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.
An LBC camera crew has become the latest victim of violent Lebanese real estate companies seizing the country’s diminishing natural shores, destroying essential ecosystems for profit and assaulting anyone who tries to document their activities. The LBC crew was violently attacked on Wednesday while filming a new resort being built in the tiny village of Mansouri in South Lebanon, home to the country’s only untouched sand beach and rare sea turtle reserve.
The attack was recorded on the TV reporter’s cell phone and is now making the rounds on Facebook. As soon as the news camera pans toward the resort– built directly onto the public coastline, in what appears to be a clear violation of the constitution and international maritime conventions–a man comes charging toward the TV crew with his fist raised. He throws the cameraman to the floor and then yanks him up by his shirt, shouting in his face: “What are you doing you dick!
He then grabs a man helping the crew and holds him by the shirt: “Do you know who I am? If I want to shoot you I will shoot you, you dog!”
“Get the hell out of here,” he repeats, adding in the crudest terms: “kissikhtkoon bi aiiry(I’ll put my d*** in your sisters’ p****)!”
The man then approaches the woman being interviewed, Mona Khalil, who manages the turtle reserve and operates a small bed and breakfast nearby the new resort development, whose owners have not been revealed. The man rushes toward her and says. “I will burn tires in front of your house on orders of the Hezb (Hezbollah) and the Harke (Amal Movement).”
The cell phone footage was used to open the LBC news bulletin, which condemned the destruction of Lebanon’s coast. It was also featured in the reporter’s news package and the broadcaster even ran a full in-studio interview with the reporter Sobhiya Najjar, for a first hand account on the attack she and her cameraman, Samir Baytamouni experienced.
Najjar said she was prompted to investigate the story after seeing a Facebook post by Khalil, who has been vigilantly documenting the resort development since construction began. She says the construction has been taking place slowly and secretively, and that the resort will put the turtle nesting project and the entire ecosystem at severe risk.
The attack began when the reporter was looking at the social impact side of the story by interviewing a young boy asking him what would happen if the beaches were privatized and closed to the local community. At that moment the man came out of nowhere swinging and punched the cameraman in the face.
“Of course this developer must be afraid of our reporting because he just attacked us immediately, he didn’t even try to talk to us or ask who we were,” Najjar said.
Because the village of Mansouri is so small and has no mayor, Najjar said she requested and was granted permission from a local administrative official in Tyre before heading out to the site. But that same official curiously later accused her and the crew of breaking into the site and instigating violence against the assaulter.
The official also promised to provide the necessary permits proving that the resort was “legal” but then said the documents could only provided if Najjar handed over the attack footage. She simply told him he would see it on the evening news.
At this point, the interviewer also reminds viewers that according to a law recently passed by parliament, the media and the public have the right to access all government decisions and legislation.
Najjar ends by noting that this is not the first time her team has been attacked while reporting on a resort, with similar experiences in Adloun, an endangered coastal archeological site, as well as Ramlet El Baida, Beirut’s only public beach. Cameraman Baytamouni has also been attacked multiple times in the past.
LBC reported that the assailant was arrested and the crew waited at the turtle reserve until an army escort arrived. But some worry the man could be bailed out of jail at any moment and that there will be no accountability for those further up the chain of command. It remains unclear who owns this resort.
It’s also important to note that not all journalists and citizen reporters carry the weight of LBC–one of the country’s largest and most influential media outlets– with its high level political and military contacts to get out of a jam. In May, an activist was attacked and his phone destroyed when trying to document the construction of Eden Bay resort in Beirut, which has also been built directly on the public sand coastline.
In February, straw huts used at the public beach nearby the Eden Bay resort were reportedly set on fire. Those who manage the area have frequently mobilized against the Eden Bay resort.
Arsonists apparently set fire to the straw huts at Beirut's only free public beach. This is the same beach that is being eyed by private developers. Will the police investigate?
And in November of last year, an activist resisting the Eden Bay resort by pulling out its dredging hoses (reportedly installed illegally and subject to a constitutional lawsuit) was beaten and bloodied, as shown in this video:
Activist reportedly beaten after trying to sabotage dredging work at private high rise project (Eden Rock) on Beirut's…
Finally I have personally been assaulted by developers when photographing ancient ruins discovered during the excavation of the massive District S project in downtown Beirut back in 2013. Site workers and supervisors locked me inside the project gates, tackled me and twisted my arms until I erased all photos I had taken of the ruins. The project is now going forward and all traces of the ancient history of Beirut on that spot have been erased. See previous post:
The question begs asking: are real estate developers more powerful than the state itself? How exactly did we relinquish control over our country and its scarce natural resources to these violent, destructive and self-serving firms?
All of these attacks raise important questions about the lawless state of Lebanon’s multi-billion dollar real estate industry, its frequent destruction of public space and ecosystems and its intimate relationship with the country’s leading politicians, who have routinely bent or broken laws to make projects happen. Above all the real estate industry’s immense profitability is made possible by a shameful lack of environmental or labor regulations compounded by an utter lack of taxes paid into the system to cover the damages and drain on resources and infrastructure these mega projects cause.
In fact, as I have reported for the Guardian, there are over 1,000 illegal resorts built on Lebanon’s coast making immense profits and paying no taxes with many owned by politicians themselves. While police take pains to crack down on minor violations such as destroying tin fisherman shacks along the coast or possession of small amounts of cannabis among poor farmers, the police fail to take any action against multi-million dollar resorts and their wealthy and well-connected owners. And let’s remember these projects are not only local–many are financed, designed or executed by multinational corporations, regional, Western and global, seizing upon the opportunity to exploit a developing market with weak law enforcement and low to nonexistent tariffs or regulations to ensure public health, safety or sustainability.
The only upside to this story is that exposure and shaming of these resorts and destructive projects is gaining ground with activist campaigns mushrooming over recent years and growing more sophisticated in their use of technology, visualizations, distribution channels as well as major lawsuits being launched. See this previous post for more details on the battle to save Lebanon’s coast:
Of course all this exposure is being made possible by advances in the breadth and reach of social media, but also by old school print and TV media, which is becoming increasingly bold.
At the end of her interview, Najjar is asked if she will continue to report on seafront projects despite the dangers posed to her and her crew.
“Of course. We are not here to do regular reporting. We are here today to play a role as the fourth estate. We are not here just to represent ourselves, we are here to represent the public interest.
You know, no one dared even to speak to us on camera in Tyre. This shows you the kind of political backing this project has.”
Perhaps it is time responsible real estate developers also exercise some social and moral responsibility for the immense profits they are making. If there are ethical construction and real estate firms in Lebanon, will they condemn this activity and be transparent with the public? Or will they and the country’s politicians remain silent and complicit in their colleagues’ behavior?
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.
Two years ago the Governor of Beirut issued an order to stop demolition of this historically listed Art Deco building in Gemmayze, and shared the news to much fanfare on Facebook, as we reported at the time.
But the image above was taken today and we can clearly see the destruction has resumed after a two year period of quiet. So what happened?
This is not the first time Governor Ziad Chbib has made promises that turn out differently with the passage of time. In a press conference last year, governor Chbib voiced opposition to construction within the city’s only park, Horsh Beirut. He also seemed critical of construction on Beirut’s only public beach Ramlet El Baida. But construction has resumed in both of those projects.
#بلدية_بيروت تبدأ اعمال البناء على قسم من #حرش_بيروت وهو جزء من العقار 1925 وبذلك تستكمل مهمتها بقضم آخر بقعة خضراء في بيروت #اوقفوا_سياسة_قضم_حرش_بيروت
These developments only seem to prove that activist victories must be maintained and government officials can never be left alone or relied upon without continuous monitoring. What is going on with the governor’s promises? Are they mainly PR moves to placate a public outcry? Or is the governor less powerful than private business interests? Or is there more to this story?
Let’s not forget that the developer in this case has allegedly harassed activists and threatened violence, as we reported previously.
UPDATE: Shortly after posting this, I was informed by a member of the Save Beirut Heritage preservation collective that the building will not be completely demolished: it will be entirely gutted but the facade will remain. Four additional floors will also be added. Here is an artist conception:
The Save Beirut Heritage activist informed me that this was a “compromise’ agreement. In fact, the preservation of facades seems to be a popular move being implemented across Beirut, with major construction concealed behind a thin layer of the past. But is facade preservation considered a form of architectural preservation, especially when a building is extended with double the number of floors and turns out looking and feeling radically different than the original?
The nice thing about Gemmayze is that it is one of the few neighborhoods that survived the civil war as well as the even more destructive demolitions of the post war period. It had been one of the few places where one could imagine what Beirut once looked like in the last century, the so-called ‘golden days’ old timers rave about. But that is rapidly changing as more Art Deco and low rise buildings are being torn down, in favor of mega structures, multi-million dollar apartments few can afford and luxury car garages. The result is a radical change not just in the building itself but also the shops, the street life and the overall fabric of the neighborhood, its affordability, its inhabitants.
Go to Gemmayze while you can and enjoy and document as much as possible. In a few years, the neighborhood may be as unrecognizable as the “makeover” this building is currently undergoing.
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.
With environmental disasters and public service dysfunction everywhere you look, there’s never been a better time to investigate Lebanon and a greater need for investigative reporting. Next week, I’ll be teaching a course on investigative journalism at AUB and I encourage all students who are interested in producing work with a social impact to sign up.
We’ll look at some of the past investigations I and other journalists have been involved in, investigations that have often led to real changes in policies and government practices, yes even in Lebanon.
These include investigations that revealed information that was hidden from the public including the destruction of priceless ruins in favor of real estate projects, and some projects that have been halted due to public pressure that followed reporting.
We’ll also look at how to investigate infrastructure projects such as the Boutros Highway, which was halted after reporting and public pressure campaigns that followed it, as well as the Janneh Dam, which remains ongoing despite the serious threat it poses to the national water supply and essential ecosystems protected for thousands of years. We will also look at the ongoing destruction of the coast and reporting and activist campaigns that intervened in contesting massive projects and pushing for new laws to protect public lands and hold politicians and business owners accountable.
With the garbage/airport/pollution/seagull massacre issues continuing, there will be plenty more to investigate as well as follow up on the issues mentioned above with more ruins, coastline and heritage threatened every day. For AUB students interested in the class, the CRN number is 22167.
UPDATE: For Fall 2017-18 the CRN is 10959 / MCOM244B
And for those who are not students, Beirut Report is always looking for contributors. I walked through the process behind a couple of previous investigative stories during this TEDx talk last year and offered tips on how anyone can start an investigation, even if you are not a trained journalist:
So what are you waiting for, let’s investigate! You may not change the world (at least on the first try), but you may change your perspective on an issue and be able to share that with others to make an impact in your community, as some of these previous stories did.
For those interested in contributing to Beirut Report click on the “submit a story idea” tab on the top menu bar or get in touch via the “contact us” option if you don’t have a story yet but would like to get invovled.
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.
Today Karantina is home to the massive concert and frequent rave venue “Forum De Beyrouth,” where Snoop Dogg, Arman Van Buuren, Cirque Du Soleil and dozens of other acts and celebrities have performed over recent years.
But how many clubbers and performers know about the massacres that took place on these grounds 40 years ago this week?
Although there is no memorial to be found, the Facebook group “La guerre du Liban jour au jour (The Lebanese war day by day)” has posted chilling archival footage of the massacre that left hundreds of dead at the hands of Kataeb militiamen on January 18, 1976.
The 19 minute video is not easy to watch. At times the young men are gleefully loading up their heavy machine guns and shooting up the slum where impoverished Palestinian refugees had settled. One woman rushes out carrying a baby, begging the militants not to fire by holding up a white handkerchief:
Other civilians were less lucky. You can watch the full video here:
When the pillaging ends, the excited young fighters (terrorists?), celebrated with a bottle of champagne.
They then proceeded to bulldoze the area, destroying the poor residents’ meager belongings and vehicles, tossing one elderly person aside like a rag:
You can see more of the demolitions and torching of homes in this French news package, which includes testimonies from poor Lebanese who were living there, not just Palestinians:
We find out why they were bulldozing and clearing the area in this British television report which came out later that year. One of the christian militia leaders, Dany Chamoun says it was not a massacre, merely a “concise military operation” to reclaim private property.
“No it wasn’t ruthless, they were just asked to give up their arms and go out of here peacefully, ” he tells the incredulous correspondent. “They didn’t. A very concise military operation was taken and they were given free access and transportation out of here. What made it seem ruthless because we cleared the shanties out of here. This is private property and now it can be used for development. We are desperately short of land and I’m sure the people will use it for proper development.”
Watch the full video here, which follows the Chamoun interview with a testimony of a child who survived the killings, who says the Karantina refugees were offloaded from a truck and the men were lined up and sprayed with bullets.
I guess the “proper development” Mr. Chamoun was talking about was night clubs and concert venues, because who needs poor people?
The Karantina massacre would be avenged by armed Palestinian factions a few days later in Damour on January 20th, leaving homes burned and hundreds of civilians in the Christian mountain village dead.
Here is a less journalistic youtube video looking at that massacre:
And in this ITV newsreel, we can see the Palestinian militants burning and looting homes, as dead bodies lie in the streets, in an eerily similar fashion to the images in Karantina:
The Damour massacre, documented in horrid detail here by Robert Fisk, was followed by more assassinations of Christian militia leaders and more massacres at Palestinian refugee camps killing thousands more such as the infamous Sabra-Shatila massacre. When I reported on remembering that massacre 30 years on in a 2012 piece for Al Jazeera, I asked Nadim Gemayel, a current member of parliament and son of the late Kataeb party leader associated with a number of war-time atrocities, if he thought the dead should be remembered or if there had been any reconciliation efforts, three decades later.
“A lot of crimes happened on both sides,” he said ” I think admitting that it happened from both sides can help.”
Gemayel even proposed a wall honoring Lebanese war victims of all faiths, but he cautioned that this would not include Palestinians.
But why not? Why are our memories of the war still so polarized that we are able to forgive some crimes and not others?
The politicization of memory has become an increasingly relevant with the recent agreement between ex-war commanders and once extremely violent rivals General Michel Aoun and Samir Geagea who have now decided to form a sort of political alliance and support Aoun’s bid for the presidency. Many, particularly those close to the leadership or big businesses, suggest we celebrate this ‘initiative’ and move on from the war. But if the warlords are still in the highest positions of power is the war really over to begin with? If we don’t have spaces to remember those who have gone, to pay tribute, to reconcile, to make peace with the past, how can we chart a new future and ‘start fresh’? How can we forgive, if we have already chosen to forget?
I think the Lebanese academic Maya Mikdashi put it best in a still very salient piece she wrote last year about the importance of exploring our memories and understanding the memories of others. She says: “during the war, one child’s nightmares were populated with another child’s heroes. ”
Perhaps it’s time not just to remember Karantina and Damour and all the other tragedies, but also to acknowledge each other’s pain, to help us begin to empathize and thus humanize one another, regardless of nationality, religion or ethnicity. Facebook groups may have provided a starting point, but there is much more to do.
In the absence of any formal reckoning with the legacies of the civil war, public memory and narration grow increasingly important. This is particularly true when there is no agreed upon narrative of the past, a condition of building a political community oriented towards a common future. Lebanon is a long way from this, but only when the fractured memoryscape is actually mapped out in all its registers will it be possible for these memories to inspire new futures. We should recognize the traumas that we experienced and inflicted upon each other during the war, and the traumas that we continue to experience through the imposed silence of the “post civil war” era.
It seems everywhere you turn in Hamra, there is a new tower coming up. None of them affordable so most are empty. The old storefronts and casual street life marked by locals chatting on the sidewalks and old men pulling up plastic chairs becomes replaced by large metal gates and car garages: no loitering, no spontaneity, no sense of community is sanctioned by unregulated private capital keen on exclusive luxury property development.
What will remain of Hamra and Ras Beirut when every old building is torn down? Will it become just any other prefabricated valley of towers, with no sense of history, community or architectural identity? What will happen to the rest of Beirut if there are no authorities capable of protecting any semblance of heritage? Where is the Ministry of Culture?
Such questions are now being raised by the campaign to save yet another condemned building known by its residents as “Red House,” part of which reportedly dates back to the 18th century, which would make it one of the oldest homes in Hamra.
The campaigners say the Directorate General of Antiquities has drafted a report to save the home, but according to this article the report has sat for several months without a signature from the Culture Minister Rony Araygi.
Instead the current renter, architect Samir Rubeiz– who says his family has occupied the second floor of building for three generations– says they have been served an eviction notice to vacate within 10 days, ending on January 22. The eviction notice, they say, specifically mentions demolition. (See bottom of the post for updates and reaction from the owner)
Rubeiz’s family has started a Facebook page and encourages visitors to take pictures and publish them to share the story. I am told some activists are now trying to reach the minister and there has been some scattered press coverage. But public participation may be needed as well if this house is to be saved unlike the infamous demolition of the Maalouf house despite promises by a previous minister and an outcry by some activists.
In addition to posting pictures and sharing this story, you can also contact the minister on Twitter.
Here is an interesting video about the house, underscoring the broader issue of the neighborhood’s disappearance in favor of well-heeled real estate interests.
For a sense of the context in which this potential demolition is taking place see these photos from Al Modon news site:
Clearly the Red House stands alone, the green spaces and other homes that may have once surrounded it are now paved with parking lots and condos. Can this lonely memory of the neighborhood be saved?
A decendent of the owner of the home has posted a rather terse response to those sharing this story, noting that the tenant, Samir Rubeiz, is a “leech” and simply using heritage as an excuse to keep renting the home at a cheap rate. This is presumably because of old rent laws that have recently been controversially amended allowing potential evictions across the city. However the status does not make any mention of what the owner plans on doing with home and whether or not she thinks it should be kept or demolished. I have reached out to her to get a clarification and will publish one if she responds. Here is her comment in full:
I am responding to the numerous posts about the Red House in Hamra. I would like to inform those who have shared comments and articles about the house that it belongs to MY family. My grandmother Marie Abdo Rubeiz raised my father Georges Rubeiz and my uncle Michel Rubeiz in this house. My uncle Michel who is now 90 years old still lives in it. My siblings (Nelly and Abdallah Rebeiz) and I spent innumerable hours in this house when we were children.
Samir Rebeiz, who is behind the historic designation campaign that you are spreading around in your posts, has been renting at no cost in MY FAMILY’S HOUSE for decades and has repeatedly refused to vacate OUR PROPERTY unless he receives a very significant sum of money. This real estate conflict is the only reason that Samir Rebeiz wants to “save” the house: so that he can continue to live in it indefinitely for free. My family has been going through hell in the Lebanese courts to resolve the never-ending saga with this leech. There are many details that the public is not aware of, but it is unequivocal that Samir Rebeiz is doing this out of self-interest only and not to preserve a historic house. In fact, just a few hours after my father Georges Rubeiz (who served the Lebanese and specifically the Ras-Beirut community for decades as a cardiologist at AUB) passed away one month ago, the honorable Samir Rebeiz couldn’t get to the appropriate government agencies fast enough to report that my father had died in order to reverse potential court rulings against him. This was right after he offered his condolences to my family.
I hope that this clarifies the situation of the “Red House in Hamra” for all of you.
I’ve spoken to the tenant’s family for a reaction and they say they have already begun to vacate the home and have no interest in staying. “We just want to save the home,” a relative told me, showing stacks of boxes in the living room ready to be moved. The relative hoped the home could become a cultural or museum space. The relative also noted that while the rent has indeed been low, Mr. Rubeiz has invested in maintenance work, which contributed to the DGA report valuing the building’s preserved architectural features. The family would also like to emphasize that they don’t intend to be in conflict with the building owners and instead focus on the need to preserving the structure and they encourage supporters to do the same.
Blogger Elie Fares has compiled a history of the Red House, underscoring it’s political significance, and particularly that of its female occupants who helped build the careers of certain politicians during Lebanon’s early modern history. There is even a visit by Louis Armstrong! See Elie’s post here.
Text above reads roughly: “What are you waiting for? 0 percent downpayment. Now you can be independent”
It’s hard to believe this is real, but a Lebanese real estate company “I Group” is actually marketing itself by using images of abused women and encouraging them to buy their luxury apartments to escape criminal spouses.
Their English Facebook ad is more explicit:
Of course most new apartments in Beirut costs hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars, so we are not sure how most single persons (or almost any human person) living in Lebanon can afford them.
Commentators were furious:
To some pretty odd answers from the marketing team…
Others pointed out that the apartment would take years to build and could hardly be considered a viable solution for immediate abuse:
But the company Facebook team stubbornly held on:
Some resorted to sarcasm like one guy who asked in Arabic: “If I beat my wife but not on the face does she still qualify for the offer or should I beat her on the face? And what if she beats me, do I qualify for the offer or is it just for ladies?”
Others just didn’t hold back:
We’ve seen terrible and sexist real estate ads before, such as the use of scantily-clad models and dismembered bodies for retail companies.
One company “Trillium Development” famously put out an ad that read “A real man buys her a (multimillion) apartment” That ad got some bad press and is now hard to find. But the company still has a previous ad up on its Facebook page with a similar message:
Will this time be any different? Will I Group come to its senses?
Of course it is not just real estate. We need to have a serious discussion in Lebanon on the portrayal of women in billboards, which are ubiquitous across the country. In fact the representation of females by ad agencies and corporations is pretty dehumanizing overall in Lebanon and largely free from any critical thinking disucssions. I’ve pointed this out in the past, noting that this kind of imagery is not just disturbing to look at; it also has far reaching social and developmental effects.
Thanks to Helene for spotting this.
I Group has removed the photo but stopped short of an apology, claiming in a new post that readers misunderstood the campaign and that it had nothing to do with profitability.