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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.

Ksar Akil is a prominent Paleolithic site dating back over 40,000 years

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.”

Only a fragment of Ksar Akil remains squeezed in between apartments and industrial buildings that have encroached upon the original site

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.

Most of the prehistoric sites and caves in Antelias have been cleaved off for quarries.

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.

2019: “The Garden of Forgiveness” is one of the few Beirut sites to have survived, but remains unbuilt, with no promised infrastructure or public access.

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 4,000 year old city wall of ancient Beirut, the glacis, now lies in a ditch, littered with garbage
Excavating the Beirut Glacis in the early 1990s: Alamy stock photo

“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.

Site of the Roman racetrack of Beirut before it was destroyed in 2015

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.

The Beirut hippodrome site gutted in 2015 to build luxury villas, despite opposition by three former culture ministers

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.

A 6th Century BCE site, believed by over a dozen archaeologists to be a possible Phoenician port

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”.

The site was destroyed in 2013, despite local and international opposition

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.

LBC News video: “The Demolition of the Phoenician Port at Minet El Hosn neighborhood.”

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.

Ruins believed to belong to a 4th to 5th century church and the possible a gate to Roman Berytus were discovered on the Landmark site.

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.

Anfeh, surrounded by carved stone ports and archeological sites, remains to be fully surveyed.

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.

Kfaraabida’s Bronze Age ruins suggest a trading hub and large elite housing.

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.

The Kfarabida site has been unearthed all along the top of the hill, while over one third of the site in the foreground was flattened and demolished

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.

Ancient mosaics, unprotected in a garden facing the Directorate of Antiquities

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.

If you live in Lebanon, you would probably fall out of your chair if I told you government ministers were being awarded for public services. With no constant supply of water or electricity, no sewage treatment, poor roads and zero police presence to maintain public safety on highways, most Lebanese know very well that the state is not an award-winning–or even a decent– provider of anything. As a result, people have to fend for themselves, installing their own water tanks and generators.

The problem is that diesel-fueled generators, used to provide power (and pump water) are terribly expensive and polluting. The air quality in Beirut is dangerously toxic according to researchers at AUB and generators are one of the biggest culprits. This summer is one of the worst yet with the state frequently providing less than six hours per day in many areas.

In addition to pollution, dark streets pose a danger on their own. Here’s Beirut’s most famous road, the seaside Corniche, last week:

It’s a place where thousands walk and jog at night, now increasingly by flashlight:

But it can also be dangerous during the day, in the city’s network of dark tunnels:

So how is it that amid this haze of polluted air, dark and dangerous streets, and citizens spending all of their money on fuel, that Lebanon’s energy and water minister wins an award for “Energy Ambassador of the Year”?

I’ve checked the website of “Beirut International Energy Forum” which issued the medal to Minister Cesar Abi Khalil, but there were no details about the selection process, the jury or the basic criteria that makes candidates eligible. We are only provided with two sentences (that sound almost the same) about this award:

Over the past years, IBEF has given awards to the top leading personalities in the Energy sector for their achievements. Since 2013, the International Beirut Energy Forum acknowledges energy professionals and professional institutions for their achievements in the sustainability sector.

So what achievements are we talking about here? What achievements have been made when Lebanon has not had stable electricity production or transmission since the network was built during the first half of the century? What sustainability are we talking about when Lebanon’s energy is produced by burning fossil fuels at decrepit plants spewing black smoke out of their exhaust towers? What’s more, nearly half of the supply is not even produced by the state itself, but by rented power ships from Turkey parked off of our coastline? Is that sustainable?

Zouk power plant. Credit: L’Orient Le Jour

And as citizens pay more money for electricity every year, politicians are only getting richer, and there are rumors that many do not even pay for electricity in the first place. People will often boast that the power rarely cuts in their neighborhood due to the presence of a politician or state institution nearby.

Meanwhile, in much of the county, blackouts can last for over 12 hours, and power can even be out for several days, due to lack of maintenance, downed lines and very slow repairs.

But there is no need to single out minister Abi Khalil. Many officials and business owners profit from the electricity sector and its lucrative black market. Abi Khalil is the latest in a long line of ministers to make big promises about the future. In fact every Energy minister since the first postwar government in 1992 has promised 24 hour electricity and failed to do so:

Over that period, billions of dollars have been poured into the country’s power grid but corruption seems to be the only winner. The same can be said of other public service sectors, such as waste management, water distribution and telecommunications, where services are poor and yet citizens are paying some of the highest rates in the world for them.

Indeed to survive in Lebanon, is a feat on its own. Perhaps it is Lebanese citizens that should be getting awards instead of the privileged politicians and the daily incompetence we must endure.

 

 

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At a time when so many historic sites are being demolished in Lebanon, it’s refreshing to see that some in the country are also interested in preserving the past, and seeing a value in that.

Just last week I reported on the removal of an ancient Roman city wall in favor of a real estate project in Bachoura, Beirut– one among countless historic sites have been erased in the country in favor of Dubai-like prefabricated towers. But it is important to note that there are also rare victories for preservation and perceptions are changing about the value of historical spaces.

Take the current exhibition being held in the Grand Sofar Hotel, built in the late 1800s in the mountains above Beirut and once one of the most celebrated hotels in the Middle East. It was abandoned in the 1970s during the Lebanese war and probably occupied by various armed groups including the Syrian military.

But thanks to the art work of Tom Young, the hotel has welcomed guests for the first time in decades, as part of his latest residency.

As he has done before with projects like the Rose House (covered in this previous post) and Beit Boustani, Young spends several months or even years at a decaying and often threatened building, excavating its history and drawing paintings that are both conceptual and realistic, to convey an interpretation of a place’s past.

Tom often uses souvenirs or relics found in the buildings to help tell the story and frame the art. The Grand Sofar was also famous for its casino, where prime ministers, Kings, and spies probably tried their luck.

An old roulette table where the good times must have once rolled:

Often the pieces are paired with art and historical textual references. “I do not deny that I was fascinated by my first sight of this strange invention,” wrote the Lebanese novelist Ameen Rihani in his 1910 short story The Heart of Lebanon. “I considered myself lucky to have reached my long sought objective, which was to see the roulette,” he added in reference to the Sofar Casino, according to a caption prepared by Young.

In the kitchen, Young used old photographs to paint the chefs:

There is even an ancient kitchen elevator machine that looks like it may have been one of the first of its kind:

Old photographs of the former natural landscape around the hotel (now lined with houses and buildings) and old guest books are also on display:

A broken down piano:

Revived with new music during the opening night:

An ancient fridge, or was it an “ice box”?

But sometimes it is the items that are not on display, not part of the exhibition, that give additional meaning to the building’s story. Check out these vintage stickers, from old shops in Lebanon. Where these stuck up on the walls by the wartime militiamen, trying to making the place more homey?

Did they desire a more glamorous life than shooting at snipers?

There is even a homage to the 1980s hit Knight Ridder and its leading man, David Hasselhoff.

Photo: Tom Young

Meanwhile the hotel’s famous night club “Monkey Bar” may have seen better days:

But it’s brought back to life with an old Middle East Airlines advertisement:

And the revelatory scenes are recast by both Tom’s imagination and records of famous guests like legendary singers Oum Kulthum, Farid el Atrash and Asmahan.

I won’t spoil it all. There are dozens of more paintings and historical pieces to see, including memorabilia and portraits from the old trains that used to whisk guests to the hotel, photographs and records of famous patrons and politicians who frequented the place and more information about the owners from the super affluent Sursouk family.  (There are rumors that the family plan to reopen the hotel, perhaps as a cultural space.)

And needless to say, the backdrops are almost as rich as the installations.

Best of all, the exhibit is totally FREE and there are even occasional shuttle buses available. It’s open every day from 11AM-7PM except Mondays and runs until October 14th. 

There are also performances and events for children. For more info on Tom’s work and the show visit his website. Here is a video of the Hotel Sofar event, as well as one of his previous projects, Beit Boustani.

A rare and well-preserved ancient Roman wall that once surrounded Beirut has been dismantled. Photography of the site is not allowed, but from the street, a truck-mounted construction crane can be seen hoisting stones out of the major archaeological site in Bachoura, just off the Fouad Chehab highway that circles around downtown Beirut.

We can see a pile of stones has already been lifted from the site, which contains a rare Roman cemetery,  documented extensively in this previous post.

The sprawling Bachoura site is one of the largest archaeological sites in the city, unearthed just last year, with 250 tombs discovered and perhaps hundreds of relics. Its well-preserved masoleum buildings marked by ornate carved statues, may have been a resting place for important Roman citizens or generals who lived in ancient Beirut, when it was known as the famous colony of Berytus.

The graves, along with the wall and other features could have made for an interesting attraction and archaeological park, as found in many other parts of the world where Roman ruins are discovered. But as previously reported, the area, which borders the Beirut Digital District project, appears to be slated for high end real estate towers.

Here is an image of the site from last year:

And here is a close up on the wall:

We can see that it is at least 10 blocks high and appears to have a built in drain of sorts:

There even seems to be remnants of another structure at the top as seen below. Could it have been a tower or a gate or something else?

Today however, wall has been almost completely cleared as seen in this photo taken this week and there is now little trace of the structure, save for the wood pallets the remaining stones have been strapped onto for removal.

Photo by Max Cochrane

A reader sent me this photo, and was yelled at by site workers for taking it.

What will happen to this wall? Will we see it again, will it be taken to a warehouse to collect dust or will it be discarded altogether?

Remnants of Roman and pre-Roman walls have been uncovered in many parts of the city, but most have been dismantled or destroyed, never to be seen again.

What will happen to the rest of this site, such as the mausoleums and other features, including this interesting ancient drain pipe:

There are also some structures that look like basins and mosaic floors. Here we can see some children playing on the site last year.

Photo: MC

After my initial post last year, archaeologists managing the site appreciated the coverage and invited me for a site visit to help answer some of the questions about its future. But this visit was later rejected by the Directorate of Antiquities, which claimed the project had been paused for discussions with the developer and thus press coverage would be seen as ‘unhelpful’ and could hurt efforts to negotiate preservation. And yet today, absent media coverage the site seems to be disappearing, despite those closed door negotiations that promised to save it.

So why is it that heritage is “negotiated” in Lebanon in the first place and not mandated? Why are the talks with developers secretive, why is media coverage of sites strictly regulated and often not allowed?

Will the site be preserved or will it meet a similar fate as other ancient sites that have been destroyed such as Beirut’s famous Roman chariot race track, its Roman Theatre or the site believed to have been a 2,000 year old Phoenician port that was chiseled away by jackhammers?

For more on these sites, what they have told us about the story of ancient Berytus and what sites remain threatened, see my in-depth report on the cover of last month’s Monocle newspaper, available here.

And stay tuned for more highlights from the report, which was made possible with the support of an investigative journalism grant from Meedan.

 

UPDATE Sept. 17:

The day after this post was published, the Ministry of Culture-which had provided no explanation of the wall removal- issued a “clarification” on the Bachoura site, claiming that coverage by the media of the site was “inaccurate.” But the statement does not point out what info was inaccurate, and actually confirms that the wall and tombs on site date back to the Roman period, which is exactly as stated in the post above.

 

Interestingly, the release does not directly reference the removal of the wall but merely says that all ruins on site will be “merged” and “reintegrated” into the real estate project. There are no details on how this merging will take place. Will the ruins be buried in the basement of a new high rise tower, will they be used as decoration in the tower’s private garden? The release vaguely references the ministry’s abidance by scientific studies, but without noting what these studies say or why the site could not be preserved in its entirety.

According to the Ministry statement: “Based on the scientific reports and technical studies, the Ministry of Culture issued a decision to preserve these facilities by merging them and reintegrating them into the project to be established after conducting scientific and technical documentation according to the principles and under the supervision of the General Directorate of Antiquities.”

What the release does not say is how citizens would be able to access the ruins on a private property or that high end properties do not tend to open their doors to average citizens. Most importantly, the release does not tell us any details on how the decision was made to remove the wall, where it will be placed and why the site could not have been kept as it is, to create an archeological park as one would find in much of the world, when a large Roman complex is unearthed.

The question raised by this post remains: who decides the future of Beirut’s ruins and why are the public and the media not given details about how those decisions are made.

 

“We will find where you live,”  a watchman yelled at me after taking a picture of ruins on his construction site. He had followed me across the street to issue the threat, claiming to have memorized the license plate number on my car. “Wait and see what they will do to you when they come to your house.”

Source: Teloduh

This vast site, believed to be a 1st century artisan workshop (for at least part of its occupation), was uncovered late last year and could help tell the little-known story of Berytus, one of the most influential cities in the Roman empire.

Source: L’Orient Le Jour

 

Instead it is scheduled to become a glass skyscraper, serving as the headquarters of a private bank, SGBL (Société Générale de Banque au Liban).

 

The skyscraper is being designed by the famous Italian architect Renzo Piano, one of many celebrity architects transforming Beirut’s skyline with high end real estate towers worth billions of dollars and far out of reach of most Lebanese people. Piano is also designing the massive 160,000 square meter Pinwheel Project, which consists of a series of hotel and condo towers in the heart of downtown, as well as a city museum project, which is also to be built atop of a ruins discovery.  

Source: RPBW project conception

Sadly the type of violent threats and harassment I experienced is not unusual when attempting to document the wonders of the ancient world being unearthed for the first time in contemporary Beirut.  One would assume that a 2,000 year old site is one the entire country should be able to see, to learn from, to explore, to be inspired by, to build a sense of place, pride in preservation or national belonging. But in Lebanon, history can be private property. Several journalists and activists have been threatened or physically attacked for documenting the impact of real estate projects across the country.

To appease critics, some investors have recently pledged to preserve very limited sections of ruins, displayed decoratively as part of their real estate projects or concealed in parking garages. Yet these are often placed out of context or difficult for visitors to access and comprehend.  In the case of the Piano project, can the design of such a large building possibly preserve the vast vista of ruins beneath? Can the design be changed in any way meaningful enough to communicate its significance and that of ancient Berytus?

Upon closer view, we can see the interesting rock patterns in the walls. What do they tell us?

At the top corner of the site, the stones are entirely different, much larger and better carved, resembling grand Roman structures. Was there an important building near this site?

Most importantly, will the public ever get a chance to experience this piece of the puzzle of a city and great civilization we are just beginning to understand? With large walls surrounding the permiter, as seen in the photos above, passersby are not allowed even a glimpse of it.  (Photos in the post were taken from other buildings or openings in the wall.)

At any rate, the site might not be around for much longer.  Clearance may be closer than we think. In photos taken a few months ago, we can see nearly 20 tents set up in the dig:

Photo: Timo Azhari

But today there are only a few tents left, meaning the archeological teams may have largely packed up and left:

Is this why the developer is so aggressively keeping it off limits to the public? The site workers must have been threatened themselves if anyone is allowed to get a photo out.

It’s unclear if the diggers have already started to clear the area or penetrate to deeper levels as their position has changed since I first began documenting the site earlier this year.

Compare this image taken in January 2018:

To this photo taken from the same vantage point in recent days:

In addition to the removal of tents, we can also see the position of the two bulldozers is further into the site than they were early this year.

Here’s another shot from January 2018:

And the same vantage point today:

From a closer perspective, we can some of the amazing wall detail on the left section:

So what to make of the threats issued to me for taking these photos? They were taken from the public street, from the sidewalk, at a brief moment when the door to the site was open. There is no legal basis for banning photography in public space. There is no basis in banning the Lebanese public from seeing their own history.  But who was the man who threatened me and why?

The owner of SGBL bank is known to surround himself with those capable of serious violence. His bodyguards have regularly engaged in alleged criminal acts, including armed assaults and even a shootout in nightclub, according to news reports. In 2015, a bodyguard formerly employed by the owner stabbed a man to death in broad daylight, and was subsequently sent to prison. Is this the type of violence and threats that a Pritzker-winning architect like Renzo Piano would like to be associated with?

Interestingly, SGBL itself claims to be “a strong advocate of culture and arts in Lebanon,” according to its website. While Piano, who has been involved in several projects across Beirut has said: “Cities are beautiful because they are created slowly; they are made by time. A city is born from a tangle of monuments and infrastructures, culture and market, national history and everyday stories. It takes 500 years to create a city, 50 to create a neighborhood.”

In fact, the city of Beirut has not been developing just for 50 or 500 years, but for thousands of years and several millennia. Would it be too much to dream that Piano and SGBL live up to their stated ideals? Since both Piano and SGBL have profited so generously from Beirut, could they possibly give something back by preserving a bit of its illustrious past for the coming generations to enjoy?

 

 

Even if independent candidates don’t win big on election day, they are already having an impact on Lebanese political culture. They have introduced new styles of campaigning that come as a sharp contrast to how politics is commonly practiced in Lebanon.

While establishment politicians deploy their usual tactics: blanketing the streets with their faces:

Photo: Ali Harb/ Middle East Eye 

Spending hundreds of millions of dollars on canvases that say nothing and will be thrown in the garbage:

But also colonizing public spaces and causing traffic jams:

وصول الرئيس سعد الحريري الى قهوة دوغان – طريق الجديدة

Posted by Saad Hariri on Friday, May 4, 2018

 

Throwing lavish events for their supporters:

Posted by LF photos on Thursday, May 3, 2018

 

Giving out free flags and hats:

Posted by OTV on Saturday, April 28, 2018

 

Free food:

Balloons:

And even a Hezbollah orchestra, literally singing for your support:

Independents, meanwhile are taking the race to some unusual places. But places that are not unfamiliar to most Lebanese, who are not living in a party atmosphere.

The Madaniyya party, for example, held a press conference at a giant trash dump to call attention to the incumbent parties’ failure to deal with Lebanon’s waste crisis that is endangering public health.

Rather than adding more pollution to the mix, the Kollouna Watanti party created virtual posters on Facebook, photoshopping over the politicians faces with a deeper message: “When you see their advertisements, remember their accomplishments.”

فقط للتذكير أنّ اعلاناتهم ووعودهم الانتخابية التي تملأ طرقاتنا.. كان الاجدى ان تستخدم بتكاليفها الباهظة ليخبرونا عن انجازاتهم لا تكرار وعودهم التي لم تتحقق طوال تسعة سنوات..

Posted by ‎كلنا وطني‎ on Tuesday, May 1, 2018

 

Meanwhile the Kelna Beirut list decided to cover some of the faces with reflective sheets, bringing the campaign focus back to the voters and away from the leaders’ self promotion.

إنتو بيروت، كلنا بيروت

إنتو بيروت.#كلنا_بيروت

Posted by ‎Kelna Beirut – كلنا بيروت‎ on Tuesday, May 1, 2018

 

The Beirut list, LiBalladi, also introduced something that shouldn’t be new: debates between candidates

Curiously, establishment candidates cancelled their appearance at the last minute for unclear reasons.

Independents are also using their new platforms to raise important questions not often tackled by the media.

Here, candidate Ali Darwish unpacks the danger to Lebanon’s water resources that may result from the recent loans taken out by the Lebanese government as part of the “Cedre” package:

موقف علي درويش من مؤتمر سيدر للاستدانة!#كلنا_وطني

Posted by ‎Ali Darwish علي درويش‎ on Monday, April 30, 2018

 

Another party asks how well do you know your MPs? Do they ever come around when elections are over?

مين بتعرف من نواب بيروت الحاليين ؟#عصام_برغوت #بصوتك_يستمر_العطاء #لبنان_حرزان#تعليم #فرص_عمل #صحة #بيئة #انتخابات_٢٠١٨

Posted by ‎Issam Barghout – عصام برغوت‎ on Saturday, April 21, 2018

 

Finally, a LiBaladi commercial reminds voters that politicians have failed to address rampant pollution along the country’s beaches, the lack of safe public spaces for children to play and dangerous, overburdened roads with no public transportation:

شو عاملين ب6 أيار؟

Let's all get up and vote for hope on May 6!ما تطولوا النومة كتير، أجلوا مشوار البحر والجبل، وتعوا نصوت للتغيير ب6 أيار#شو_عاملين_ب6_أيار؟ #صوتي_لبلدي #كلنا_وطني

Posted by ‎LiBaladi – لبلدي‎ on Thursday, May 3, 2018

 

Now what is interesting is also how mainstream parties have reacted to independent campaigns. While some like Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea dismissed independents, others have somehow taken up some activist causes of recent years.

Here, Nicholas Sehnaoui, a former minister and senior leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, includes the Fouad Boutros Park in his list of projects, a plan proposed by heritage activists five years ago.

هيك بتصير بيروت الاولى!

هيك بتصير بيروت الاولى!تعرّفوا على برنامجي الانتخابي عبر: http://program.nicolas-sehnaoui.org

Posted by Nicolas Sehnaoui on Monday, April 23, 2018

 

Other candidates, such as Nadim Gemayel, have also begun speaking about the need for a right to the city, public spaces and sustainability, brought up extensively by new parties from previous elections such as Beirut Madinati.

Gemayel spoke recently to Facebook page El 3ama, which illustrates an important campaigning media change: politicians are now talking to alternative websites, when in the past, political communication strictly took place on party-run or affiliated channels. Interviews like this one let us see the candidates in a less controlled environment, catching them off guard at times and thus revealing more than they may have wanted to say:

Live NG El-3ama

Posted by Nadim Gemayel on Tuesday, April 10, 2018

 

Mainstream media outlets like LBC also seem keen on capturing a broader youth audience, with shows like Lawen Waslin, which is a bit like Carpool Karaoke with politicians. In this interview, former minister and political veteran Wiam Wahab takes activist positions on the destruction of Lebanon’s coast by private resorts. But then also in an awkward moment reveals that “women should not act like men.”

Major Lebanese TV channels are also reportedly charging guests up to $250,000 per appearance, keeping primetime a commodity mainly limited to the country’s business and political elites.

We saw a similar trend of activists differentiating themselves from mainstream political practices during Beirut’s municipal elections in 2016, where ruling party candidates also mimicked activist rhetorics. (You can read more about that in this previous post.)

Could this influence continue to strengthen in future elections?

During an episode of Al Jazeera’s The Stream, this week, I spoke with independent candidates and was struck by all the organizing work that has gone into their campaigns, with some creating nationwide alliances for the first time. Activist causes helped bring these individuals together to build wider networks and stronger platforms, competing in municipal elections, union elections and now parliamentary elections.

You can watch the full episode here:

Independent candidates are realizing that politics is a long term game, that takes years of organizing, alliance-building and election strategizing. But they are advancing quickly and their influence is already being felt. The mere fact that politics is taking place outside the established party system, that people now have alternative ways of expressing themselves and being heard is a feat on its own.

The number of candidates running this year (1,000) is an exponential increase on previous years, particularly when it comes to over 100 women candidates, including an unprecedented all-female election slate:

Posted by 10452 on Tuesday, March 20, 2018

 

Suddenly establishment parties are also featuring a number of women on their lists. Was this also a reaction to gender rights activism over recent years?

In their campaign posters, establishment parties project an air of confidence. This billboard simply says: “Beirut, don’t worry.”

But maybe Beirut should worry. The country is facing an environmental disaster, a public services disaster, a refugee crisis on a globally unprecedented scale, just to name a few.  Even if activists do not win, they are forming stronger coalitions of dissent to challenge those in power.

The political parties are still very entrenched and well resourced- after all, they have been building themselves up for decades. But their media and messaging is increasingly undermined and outdated. With so many new online media outlets, they can no longer monopolize public debates and hide uncomfortable issues from public view. With so many people interested in politics for the first time (partly due to the party’s failures) competition and oversight is growing and politicians cannot rely on old tactics as much as they once did.

In this changing political environment, it is the old guard that should be worried or at least less comfortable, and that could be a good thing for everyone.

If you still haven’t made up your mind, there are many resources out there such as Mist3ideen and Megaphone that have put together some extensive research on the candidates and the voting process.

There is a fantasy among many in Lebanon- liberals in particular– that a silent majority of Lebanese do not support the country’s political establishment. That most Lebanese would prefer a life free from the political parties of today, which had largely been former militias established by warlords during the civil war. And if this is true, it is the millions of Lebanese living abroad that would be this best indicator of such a deep regime change desire, felt particularly by those who have fled their homeland due to the destruction warlords have caused.

So when voting was allowed for the first time this year from the millions of Lebanese living in the diaspora, many hoped the balance of power could shift, that voices of those opposed to the political establishment would be heard more loudly.

But so far, that doesn’t seem to be quite the case.

The voting is continuing as I type this, yet Lebanese TV stations are on the ground all over the world today, giving us a good idea of what the polling stations and early voters look like. And there are plenty of party colors to see.

In Sweden:

In Australia:


In Brazil, it was basically an FPM street party:

Future Movement had its corner too:

The PSP and Lebanese Forces were not left out though:

Meanwhile in Ivory Coast, West Africa, nearly everyone seemed to be wearing an Amal cap or T-shrit:

This case was similar in Berlin:

Posters of the party leader, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, were even seen plastered around the voting area:

But the Future Movement ascots crew were not missing:

Meanwhile the PSP was strong in Montreal:

And in Washington, the Orange love was tangible:

Many reporters found this all too amusing, remarking on how well the rivals got along abroad. An Al Jadeed reporter in Africa was having a great time with partisans remarking: “all the parties are one heart today.”

But then one added: “We are only here for Nabih Berri.”

The Lebanese ambassador to Brazil was very proud that all the parties were represented and how “democratic” the affair had been. Suddenly places like Brazil and West Africa became “a model for coexistence” that the homeland should emulate.

Only one reporter noted that there were no representatives from alternative parties. None mentioned the fact that these parties all illegally reappointed themselves, cancelling elections for almost a decade. Or how they have failed to deliver any semblance of basic public services during that time, manage the garbage crisis or have direct roots in the destruction of the entire country and gutting of its institutions we are facing today.

In fact reporters could have suggested that Lebanese parties have gotten along very well in the postwar period and warlords are now friends and even have dinner together. So clearly hugs and smiles are in no short supply.

Instead of asking tougher questions about the parties, reporters focused more on the excitement of the day. And indeed many first time voters offered moving stories, especially elder voters living abroad much of their lives. Watching the polling station workers, carefully reviewing IDs and passports, the multi-screen displays at the ministry of interior, checking live feeds from every polling station worldwide, and the excitement and relative calm of the operation, it was hard not to get caught up in the moment.  It was indeed a historic day and the largely bankrupt Lebanese state somehow managed to pull it off.

But what does it all mean? That Lebanon is hopelessly locked into its current party system and nothing of significance is going on with independents?

No.

Independents are making a big showing this year, bigger than ever before. And party popularity, despite the loud partisans we may see in the streets, is at a low point and party leaderships are having to work harder for votes than ever before.

But we must have realistic expectations. Independents are not going to sweep to victory any time soon. Not because this is Lebanon and nothing changes, but because that is true in almost any established political environment, including Western democracies. It is very difficult for independents to break into an entrenched party system.

First and foremost it is hard to compete with that kind of money. Independents are generally small and young groupings that lack the huge campaign chests of major parties and even more importantly, the media and institutional power that they have been accumulating for decades, essential to sustaining their current positions of power.

But change is still happening, and we should look more carefully at how new political activists and collectives are having an impact on political culture and political practices, and not focus solely on poll numbers or election results. As I have argued in a major research paper I wrote at Oxford last year, political change is felt most strongly outside of elections and also in the ways that establishment political and media institutions react to the discourse and activities being put forward by activists.

In the paper, I try to give many real world examples of the tangible activist-driven changes felt in recent years, from changes and reversals in policies, laws and major projects. The title is Structures of Change in Post-war Lebanon: Amplified Activism, Digital Documentation and Post-Sectarian Narratives.

Yes we can be optimistic for change. But we also have to be realistic about the deep power of political parties and how that power is maintained, no matter what their ideology may be. Independents are having an impact, but if they want to win, they need to understand more about what these parties have offered and continue to offer, beyond simply dismissing them as backwards or irrelevant.

 

3

When I exited the plane in Beirut last night, I noticed an Ethiopia Airlines plane parked next to ours and thought little of it. But as we walked through the skywalk and then into a long corridor, this sight confronted all arriving passengers:

Hundreds of young Ethiopian women waiting to be picked up by their “sponsors.”

This is the face of the kafala or sponsorship system.

In Lebanon and in several countries across the Middle East, the kafala system means women seeking jobs as domestic workers are treated not as individuals but as merchandise.

The young women’s lives are literally signed over to a person who has paid for their trip and contract fees and then takes legal guardianship over them. Basically governments in the region have relegated state control over migrant workers to their employers, who will be fully responsible for all their activities while in the country. So instead of treating the workers as any other tourists, students (or white folks in general) who visit or work in an Arab country–and are held personally responsible for their own actions– these women migrants are “adopted” by families or businesses who assume legal guardianship.

As one can imagine, this system leads to grave abuse and some have likened it to a form of modern day slavery. There are regular stories about sexually or physically abused girls and suicides are common. With no interference from the government, some families choose to lock domestic workers up at home in order avoid being held responsible for their activities outside the home. And yes in many cases, the women choose to flee to work illegally or independently, which is naturally a better deal for them and provides more money to send home to their families.

On the other hand, the workers desperately need jobs and many live in decent homes and become part of their adopted families. Many even come back to Lebanon after their contract ends and often sign new contracts to work for other employers or stay with the same family for years at a time.

But human rights cannot rely on the goodness of random individuals. The workers should be treated as human beings under the law, as normal adults and not adopted children. They should have the right to break contracts, change employers, be provided a safe working environment and have the option to leave at time. While some governments offer these rights on paper, little is done to enforce them and many women may find themselves trapped in the system.

Bahrain has recently taken steps to reform its kafala system, providing workers more freedoms, but gaps still exist in ensuring workers’ rights. It is high time that Lebanon also follow this trend of reform and give the worker’s basic human rights and also ensure they are being met by adequate policing and inspections. Having these workers line up on the floor is reminiscent of images of worker’s piled into slave ships. They are not chained up and have willing come in search of paid work. But they are still being treated as merchandise, tossed anywhere, not even offered a chair to sit in.

Lebanese should know better. They have faced a history of discrimination in foreign countries, along with other Arabs and Muslims. Just on our flight over from Frankfurt, we Lebanese were forced to stand or sit on the floor until our gate opened. This was unlike every other flight I witnessed, where passengers could sit comfortably until the gate was opened. But the Lebanese passengers had to be screened additionally and sealed off from the rest of the passengers in the terminal, as if they were somehow diseased and needed to be quarantined.

Having experienced abuse as foreign travelers and workers ourselves, we should be setting an example for how migrants should be treated, not repeating the same abuses and even much worse ones.

You can read more about the archaic kafala system here at migrant-rights.org and the efforts underway in some places to reform it.

 

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.

2

Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer. I’m not a fan of quoting cliches, but in these Machiavellian times, few phrases seem to articulate the situation better. Take the case of the recent media campaign praising Saad Hariri, Lebanon’s recently resigned prime minister.

Now it’s very normal to see posters praising politicians hastily strung up on light posts across Beirut. As you would expect, these are usually produced by a PR company or low budget design shop associated with the politician in question and hung up haphazardly by his supporters, illegally, often under the cover of night.

But what if the group putting up the billboards is not loyal to the politician in question, but actually allied with his enemies?

I began to wonder about this when I saw a Facebook post revealing Hariri billboards in or around neighborhoods loyal to his rivals, Hezbollah and Amal.

Mar Elias, photo: Dina J. Salem

The next day on my way to work, I noticed more of the same posters with the same font and message “#We are with you” plastered across many parts of Beirut.

From downtown:

To the corniche:

Bliss street:

And Hamra:

On nearly every light post, as far as the eye could see:

Yet the last few locations are not known to be strongholds of Hariri, but of other parties such as Amal and the SSNP. This was made abundantly clear during the clashes of 2008, when militants from these parties took over the streets fairly easily and strung their flags across these locations.

In the decade since, SSNP flags have appeared regularly across Hamra street and the party’s annual march turned into a military-style parade a few weeks ago that saw hundreds of party faithful take over the entire of Hamra street:

SSNP march, Hamra street, Beirut, Sept. 2017

SSNP march, Hamra street, Beirut, Sept. 2017

I thought about all this when I looked up at one of the posters, which had been put up so shoddily, it appeared to give Hariri a grimacing look:

 

I asked some tough-looking middle aged men sitting in plastic chairs below the posters if they knew who had put them up. At first one of them, a burly man in his late 40s, answered by saying “the Lebanese people put these posters up” and “it’s natural for a people to support their prime minister.”  Sure, I replied,  there is public support and then there are printing companies that print hundreds of these and distribute them in trucks. He smiled and vaguely suggested it was “political parties… all the parties,” that worked together to install the posters in their respective neighborhoods.

But I pressed him further: “But only certain parties can do that in Hamra.” Finally he conceded. “Yes we are the ones who put those up. The Hezb, the Harake and the Oumi Souryi.” This is shorthand for Hezbollah, Amal and the SSNP.

That’s a pretty savvy, next-level media strategy isn’t it, I replied. “Well the Saudis are donkeys,” he said nonchalantly.

“And what about this one,” I continued, pointing to the grimacing Hariri. What happened there? The man motioned to one of his cohort sitting in a chair behind us. “That’s Ali’s fault, I told him to fix it, he didn’t know what he was doing.” Then Ali shrugged and shot back: “You didn’t give me enough wood to put it up properly.”

I left the bickering men and tried to corroborate the story elsewhere on the block. But most people said they had not seen who had put the posters up because they found them in the morning when they opened their shops. So apparently the operation had happened overnight. But another group of men admitted laughingly that it was indeed the “Hezb, Harake and Oumi.” And they thought it was pretty hilarious too.

If this is true, could the Saudis have ever imagined this outcome? Were they assuming that Hariri’s resignation would have been taken at face value and that his opponents would have simply said good riddance, creating greater division in the country? Could the Saudis have imagined that Hariri’s opponents would be demanding his return even more vociferously than his allies?

Of course this goes beyond billboards: the President of Lebanon and the leader of Hezbollah-traditional opponents of Hariri–have been demanding his return on a near daily basis.  Even the leader of the Catholic church in Lebanon, Cardinal Bechara Rai has demanded his return, making an unprecedented visit to the Wahhabist state.

This spawned some interesting memes. Here the two are speaking in code:

The highlighted letters in the Hariri caption say: “I’m being detained” to which Rai replies: “We all know.”

Perhaps the Saudis had imagined the Lebanese would react in a simplistic “sectarian fashion” where politicians or crown princes prioritize their own sect above all others. I wonder where they got that idea?

Suffice to say, Hariri’s opponents and even internet trolls have successfully thrown the ball back into Saudi Arabia’s court and the Saudi leadership probably didn’t see this coming. But since the Saudi royal court (or whatever is left of it) has effectively declared that Lebanon is at war with them, we can only hope the disintegration of their media strategy will give them pause before pursuing further actions on the ground.

Wouldn’t it be great if all wars were limited to creative media messaging, and the winner could be decided with likes and retweets instead of missiles and bullets?

Via: Abbas Hamideh