First published on BIKYAMASR
Cultural destruction and Lebanon have become synonymous. Since the end of the Civil War, in spite of the constant calls for reconciliation and the projects of reconstruction – albeit limited mostly to one district in Beirut – the destruction of the Lebanese heritage has continued unmolested and in fact, clearing out the area of Beirut’s central district in the course of the so-called “Beirut reborn” reconstruction plan, razed more buildings than had been destroyed in the entire civil war, after expropriating the residents with minimal compensation.
The constant of destruction has shifted not in terms of its magnitude but only of its actors: The militias, armed groups and air attacks by Israel, have now been replaced by developers and politicians that carry the exact same task with the cooperation of an incompetent state whose priorities are usually centered around bringing tourism, paradoxically, to a country without the basic standards of infrastructure, security and heritage conservation; none of which receive attention in the endless political diatribes taking place daily.
UNESCO world heritage sites list includes only five sites – Anjar, Baalbek, Byblos, Tyre and the Qadisha Valley – none of which are considered endangered, even though for a country with a history dating back 7000 years, the selection seems at best precarious. In 1996, nine other sites were submitted to UNESCO’s tentative list, including the historical centers of Sidon, Tripoli and Batroun, some of which by now are already faced with destruction and nowhere does Beirut – a city with a history of 5000 years – appear in the list.
Reconstruction and destruction in Beirut are part of one and the same process that has been at work not only since the end of the civil war but rather has been on-going since the end of the 19th century during both war and peace times. The remaking of Beirut’s “Centre Ville” and its transformation into an exclusive compound for the wealthy in a remarkable and ironic display of false hope for the rebuilding of a largely impoverished country, constantly beset by turmoil, has not stopped at simply razing buildings that survived the war.
The integration of large sections of the central district into development projects fueled by greed and a policy of generalized amnesia solely intended to distract the Lebanese from the pursuance of shared memory and reconciliation, has also taken on the form of wiping out the building blocks of Beirut’s history and transform them into amusement parks, to which the average Lebanese have no access, keeping the conflicts alive and trapped inside the invisible ghettoes of the city and making sure that no space is left for negotiation and culture.
The Association for the Protection of the Lebanese Heritage has been at the forefront of a civic battle to halt the impeding destruction of so many Lebanese sites targeted: The traditional houses of Beirut in streets like Furn El Hayeck, where a historical building was demolished in May; the old city of Tripoli with its remarkable French and Ottoman architecture dating back to the 18th century, the Ingea theater and a large number of traditional houses, all of which have been already destroyed or are scheduled to.
Two very important historical sites were discovered in Beirut in modern times: the Roman Hippodrome and the Phoenician port in Minet El Hosn, both of which date back thousands of years – and not just centuries as in the case of the traditional houses – and that since their discovery, instead of being protected, studied and integrated into the city as a testimony to Lebanon’s status as the home for 2500 years of the Phoenician civilization, are simply being shortlisted for how quickly they can be destroyed by developers.
The hippodrome is considered one of the best kept in the world and scholars have pointed out to the number of times it appears mentioned in ancient books and even though it had been protected by previous administrations, current minister of culture Gabriel Layoun, has bypassed the previous decrees and authorized construction on the site to begin.
In theory, the planning approach to Beirut requires the integration of historical sites into modern landscaping without causing any change or damage to the structures in question unless the circumstances are exceptional, but as it happens to be the case in Lebanon, business interests and political means are identical with each other and the circumstances are, alas, always exceptional: Private companies forbid authorities to carry inspections of sites that should be under the supervision of the state and that belong to the Lebanese people.
While the hippodrome has not been destroyed and the Council of the State suspended the decision of minister Layoun to begin construction, following an appeal by the APLH, and the future of the ancient site remains uncertain, what is certain is that the Phoenician port has been effectively destroyed and bulldozed inch by inch this week in spite of protests and appeals on the part of APLH, and while it was well known for months that the site was targeted for destruction, the minister and competent authorities remained silent.
The developers of the Venus Towers project – another luxury compound to rise in downtown Beirut – destroyed the site in front of the concerned citizens without any permits, licenses or authorizations and counting only on the benefit of political maneuvering that has been a trademark of the Layoun administration. The opinion of the minister – overriding all previous decrees – is that the site itself was of no actual historical value, although we were dealing here with a unique Phoenician landmark without parallels anywhere else in the world.
APLH has vowed not to keep quiet under such circumstances in which cynicism and greed meet deliberate ineptitude. People are expected to mobilize tomorrow Thursday against minister Layoun and a judge in Beirut has ordered to stop all the works in the site and a fine of 100 million Lebanese pounds on the developers. The fact remains that regardless of the actions taken against the constructors and the minister, the Phoenician port has been already destroyed and no fine or legal action will restore a history going back millennia.
Apparently it was a team of archaeologists on the payroll of the ministry who inspected the site and considered it of no value, even though the assessments of experts and archaeologists elsewhere differed significantly from such unlearned and obviously politically compromised opinions, for which no one bears the slightest degree of professional accountability. The same archaeologists have refused to shortlist a large number of other sites to UNESCO world heritage list, and constantly bend to the interests of development partners.
It is very likely that unless the citizenry of Lebanon will demand from the government to take absolute control over the jurisdiction of every historical and archaeological landmark in the country, developers will stop at nothing and will be happy to turn the entire heritage of the country into a parking lot for the wealthy resident of luxury towers, in a country without a common history, without a public space to share, without a shared memory and more than anything without legitimate and autonomous governing bodies.
When the reconstruction of Beirut began and a master plan was laid out, the idea of Beirut as an “ancient city of the future” was introduced and even though this vision came under fire because its weak grasp of the somber present, being entirely focused on the past and the future, some also recognized the immense value inherent in rescuing the ancient heritage of the city and making it part of its landscape, heritage which had been effectively disregarded since the beginning of the war.
This of course has been proven time and again to be nothing more than another political fallacy. In his book “Urbicide: The Politics of Urban Destruction”, Martin Coward writes: “Projects do not seek to reconstitute fundamentally shared/public locales, but merely to provide the equipment which the separate ethnic nationalist enclaves can continue to live as they are. “ His words albeit not specifically meant for Beirut, express the degree to which the reconstruction projects in Beirut are aimed at everything but reconstruction of society.
When the chips are down, the Lebanese will not be able to blame Israel or America or Iran or the powers that be for the obliteration of their past and with it, of the possibility of finding a common ground that is not confessional, sectarian and violent. While the Lebanese are so fond of bragging about their culture, clearly there’s everything but culture in such unprecedented act of destruction in which the administration is an accomplice. This Beirut is clearly not re-born, only re-torn.