Archaeological excavations have been mushrooming across downtown Beirut over recent months, providing a glimpse at how the city looked and functioned in ancient times.
The most visible and perhaps most interesting of these is a bustling site located near the Saifi neighborhood:
The site is quite dense and appears to resemble a once vibrant neighborhood, market or industrial city:
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.
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.
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.
In the shadow of the towers of new Beirut, the ruins of ancient Beirut have literally been dismembered and piled up at the edge of town.
It may be hard to believe today, but ancient Berytus was a very prominent city in the Roman empire, one of a handful of Roman cities to contain a law school, which played a key role interpreting and producing the cannon of Roman law, foundational to legal systems across the world today.
The sad answer is we don’t know and we may never know. Piecing together the story of these columns and the spatial history of the city may now be impossible according to a source with the Directorate General of Antiquities (DGA) quoted in L’Orient Le Jour, which broke this story a couple of weeks ago.
“Since these stones have not been numbered, it is of course impossible to know to what specific sites or constructions they belonged.Unless the scientific data, formerly collected by the intervening specialists, have been archived … ”
So how could this happen? In the 1990s, Beirut was reportedly the biggest archaeological site in the world, with teams from universities across the globe working in its trenches.
I had a closer look at the ruins last week after blogger Elie Fares pointed the site out, following up on the L’Orient piece.
The columns were hard to find because they are literally invisible from the new waterfront road:
… tucked below the dirt patch, near the water’s edge:
Upon closer look, there were no labels in sight. In fact the ruins were haphazardly piled on top of one another, not even slightly spaced apart:
One was barely balanced on a flimsy piece of wood:
Yet all this seemed uncontroversial to the new culture minister, Ghattas Khoury, who noted that the columns were “well-organized” and “monitored” by the Ministry of culture and “everything is proper and well-preserved,” as he said in this video shared on Twitter.
Minister Khoury, a surgeon with no background in archaeology according to his bio, said the ruins will be carefully moved to Beirut’s park, Horsh Beirut, seemingly as decorative pieces.
The minister rejected criticisms of the government’s handling of the ruins, vaguely laying blame at those who participated in the anti-corruption protests of last year “which led to nowhere.” He also took aim at MP Sami Gemayel who delivered a Facebook live video earlier in the week, angrily questioning the column’s placement after reading about it on social media, and likening the ministry’s handling of ruins to that of extremist groups destroying heritage.
“These are priceless, do you know what that means,” Gemayel shouted. “You are just like ISIS.”
“You don’t protect the country from ISIS, we all protect the country,” responded Minister Khoury, who counter accused critics of “destroying the ministry of culture.”
The columns had been placed in storage around 1992-1993 by the controversial multi-billion dollar real estate firm Solidere, Minister Khoury claimed, adding: “Solidere moved them because they want to work on the marina. And they let us know…”
It seems Khoury was not referring to the yacht marina but rather the giant piece of legally dubious reclaimed seafront he was standing on, known as the “waterfront district,” Soldiere’s upcoming project, worth billions of dollars, as I had reported on previously. Thus the ruins apparently had to be moved to make way for more luxury real estate towers.
But how is it that a private real estate company came to be responsible for housing and moving these ruins instead of the government?
In many ways, the story of these columns can be seen as a metaphor for how archaeology has often been handled during the postwar reconstruction period.
While reporting for the BBC on the discovery of ancient Beirut’s Roman chariot race track, I spoke to the former head of archaeology at the American University of Beirut who was blunt in her description on how ruins have been handled both in the capital and across the country:
“They keep everything secret. People focus on Beirut but they have no idea how many more substantial things are being destroyed across Lebanon,” said Professor Helen Sader.
Since publication of the piece, the chariot race track has now been completely gutted to make way for a bank and luxury villas owned by another minister.
Meanwhile Solidere and other archeologists who worked for company continue to present their reconstruction and archeological preservation efforts as world leading at conferences in Lebanon and around the world. But with ruins tossed in a pile with no labels, something has clearly gone wrong.
Perplexingly, the head of the antiquities department, Sarkis Khoury, claimed in a revealing LBC interview that as the columns are moved, each would be labeled according to its size and physical dimensions.
But why are the columns being labeled now instead of when they were first excavated? After all, it is not the length and height of the columns that tells their story, it is primarily the location where they were found, the archeological context, what structures or artifacts they were attached to and or found around them, that helps us date them and understand their usage. But now most of those excavations have been destroyed.
Director Khoury noted that the ruins would be distributed in gardens and public institutions across Lebanon “so the Lebanese people can benefit from them.” Many have already been moved to the city’s only park, Horsh Beirut.
But does the public really benefit from columns with no identity? Columns that tell no story? Random slabs of granite laying on the ground with no meaning? How did such a massive archeological effort end this way? Why are the columns not being showcased across Beirut where they were found to give people a sense of the Roman city?
Some government archaeologists complain that the public does not appreciate history, but how can they do so if there are no signs or indications of what these stones and structures mean?
I plan to get more answers to these questions in an investigative piece I am working on with the support of a crowd-funding campaign by Press Start. Your comments or suggestions are always welcome.
In the meantime, one major thing has changed since the 1990s and that is social media. Posts by activist groups as well as prominent Lebanese bloggers such as Gino Raidy, Elie Fares and others have helped shed light on these issues, which were poorly covered by mainstream media in years past. But even the mainstream media is changing and becoming more aggressive in demanding accountability, as the reports quoted in this post by LBC’s Sobhiya Najjar and L’Orient’s May Makarem, show.
Going forward, let’s hope that with more media coverage and public debate, ruins won’t be brushed aside so easily in the future and we’ll be able to learn more about ancient Berytus as excavations and discoveries are likely to continue.
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.
A wide range of ancient structures have been uncovered in downtown Beirut that may provide important clues to the city’s millennia-old history. The archaeological digs have been going on for at least several months near the construction of the massive multi-tower project known as Beirut Digital District. Unfortunately walls around the site prevent the public from getting a good view. That is unless, you find a hole in the wall:
Upon a closer look: a row of small buildings is visible from recent excavations. They appear to be on platforms, interspersed with smaller podiums or column bases, and one seems to have steps:.
Below is a closer look at the building in the foreground, taken a few months earlier before the buildings in the background had been fully excavated:
I’ve shown this image to some archaeologists who have mentioned the vaulted structure and what seems to be a smokestack in the background, could be part of an oven of sorts.
Here’s a closer shot:
The assumption is that the site may have been used as a pottery factory. But this is just speculation at this point and we’ll have to wait for the archaeologists’ final report.
From another angle we can see the front facade of the previous vaulted structure, which has an arch.
It is almost as if there is a clearing or path between the two rows of buildings, with a hard white rock surface between them. Here’s another perspective from the back side of the arched building, showing the space between it and the other structures:
Even more intriguing is another row of structures behind these, again with what seems to be a clearing in between them. There is a circular structure on a platform and two other structures with step-like features:
Here, we can see a closer view of both the circular and square bases of what appear to also have been small buildings. The one on the right appears to have column bases.
Here from a different angle we can see the circular building to the right of the column bases, also on a type of platform:
From yet another angle, overlooking these two, we can confirm that these look like column bases, with four on every side, the corner columns appear double-sided:
I began to wonder, what type of building could have 12 flat half columns, all linked together in a box square? I looked through hundreds of pictures online of ancient Roman structures. Most columns on ancient buildings are circular and widely spaced out, part of big temples. I couldn’t find any that matched this small square 12 half column form. Until I stumbled upon this image:
This is Absolom’s tomb in Jerusalem, not too far from Beirut and which some date back to the early Roman period, during which Beirut was prominent, so the time period and location are not too far off.
Here’s another view with a detail on the 12 column square structure with double-sided corner columns:
I want to emphasize this is just my speculation based on numerous image searches and could be something entirely different and perhaps even more interesting.
But there is much more to explore on this sprawling site.
Moving from the multi-column base to the circular structure, which appears to have bedrock inside of it, we can see the back sides of the two small stone structures/buildings in the first image of this post:
Here’s another image of the circular structure from a photo taken earlier this year:
Moving in the opposite direction, to the right of the multi-column structure, we can see another stone structure next to it, more of the exposed rock bottom in the middle and what looks like a type of pool or basin right of center. It’s not clear if the steps to the right form any type of structure or were part of the digging process:
I’ve seen this gray basin-like bowl before in an image a friend sent me several months ago. Here we can see a group of neighborhood children playing near it:
By tilting the camera angle we can see the children are standing on what appears to be a cobble stone-like path:
Unfortunately, the path or floor seems to have disappeared in a photo of the same spot taken a few weeks later, after a heavy rain. Did it collapse or was it moved? There also appears to be some burials in the vicinity:
Finally there is one more very interesting feature to talk about on this site. It looks like a massive wall:
Here is a closer view from a top angle, that appears to show a drain or “manhole” feature:
Could this wall link up with other ruins that are believed to make up the a city wall surrounding Roman Beirut? See previous posts on this site that exposed excavations on what some believe is the Roman Gate of Beirut, found only a few blocks north of here, as well as a wall-like structure found during construction of high rise in Safi a few blocks to the East.
Will this wall help us draw a map of Roman Berytus or do these stones belong to an entirely different structure?
What will happen to this site?
The only reason we usually have excavations in Beirut is because someone has purchased the land for a major real estate project. If ruins are found, by law the developer must alert authorities, allow archaeological excavations and fund those excavations until completion is determined to be complete.
A decision is then made on whether or not the ruins will be kept in place, moved or demolished in order to make way for the real estate project. How that decision is made is often not a very transparent process and ruins found on many plots across Beirut have been cleared over the last few decades, such as the Roman chariot racetrack or Hippodrome of Beirut (documented on this blog) and which was gutted and is now the site of a luxury real estate project.
The developer has promised to bring back a small portion of the ruins but it is unclear if the public will be able to access the site, as I reported for the BBC. Whatever the case, because the racetrack remains have now been completely razed, the public will never get to see the outline of the track, they will never be able to see the site in its original open air context, to understand its relationship to the city, to imagine what it must have been like to sit there, towering over ancient Berytus and watch the races. If all goes according to plan, the public will only glimpse a small portion of the stone wall in the basement car garage of a fancy apartment building, seen through a small window, if that window is accessible at all.
In the past, I have been physically assaulted by developers and verbally threatened by a high-ranking government official for publishing pictures of ruins. But I believe the Lebanese public has a right to see these images. I believe all citizens have a right to see the history of their city or their country before it is rearranged, manipulated or cleared entirely to make way for yet another bland high rise structure– a cash cow for investors, but a loss of heritage and identity for the public, a potential tourist project to benefit small local businesses, a place for school children and adults to visit, learn dream and get inspired.
So will the hippodrome scenario of clearing be repeated here? Or will the site be saved as was the case with the Roman Gate site, where construction was halted amid an intense public pressure campaign?
“Beirut Digital District”
The massive plot of land where the ruins have been found was formerly the site of a French hospital before the civil war, and according to records produced by gentrification activists Public Works Studio, the site had been used as the “Heart of Christ” hospital as early as the mid 1800s. It is located in the largely impoverished neighborhood of Khandaq Al Ghamiq or Bachoura, bordering the luxury towers of downtown. Some remains of the original hospital building can be seen in pictures I took of the site during a tour of the neighborhood back in 2014:
It seems the hospital was destroyed either during the war or in its aftermath. The good thing about old stone construction from the 19th and early 20th century is that it lacks deep foundations and thus a lot of ancient Beirut has been uncovered for these reasons:
The abandoned plot was used as a playground for local children until it was purchased in 2007 by a real estate firm called “El Alia” according to Public Works research, and construction surveying began and heavy machinery arrived in 2013.
The plot of land borders the Beirut Digital District (BDD) project, a private real estate project that will encompass a series of high rises that developers say will be “dedicated to innovation and creativity.” Here are some artist conceptions:
Lebanese ministers have voiced support for the project, promising to offer subsidized internet and tax incentives to help make it a technology cluster to boost the economy. At the time of its launch, the telecom minister even claimed BDD would “heal the wounds” of the civil war and the project was fawned over by CNN as “Lebanon’s Silicon Valley.” Critics say the project is the same old high end real estate gentrification under the guise of entrepreneurship buzzwords and will only drive up prices in the impoverished neighborhood while offering rents far too expensive for struggling start-ups or any average Lebanese to afford.
A detailed master plan of the project shows that it encompasses the old hospital plot where the archaeological excavations have been ongoing. For some reason, these maps are no longer available on the BDD website. But I used CahcedView.com to retrieve them:
If we match this masterplan to a Google Map satellite image of the ruins site, seen as the patch of dirt on the left…
We can see that the blue dotted line on the left, used to mark BDD parcels, encompasses the ruins site:
It’s unclear why this detailed map has been removed from the BDD website. Has this plan been abandoned? Or was this too much detail to divulge?
The curent masterplan of the project available online contains no plot details, but just gives a vague silhouette of the proposed towers and buildings:
So is the ruins/hospital plot still part of the BDD project or is it owned by the El Alia company and is there any relationship between the two? If the former is true, how would BDD handle the discovery of ruins on its property?
In 2014, I noticed an excavation taking shape at another BDD plot (BDD 1075), revealing an arch structure:
A few weeks later, around Nov. 2014, excavations revealed a second, and longer arch structure even closer to the street:
Could these structures be related to those found on the old hospital plot, which is just down the street from BDD 1075? Or did they belong to a different civilization?
When construction of BDD 1075 began, it seemed they were trying to build around the ruins, as seen in this images from December 2014:
But now in 2017, since this BDD project has been completed with a wall around it, it was hard to tell if the ruins were somehow preserved inside, on site:
It’s hard to tell from aerial shots of the project online if anything was preserved in the parking lot near the round glass building, where the arched ruins once stood:
So a few days ago I stopped by to check. Looking inwards at the parking lot from the street entrance, the circular glass building can be seen on the right:
We can see the parking lot is completely empty with no ruins visible on site. Were these ruins deemed not valuable enough to preserve on site? Was the parking lot weighed of greater importance than potential ancient structures? What happened to the ruins in that case? Are they in storage? Will they be displayed elsewhere?
The bigger question is: Will the ruins on the old hospital plot meet a similar fate and become parking lots for BDD or another project?
Interestingly, BDD recently touted its praise for Lebanese heritage in a Facebook post about an older building that has been restored and will become part of their project:
The BDD community is still growing! BDD 1281 is the newest addition to our expanding district. Even though BDD’s aim is…
In the comments section of the post, I asked what BDD was doing for the local community in response to claims about destructive gentrification effects the project may have on the neighborhood. They answered by claiming the project is supporting 15 local families and helped rebuild a local public school. That doesn’t seem to be an extraordinary amount of public service for a neighborhood of thousands and also for the wide government support and tax and bandwidth incentives BDD is supposedly getting.
However it would be interesting to explore these issues further and to ask BDD if their pledge to support Lebanese heritage and history may be extended to ruins found on the plots they are now developing, which may likely also contain ancient structures.
I hope to speak to BDD and other major Beirut real estate developers on their approach to preserving heritage as part of a crowd-funding investigative reporting project I have been working on with Press Start. I also hope to speak to more archaeologists and government antiquities officials to learn how decisions are made on preserving sites, what happens to ruins that are removed from the ancient sites and what are the challenges of communicating these finds with the public.
In the meantime, feel free to share these images and this post to help me get some answers. And If I’ve got anything wrong, I encourage responses from authorities or officials reading this who can help clarify the nature and status of these ruins. I will happily update the post with any comments left in the comments section below.
Shortly after completing this massive post, I noticed a story was just published by local French newspaper L’Orient Le Jour, detailing some of the finds. Indeed, it does seem the site is a burial ground or cemetery from the first century A.D. with some 250 tombs discovered!
Among the unearthed findings were jewelry, skeletons and these fascinating statues presumably used as part of tombs to the dead:
The top figure may have been used to mark the grave of an important Roman individual, while the Sphinx below seems to have ancient Egyptian origins or inspiration:
In one grave, a person is even buried with a horse, perhaps a sacrificial offering for getting around in the afterlife?
Finally, the article also includes these undated images from the early period of excavation at the old hospital plot. Here we can see the circular structure and the rectangular buildings (tombs?) before they were excavated as seen in the photos at the beginning of this post:
Here are some comments from the lead archaeologist quoted in the piece, as translated by Google:
“The figure of the lion in a funerary context has an ancient oriental origin. It generally refers to a symbolic aspect. In the Roman world, and especially since the Augustian era, its representation is commonly used as a military iconographic icon that could indicate that the tomb was intended for a Roman veteran, “said Georges Abou Diwan, adding that the meaning of the figure of The lamb in this framework is being studied.
“The scientific methods used in this excavation have enabled archaeologists to better understand the chronological use of the cemetery, its development and the funerary practices adopted in Beirut during Roman times,” the specialist concludes.
The L’Orient article is quite short and there is nothing yet on the big wall structure or the 12 column building, the other small buildings, the circular basin or the former cobblestone path that seems to have been washed away. So we will have to wait for the analysis on those. The article also doesn’t have any news on the future of the site, merely saying that excavations are due to continue throughout 2017.
There are still a lot of lingering questions about the meaning and fate of this site.
UPDATE 2 (6/3/17):
I’ve just been alerted to this video report on the site published a couple of days ago by MTV Lebanon. It indicates that the site is indeed a burial belonging to the Roman period and also that it contains part of the city wall as well as a road leading into the city. Burials are typically found along roads leading into the city in Roman times. The video isn’t the best resolution but you can have an idea:
Thinking about the potential Roman road, I looked back at some of my photos of the early excavation period and I had always wondered if these were chariot tracks:
They reminded me of chariot tracks I had seen on a trip to Pompeii, although these are well defined and part of a paved road:
Could it be that the road to Roman Berytus was unpaved or do these tracks belong to another period or are they not tracks at all?
I have recently been contacted by archaeologists from the site who have welcomed me to visit. Considering past violent experiences, I may need to take some friends along this time! But they assured me that things are changing and they want to be more open in the future. Let’s hope so for the sake of the city and the treasures many of us want to see preserved, shared and displayed. If you’re taking part in an excavation project in Sydney, check out mini excavator hire.
We often worry about extremists groups like ISIS destroying history in the Middle East. But in Beirut, private capital and well-connected developers are also wiping away relics of our ancient past. The following column was first published in Bold Magazine.
By Habib Battah
With its grand chariot races and some 200,000 spectators, the Circus Maximus was the greatest stadium in the Roman empire and remains one of the largest in human history. Today however, it is little more than a sunken green field in the heart of contemporary Rome. Spanning over half a kilometer in length, this plot of land may have seemed lucrative to real estate developers, but the Circus grounds have been preserved as a public park. Compare this to Beirut, where a major Roman chariot race track was recently uncovered but its grounds are now being destroyed to make way for six luxury villas.
In fact, when it was unearthed only a few years ago, Beirut’s Roman racecourse or hippodrome contained far more ruins than can be seen in Rome’s Circus Maximus today. But few Lebanese would have a chance to look at them.
Working secretly behind large construction walls, archaeologists discovered what was believed to be a section of the 2,000 year old stadium seats, the paved central median where an obelisk was placed, dozens of columns, corinthians and carved features as well as a 100 meter stretch of the foundation wall, forming a loop that traces the path of the ancient race circuit. But all this meant little to the villa developer, who incidentally was a minister in cabinet when he began construction.
The minister, Marwan Kheireddine, claimed the land was worth $60 million and thus could not be sacrificed. When asked if preserving the site might also have a value, he shrugged. “Ninety percent of the hippodrome is gone,” he told me during an interview for the BBC a little over a year ago. His colleague, then Culture Minister Gaby Layoun had green-lighted the project, defying three previous culture ministers who had called for the site to be protected.
The Lebanese public, which is largely kept in the dark about archeological discoveries, only got wind of the story through news leaks. A protest was organized and complaint lodged at the Beirut governor’s office, but it was too little too late and construction resumed a few weeks later. Today, a giant crater pierces through the heart of the remaining hippodrome track. Because the site is near the home of former prime minister Saad Hariri, access and photography of the area is strictly prohibited. The destruction can only be seen from Google Earth.
The Beirut race track is believed to have been one of the greatest of five hippodromes in the Levant, a testimony to the importance given to ancient Berytus in the Roman Empire. First century texts reveal that 1,400 gladiators fought there in a single day.
Looking out across the barren Circus Maximus grounds during a recent visit to Rome, I remembered the minister’s words: “What we found is not worth preserving,” he had told me. But who makes that decision and on what criteria is it based?
Why is barren chariot track protected in modern Rome, a city full of well-preserved ruins, while a track with extensive remains is not worthy of preservation in Beirut, where so little is known about the city’s prominent Roman past? Unsurprisingly, neither the developer nor the culture minister have any background in ancient history or archeology. They claim to have relied on experts, but their deliberations were never made public.
It’s not only world history that is at stake. Contemporary Rome is a verdant city full of towering pine trees and gorgeous parks yet planners still felt it was prudent to keep the Circus Maximus as an additional open space. It is also used to host community events and concerts. Last year The Rolling Stones performed on the Circus grounds, drawing over 70,000 fans.
Contemporary Beirut, by contrast, is an urban jungle with a pittance of green or public space. Its pines–once similar to those in Rome– have largely been decimated by development and there are no large parks open to the public. With its grassy hillside and scattered columns, the Beirut hippodrome provided an opportunity not only to preserve national heritage and inspire future generations but also to add some breathing room to a labyrinth of concrete sprawl. One can imagine the space attracting tourists and locals alike– a history class field trip or just a place to enjoy lunch in the city while imagining its storied past. “It could have been a destination,” veteran Dutch archaeologist Hans Curvers, who led the Beirut hippodrome excavation, told me. But now in the hippodrome’s place, there will be more walls and security guards, yet another gated community accessible only to a few millionaires.
Minister Kheireddine, who owns a bank and several other real estate projects, touts the fact that he has offered to host a fraction of the hippodrome wall in his compound’s car garage. The public will supposedly be able to glimpse a portion of its stone surface through a ground window. But the neighborhood is so tightly policed to protect its well-heeled residents that pedestrians are not even allowed anywhere near the street that leads to his project.
The hippodrome is not the only ancient site lost to speculative luxury real estate. Activists and archaeologists say dozens of ruins have been discovered and razed during the post-war reconstruction of central Beirut. Many of those sites have been replaced by the type of glass and steel towers one can find in any city. Drive past them at night you’ll find barely a light on. Obviously few Lebanese can afford their astronomical price tags, and those who can are often wealthy foreign nationals seeking a rarely used vacation home. Why are such projects given more weight than sites that could benefit the local population, who actually live in Lebanon?
The silver lining is that outside the capital, away from the unregulated construction boom, many priceless sites have survived. Among them is the temple of Bacchus in Baalbeck, which is in far better shape than most of what one encounters in Rome. In fact, a temple that looks like Bacchus can only be seen as a 3D rendering in videos shown at Italian museums that give visitors an idea of what ancient Rome once looked like. Detailed descriptions, artist sketches and audio guides can also be found at nearly all sites, bringing the ruins to life and helping visitors further appreciate where they are standing and what they are looking at. But at ancient sites across Lebanon, one can rarely find a text sign, let alone an interactive exhibit. Should we be surprised then, that locals often ignore these wonders, which frequently fall into disrepair, abandoned or laden with piles of garbage?
Over recent years and through the help of social media, activist groups have offered a ray of hope, standing up to well-connected developers by secretly documenting discoveries at construction sites, enduring harassment or physical assault. Those in power should make their lives easier. We know that our political leaders–many of them millionaires– enjoy the attractions of foreign cities, a few even have villas in Italy. Would it be too much to ask them to help celebrate some of those same features at home? Would it be too much to ask our leaders to prioritize national treasures that can be enjoyed for generations over get-rich-quick schemes that will mainly benefit their family and friends?
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:
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:
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:
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.
The wall section remains under the tarp in the bottom section. But for how long?
Soon after posting about the ruins discovered at the Saifi Plaza excavation, an activist got in touch over a Facebook thread and shared a series of photos of the dig in the months before it was cleared.
And the second two when the digging reached deeper, into the Roman period, possibly thermal baths.
Noticed what appears to be a canal system.
For fun, I googled images of Roman Baths and I found these in England on a travel blog:
(You can take a really cool virtual tour of the Baths on their website)
I wonder if baths in ancient Berytus looked anything those in England? Or maybe nothing like them? Or maybe what was found at Saifi were not necessarily baths, though there are many discovered nearby and around the city. If anyone has any more info please share!
There appears to be nothing left of a major downtown Beirut excavation that took place here a month ago. Compare the photo above to photos I took in June:
In June, we could see a series of tents as archeologists worked on the site, which is located in Saifi:
But today, the tents have been completely cleared. Here is another recent shot, panning right:
In both the new and old photos we can see a large number of blue crates in the background, meaning dozens if not hundreds of ancient artifacts were found on site.
The project going up here is a block of luxury apartments known as Saifi Plaza.
The development had previously been called Saifi Gardens, when I first took pictures of the site in March.
So what was found here?
If anyone has any knowledge of the site or knows someone who might, please leave a comment and I would be happy to update the post with details.
The project is actually taking up a second plot of land, where it appears digging continues till today:
These sites are located not far from the city center, where many ruins of Roman Beirut, including the city gate , hippodrome and theatre complex are believed to have been discovered. Could this site reveal yet more pieces to the puzzle that is Roman Berytus, one of the most prominent cities in the empire?
It survived some 2,000 years of wars and conquest, but the wall above is now gone. Archeologists believe it belonged to the Roman Hippodrome of Beirut, one of the great Herodian structures of ancient Berytus.
After a century of searching, it was only unearthed a few months ago. But after a fierce legal battle with activists, the developer has prevailed in removing the surviving wall of the hippodrome–one of only five known in the Middle East– to make way for luxury housing units.
In this picture taken yesterday, we can see a gaping hole in the earth (red arrow) strewn with the rubble of the wall. It lied just left of the modern wall (green arrow), which the developer built a few years ago, after acquiring the property.
Compare this with a picture taken a few months ago, from a slightly different angle. We can see the modern wall with columns (green arrow), which was dug by the developer. And just facing it we can see the Roman wall (red arrow) before it was removed:
Again, here is how the wall looked before:
It was just one segment in the 200 meter oval track, which may have looked something like this:
Much more of the hippodrome wall and stands, as well as an adjacent Roman theatre, is believed to be buried around the site in the green areas below. Archeologists admit they have not finished the excavation works.
But all of this land has been sold–even before archeological excavations could take place. And development has been approved by the Ministry of Culture.
Meanwhile activists from the Association for the Protection of Lebanese Heritage (APLH) are continuing to fight the developer to stop the project and possibly get the wall returned. Read more about the legal battle and the history of the hippodrome in my recent article for the BBC, which includes more pictures of the site. Also see my follow-up post about the continuation of the dismantlement a week after the article was published.
While the developer has promised to bring part of the wall back to be placed in the basement of his buildings, it may be difficult to access for the public. Activists say the site should be an open air one, with a possible reconstruction of the Roman columns that are scattered across the area.
They say there are enough buried ruins on the site to give visitors a good sense of what the hippodrome looked like, which will be impossible if the development goes forward and the site is covered in new buildings.
There are also fears that any basement reconstruction will destroy parts of the wall, particularly its ancient canal structure as seen here running beneath the wall and into the modern wall:
With openings on top and on the sides.
In addition to building over the entire site, a restoration project may also fail to preserve many of these elements. I’ll have more on this soon and the continuing legal battle that the APLH vows to press on with. They say the Council of State has been reviewing the case for several weeks, but has yet to issue a decision.
The hope is that the site could be preserved by government decree, as was recently the case with the Roman gate and ancient church discovered in Riad al Solh, where a series of pictures posted by this blog contributed to pressure on authorities to stop development of a multi-million dollar tower.
Raja Noujaim, a member of the APLH who has been leading the legal battle, has just informed me that the case has been lying before the Council of State for three months with no verdict yet.
This is a panoramic shot of a dig that has been going on for several years in Riad Al Solh square in the heart of downtown Beirut. (Not to be confused with the Martyr’s Square DistrictS site, where I was assaulted a few days ago and which is already gone)
This could be one of the most significant archeological finds in Beirut. I was told by an expert that the wall measured some 30 meters wide and 5 meters tall:
In a previous post I had postulated (through a crack in the wall) that the columns may have supported aqueducts and the lower stones part of a road.
But it turns out that was way off and the ground stones are actually the wide foundation of the gate, and the columns are part of its arched entrance.
Archeologists have likened the structure to an arched Roman gate found in Syria:
Because the location of the Beirut gate signifies the boundaries of ancient Berytus, archeologist feel it should be kept on site. It may be the only marker of the ancient city wall and also too fragile to move.
But according to the Daily Star, Culture Minister Gaby Layoun apparently disagrees with archeologists’ in situ position and is in favor of moving ahead with a giant mall and five star hotel to be built on site.
I wonder what the project designer, esteemed architect Jean Nouvel, has to say about that.
Activists say there is a lot more to be discussed at this site and hundreds of ancient objects that have already been recovered. But judging by the ministry’s past decisions it is unclear if archeologists will be allowed to continue their work.
UPDATE: Following this site’s continued coverage of the Riad Solh dig– including a subsequent post documenting what is believed to be Beirut’s oldest church–the minister of culture has announced the site will be preserved and the hotel project stopped completely. Thanks goes to all those who shared and cared about this story!