
“[T]he area must have been an awesome location for what was a very long-term human occupation which spanned millennia,” the team notes in a report. “Ksar Akil sits like an island in the middle of this 21st-century noise. It is hard to imagine what it must once have looked like.”
Ksar Akil is far from an isolated case. According to archaeologist Sireen El-Zaatari, at least 50 prehistoric sites across Lebanon have been badly damaged or destroyed. In a paper published in the academic journal Quaternary International last year, El-Zaatari found that hundreds of sites had been discovered across Lebanon but only a handful have been properly excavated, largely in the early part of the 20th century and with outdated technology. “Lebanon remains virtually unexplored,” she writes, and offers great potential for further study of late human evolution, which is long overdue, “especially as rapid urbanisation has led to the destruction of many of the identified sites”.
While Ksar Akil and many other prehistoric sites were demolished for stone quarrying as early as the 1960s, the destruction of history continues today in order to make way for hundreds of millions of euros’ worth of property deals.
Beirut “mother of laws”
Ksar Akil is just down the coast from Beirut. Amid the cacophony of blasting car horns, gridlocked streets, double-parked cars on crumbling pavements, scooters weaving through pedestrians and police, it may be hard to imagine that this city was once hailed as the “mother of laws” by Roman emperor Justinian. Although chaotic today, ancient Beirut – known by the Romans as Berytus – helped develop the laws of the Roman Empire, which became the foundation of civil legal systems used throughout the western world. For centuries, the law school of Berytus had been one of Rome’s most prolific centres of study, churning out famous jurists and law professors such as Cyrillus, Dorotheus and Anatolius.
Attracting affluent citizens throughout the Roman Empire, the law school, with its 10 marble columns and colored panels, was not the only site to see. A towering theatre, a massive chariot racetrack and six bathhouses were all connected through colonnaded streets, portico sidewalks and intricate mosaic floors. Berytus was repeatedly described in ancient Roman texts as a “magnificent city” and “splendid metropolis.” Some 1,400 gladiators were said to have competed in its racetrack in a single day, according to the first-century historian, Josephus.
During a typical race afternoon, Berytus would be teeming with people from the suburbs and surrounding towns, huge amphoras filled with wine and water would be stored in the tavernae, or small shops, according to Hans Curvers, one of the lead archaeologists studying Beirut’s Roman past. “People would be lining up to make their bets. In the tavernae, “singers and dancers would perform to attract people.”
But virtually none of this illustrious history is known to modern Lebanese: it is barely a footnote in popular portrayals of ancient Rome. Unlike other capitals of antiquity, where structures still stand and archaeological museums celebrate their contributions to civilization, there is little trace of historic Berytus today — even after a reconstruction program that cost the country billions.
Soon after a cease fire to end the Lebanese war was negotiated in 1991, the shrapnel-pierced old city centre of Beirut was largely bulldozed for reconstruction. The Lebanese government, then headed by the late billionaire prime minister Rafik Hariri, established a private real-estate company, Solidere, to undertake the reconstruction works, with himself as the largest single shareholder. Under the slogan “Beirut, the ancient city of the future,” Solidere pitched archaeology as an asset to its property sales, and experts from Unesco were brought in to help oversee excavations. Beirut would become the world’s largest archaeological site as hundreds of local and overseas professors and students hunkered over its trenches. But with the Hariri government decreeing that “archaeological work shall be programmed in such a way that it does not delay reconstruction works” academics found themselves rushing to beat the bulldozers which were clearing the way for the shopping centers and residential towers that Solidere envisaged.
“The archaeological project was so poorly planned and so terribly under-resourced”
Dominc Perring, director of the Centre for Applied Archaeology at University College London
By the late 1990s, more than 120 archaeological sites were excavated, according to Dominic Perring, one of the project leaders in Lebanon’s post-war excavations. Only seven of these ancient sites remain intact today but they are largely forgotten, overgrown with grass, littered with garbage or inaccessible to the public, lying in the shadows of major construction projects.
No “sign” of history
Nearly 25 years since the reconstruction project began, promises by Solidere to build an array of archaeological parks, gardens and museums to celebrate the city’s history have never materialised. On the other hand, Solidere has sold most of the old city to wealthy property investors and dozens of luxury glass towers have transformed its skyline. Yet the company, now worth $8 billion, has failed to erect a single sign to alert the public about the ruins that lie beneath the skyscrapers. Dutch archaeologist Curvers, who now works as a consultant for Solidere, offers few answers. He says signs were completed nearly a decade ago but cannot explain why they have not yet been posted. Meanwhile, the 5,000-year-old wall of the city lies in a ditch under the main highway, layered with rubbish.
Solidere’s much touted archaeological park, the Garden of Forgiveness as well Shorline Gardens, a series of green spaces tracing the historic shoreline have never materialized. A scandal arose last year when bloggers posted images of hundreds of Roman columns piled haphazardly in a construction lot, unlabeled since their discovery at sites across the city in the 1990s. “You are just like ISIS,” said a member of Parliament in a live Facebook video, holding up an image of the ruins.
“The archaeological project was so poorly planned and so terribly under-resourced,” Perring, director of the Centre for Applied Archaeology at University College London, wrote in 2009 in the journal Conservation and Management of Archaeological Sites. The few sites preserved by Solidere, he notes, were “nowhere near as well understood as they could have been had more attention been given to the archaeological evidence”. While a reconstruction project is an opportunity for reconciliation, particularly after a divisive civil war, Lebanese institutions were “marginalised” in the rebuilding process in favour of private-capital development, Perring argues.
A number of archaeologists and some government officials have alleged that dozens of Greek, Roman and Bronze Age sites were bulldozed in the haste to build. Curvers admits that 20 meters of a mosaic he was supervising were destroyed by a bulldozer due to a miscommunication with the driver.
Foreign archaeologists had largely departed from Beirut by the end of the 1990s. The excavations were left in the hands of Lebanon’s politically weak and woefully under-resourced Ministry of Culture, which critics say acts more as a rubber stamp on ongoing property projects than a defender of the country’s heritage. Gone are the days when academic institutions led the excavations. Due to a lack of state resources, excavations must now be funded by property developers if antiquities happen to be found during construction on their plots. The culture minister then decides if the site can be dismantled or later reintegrated into the project so construction can continue. But the decision-making process is shrouded in secrecy, landowners are often tied to politicians, and private contractors (instead of qualified academics) are increasingly handling “rescue archaeology” with virtually no regulation, leading to accusations of rushed digs, damaged sites and lack of published research.
No public records could be provided by the ministry about excavations that have been ongoing since 2000 but archaeologists and activists say the number of digs has at least doubled, and is now in the hundreds. Journalists and citizens who have attempted to document the destruction have often been chased away, physically assaulted by site workers or even threatened by government officials.
Ruins of “little importance”
The famous chariot racetrack of Berytus was unearthed in 2013 in the heart of Beirut’s old Jewish Quarter. Spanning several thousand square metres, the site consisted of the stadium’s walls, seats and central median; it could have formed a city attraction, much like the Circus Maximus in Rome, which is now used for concerts and festivals.
Beirut’s hippodrome site by contrast was gutted into deep craters in 2015 to make way for a series of multi-million-euro villas and flats. Despite the opposition of previous culture ministers, one of the developers Marwan Kheireddine, who owns a major bank and was a minister himself at the time of construction, was given the greenlight by the then-culture minister, Gaby Layoun, a member of his own coalition in parliament. The remains of the ancient Berytus Roman theatre were also unearthed in the plot just across the street but these were levelled to build yet another bank.
A more mysterious discovery was made in 2011 near Solidere’s luxury yacht marina. A series of wide ramps carved from stone were revealed during foundation works for the $500m (€431m) Venus Towers project, designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Rafael Moneo. More than a dozen Lebanese and international archaeologists believed the ramp site to be rare and significant, and possibly a sixth-century BC shipbuilding dock used by the Phoenicians, one of the world’s first seafaring peoples.
“This is a discovery of great importance, both for the study of this type of site, which seems to appear in the Eastern Mediterranean in the late sixth century B.C.; and for the history of Beirut,” wrote professor David Blackman, a Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford University Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents.
The site provides an “excellent opportunity to preserve and put in value this rich maritime cultural heritage by creating an archaeological park, much appreciated by the Lebanese people, as well as the international academic community,” said Maritime archaeologist Kalliopi Baika of the Greek Ministry of Culture and Tourism.
But once again the then-culture minister Layoun, an engineer with no background in history or antiquities, rejected their view as well as that of a committee of Lebanese archaeologists, formed under a previous culture minister, who had given the site protective status. Instead Layoun formed a committee of his own advisors and concluded the site was of “no historical importance”.
In a heated television interview, Layoun fired back at critics by blaming Solidere for selling land in downtown Beirut in the first place. “We are talking about small crimes, let us talk about big crimes,” he shouted. “The big crimes of Solidere, the criminal company that dumped 5,000 years of Beirut’s history into the sea.” Yet three months later, Layoun delisted the Venus site from protection and the next morning, on 26 June 2012, the area was chiseled away by heavy machinery.
“I remember six jackhammers – they were destroying the slipways just to disfigure them, can you imagine?” says a leading Lebanese archaeologist on condition of anonymity. In fact, many archaeologists in Lebanon decline to comment on the issue for fear of losing their jobs on future excavations. Those who have spoken critically say they have been sidelined or sued by the ministry.
The archaeologist leading the Venus Towers dig, Hisham Sayegh, resigned in protest. “Never has archaeology in Lebanon… during wars of ancient times, or during the Israeli invasion and bombardment of Beirut, experienced such destruction as it has witnessed since you took office at the Ministry of Culture,” wrote Sayegh of Layoun in his resignation letter.
But Layoun surprised even his harshest critics when he halted the construction of a €128m mall and hotel project designed by French architect Jean Nouvel in 2013. The site uncovered during its construction is believed be one of the most important discoveries in contemporary Beirut, featuring a fourth-to-fifth century church, one of the earliest in the Middle East. Layoun’s decree to save the site, however, came only after images of mosaic floors went viral on social media, igniting an outcry.
Activists hailed the move to stop construction as a small but needed victory. But in order to fully protect the site with heritage status, the government must buy the land – that purchase has yet to be approved. The value of the land, estimated to be in the tens of millions of euros, is likely to exceed the ministry’s overall budget.
Just across the street from the General Directorate of Antiquities, which is attached to the National Museum in Beirut, crumbling, ancient mosaics are laid out in a dilapidated garden run by the Ministry of Culture, littered with garbage, overgrown with weeds and reeking of urine. Stray cats lay on the artifacts that are exposed to the elements or eroded without even a minimal plastic cover.
“Do you have $10 billion?”
Sarkis Khoury, Director General of Antiquities
Sarkis Khoury, the current director general of antiquities, maintains the culture ministry is doing its best under intense staff and resource constraints. He says negotiations have begun to purchase the plot of the fourth-century church but he could not say how much it would cost or how the indebted Lebanese government could possibly afford it. Neither could he disclose the ministry’s current budget.
Khoury could also not comment on the fate of other recent discoveries such as a rare Roman cemetery with large mausoleum buildings that was recently unearthed or a dense patchwork of stone buildings said to be a first-century artisans’ village. Both parcels of land are slated for towers, the latter a bank headquarters designed by Renzo Piano.
“Everyone has a budget problem, the ministry of public health has a problem, the army has a problem,” Khoury says. When asked how much funding the ministry needed to preserve the country’s ruins he smiles: “Do you have 10 billion? Billions and billions won’t be enough.”
Others say the ministry is saddled with more problems than just cash flow. Many archaeologists believe the ministry’s lack of transparency, failure to produce records on sites, opaque dealings with developers, lack of engagement with the public and increasing drive toward privatization is gutting the study of archaeology in the country.
During the height of reconstruction, archaeology departments flourished, and students crowded to get into half a dozen programs at the country’s top universities.
Today, “there are no new generations of archaeologists,” says Nadine Panayot, the head of archaeology at Balamand University. Panayot is fighting to save Phoenician sites along the coast in north Lebanon, where a 70,000-sq m resort is now being planned on one of the last stretches of undeveloped shoreline in the country.
Like many in her cohort, Panayot, who led several excavations in downtown Beirut during the 1990s, accuses the ministry of intimidating the public and sidelining academics in favour of private excavation contractors working with developers. Helen Sader, the former head of archaeology at the American University of Beirut, adds private contractors are often underqualified and may be doing irreversible damage to sites. And the threat is even worse outside the capital. “They keep everything secret,” says Sader. “People focus on Beirut but they have no idea how many more substantial things are being destroyed across Lebanon.”
One such site was that of a large Bronze Age village, potentially one of the world’s oldest cities, discovered 50km north of Beirut, near the Unesco World Heritage site of Byblos. Excavations at the site, located in the small coastal town of Kfarabida, two years ago unearthed what is believed to be the world’s oldest weighing scale. The discovery calls into question a traditionally Eurocentric view of civilisation as scales from the period had only been found in the Greek islands.
Yet one third of the site was razed to make way for a parking lot before researchers were alerted to it by an archaeology student who happened to be driving past as bulldozers were flattening it. Construction works have been paused as archaeologists from the American University of Beirut excavate the site.
To help protect what is left, archaeologists attempted to organise lectures to communicate the discoveries to the local Kfarabida population in the hopes that they could help lobby for its preservation. But the Ministry of Culture was not impressed, according to one of the archaeologists. “We were specifically told: don’t talk to the community, they are going to cause problems,” the source says. “Stay out of the village entirely.”
The archaeologist, who works for a prestigious western university, says Lebanon lacks the advanced laboratories and even basic professional microscopes to assess its globally significant discoveries. But archaeologists have more to contend with than a lack of materials. “You have to maintain good relationships with supervisors on the site in order to be hired again for another contract so that discourages any dispute or dissent that could happen.”
Having worked at sites around the world and across the Middle East, the archaeologist has experienced threats to sites and office politics “but I never felt like I risked losing my permit or position for speaking out”.
With an eye on the threats to heritage sites throughout the Middle East today, academics and UN officials from around the world met in Beirut last year to reflect on how the Venice Charter for the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites could be applied to rebuilding efforts in Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Yemen. Astonishingly, Beirut was hailed as a model of preservation efforts. There was no mention that the decades-old plans for manicured heritage gardens and walking trails exist only on paper or that dozens of priceless sites have already vanished in favour of mega property projects.
Others are less sure that Beirut’s private capital-driven archaeology restoration can be a model for heritage preservation across the region, let alone across Lebanon itself. Initial ground surveying by an Oxford University project entitled Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa has already identified more than 200 unexplored historic sites in the vicinity of just two towns on the coast north of Beirut. The team found the majority of sites were in relatively good condition but 80 percent are currently threatened by construction. The danger is likely to increase as the Lebanese government is now considering at least half a dozen resort projects to be built on the country’s ancient coast, including at least two projects spanning over one million sq m each. Most of the major projects are tied to current politicians or their business associates.
Heritage preservation is “all about having a vision,” says professor Panayot, reflecting on the destruction she witnessed, both in the capital and in northern villages.The problem lies with those in charge of the preservation. “The politicians are all entrepreneurs. There is no vision.”
This report was supported by the Mena Investigative Fund, a Meedan project.