Habib Battah

Why are Lebanon’s Ancient Sites Disappearing?

In the early 1990s, central Beirut had become one the biggest archeological digs in the world. Lebanon was emerging from decades of civil war, and a multibillion-dollar reconstruction plan was launched to rebuild its capital. In that process, much of the city’s 5,000-year-old history was unearthed, including key discoveries that could change our understanding of Beirut’s role within the Phoenician, Roman, and Ottoman empires.

Experts say more than 100 sites were uncovered during the period, yet today only a handful survive, as a construction boom has populated central Beirut with dozens of luxury towers and shopping centers owned by well-connected investors, many of them members of government. Despite repeated official promises, there are virtually no new archeology museums. The few surviving sites are often unkempt and lack even basic signs to indicate their importance.

Meanwhile, valuable sites along the coast have disappeared under or are threatened by new beach resorts.

So what is happening to the country's ruins? Senior archeologists say much of the work in the 1990s was rushed to make way for investments, and relatively little has been published on the Beirut excavations over the last two decades. Others accuse the country’s antiquities authorities of mismanagement at best and collusion with developers at worst – some sources say public institutions have been elbowed out of the process to make way for those in the pay of private interests with a stake in the development process.

Recently, the chariot racetrack of Roman Beirut, which once hosted 1,400 gladiators in a single day, was uncovered after a century of exploration. But it was demolished last year to make way for six luxury villas owned by a former cabinet minister. Other significant sites have been demolished to make way for banks, glass towers, and apartment blocks.

Who is accountable for the decisions that have led to the destruction of Beirut and Lebanon’s archeological heritage? Have many artifacts disappeared, as some allege? Or do they languish in storage depots, lacking proper classification and thus easily forgotten? The Culture Ministry often complains that it lacks resources, but it has done little to raise funds or create local and international partnerships to share costs. While activists have managed to save some sites, they have failed to stop the demolition of others. What will the fate of the country’s remaining ruins be, and can anything be done to help save them?

These are some of questions I’d like to answer with my reporting.

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