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archeology

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.

Following our last post about the vast ruins site uncovered near the “Beirut Digital District” construction site, a reader got in touch and sent these pictures of ruins discovered near the Port of Beirut.

Just across the highway from the port area (see shipping trucks parked above), we can see what looks like a paved stone floor:

From the ground level, the floor seems quite wide and at least 2-3 meters below the surface:

 

Below the stone floor or road, we can see a worker who appears to be digging closer to the highway:

The reader also got some close up views of this section of the site, which appears to be clearly manmade:

We can a straight lines and rectangular shapes. Is it a series of chambers and walls?

There also appears to be some circular holes beyond this:

Looking back toward the the paved road area, we can see that the part of the site with structures is deeper. Did it belong to an older era?

In this shot we can clearly see the precision in laying this road in a straight line:

And it is clearly wide enough to accommodate today’s vehicles:

Was this part of an ancient road leading to Roman city of Berytus? Or did it belong to different structure or era?

I went to check out the site after receiving the pictures. The site is located near the Audi dealership on the Charles Helou coastal highway, across from the port. It is the thin patch of asphalt in between the two grassy lots:

If we zoom out, this piece of land would have been quite close to the original shore line, which was destroyed during the building of the port and its hangars:

So perhaps this site had some relevance to the sea shore. If it was a road, it’s interesting that it is very close to the current road,  the path of which I imagine has been in use for a least a century or more. Could it be an example of how antiquity informs our current urban planning?

The reader had been monitoring the site for some time and said some structures or relics had already been removed, including a “circular structure near the yellow bulldozer” and workers were “chipping away at the walls.” The reader added “today I look out and I find bulldozers completely ripping the ruins apart and a bunch of men in suits overlooking the work.”

I decided to go down and investigate. I managed to get a quick shot in between the fences. I could see the rock floor was still there, but could not get a look at the state of the lower section, close to the highway:

That was 10 days ago. I went again today to check and sadly, it seems the paved floor or road is now being pulled out:

From the highway side, we can also see gaping holes where the rectangular structures once existed:

And puddles of water in the holes.

When I first received the pictures, I alerted the archeologist who contacted me after the last batch of pictures were published (see update below the last post). He was not sure but said he believed the site was being handled by the government antiquities department. Clearly the stone road had been excavated gently, although unlike other digs, there were no signs of white tents or tarps archeologists use when spending long days at a site. I didn’t see any of the typical black crates used to store discoveries of artifacts, either.

Was this dig handled quicker than others? Were the discoveries deemed unimportant, or not important enough to warrant saving them on site? How was the decision made to dismantle the ruins in favor of the real estate development that will likely be built here? Will the ruins be moved carefully and placed elsewhere? Or will we not hear of them again?

Two neighborhood residents told me a number of ruins have been uncovered in the area while excavating for the two new towers that went up nearby, including the pyramid-like “Skyline” by famous Lebanese luxury architect Bernard Khoury. The residents said big structures had been unearthed during these constructions but heard nothing about their fate since.

Much of the ancient Roman Berytus ruins (and the Phoenician or prehistoric ones thousands of years earlier) have been found in and around central Beirut, but do these excavations indicate wider settlement areas on the outskirts of the city?

I hope to get some answers to these questions as part of a wider crowd-funded reporting project, but in the meantime, if anyone has more info on this site, do leave a comment below and I would be happy to update the post.

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Roman Berytus was one of the most lavish cities in the empire, featuring a massive chariot race track and theatre complex where 1,400 gladiators reportedly fought in a single day.  Today, it seems more and more of that mythical city is being uncovered and unfortunately wiped away. The racetrack and theatre are now the site of luxury development, as well as an area thought to be a Hellenistic neighborhood, where I was assaulted for taking photos. The site believed to be the Roman gate of Berytus however, has been spared for now, after much activism and public pressure to stop construction.

But more clues may be revealed in the ongoing dig at Saifi Plaza–also slated to be another mega real estate project. The site is near the intersection of George Haddad street and the Fouad Chehab “ring” highway–near the Medco gas station downtown. In the photo above, we can see what appears to be a wall or floor-like structure at the middle of the excavation. Here is a close up:

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Could this be part of the Roman city and perhaps part of the wall and city gate discovered not far away at Riad Al Solh:

Ruins believed to belong to Roman gate of Beirut at Riad Al Solh square. (The Daily Star)

Archeologists also believe the ruins at Paul cafe in Gemmayze may have also been part of the wall–a tower or perhaps another gate. Here’s what the proximity of the four sites look like on a map:

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At the bottom right corner is the Saifa plaza site (1)– subject of this post–above it is the Paul cafe ruins (2), toward the middle is the Roman gate site at Riad Al Solh square (3) left of this is the oval-shaped Roman hippodrome (4), one of the most spectacular structures of ancient Berytus. And lastly the ruins of what may be a hellenistic neighborhood (5).

Archeologists will now be looking to see if there is a connection between sites 1, 2 and 3 as part of the city wall. Site 4 and 5 have already been cleared to make way for a luxury villas in place of the hippodrome and an apartment complex known as DistrictS.

Will the Saifi Plaza site (1) also be cleared?

It seems the process of clearing it has already begun to make way for an office block. Here is what the plot looks like over time.

January 2013:

May 2013:

Source: Dan Henriksson

October 2014:

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April 2015:

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The wall section remains under the tarp in the bottom section. But for how long?

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There has been an ongoing dig for quite some time at the beginning of Gouraud Street–the main street in Gemmayze–just across the street from the Sacre Coeur school.

Recently a truck was parked in front of the site, with a small ramp feeding into it. I’m not sure if this was for the removal of ruins or construction materials. I noticed a small gap in the canvas and went to check it out.

Below I found some workers or archeologists. The first to look up and spot me began yelling–“No photos!”

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I decided to come back the next day, when the workers were gone, to get a better look:

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An activist told me the site could have been a water channel, possibly during the Roman period, but this is yet to be verified.

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From the number of blue crates stacked up next to the site, it seems quite a few artifacts were discovered. Hopefully the new concrete wall and columns did not affect the excavation, though they were built very close to the ruins.

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I wonder if this dig will reveal more about Roman Beirut, an extraordinary city in the empire, as I have covered in the past, despite repeated harassment from developers and ministry of culture employees. Unfortunately many of the ruins of ancient Berytus, including the Roman hippodrome, are now being dismantled to make way for luxury housing.

Incidentally, I visited this same site almost two years ago. At the time it was a garbage swamp:

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This plot seems awfully tiny for a tower. Wouldn’t it have been great if they kept it as a small garden with ruins? God knows, we could all use some breathing space in this city.

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I recently got a better look at the ruins discovered at the “Saifi Plaza” project, which I have been blogging about lately. There seems to have been significant progress since my last post, earlier this summer. Some activists believe the site, which is slated to become a series of office buildings, could contain Roman baths.

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Of course it’s hard to tell because government-employed archeologists maintain a policy of not speaking publicly on new digs and discourage photography and discussion about them in the press.

If we zoom in, there appears to be an underground structure or chamber with large stones:

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Could it be a Roman structure due to the large size of the stones, perhaps part of a wall or foundation?

To the left of this, a number of stones also seem to have been recovered or dismantled from the site, near the bulldozer:

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Here’s a closer view:

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If anyone has more info about this site, please feel free to share in the comments below or get in touch via the ‘contact us’ form at the top of the page.

 

 

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There’s still time to get tickets to next Saturday’s TEDx event, and as a speaker, fans of this blog will get a 20 percent discount. I have 10 discount codes to give away to the first people who comment below or reach me by social media.

And even if you’re sick of hearing my rants about preserving archeology and heritage sites, there are plenty of interesting speakers this year, doing much needed positive work in Lebanon. I have written about some of these individuals and organizations before including Beirut Green Project, represented by cofounder Dima Boulad:

 

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Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections activist Nabil Hassan:

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And the 17-year-old CEO and app developer, Jihad Kawas, whom I interviewed for my recent magazine piece on the Arab tech industry for Aramco World.

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Check out the TEDx site for more great speakers including positive innovators such as Beirut Creative Space founder, Sarah Hermez, Sanad founder, Lubna Izzidin, unconventional architect Imad Gemayel as well as musicians such as Karim Khneisser and Ashekman.

Once again, discount codes to the first 10 requests, either in the comments below or by Facebook or Twitter.

 

It’s not been easy to post about Beirut with all the carnage happening in Gaza. But that doesn’t mean Lebanese developers have paused their activities. Here are some pictures I took a few weeks ago in Gemmayaze, where a new tower is coming up.

The ruins were discovered during the course of excavation works for the new tower, known as Saifi 477. The dig is on Pasteur street, just below the pubs on the Gourand street strip.

The 21 floor tower will offer apartments ranging from first floor one bedrooms in the $600,000’s to luxury split-level units at over $1.4 million according to the prices on offer at this sale site.

Of course, the developer walls block the excavation off almost entirely from public view and as usual, I got yelled at by site supervisors for trying to take pictures. So also as usual, I could only get a few quick snaps from a nearby building and a brief opening of the gate.

The site sits in the middle of an old neighbourhood, as seen by the red roof buildings nearby–meaning the foundations of previous structures were not very deep, so a lot of the ancient ruins could be preserved in the layers below.

Some suggest the site could be significant, maybe even pre-Roman or stretching back to earlier periods, but it’s impossible to speculate. 
I wonder what the ancient architects who once lived here would make of the $1.4 million homes now up for sale. It would have probably blown their ancient socks off! 

Credit: Rayya Haddad
Credit: Rayya Haddad

Earlier this summer I posted pictures taken by my photographer friend Rayya Haddad of the extensive ruins discovered near the Bank Audi building in downtown Beirut. But recently Rayya went back to the site and it seems to have been partially cleared. Compare the recent photos above taken to the ones below taken about two months ago, when the ruins were just unearthed:

Rayya Haddad

The arches were extensive, perhaps revealing a building or a series of rooms or small structures. (See previous post for more pictures.) The structures had reached right up to the construction walls filling in the far corner of the site:

Rayya Haddad

But when I was recently walking by the excavation–which will reportedly be the new headquarters for another bank– Bank Al Mawarid–I noticed the arched structure seemed to be gone. I took these shots when the door was briefly open:

Beirut Report

Here is a closer view of the far corner of the site:

Beirut Report

Of course it is hard to tell without having a good aerial shot, but the retaining wall columns do not seem obstructed by any ruins, which were flush up against them in previous shots.

Ruins are usually dismantled when developers want to start building or the archeologists want to go to a deeper level. If we look closely, it seems that another type of ruins have been discovered with much larger stones:

Beirut Report

The larger, bolder-like stones are usually seen in Roman structures, as opposed to the arched area in the top photos, which used smaller pieces and may have belonged to a much later Ottoman or Islamic era site.

In Rayya’s shots we can also see these big stones, which are almost the size of the yellow generator:

Rayya Haddad

So have the ruins been dismantled to reach another, ‘more important’ layer? Or are some of them buried under the sand? Were parts of the structure removed altogether?
If the deeper, big rock ruins are Roman, could they have been associated with the nearby theatre and hippodrome complex, as covered in previous posts.
Whatever the case, these questions will be hard to answer due to the strict no photos policy enforced by the government’s antiquities department. And even if the deeper ruins are judged to be more important, should the public have been able to see the site, even if only for a few days, before it was cleared to go deeper or make way for the new building?  More importantly, will any of this part of ancient Beirut remain before another bank is built here?
Thanks to these leaked original pictures, at least we can see what the mysterious arched structure looked like online if not in person.

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?

***

Thanks to Flo for the initial text message.

Source: Rayya Haddad

A series of structures have been recently discovered in central Beirut. They include several arched buildings or chambers. Here is a zoom out from the previous photo:

Source: Rayya Haddad
Source: Rayya Haddad

The site is adjacent to the Bank Audi headquarters in downtown Beirut– the yellow stone building just outside the white construction wall below:

Here’s a Google map of the same location. Again we can see Bank Audi on the right on Bab Idriss Street. The site is green patch, meaning this current Google maps satellite image is actually a few years old:

Interestingly the green patch site also borders a second archeological site, seen toward the bottom of the photo, which is believed to be the location of the ancient Roman theatre of Beirut:

And if we zoom out a little more, we can see the remnants of what is believed to be the Roman Hippodrome (chariot race track) of Beirut, which occupies the green spaces around the capital’s only surviving synagogue:

Map of the projected Roman hippodrome (left) and Roman theatre (right) based on artifacts found on site.

Readers of this blog will know that I have written extensively about the hippodrome, from its discovery and unearthing last summer, after a century of searching:

Beirut Report
…to the fight waged by activists for its preservation and what it says about transparency and archeology in Lebanon in a major piece I wrote for the BBC; to the wall’s eventual removal a few weeks later with the controversial approval of the Culture Ministry.
I bring all this up because today’s Bank Audi site is only a few meters from the hippodrome and theatre area. As you can see in the photo below, it lies just outside the white and black construction walls:
Source: Rayya Haddad
Source: Rayya Haddad
It’s not clear if there is any connection between the Roman ruins and the ones above. They may also be Ottoman ruins with the possibility of Roman ruins buried beneath. The area also may be close to the colonnaded Roman road believed to have linked the theatre to the hippodrome, two grand Herodian attractions that made ancient Berytus the envy of other cities in the empire.
Most of the photos in this post were taken by photographer Rayya Haddad, who happened to be visiting someone in a nearby building. Check out her site here: http://www.rayyahaddad.net
We wouldn’t have been able to see much if it were not for Rayya’s pictures. From the street level the site is blocked by black walls:
I tried to get a glimpse a few months ago, but couldn’t see more than a single arch through a crack in the wall:
Note the blue crates above are used to store artifacts, so several dozen may have been recovered from the site already.
I was also able to get a shot when the door was briefly open:
Compare this to a photo I shot last summer, before excavation works had begun:
Hopefully the heavy machinery on site did not affect the ruins. (See steam shovel in second photo as well). And hopefully some day there will be a level of government transparency to communicate to citizens what history is being discovered here and at sites across central Beirut and the rest of the country.
In the meantime, it’s up to citizens to document these findings.