Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Controversy over Beirut’s Phoenician port

First published on BIKYAMASR

The news of the destruction of an archaeological site presumed to be an ancient Phoenician port in downtown Beirut, estimated to be as old as the 5th century BC, took many Lebanese by surprise and in particular the Association for the Protection of the Lebanese Heritage, one of very few organizations in Lebanon struggling to protect historical heritage, and waging bitter legal battles against both private companies and the state.
The site in question was bulldozed to the ground on Tuesday June 26th by the construction firm Venus apparently without any license or authorization, after culture minister Gaby Layoun gave a green light for the project to go ahead and build luxury towers on the site, overriding decrees promulgated by former administrations and that forbade any construction to take place at the contested site.
The demolition was reported on Bikyamasr.com Wednesday June 27th in spite of protests at the site and although a judge in Beirut ordered to halt all construction works and a fine, it was too late for the site, already destroyed hours before. On Thursday June 28th dozens of protesters marched to the Ministry of Culture demanding the resignation of minister Layoun and the APLH held a sit-in.
Nevertheless, minister Layoun defended his decision claiming that there is no such a thing as a Phoenician port in Minet al-Hosn, plot 1398, located in an exclusive district, inside the limits of the controversial reconstruction of Beirut Central District and close to the Mediterranean Sea. The minister argued that the site was of no historical value and that former minister Salim Wardy had received erroneous information regarding the site.
It was reported already in January that the site was threatened with imminent demolition and in spite of the initial findings and opinions of the Directorate General of Antiquities, the ministry insisted on their assessment; accordingly, as it was the case with nearby hippodrome by Solidere, no further inspection of the site was permitted by Venus. An archaeological assessment obtained by Lebanese newspaper Daily Star seems to confirm the claims.
The report was commissioned by Venus to Prof. Dr. Ralph K. Pedersen, an expert in maritime archaeology at Marburg University. In his report he concludes that there are no features in the site that can relate it to a port and other archaeologists have also endorsed this view. Nevertheless, as APLH co-founder Joseph Haddad has noted, the debate is not whether this was port or not, but that it still was an archaeological site that needed to be further examined.
Sources at the ministry told Daily Star that Layoun overturned the previous decree based on the opinion of Pedersen’s report and other sources cite the opinion of Mr. Albert Naccache, from the ministry’s scientific committee, who is not an archaeologist. A number of expert opinions on the other hand, made public by Francophone website Libnanews.com, offer a substantially different account from that of Pedersen’s report:
In December 2011 three official statements were made: Prof. David Blackman, senior research fellow at the University of Oxford and former director of the British School of Archaeology in Athens wrote in a letter: “This is a discovery of great importance, both for the study of this type of site, which seems to appear in the Eastern Mediterranean in the late 6th century BC; and for the history of Beirut. I have been studying this type of site since the late 1960’s: I am therefore excited by this discovery, and I am concerned that the site must be preserved. There is no doubt about its identification as slipways and not simply quarries. I have not seen the site, but the reports are clear and convincing.”
Prof. Dr. Jean-Yves Empereur, director of the Center for Alexandrian Studies (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique) wrote: “I admire the beautiful discovery of a port in downtown Beirut. This new archaeological site dating back to 5th century BC is particularly important: It shows the quality of the great Phoenician civilization. While we count with fingers the remnants of such installations in the Greek world, this is a unique discovery which should be preserved and assessed, so that generations to come will be able to admire the achievements of their ancestors, the pioneers of maritime trade in the Mediterranean.”
Dr. Kalliopi Baika, a maritime archaeologist for the Greek ministry of culture and tourism added: “The excavation site is even more important as the slipways and maritime installations unearthed were found in a well-dated context, which is rare for harbor works of this kind. In case it is decided to destroy the site and move the slipways, all this rich archaeological context will disappear.”
Another report by “Save Beirut Heritage” insists that Minet al-Hosn completes the history of Phoenician cities in the Levant, and that fourteen local and international archaeologists have confirmed the importance of the port. “The discoveries of Minet al-Hosn are those that resemble most those of Tell Dor: The holds of these two regions have been dated to the 5th and 4th centuries BC while the others have been dated to the 4th and 3rd century. Maritime archaeologist Martine Francis Allouche, affirms the importance of this archaeological site as being the first in Lebanon and the second in the Levant after Tell Dor.”
In a last straw of the controversy, overseer of the excavation works at the port, Hisham Sayegh, and a researcher on ancient Mediterranean ports, submitted his letter of resignation to the ministry on June 27th during the demonstration demanding the resignation of minister Layoun, move that was celebrated by activists and concerned citizens. The letter, originally in Arabic, has been made available online and is also translated into French.
In his letter, Sayegh states the obvious:
“Never has archaeology in Lebanon since the last centuries and during wars of ancient times, or during the Israeli invasion and bombardment of Beirut, experienced such destruction as it has witnessed since you took office at the Ministry of Culture.”
He adds:
“Based on the principles of my belief in God, in Lebanon, in the state and the law, I refused together with previous culture ministers, the bribes generously offered by Venus, so that we agree to falsify and twist the truth about the origin and significance of the discovery in downtown Beirut. But what I witnessed yesterday and that was witnessed by the Lebanese, through the media, was a planned destruction of the Phoenician site, with your agreement, and such razing within minutes of monuments and remnants that go back thousands of years, it didn’t only hurt me but pierced me like a bullet.”
Near the end he concludes:
“Minister Layoun, I am sorry but I can no longer remain as a silent witness, of the Directorate General of Antiquities, in the destruction of the vestiges and falsification of the identity of my country, rather than acting as a guardian; protecting, preserving and transmitting it to the future generations.”
While everything hangs in uncertainty, what is certain is that on the basis of expert opinions and the letter of Mr. Sayegh, it can be safely assumed that what we are dealing with here is another case of expropriating on the part of private interests and endorsed by the state, of property that belongs to no one but the history and identity of the Lebanese.
Since the end of the Civil War, one of the main complaints of civil society organizations is that the Lebanese are prevented from learning and being confronted with their own history, and in the school curriculum history ends in 1975, at the onset of the war. It might now hold true as well that Lebanese history doesn’t end in 1975 but in the 5th century BC. In the meantime, civil society is still awaiting the resignation letter of Minister Layoun.

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