If archaeologists are right, our understanding of Byblos will soon change dramatically. For years, people have assumed that the ancient city’s Phoenician port was situated in the same area as the current medieval-era harbor, populated by fish restaurants and tourist traps:
But new surveys by marine archaeologist Martine Francis-Allouche indicate that the ancient port is in fact just south of the harbor and the Byblos ruins site as indicated by the red circle in this map, near all the beach resorts:
The Phoenician port is actually buried under millennia of silting, according to Francis-Allouche and her colleagues. Geophysical tests show the ancient shoreline was actually 100 meters above the current beach. They have already dug up Phoenician anchors in the area:
The archaeologists want to keep digging on the site to see if they can find more structures belonging to the port, perhaps even some ships if they are lucky. But as you can tell by the map above, the site of the archaeology and potentially the actual Phoenician harbor of Byblos, is also the future home of the latest $12 million beach resort backed by a former Lebanese minister.
As I have covered previous posts, activists are already fighting to stop this resort because the land also contains modern history of the earliest Armenian settlements in Lebanon, including Byblos’s first Armenian church and a cemetery for genocide survivors. To learn more about how all these actors are coming together, and what the developers have to say about their pledge to make the site accessible to the public*, see my latest piece on the discoveries and the controversy at Al Fanar Media. Here is an excerpt:
In the 11th century before Christ, the ancient Egyptian traveler Wenamon describes standing in the office of the prince of Byblos, the waves of the Mediterranean Sea crashing outside the window behind him, as though they were “hitting the back” of the prince’s head.
Wenamon had been sent by Egypt’s King Ramses XI on a mission to retrieve cedar wood to repair a sacred vessel. The negotiations were tense, and the Egyptian envoy was eventually forced to send home for more money to buy the wood. The Pharaohs had long relied on Lebanon’s then-plentiful forests for the building of their temples, furniture and ships. According to his account, Wenamon surveyed the logs of timber piled up on the Byblos shore ready for export, with 20 ships moored in the harbor.
Now, over 3,000 years later, contemporary Lebanese archaeologists have made new discoveries revealing the location of where exactly that harbor may be buried and the pivotal role of Byblos, one of the world’s oldest cities, in the ancient maritime supply chain.
NOTE: The developers have requested that I make clear in this post their stated aim to support the archaeological excavation and make the site accessible to “all the Lebanese people”, although they cannot yet say how physically this will happen within a private resort at this stage of planning. See the article linked above for more details on their position.
Barely two months after the 100 year anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, relatives of those who survived the mass killings are now fighting to prevent the graves of their loved ones from being exhumed to make way for a luxury resort in the coastal town of Byblos.
Escorted by police, a group of laborers arrived at the historic cemetery Monday morning to begin digging up the graves, but they were stopped by a last minute court order filed by the relatives of one of the deceased. Relatives had previously filed a complaint in March soon after the project was first announced and a judge had opened an investigation into the case. Yet despite this ongoing investigation, an attempt to dig up the graves was made yesterday, according to Vartan Avakian, great-grandson of Hagop Avakian, who was born in 1894 in Turkey and among the earliest genocide survivors to settle in Lebanon.
The younger Avakian, who has been researching and lobbying officials about the case for the last few months, says his family members notified local authorities when the workers showed up. Through a lawyer, they then contacted Judge Joseph Ajaka of the court of urgent matters who has now issued a temporary stop order until the investigation is complete. Here is a copy of it:
But despite this intervention, Avakian worries about rumors that a second attempt to exhume the bodies is being imminently planned.
As I reported in March, the Armenian Church that manages the cemetery– The Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia– has apparently made a deal with a developer to lease the seaside property for a beach resort. There is concern that the church building itself, one of the oldest Armenian churches in Lebanon–may also be used to host a spa or restaurant for the future resort, which is reportedly linked to former telecom minister Jean-Louis Qordahi.
In the early 1900s the site known as “Bird’s Nest” was part of a Danish missionary orphanage and school that sheltered large numbers of genocide survivors, and later became an anchor for one of Lebanon’s earliest Armenian communities.
However Avakian contends that the cemetery property is actually under the jurisdiction of the state’s Directorate of Antiquities, since the land (plot 642) is just a few meters from the 10,000 year old Byblos ancient port site and has also seen very recent excavations. Following Avakian’s claim, Judge Ajaka has ordered excavation works stop until the Directorate has clarified its position. (See update below for more details on the dossier recently released by those opposing the project and the new online petition.)
The Church has announced that the bodies will be honored at a new shrine far from the coast, but this will reportedly serve as a mass grave. It’s hard to imagine why a developer or the Church don’t find it problematic to exhume the graves of genocide survivors. The idea that the Church itself could be used for a resort project is likely to upset many in the community who frequented the place of worship for family events or attended a primary school that was part of the church complex.
(See updates below for a reaction from the Church.)
Beyond the obvious threat to community and cultural heritage, this case raises a number of legal questions. How could workers be deployed to the site to begin digging when an court investigation over the legality of the digging is still ongoing? How is it that the Church is able to lease property that may fall under the jurisdiction of government and antiquities authorities and may still contain important historical and archeological data?
Finally, what will be the impact on public access to the sea– a right enshrined in Lebanese law– if more private resorts are built on the coast?
The Byblos area hosts one of the few publicly accessible coastal areas in Lebanon, yet a number of private resorts have been controversially built along the shore, including the well-known and extraordinarily priced Edde Sands. The entrance fees of these resorts are far out of the price range of the average Lebanese person. Because they are patrolled by guards and fences, very little of the coast remains natural and open to the public as can be seen in this map:
We have already seen the coast being privatized in Beirut with very little left for citizens to access, a story I have recently reported on for The Guardian. So far activists have managed to make some headway in that case, with the help of public pressure and strong legal research. Will civil society also be able to make its voice heard in Byblos?
I encourage readers who value this site to share this information and help pose these questions. Facing the power of the church and well-connected investors, the relatives of the survivors are fighting a lonely battle and could use all the help they can get in publicizing this case.
UPDATE: Here is a report LBC has just aired about the site:
UPDATE 2 (3/7/15):
A statement has been issued on a Facebook page claiming to represent the Bird’s Nest Orphanage criticizing media coverage of the site destruction and claiming the move is “in accordance to the law.” The plan is to move the graves close to a memorial now under construction near the grave of the orphanage founder Maria Jacobsen, who is buried further inland, away from the coast. The statement says this move was done with the consent of families who were “honored” to have their loved ones buried next to Miss Jacobsen. The statement says the “income generating project” will help pay for the rehabilitation of church buildings and is done “under the supervision of the Directorate of Antiquities.” The statement ends by blaming the media and “emotional disturbances of individuals” for reacting to the story with “sensationalism” and “intentionally omitting facts” to distort reality.
Interestingly, this vague statement excludes a number of key facts itself, namely:
-the type and scope of project being built
-the claim that the bodies will be put in a mass grave
-the claim that the church building will be used by the project as a spa or restaurant
-the “many families” who have approved to the project, stating it would be “the greatest honor” to have their bodies moved. This quote has no name attached to it.
-the relatives who have opposed the project
-the involvement of the local community in this project
-the environmental impact of the project and the effect on public access to the sea
-the legal complaint that alleges the removal of graves is not the jurisdiction of the church.
-the pending legal investigation into the case and the issuance of a work stoppage order by Judge Ajaka.
-any detail on the financial difficulties that have forced the church to enter into a profit partnership with a real estate developer
Finally, insinuating that those family members critical of the project suffer from mental or “emotional distress” as well as the claim that only the church is empowered to decide on the fate of the orphanage doesn’t really bode well for the type of community support and involvement the Orphanage is claiming.
Update 3 (3/7/15)
The campaign opposing the project has just released an extensive dossier highlighting the historical and legal context of the site, including a number of detailed maps. They have also launched an online petition to oppose the grave destruction.
Update 4 (15/7/15)
Following a media uproar over the grave destruction, the head of the Armenian church in Lebanon has suspended the move “to provide a more comprehensive explanation to the public, and to create a calmer atmosphere so that the issue is analyzed in a broader way. “
The picturesque coastal town of Byblos is known largely for two things: ancient ruins and overpriced beach resorts. Like much of the 220 kilometer Lebanese coastline, the shores around Byblos–one of the oldest constantly inhabited cities in the world–have been developed by private resorts, where access is restricted to paying customers and a couple can easily spend $100 for a day at the beach.
(For more on the privatization of Beirut’s coast, see my recent piece in The Guardian)
Now there is news that one of the last undeveloped plots of Byblos seafront, which is just below the 10,000 year old ruins, will be rented to well-connected developers. The rocky shore in question (see photo above) is also the place of a historic Armenian community church and orphanage and there are imminent plans to reportedly exhume the bodies of Armenian genocide survivors who are buried at a small cemetery near the shore to make way for a new seafront project.
The large building on the site dates back to the early 1900s and was used as a church and school facility as part of an orphanage founded to serve those saved from the mass killings.
The orphanage was run by the Danish missionary Maria Jacobsen, who is credited with saving thousands of Armenian children from the massacres in Turkey. Many ended up at the Byblos orphanage known as “Bird’s Nest”
Here is an early picture of the orphanage building:
Today, the main building facing the sea is part of the plot for rent. Will it be used for a restaurant or spa?
According to a recent report, the tenant leasing the property from the Church is former minister Jean-Louis Qordahi, who is also former mayor of Jbeil, where Byblos is located. The report also indicates that the orphanage’s small cemetery will need to be moved, meaning the bodies of many genocide survivors may be exhumed to make way for the project. See the graves in the triangular plot below:
Interestingly, there appears to be archaeological digs currently going at the project plot–not surprising because the building is literally a few meters away from the ancient Byblos site.
Having just written an in-depth piece for The Guardian on how politicians and real estate developers often work together to shape laws in coastal areas, this project raises a lot of interesting questions. Are there any laws protecting the natural coastline in Byblos? What right do citizens have to access the shore and how is it impeded by private resorts that charge entrance fees?
In this case, the church is leasing the land and I have heard there are other examples of this. So how does this work and what ethical concerns are involved in exhuming the bodies of genocide survivors or in turning a historical site into one of profit? What archeological discoveries are being made at the site and how will these be preserved?
I have heard from some locals that the church was a main anchor of the Armenian community in Byblos, hosting countless marriages and ceremonies over the last several decades. Some reports indicate a new church and memorial will be built. But how does the community feel about this? To what extent have they been consulted?
UPDATE: Following an uproar in the media over this move–including Armenian newspapers in the US–the Armenian church has suspended the move to privatize while awaiting further studies on the matter. See this updates at the bottom of this post.
As is typically the case when big acts come to Lebanon, Lana Del Rey’s performance experienced sound problems and her voice was barely audible at times.
Despite the the $60 price tag for the cheapest standing tickets, she performed–if we can call it that– for about an hour with no encore and very little set-up.
Many felt she was spaced out most of the time–in fact I didn’t hear the word Lebanon or Byblos uttered once–so I’m not entirely sure she knew where she was.
Here’s what I did hear:
At one point she made reference to the “electricity” and “mysticism” or “mystique” “in the air.”
She spoke one more time toward the end of the show saying:
“It feels so fucking sexy and amazing here.”
Of course Ray is probably on a plane right now to her next show, so perhaps we can’t expect these performers to know much about the countries they visit. I found the same to be true of Flo Rida, when I briefly interviewed him for MTV a couple of years back–though he did at least make note of the location during his gig.
All this is good business for Lebanese promoters who can charge exorbitant entrance fees while investing relatively little in the technical set-up or band travel arrangements, as the stars often show up alone or with only a handful of musicians. The result often sounds more like celebrity Karaoke than a live performance of studio tracks.
There are definitely exceptions to this, such great recent Beirut shows put on by Sting and Snoop Dogg who brought entire bands with them. But more often than not, going to a concert in Lebanon often feels like getting a very downsized experience for a very upscale price.
“There is no need to worry,” said Culture Minister Gaby Layoun, following the theft of 46 items from the crusader castle museum in the ancient city of Byblos. Excavated on site, the items include ancient Egyptian jewelry and Roman-era pottery.
“None of them has any unique value,” Layoun told The Daily Star, claiming “most” of the pieces were “identical” to those stored in ministry depots.
And who needs more than one type of ancient relic anyway?
But if “most” of the items were identical does that many others were not, and thus no longer exist? No problem-or ‘basseta’ as we say in Lebanon. Too much heritage is bad for business.