A war-shattered city digs into its past

Archaeologists in Beirut discover ruins over 8,000 years old as a city reconstruction plan gets under way

THE news from Beirut today is not about bombs and bullets.

In fact, the news is more than 8,000 years old. The city, it has been learned for the first time, did exist in Phoenician days.

This is one of the secrets already yielded up by the heart of old Beirut, as teams of archaeologists race to discover as much as they can about the city's early history before it is buried in concrete by the developers.

A multibillion-dollar plan for the comprehensive redevelopment of the war-shattered commercial center, formally inaugurated Sept. 21, has given local and international archaeologists a unique, once-in-history opportunity to get at the city's past.

The demolition and clearance of large acreages of devastated modern ruins has allowed the archaeologists to move in and start numerous excavations in the downtown center, which was always the core of historic Beirut.

The sheer scale of the opportunity is a challenge in itself. So too is the fact that the work must be done under pressure, with a constant struggle to try to reconcile the desirability of archaeological discovery with the imperatives of the reconstruction plan.

``With everything going to go under concrete, and underground car parks going in everywhere, it's going to be the last possibility to reconstruct the history of this millennia-old city,'' says Helga Seeden, professor of archaeology at the American University of Beirut (AUB).

``I think it's the largest archaeological project ever,'' she adds. ``But now I think everybody appreciates that we cannot excavate the whole city, so it will have to be done selectively.''

The first discovery of Phoenician remains in Beirut happened in an area that is scheduled, under the redevelopment master plan, to be an open garden in which the ruins can be a major feature.

``We chose that site because we had earlier indications that it might be where ancient Beirut was,'' says Layla Badr, curator of the AUB museum, who directed that dig. ``After finding some late Ottoman and Hellenistic remains, we went on digging until we hit a very unusual and different kind of wall, which turned out to be the wall of the ancient Phoenician city of Beirut.''

The discovery, in the area between Martyr's Square and the seafront, excited archaeologists because it was the first proof that Beirut was indeed a Phoenician city.

Ancient Assyrian texts which mention other Lebanese cities, such as Tyre, Sidon, and Byblos, make no reference to Beirut. ``From the material we have found so far, we can tell it was a city of luxury, but a small one, about 120 yards wide, and we don't know yet how long,'' Ms. Badr says.

She plans to complete the excavation of the Phoenician city, dating somewhere from the 12th to the sixth century BC, and to keep digging in search of a yet earlier Canaanite settlement, which pottery finds suggest should be underneath.

The potential for conflict between developers and archaeology is evident at one of the more exciting discovery sites.

Since 1936, when the Banca di Roma constructed a building adjacent to the Parliament in the Place de l'Etoile, it was known from the discovery of a marble Roman arch that an important relic from Roman times lay below.

Now, excavations made possible by the demolition and clearance of the site have revealed a well-preserved Roman arcade indicating the presence of a major public building, perhaps a temple. Archaeologists agree that it is undoubtedly one of the most important Roman relics yet discovered in Beirut.

Yet work on the site has been complicated by the fact that the block has been earmarked for the construction of an annex of offices for the Parliament. It falls under the authority of the house speaker, former Shiite militia leader Nabih Berri, who is in a hurry for the new building.

The Roman site has thus been caught up in tensions between Mr. Berri and Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri - the moving spirit behind the downtown reconstruction plan and the development company in charge of the project, Solidere. Journalists and cameramen are banned from the site, and even archaeologists working there are forbidden to take pictures.

Archaeologists would like to have the Roman arcade included in the new structure, though it would have to be incorporated into the parliamentarians' underground garage. The idea is resisted by Berri and his architect, Nabil Azar, who wants it dismantled and rebuilt in a public park.

``To restore it here for whom? For the deputies to look at while they're getting in and out of their cars?'' asks Mr. Azar. ``A monument is for the public. We should take it away and put it where everybody can see and enjoy it.

``All of Beirut has archaeological remains beneath it,'' he adds. ``If we are to keep everything in place, we will have to forget about rebuilding the city.''

At nearby sites in the now-flattened souk (market) area, archaeologists on several digs are spared the political tensions of the Banca di Roma site - but are none the less under pressure to finish their work as soon as possible so that construction work can begin early next year on rebuilding the souk.

While the results of these digs are not so visually spectacular, archaeologists are excited by the discovery of a medieval moat running down to the sea, and by detailed work being done using recently developed urban archaeology techniques to reveal not just the obvious relics but how Beirut's earlier inhabitants actually lived.

``We're looking at the archaeology of ordinary people, the conditions that artisans, workers, even slaves, would have worked in, and the things they would have used,'' says Lawrence Pontin, member of a team of British archaeologists. ``By the kind of environmental sampling we are doing, we hope even to understand what they ate.''

Ideally, the archaeologists would like to spend years excavating the whole area. But they are aware of the need for compromise and constructive dialogue with the developers.

``As archaeologists, we would always struggle for more time, more money, more opportunity to do the archaeology,'' says British team leader Tim Williams.

``But we've got to be aware that we're standing in the middle of what was a war zone, derelict buildings all around us, and there's a city waiting to be rebuilt.''

Solidere is financing many of the excavations, and archaeologists say it is paying more than lip service to the city's cultural heritage. The company's adviser on archaeology, Haris Bustani, says it has sound commercial reasons for doing so.

``Building sites next to historic monuments may be worth double the value of other plots,'' he says. ``When the directors learned that excavations were not very expensive and that they can later make a profit, they agreed to do it.''

However imperfect the process may be, archaeologists agree that they will end up with a clear picture of the city's history.

``We have already learned more about the city's history and evolution than the sum total of what we knew before,'' says Philippe Marquis, assistant to Lebanon's director-general of antiquities to monitor all the excavations.

``As work goes on, we will gather more and more information about Beirut as it developed, and it may provide us with a unique model of how other cities in the region waxed and waned over 5,000 years of history,'' he adds.

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