The destruction of an archaeological site in the downtown area of Beirut last Tuesday to be replaced by a multi-million-dollar real-estate project has triggered a fierce debate – and potentially a law suit – among culture enthusiasts, archaeological experts, real estate developers, and past and present culture ministers. The issue has raised matters of law and ethics, and accusations of greed, corruption, incompetence and dishonesty have been hurled at different parties.
The story goes back several years, when a piece of land located in Minet al-Hosen, close to the current port of Beirut, was acquired by Venus Towers Real Estate Development Company for the purpose of constructing three high-rise towers.
During initial digging, archaeological remains were discovered at the site where one of the towers was to be built. The archaeological remains were investigated by a team from the Directorate General of Antiquities, headed by archaeologist Hisham Sayegh, and later by four members of a panel of ten experts appointed by former Culture Minister Salim Warde to determine the nature of the findings. Two almost parallel “corridors” discovered at the site (see picture above) were deemed by many members of Warde’s committee as slipways, or ramps used to haul ships out of the water for storage and maintenance, and to lower newly-built ships into the water. Under Warde, the archaeological discovery was placed on the protected list for archaeological sites and historic buildings in April 2011, and construction was halted.
Later that same year, when the government changed hands, Gaby Layoun took the top seat in the Culture Ministry and appointed a new scientific committee consisting of three Lebanese experts to study the findings. In a document obtained by NOW Lebanon written in June 2012 and addressed to the minster, the experts disputed the findings of Sayegh as well as those of Warde’s committee. Drawing also from the conclusions of two foreign academics who studied the site, the experts concluded it was not a Phoenician port, but more likely a stone quarry. The arguments for and against are summed up in the below toolbar.
On this basis, Minister Layoun removed the site from the list of protected sites on June 27, and at 6 a.m. the same day, developers destroyed the archaeological site. Outrage quickly followed when heritage groups heard about the development, and work on the site ceased several hours later. In subsequent days beginning Wednesday, Sayegh resigned from his post as director of investigations, a sit-in was organized by the Association for the Protection of the Lebanese Heritage in front of the Culture Ministry, and former Culture Ministers Tamam Salam, Tarek Mitri and Salim Warde strongly condemned Layoun’s decision and the developer’s action in a press conference. Currently, a group of activists, including Raja Noujem, are considering taking legal action against Venus Towers and other parties involved.
According to Noujem, Venus Towers is in violation of three laws. Firstly, he says, according to Lebanese law the decision is not valid until it is published in the Gazette of Weekly Decisions, which comes out on a Thursday (the real estate developers began work on a Tuesday). Secondly, developers were required to give Lebanese citizens a two-month waiting period in which to voice any potential objections before continuing work, which did not happen. And third, while the site may have been taken off the list of protected sites, Venus Towers did not secure the permission of the local authorities to commence construction.
Noujem says that Layoun’s decision to remove the site from the list of protected sites, giving tacit approval for its destruction, was scandalous and demands the minister’s resignation, at the very least. Moreover, he feels there is a culture of impunity for those with money and connections, which must be stopped. “Legal action will challenge this and show people that they cannot act on issues related to the Lebanese people.”
“Even if Layoun believes the analysis of the experts he commissioned, there is a stark debate over the nature of the site. In such a situation, why didn’t the minister get the opinion of UNESCO or the International Council on Monuments and Sites [ICOMOS] before making such a controversial decision?” Noujem told NOW.
Indeed, UNESCO and ICOMOS both wrote letters to relevant authorities in May 2012, copies of which were obtained by NOW. The one written by UNESCO is addressed to the Lebanese ambassador to the organization, while ICOMOS’ letter is for Minister Layoun himself. Both institutions offered to give their expert opinion as to the nature of the archaeological findings. Gaia Jungeblodt, one of the directors at ICOMOS’ international secretariat, told NOW by phone that Layoun responded on June 13 and stressed his full confidence in the findings of the scientific committee he established, and said that ICOMOS was welcome to send a delegation to Beirut to see for themselves. However, she added, the 13 days between the date ICOMOS received the letter and the date when the site was destroyed was grossly insufficient to raise funds to send a delegation to Beirut. “ICOMOS is deeply shocked by what happened,” she added.
Moreover, while three of the four experts who argued against the idea that the site was a Phoenician port offered no opinion in the documents on the preservation of the site, the fourth expert, Hans Curvers, appears to endorse its preservation. He wrote, “[The site in question] is not part of that story [about the Phoenician harbor], but it contains the story of yet another revival of the city in the 2nd century BCE. It is this part of the story that can be best preserved on site, through dismantling and integration, or conserving it [at a different location]. Beirut can prove to be able to reconstruct the city again in the 21st century and at the same time conserve fragments of its glorious past.” Furthermore, he added, “In the garden of the Venus Towers Project one or two of the trenches should be integrated to remind residents and visitors of the greatness of that historic period.”
In an interview with NOW Lebanon, Layoun said he is convinced of the view of the scientific committee he established and believes Sayegh and the experts from Warde’s committee were incorrect. “If it were a Phoenician port, I would have preserved it, of course, but since it is proven that it is a stone quarry of little worth, there is no point,” he said. On the issue of international arbitration, Layoun replied, “I’m happy to get feedback from UNESCO or ICOMOS, but the subject doesn’t need arbitration. The commissioned experts are very professional, and I trust their findings absolutely.”
This is not the first time an archaeological site some deem worthy of preservation has been destroyed. Solidere, for example, the company owned by the Hariri family and charged with rebuilding downtown Beirut following the civil war, has also faced criticism for having destroying archaeological relics in the past.
The debate over the Phoenician site will not go away any time soon, especially with a potential lawsuit and fears over another site, the Beirut hippodrome, facing a similar fate. What adds juice to this cocktail of clashes is the political undercurrent that often seeps into disputes that are, on the surface, non-political. Most obviously, this can be seen by the fact that the three former Culture Ministers who spoke out against Layoun sit on the opposite side of the political spectrum, March 14.
Regardless of which side wins, the debate brings up the familiar questions of how much of Lebanon’s heritage should be preserved, and how much Lebanon’s political class is controlled by special interests.