The picturesque coastal town of Byblos is known largely for two things: ancient ruins and overpriced beach resorts. Like much of the 220 kilometer Lebanese coastline, the shores around Byblos–one of the oldest constantly inhabited cities in the world–have been developed by private resorts, where access is restricted to paying customers and a couple can easily spend $100 for a day at the beach.
(For more on the privatization of Beirut’s coast, see my recent piece in The Guardian)
Now there is news that one of the last undeveloped plots of Byblos seafront, which is just below the 10,000 year old ruins, will be rented to well-connected developers. The rocky shore in question (see photo above) is also the place of a historic Armenian community church and orphanage and there are imminent plans to reportedly exhume the bodies of Armenian genocide survivors who are buried at a small cemetery near the shore to make way for a new seafront project.
The large building on the site dates back to the early 1900s and was used as a church and school facility as part of an orphanage founded to serve those saved from the mass killings.
The orphanage was run by the Danish missionary Maria Jacobsen, who is credited with saving thousands of Armenian children from the massacres in Turkey. Many ended up at the Byblos orphanage known as “Bird’s Nest”
Here is an early picture of the orphanage building:
Today, the main building facing the sea is part of the plot for rent. Will it be used for a restaurant or spa?
According to a recent report, the tenant leasing the property from the Church is former minister Jean-Louis Qordahi, who is also former mayor of Jbeil, where Byblos is located. The report also indicates that the orphanage’s small cemetery will need to be moved, meaning the bodies of many genocide survivors may be exhumed to make way for the project. See the graves in the triangular plot below:
Interestingly, there appears to be archaeological digs currently going at the project plot–not surprising because the building is literally a few meters away from the ancient Byblos site.
Having just written an in-depth piece for The Guardian on how politicians and real estate developers often work together to shape laws in coastal areas, this project raises a lot of interesting questions. Are there any laws protecting the natural coastline in Byblos? What right do citizens have to access the shore and how is it impeded by private resorts that charge entrance fees?
In this case, the church is leasing the land and I have heard there are other examples of this. So how does this work and what ethical concerns are involved in exhuming the bodies of genocide survivors or in turning a historical site into one of profit? What archeological discoveries are being made at the site and how will these be preserved?
I have heard from some locals that the church was a main anchor of the Armenian community in Byblos, hosting countless marriages and ceremonies over the last several decades. Some reports indicate a new church and memorial will be built. But how does the community feel about this? To what extent have they been consulted?
UPDATE: Following an uproar in the media over this move–including Armenian newspapers in the US–the Armenian church has suspended the move to privatize while awaiting further studies on the matter. See this updates at the bottom of this post.