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excavation

Archaeological excavations have been mushrooming across downtown Beirut over recent months, providing a glimpse at how the city looked and functioned in ancient times.

Site 1:

The most visible and perhaps most interesting of these is a bustling site located near the Saifi neighborhood:

Photo: Typhanie Cochrane

The site is quite dense and appears to resemble a once vibrant neighborhood, market or industrial city:

Photo: Typhanie Cochrane

Some 900 artifacts have already been recovered from the site, according to an article that appeared in L’Orient Le Jour, which also featured this facisnating drone photo as well as some images of the discoveries:

Among the finds is a first century wall, structures related to roman pottery workshops, well preserved ovens for tile-making, storage silos and vases for transporting oil and wine, a large pond (a possible rare public laundry pool) and a temple for the worship of Minerva, patroness of artisans, according to the article.

The L’Orient article noted that excavations could go on “until 2018” – does this mean a decision has been taken to dismantle and destroy the site as it appears here?

After all the piece of land is owned by SGBL Bank, which plans to build a new headquarters tower here, designed by Italian starchitech, Renzo Piano.

Site 2:

Just a few blocks away, Piano, who seems to be doing well in Beirut (with hundreds of millions of dollars of projects across the city), has also designed a long awaited Beirut archaeology museum, delayed for over two decades since its announcement in the 1990s. It is to be built near the An Nahar building, yet ironically, archaeology was discovered while constructing this archaeological museum.

Photo: Typhanie Cochrane
Notice in the background of this shot we can see the previous dig in Saifi, just behind the parking lot. Photo: Typhanie Cochrane 

Site 3:

Finally, a new excavation has just got started also in the Saifi area, not far from previous excavations at the Paul restaurant in Gemmayze.

The site is also across the street and a block up the road from the Saifi Plaza construction site, where a number of ruins also discovered, but have since been cleared away.

In fact, it is the proximity to other excavations which helps us better understand these sites, fill in blanks and provide a global view of ancient Beirut and its many layers of history.

However, increasingly many of these sites are being wiped out, replaced by lucrative real estate projects, tied to political and business elites. Sites that have already been wiped out include the famous chariot race track of ancient Roman Beirut, a site believed to have been a Phoenician era dry dock (potentially one of the world’s oldest shipyards) the remains of Beirut’s Roman theatre, as well as Hellenistic neighborhoods and other sites, including one in which I was assaulted by multi-million dollar developers for merely trying to take a photo of ruins on site.

I’ve created a quick map showing the three new excavations detailed in this post and how the relate to other nearby excavations that I have covered previously, both those that still exist as well as those that have been cleared and built over.

The sites in red are the three new and ongoing excavations detailed in this post.

-The sites in yellow are recent excavations whose fate remains unclear.

-The sites in blue are previous excavations that are currently on display, but with limited access or explanations.

-The sites in white have already been cleared and no longer exist. 

In fact even the few sites that have been preserved contain no signs or information detailing the discoveries to give the public a chance to appreciate them.

And note this map is only a glimpse of a wider reality in the city limited to sites I have personally witnessed or reported on in the last six to seven years. There are tons of sites just east of this map in the Ashrafieh neighborhood, as well as on the western side of downtown, such as the aforementioned demolished Beirut Roman Chariot Race track and Phoenician port site. Meanwhile the fate of many recently excavated sites such as the Roman Gate ruins at Riad Al Solh and the (royal?) Roman cemetery on the Beirut Digital District  property remain uncertain. Across the city and the country, dozens if not scores of archaeology sites have disappeared over recent decades, in favor of new high rise towers.

Stay tuned for more of our continuing coverage on archaeology in the city, what stays, what goes and who decides the fate of our historic spaces. Hint: It has a lot to do with money, power and real estate.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

There also appears to be some circular holes beyond this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And puddles of water in the holes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_3551

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2015-06-04 at 3.46.25 PM

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

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

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

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

January 2013:

May 2013:

Source: Dan Henriksson

October 2014:

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April 2015:

FullSizeRender_1

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

1

 

 

Many readers of this blog will remember when I was physically assaulted by site staff at the excavation for the $300 million District S development in downtown Beirut last year.

I was basically locked inside the site, surrounded and tackled by contractors, who pulled my arms until I released my camera and agreed to delete the photos I had taken of the ruins inside. Reporters from Reuters and The Daily Star were also harassed and prevented from taking photos. My story got a lot of press but I was never able to recover the pictures I was forced to delete.

Thanks to activist Raja Noujaim, now we can get a sense of what was discovered there and what I saw before being jumped. Noujaim uploaded these two pictures (above and below) to Facebook today.

In his description, Noujaim claims there was a Roman fountain on the site and that it proved to be an important discovery of the city during the Hellenistic period. This is a sharp contrast to claim made by contractors that there were “no ruins on site.”

Last year, The Daily Star was able to capture some of the dismantling from a distance, before site workers threatened to break the photographer’s camera:

The Daily Star 

Today, however the site has been entirely concreted over as seen in this Google Earth image:

So what happened to all the ruins? Spokespersons for the developer have sometimes claimed some of them will be integrated into the project. But how much will be saved and will the placement be historically accurate and accessible to the public? Or will the placement of ruins be merely be cosmetic, used as decorative pieces in private gardens?

Another key question is who makes decisions on such sites and why is public access to ruins so limited that you can literally get roughed up just for taking pictures before they are gone?

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. 
Raja Noujaim, a member of the Association for the Protection of Lebanese Heritage, said the first two photos were taken when the digging reached the Ottoman period: 
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:
Source: 
(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! 

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was lucky enough to pass by the Saifi dig (above) today when the gate was briefly open. Notice the huge amount of blue crates above the tents in the close up shot below. These are used to store artifacts, so there must be many of them dug up at the site:

I have written about this excavation last March. But it seems a lot more tents have been installed since then and more blue crates are now visible. At the time, the project being built at the site was called Saifi Gardens, a luxurious glass and steel residential complex, as seen in this previous post.

But now it seems the project has been renamed Saifi Plaza–at least that is what the new walls say:

Of course as an average citizen– pedestrian or driver– all we can see on most days are these walls. So has the project been changed in any way? Will this effect the time given to the archeologists before the site is cleared to make way for the new buildings? Is there any chance the find will be so valuable that the project will be cancelled or put on hold?

It would be great if anyone living in the nearby buildings could send us some more shots of the dig, since the government’s department of antiquities aggressively bans anyone from taking photos close to the site as I have often found out the hard way.

For more on the state of archeology in Lebanon–and the tensions between developers, archeologists and bureaucrats, see a piece I wrote for the BBC about the removal and dismantling of ruins belonging to Beirut’s Roman Hippodrome last summer. In the second part of the piece, I outline some of the larger questions about transparency, accountability and governance in the sector, which remains one of the most secretive in Lebanon. 

Source: Rayya Haddad

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

Source: Rayya Haddad
Source: Rayya Haddad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There appears to be a lot of interesting ruins being dug up at the new Safi Gardens development.

The residential project occupies two plots at the edge of the Solidere area, at the intersection of George Haddad Street and the General Chehab (ring) highway, just across the street from Bourj Al Ghazal tower.

The site was a parking lot at the lower right corner of this obviously dated Google Map:

Today both plots have been excavated with colorful branded construction walls:

Here is a wide shot of the site (center right) with Bourj Ghazal tower in the background:

Upon approach we can see several white tarps inside the walls, used to provide shade for archeologists:

We can see dozens of plastic crates behind the workers. These are typically used to store relics, so there could be many here:

(Have another look at the first photo of this post for a closer view of the crates)

While it’s great that the archeologists are at work, I was a bit concerned to a see a massive steam shovel on site:

Let’s hope it didn’t damage any of the ruins in a bid to expedite construction:
Here’s what the site looked like earlier this summer:

Much of the grounds above seem to have been excavated. But where is this bulldozer parked?

If anyone has any info on what has been discovered at this site, please share. Unfortunately, and as I have found after being violently assaulted at a nearby dig, the ministry of culture is not very forthcoming when it comes to these excavations. For more background on why that is, see my extensive piece in the BBC last year. 
Also here are some images of what the multimillion dollar project is supposed to look like:

A friend recently sent me a picture of a major construction site going up in Hamra.

It’s probably the biggest tower going up in the area, just a block from the main commericial street:

There are a couple of indents in the bottom:

From a closer view, they do not seem to be dug precisely with heavy excavation equipment and seem rough around the edges:

Could it have been a previous structure or wall? Or is this just part of the building’s foundation?
Perhaps some foundation experts out there can weigh in.
At first I thought the site was too deep for ruins to be found, but during a recent trip to an archeology site in Sidon I saw this map, which indicates ancient structures could be found as low as 19 meters below street level:
Also, I recently noticed something in Sodeco:
It looks to be a municipal excavation for ducting work. And I noticed this at the bottom:

Here’s a closer look:

It could be old or relatively new, but it’s also interesting to see the multiple layers of pavement and how the surface level may have grown over the years.