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Roman

A rare and well-preserved ancient Roman wall that once surrounded Beirut has been dismantled. Photography of the site is not allowed, but from the street, a truck-mounted construction crane can be seen hoisting stones out of the major archaeological site in Bachoura, just off the Fouad Chehab highway that circles around downtown Beirut.

We can see a pile of stones has already been lifted from the site, which contains a rare Roman cemetery,  documented extensively in this previous post.

The sprawling Bachoura site is one of the largest archaeological sites in the city, unearthed just last year, with 250 tombs discovered and perhaps hundreds of relics. Its well-preserved masoleum buildings marked by ornate carved statues, may have been a resting place for important Roman citizens or generals who lived in ancient Beirut, when it was known as the famous colony of Berytus.

The graves, along with the wall and other features could have made for an interesting attraction and archaeological park, as found in many other parts of the world where Roman ruins are discovered. But as previously reported, the area, which borders the Beirut Digital District project, appears to be slated for high end real estate towers.

Here is an image of the site from last year:

And here is a close up on the wall:

We can see that it is at least 10 blocks high and appears to have a built in drain of sorts:

There even seems to be remnants of another structure at the top as seen below. Could it have been a tower or a gate or something else?

Today however, wall has been almost completely cleared as seen in this photo taken this week and there is now little trace of the structure, save for the wood pallets the remaining stones have been strapped onto for removal.

Photo by Max Cochrane

A reader sent me this photo, and was yelled at by site workers for taking it.

What will happen to this wall? Will we see it again, will it be taken to a warehouse to collect dust or will it be discarded altogether?

Remnants of Roman and pre-Roman walls have been uncovered in many parts of the city, but most have been dismantled or destroyed, never to be seen again.

What will happen to the rest of this site, such as the mausoleums and other features, including this interesting ancient drain pipe:

There are also some structures that look like basins and mosaic floors. Here we can see some children playing on the site last year.

Photo: MC

After my initial post last year, archaeologists managing the site appreciated the coverage and invited me for a site visit to help answer some of the questions about its future. But this visit was later rejected by the Directorate of Antiquities, which claimed the project had been paused for discussions with the developer and thus press coverage would be seen as ‘unhelpful’ and could hurt efforts to negotiate preservation. And yet today, absent media coverage the site seems to be disappearing, despite those closed door negotiations that promised to save it.

So why is it that heritage is “negotiated” in Lebanon in the first place and not mandated? Why are the talks with developers secretive, why is media coverage of sites strictly regulated and often not allowed?

Will the site be preserved or will it meet a similar fate as other ancient sites that have been destroyed such as Beirut’s famous Roman chariot race track, its Roman Theatre or the site believed to have been a 2,000 year old Phoenician port that was chiseled away by jackhammers?

For more on these sites, what they have told us about the story of ancient Berytus and what sites remain threatened, see my in-depth report on the cover of last month’s Monocle newspaper, available here.

And stay tuned for more highlights from the report, which was made possible with the support of an investigative journalism grant from Meedan.

 

UPDATE Sept. 17:

The day after this post was published, the Ministry of Culture-which had provided no explanation of the wall removal- issued a “clarification” on the Bachoura site, claiming that coverage by the media of the site was “inaccurate.” But the statement does not point out what info was inaccurate, and actually confirms that the wall and tombs on site date back to the Roman period, which is exactly as stated in the post above.

 

Interestingly, the release does not directly reference the removal of the wall but merely says that all ruins on site will be “merged” and “reintegrated” into the real estate project. There are no details on how this merging will take place. Will the ruins be buried in the basement of a new high rise tower, will they be used as decoration in the tower’s private garden? The release vaguely references the ministry’s abidance by scientific studies, but without noting what these studies say or why the site could not be preserved in its entirety.

According to the Ministry statement: “Based on the scientific reports and technical studies, the Ministry of Culture issued a decision to preserve these facilities by merging them and reintegrating them into the project to be established after conducting scientific and technical documentation according to the principles and under the supervision of the General Directorate of Antiquities.”

What the release does not say is how citizens would be able to access the ruins on a private property or that high end properties do not tend to open their doors to average citizens. Most importantly, the release does not tell us any details on how the decision was made to remove the wall, where it will be placed and why the site could not have been kept as it is, to create an archeological park as one would find in much of the world, when a large Roman complex is unearthed.

The question raised by this post remains: who decides the future of Beirut’s ruins and why are the public and the media not given details about how those decisions are made.

 

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.

In the shadow of the towers of new Beirut, the ruins of ancient Beirut have literally been dismembered and piled up at the edge of town.

It may be hard to believe today, but ancient Berytus was a very prominent city in the Roman empire, one of a handful of Roman cities to contain a law school, which played a key role interpreting and producing the cannon of Roman law, foundational to legal systems across the world today.

Did these columns come from the law school or did they come from the famous chariot race track of Berytus that once hosted 1,400 gladiators in a single day? Or did the columns belong to the city’s Roman theatre, its baths, churches, gates or colonnaded roads?

Possible placement of ancient Beirut hippodrome and theatre. Source: Association for the Protection of Lebanese Heritage

The sad answer is we don’t know and we may never know. Piecing together the story of these columns and the spatial history of the city may now be impossible according to a source with the Directorate General of Antiquities (DGA) quoted in L’Orient Le Jour, which broke this story a couple of weeks ago.

“Since these stones have not been numbered, it is of course impossible to know to what specific sites or constructions they belonged.Unless the scientific data, formerly collected by the intervening specialists, have been archived … ” 

So how could this happen? In the 1990s, Beirut was reportedly the biggest archaeological site in the world, with teams from universities across the globe working in its trenches.

I had a closer look at the ruins last week after blogger Elie Fares pointed the site out, following up on the L’Orient piece.

The columns were hard to find because they are literally invisible from the new waterfront road:

… tucked below the dirt patch, near the water’s edge:

Upon closer look, there were no labels in sight. In fact the ruins were haphazardly piled on top of one another, not even slightly spaced apart:

One was barely balanced on a flimsy piece of wood:

Yet all this seemed uncontroversial to the new culture minister, Ghattas Khoury, who noted that the columns were “well-organized” and “monitored” by the Ministry of culture and “everything is proper and well-preserved,” as he said in this video shared on Twitter.

Minister Khoury, a surgeon with no background in archaeology according to his bio, said the ruins will be carefully moved to Beirut’s park, Horsh Beirut, seemingly as decorative pieces.

The minister rejected criticisms of the government’s handling of the ruins, vaguely laying blame at those who participated in the anti-corruption protests of last year “which led to nowhere.”  He also took aim at MP Sami Gemayel who delivered a Facebook live video earlier in the week, angrily questioning the column’s placement after reading about it on social media, and likening the ministry’s handling of ruins to that of extremist groups destroying heritage.

“These are priceless, do you know what that means,” Gemayel shouted. “You are just like ISIS.”

“You don’t protect the country from ISIS, we all protect the country,”  responded Minister Khoury, who counter accused critics of “destroying the ministry of culture.”

The columns had been placed in storage around 1992-1993 by the controversial multi-billion dollar real estate firm Solidere, Minister Khoury claimed, adding: “Solidere moved them because they want to work on the marina. And they let us know…”

It seems Khoury was not referring to the yacht marina but rather the giant piece of legally dubious reclaimed seafront he was standing on, known as the “waterfront district,” Soldiere’s upcoming project, worth billions of dollars, as I had reported on previously. Thus the ruins apparently had to be moved to make way for more luxury real estate towers.

But how is it that a private real estate company came to be responsible for housing and moving these ruins instead of the government?

In many ways, the story of these columns can be seen as a metaphor for how archaeology has often been handled during the postwar reconstruction period.

While reporting for the BBC on the discovery of ancient Beirut’s Roman chariot race track, I spoke to the former head of archaeology at the American University of Beirut who was blunt in her description on how ruins have been handled both in the capital and across the country:

“They keep everything secret. People focus on Beirut but they have no idea how many more substantial things are being destroyed across Lebanon,” said Professor Helen Sader.

Since publication of the piece, the chariot race track has now been completely gutted to make way for a bank and luxury villas owned by another minister.

Meanwhile Solidere and other archeologists who worked for company continue to present their reconstruction and archeological preservation efforts as world leading at conferences in Lebanon and around the world. But with ruins tossed in a pile with no labels, something has clearly gone wrong.

Perplexingly, the head of the antiquities department, Sarkis Khoury, claimed in a revealing LBC interview that as the columns are moved, each would be labeled according to its size and physical dimensions.

But why are the columns being labeled now instead of when they were first excavated? After all, it is not the length and height of the columns that tells their story, it is primarily the location where they were found, the archeological context, what structures or artifacts they were attached to and or found around them, that helps us date them and understand their usage. But now most of those excavations have been destroyed.

Director Khoury noted that the ruins would be distributed in gardens and public institutions across Lebanon “so the Lebanese people can benefit from them.” Many have already been moved to the city’s only park, Horsh Beirut.

But does the public really benefit from columns with no identity? Columns that tell no story? Random slabs of granite laying on the ground with no meaning? How did such a massive archeological effort end this way? Why are the columns not being showcased across Beirut where they were found to give people a sense of the Roman city?

Some government archaeologists complain that the public does not appreciate history, but how can they do so if there are no signs or indications of what these stones and structures mean?

I plan to get more answers to these questions in an investigative piece I am working on with the support of a crowd-funding campaign by Press Start. Your comments or suggestions are always welcome.

In the meantime, one major thing has changed since the 1990s and that is social media. Posts by activist groups as well as prominent Lebanese bloggers such as Gino Raidy, Elie Fares and others have helped shed light on these issues, which were poorly covered by mainstream media in years past. But even the mainstream media is changing and becoming more aggressive in demanding accountability, as the reports quoted in this post by LBC’s Sobhiya Najjar and L’Orient’s May Makarem, show.

Going forward, let’s hope that with more media coverage and public debate, ruins won’t be brushed aside so easily in the future and we’ll be able to learn more about ancient Berytus as excavations and discoveries are likely to continue.

 

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?

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I recently got a better look at the ruins discovered at the “Saifi Plaza” project, which I have been blogging about lately. There seems to have been significant progress since my last post, earlier this summer. Some activists believe the site, which is slated to become a series of office buildings, could contain Roman baths.

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Of course it’s hard to tell because government-employed archeologists maintain a policy of not speaking publicly on new digs and discourage photography and discussion about them in the press.

If we zoom in, there appears to be an underground structure or chamber with large stones:

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Could it be a Roman structure due to the large size of the stones, perhaps part of a wall or foundation?

To the left of this, a number of stones also seem to have been recovered or dismantled from the site, near the bulldozer:

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Here’s a closer view:

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If anyone has more info about this site, please feel free to share in the comments below or get in touch via the ‘contact us’ form at the top of the page.

 

 

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! 

There appears to be nothing left of a major downtown Beirut excavation that took place here a month ago. Compare the photo above to photos I took in June:
In June, we could see a series of tents as archeologists worked on the site, which is located in Saifi:

But today, the tents have been completely cleared. Here is another recent shot, panning right:
 
In both the new and old photos we can see a large number of blue crates in the background, meaning dozens if not hundreds of ancient artifacts were found on site.
The project going up here is a block of luxury apartments known as Saifi Plaza. 
The development had previously been called Saifi Gardens, when I first took pictures of the site in March
So what was found here? 
If anyone has any knowledge of the site or knows someone who might, please leave a comment and I would be happy to update the post with details.
The project is actually taking up a second plot of land, where it appears digging continues till today:

These sites are located not far from the city center, where many ruins of Roman Beirut, including the city gate , hippodrome and theatre complex are believed to have been discovered. Could this site reveal yet more pieces to the puzzle that is Roman Berytus, one of the most prominent cities in the empire?

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.