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.
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.
A lot of you have probably seen the now viral cell phone video shot in the Beirut Souks mall earlier this summer. It’s a great pick-me-up, if you are losing hope in humanity (and in Lebanon and the Middle East in particular these days.) Spoiler alert: Grammy-award winning artist Seal sings a duet with the young street performer and ends by asking him to play at his concert later that evening.
I’m not sure if Seal got a hint of this, but he did note that it was “slim pickings” to find a busker or street performer in Beirut. This may be because performers have been manhandled and hauled away by security forces as I witnessed and documented in this post a few years ago.
Seal also notes that despite Solidere’s offer of free-wifi (one of the many ways the corporation claims to give back to the city) the internet is actually “nonexistent” and thus he is forced to upload the video from his hotel room later on.
It all starts when Seal shoots a brief intro video outside the Souks shopping mall, which used to be series of famous actual souks or open air markets in prewar Beirut (until Soldiere and its elite urban planners decided Gucci and Prada would be a better fit.)
Seal then “stumbles upon” Peter Choucanii, a 21-year-old with a beautiful voice who has been performing in local clubs. When asked if he performs here often, Choucanii says he doesn’t and prefers to perform in other cities in North Lebanon like Jbeil and Batroun. It’s never made clear why he doesn’t perform on the streets of the city he lives in, where there is far more traffic than distant towns. But the two create a lovely performance. You can watch it here:
Now Choucanii is not overly surprised to see Seal (unlike another street performer he encountered in Manchester who was starstruck) and Seal later admits from his hotel room that the performer was given advance notice that he was coming, which was not what he asked for.
It’s hard to say to what extent this encounter was staged, but I wonder if the Solidere private security would have just stood back and watched if a famous star was not involved or if the street performer was not a good looking young kid singing in English instead of a poorer-looking Lebanese, Syrian or Egyptian singing in Arabic.
And it’s not just the Souks. Other Solidere faux public spaces such as Zaitunay Bay have signs that explicitly ban unauthorized music, food or any type of public panhandling.
What Seal is doing with street performers is a laudable act of using celebrity power for public good. And as Seal often often notes: “the best performers can be found on the street.”
Maybe Solidere and the Lebanese authorities should listen to that advice. Because if people were allowed to sing and express themselves in public places, maybe more talented people could be spotted and given a chance, especially youth from disadvantaged backgrounds. Beyond that, street music adds a texture and a serendipity to the city, which is largely lost in a manicured and corporate-controlled environment like “downtown Beirut.”
Some of the greatest cities in the world are known for their street music. Why should Beirut be any different?
Thanks to Marshall for reminding me about this video, which reached him as far away as Texas.