Tags Posts tagged with "Roman Beirut"

Roman Beirut

“We will find where you live,”  a watchman yelled at me after taking a picture of ruins on his construction site. He had followed me across the street to issue the threat, claiming to have memorized the license plate number on my car. “Wait and see what they will do to you when they come to your house.”

Source: Teloduh

This vast site, believed to be a 1st century artisan workshop (for at least part of its occupation), was uncovered late last year and could help tell the little-known story of Berytus, one of the most influential cities in the Roman empire.

Source: L’Orient Le Jour

 

Instead it is scheduled to become a glass skyscraper, serving as the headquarters of a private bank, SGBL (Société Générale de Banque au Liban).

 

The skyscraper is being designed by the famous Italian architect Renzo Piano, one of many celebrity architects transforming Beirut’s skyline with high end real estate towers worth billions of dollars and far out of reach of most Lebanese people. Piano is also designing the massive 160,000 square meter Pinwheel Project, which consists of a series of hotel and condo towers in the heart of downtown, as well as a city museum project, which is also to be built atop of a ruins discovery.  

Source: RPBW project conception

Sadly the type of violent threats and harassment I experienced is not unusual when attempting to document the wonders of the ancient world being unearthed for the first time in contemporary Beirut.  One would assume that a 2,000 year old site is one the entire country should be able to see, to learn from, to explore, to be inspired by, to build a sense of place, pride in preservation or national belonging. But in Lebanon, history can be private property. Several journalists and activists have been threatened or physically attacked for documenting the impact of real estate projects across the country.

To appease critics, some investors have recently pledged to preserve very limited sections of ruins, displayed decoratively as part of their real estate projects or concealed in parking garages. Yet these are often placed out of context or difficult for visitors to access and comprehend.  In the case of the Piano project, can the design of such a large building possibly preserve the vast vista of ruins beneath? Can the design be changed in any way meaningful enough to communicate its significance and that of ancient Berytus?

Upon closer view, we can see the interesting rock patterns in the walls. What do they tell us?

At the top corner of the site, the stones are entirely different, much larger and better carved, resembling grand Roman structures. Was there an important building near this site?

Most importantly, will the public ever get a chance to experience this piece of the puzzle of a city and great civilization we are just beginning to understand? With large walls surrounding the permiter, as seen in the photos above, passersby are not allowed even a glimpse of it.  (Photos in the post were taken from other buildings or openings in the wall.)

At any rate, the site might not be around for much longer.  Clearance may be closer than we think. In photos taken a few months ago, we can see nearly 20 tents set up in the dig:

Photo: Timo Azhari

But today there are only a few tents left, meaning the archeological teams may have largely packed up and left:

Is this why the developer is so aggressively keeping it off limits to the public? The site workers must have been threatened themselves if anyone is allowed to get a photo out.

It’s unclear if the diggers have already started to clear the area or penetrate to deeper levels as their position has changed since I first began documenting the site earlier this year.

Compare this image taken in January 2018:

To this photo taken from the same vantage point in recent days:

In addition to the removal of tents, we can also see the position of the two bulldozers is further into the site than they were early this year.

Here’s another shot from January 2018:

And the same vantage point today:

From a closer perspective, we can some of the amazing wall detail on the left section:

So what to make of the threats issued to me for taking these photos? They were taken from the public street, from the sidewalk, at a brief moment when the door to the site was open. There is no legal basis for banning photography in public space. There is no basis in banning the Lebanese public from seeing their own history.  But who was the man who threatened me and why?

The owner of SGBL bank is known to surround himself with those capable of serious violence. His bodyguards have regularly engaged in alleged criminal acts, including armed assaults and even a shootout in nightclub, according to news reports. In 2015, a bodyguard formerly employed by the owner stabbed a man to death in broad daylight, and was subsequently sent to prison. Is this the type of violence and threats that a Pritzker-winning architect like Renzo Piano would like to be associated with?

Interestingly, SGBL itself claims to be “a strong advocate of culture and arts in Lebanon,” according to its website. While Piano, who has been involved in several projects across Beirut has said: “Cities are beautiful because they are created slowly; they are made by time. A city is born from a tangle of monuments and infrastructures, culture and market, national history and everyday stories. It takes 500 years to create a city, 50 to create a neighborhood.”

In fact, the city of Beirut has not been developing just for 50 or 500 years, but for thousands of years and several millennia. Would it be too much to dream that Piano and SGBL live up to their stated ideals? Since both Piano and SGBL have profited so generously from Beirut, could they possibly give something back by preserving a bit of its illustrious past for the coming generations to enjoy?

 

 

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.