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hippodrome

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.

 

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Partially excavated Roman hippodrome walls in Beirut. The site has now been cleared for private development

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.

2015:

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A gaping hole has been punctured in the hippodrome grounds to make way for development. Compare with below image from 2013.

2013:

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The hippodrome grounds in 2013 before it was destroyed for real estate excavation.

 

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.

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The Circus Maximus in Rome is largely a green field, yet it was still preserved as a historic and public space.

 

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?

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Still from a video presentation at a Roman museum. Multi-media visuals help visitors appreciate ancient sites, where little remains today, such as present day Palantine Hill below.
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Ruins at Palatine Hill are less preserved than many temples in Lebanon, yet Lebanese authorities barely provide signs to present them to the public.

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?

Credit: Rayya Haddad
Credit: Rayya Haddad

Earlier this summer I posted pictures taken by my photographer friend Rayya Haddad of the extensive ruins discovered near the Bank Audi building in downtown Beirut. But recently Rayya went back to the site and it seems to have been partially cleared. Compare the recent photos above taken to the ones below taken about two months ago, when the ruins were just unearthed:

Rayya Haddad

The arches were extensive, perhaps revealing a building or a series of rooms or small structures. (See previous post for more pictures.) The structures had reached right up to the construction walls filling in the far corner of the site:

Rayya Haddad

But when I was recently walking by the excavation–which will reportedly be the new headquarters for another bank– Bank Al Mawarid–I noticed the arched structure seemed to be gone. I took these shots when the door was briefly open:

Beirut Report

Here is a closer view of the far corner of the site:

Beirut Report

Of course it is hard to tell without having a good aerial shot, but the retaining wall columns do not seem obstructed by any ruins, which were flush up against them in previous shots.

Ruins are usually dismantled when developers want to start building or the archeologists want to go to a deeper level. If we look closely, it seems that another type of ruins have been discovered with much larger stones:

Beirut Report

The larger, bolder-like stones are usually seen in Roman structures, as opposed to the arched area in the top photos, which used smaller pieces and may have belonged to a much later Ottoman or Islamic era site.

In Rayya’s shots we can also see these big stones, which are almost the size of the yellow generator:

Rayya Haddad

So have the ruins been dismantled to reach another, ‘more important’ layer? Or are some of them buried under the sand? Were parts of the structure removed altogether?
If the deeper, big rock ruins are Roman, could they have been associated with the nearby theatre and hippodrome complex, as covered in previous posts.
Whatever the case, these questions will be hard to answer due to the strict no photos policy enforced by the government’s antiquities department. And even if the deeper ruins are judged to be more important, should the public have been able to see the site, even if only for a few days, before it was cleared to go deeper or make way for the new building?  More importantly, will any of this part of ancient Beirut remain before another bank is built here?
Thanks to these leaked original pictures, at least we can see what the mysterious arched structure looked like online if not in person.

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.

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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.
Source: APLH
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.
Source: APLH
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.

Clarification:

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.

 

A work cessation order at Beirut’s Roman Hippodrome site has been overruled and the dismantlement of ruins belonging to the 2,000 year old chariot racing stadium is set to go forward this week. 
Last month preservationists had succeeded in gaining the temporary cessation order from the Beirut Governor’s office, as covered in my extensive piece on the hippodrome this week in the BBC. But things have changed since the article was submitted. 
At the time of writing, activists had won a small victory, forcing bulldozers deployed last month off the site. But now the bulldozers are back and a team is preparing for the removal of the Hippodrome wall as seen in these recent pictures of the site, late last week:
    
 

The developer wants to build luxury homes on the plot and needs to remove the wall to do so. The wall, which is about 4 meters tall (now buried), is believed to be part of the oval-shaped stands that would surround the race track, which may have looked something like this:

Source

The uncovered portion of the wall seen in previous pictures (which the developer is preparing to remove) is actually just one segment of a much longer stretch buried in several plots in the Wadi Abu Jamil area–now one of the most expensive real estate markets in Beirut.

From the developer’s plot (known as 834) the wall continues in both directions. It runs underneath the downtown synagogue (white, red-roofed building):  

And then cuts across several more plots as seen by the yellow doted line:

Map obtained from the Culture Ministry by The Association to Protect Lebanese Heritage

Above we can see the red-roofed synagogue standing alone in the grassy area. Immediately to the right of the synagogue is the developer’s plot, 834

Going left from 834, the wall runs underneath the synagogue and then out through the grassy area on the other side known as plot 1370.

Plot 1370 is seen here a few years back, before the grass had grown:

The wall is buried but you can see the trace of it running through the center. In the foreground we can see the paved Spina or central island of the hippodrome. Part of the stands have also been found on 1370, which is also slated for development, but is currently disputed in the courts.

Then continuing left of 1370, past the cross street, the wall then runs under a garden with a circular walking path (below) and may be found partially under the road and under a cluster of buildings further left of that. More of the hippodrome could be found under a parking lot on the far left of the satellite photo (near Ahlia School). The hippodrome stadium then curves around with the road, coming back above the synagogue, where another part of the stands have been found (as indicated by the red color on in the previous satellite photo)

Meanwhile heading in the opposite direction– right of the developer’s plot and away from the synagogue– the wall continues toward the yellow building in the background and then curves around:
The conclusion, activists say, is that excavations should continue on multiple plots and that the hippodrome should become an open-air site, where visitors could get a sweeping view of the remaining race path and learn about the monumental importance of ancient Berytus, which was showered with patronage by the Herod dynasty.
In addition to the hippodrome, archeologists have also found what they believe to be the remains of a vast Roman theatre on a nearby plot (also slated for development) where some 1,400 gladiators fought on a single day, according to the first century historian, Josephus.  
There are also many columns on site, belonging to the hippodrome and theatre that could be re-erected and used to tell the story of the place. 
But under a controversial scheme, the antiquities department at the Ministry of Culture has approved (in the absence of a general director) construction across the remaining hippodrome grounds, so long as the developer reintegrates the wall into the basement level of the luxury housing development. But even archeologists admit the public will have very limited access to the ruins and it is unclear how much will be preserved. 
I will write more about this in a follow-up post. In the meantime, for background on the problematic system in which the ministry operates, see the second part of my BBC piece. The fear is that many more sites are being destroyed nationwide with little to stop developers from having their way. 

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    Leading Lebanese TV station Al Jadeed has just published a piece following up on my article in the BBC this week on developer plans to build over Beirut’s Roman Hippodrome.

    Hopefully more local media will pick up this issue and that of archeology in general. As one archeologist I spoke to put it: “People have no idea how many sites are being destroyed across Lebanon.”

    That’s a screen shot from BBC’s news site today and you’ll see my latest piece as the second story. It looks at the battle to preserve the recently uncovered Roman hippodrome in Beirut, which is one of five in the Middle East. But that hasn’t stopped developers from going ahead with plans to build multi-million dollar homes on the site.

    Archeologists say it’s just one of many places in Lebanon where ruins are disappearing in favor of real estate projects. Read the whole article with exclusive pictures here …and please share!

    The last time a major archeological dig in Beirut got a lot of publicity, the Minister actually cancelled the real estate project planned for the site.

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    “There are four known Roman hippodromes in the Middle East,” a veteran archeologist recently told me. “In Beirut, they are destroying the fifth.”
    He was referring to the very recent discovery of a potentially 2,000-year-old chariot race track and the decision by Lebanon’s culture minister to allow for luxury apartments to be built over it.
    Here are some new pictures of the long-awaited discovery:
    Archeologists believe this could be a foundation wall of the hippodrome stands, where spectators used to watch the races.

    The dig is located in the Wadi Abou Jamil neighborhood, just next to the Maghen Abraham Synagogue, the white building in the background:

    Here is an aerial shot of the neighborhood. The newly excavated wall is just right of the synagogue:

    And here is an estimated path of the hippodrome, recently featured in an MTV report:

    Small bulldozers are currently being used to excavate the hippodrome foundations, in preparation to dismantle some of them:

    But this is problematic because relics could–and most probably are– being damaged in the process, the archeologist told me.

    You can see the civilization layers, the white trace lines on the side of the wall, indicating different periods. Relics found on site, near the wall, could help date it:

    But the ground is haphazardly littered in fragments. One piece of pottery is even visible in the path of the bulldozer, just to the left of its track wheel:

    Here is a closer view:

    The plot is literally swimming in shards of the past that could be used to tell the story of the place.

    But it seems heavy machinery is being used to cut paths through the brush:

    I’m not sure if this jackhammer attachment is also being used:

    The archeologist also feared the bulldozer could damage parts of the wall:
    He seemed to indicate all these were signs of a rush job.
    Despite the significance to Lebanese, world and Roman history, Minister Gaby Layoun recently signed off on a plan to build luxury homes on the hippodrome grounds. This sketch was aired by MTV of the multimillion dollar residential project, dubbed RHR, to be built over the site.

    According to MTV, the project is partly owned by current cabinet minister Marwan Kheireddine,  who also runs Al Mawarid Bank and the local Virgin megastore franchise, according to Wikipedia.

    Culture Minister Layoun plans to create a narrow glass opening inside the luxury complex, where part of the wall will be returned after construction for public viewing:

     But this thinking runs contrary to the views of the last three culture ministers, who did not approve any developments on the site and have argued that it must be preserved in its entirety.
    In fact there are a lot more ruins on the plot, which is also thought to contain part of a Roman theatre, located just right of the hippodrome.  See green arrow:
    Plus, a second wall also is visible on the site, though still buried in rock:
    The site also contains tombs:
    And what could be a canal network:

    Meanwhile, the adjacent plot–where more new homes will be built– is a treasure trove of Roman columns and room-like structures that could certainly be part of the hippodrome and theatre complex. Most, if not all of this area will have to be cleared for construction:

    Activists feel all these areas contain clues to the past and are not confident that archeological evacuations have been carried out to the full extent. Like previous ministers, they feel the entire area should be preserved in situ (on site.)

    News reports indicate there are only four other hippodromes in the region– and with the Tyre hippodrome, Lebanon would be the only country with two.

    Another lingering question about this site is the presence of concrete columns sunk about one meter from the ancient walls:

    These seem to have been piled deep into the bedrock in recent years.

    Who built these and could they have also damaged the hippodrome remains?

    Can publicizing this story put pressure on the minister to preserve the site, as was the case ruins believed to belong to Beirut’s  Roman gate and Byzantine church shared widely from this blog earlier this year?

    More to come…

    UPDATE: See my story about this site in the BBC to learn more about its historical significance and some interesting background on how ruins are handled in Lebanon.

    UPDATE 2: The hippodrome wall has been partially removed. But activists insist that the fight will go on.