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Insight: Beirut in Transition Volume 53 Number 5, September/October 2000
by James Wiseman

Development vies with archaeology in post-war Lebanon

[image] Recently excavated bath of the Roman Imperial period has been partially restored and incorporated into a new urban setting near the center of Beirut. (James Wiseman) [LARGER IMAGE]

How do you provide for the permanent protection of ancient remains once they have been unearthed? Such remains are particularly vulnerable in times of armed conflict, since the protection of antiquities is an unlikely first priority of people being shot at. Today, this is a serious issue for archaeologists in Lebanon, where civil war raged for 15 years between Muslim and Christian forces until 1990. At Beirut's Archaeological museum, some antiquities had been encased in concrete to protect them. The museum itself, severely damaged by artillery and small-arms fire, has reopened with artifacts on display in modern cases; as we admired its handsomely renovated facade, armed soldiers stood nearby. There would be other reminders on my recent visit to Lebanon of threats to the preservation of ancient monuments--indeed, of entire archaeological sites.

Beirut's Late Bronze Age-Early Iron Age (Phoenician) city wall, excavated in 1993-1996, has deteriorated noticeably. (James Wiseman) [LARGER IMAGE] [image]

   The civil war virtually destroyed the city center, framed around Martyrs' Square, the huge plaza commemorating those who rebelled against Ottoman Turkish rule in 1915. As the city began to rebuild during the 1990s, archaeologists started investigating the successive ancient cities that lay beneath it. Excavation by international teams eventually extended over more than 1.5 million square feet, making it the largest archaeological dig in the world, according to the Daily Star of Beirut. Among impressive remains uncovered were early Byzantine shops with mosaics in the area of the souks (marketplaces) west of Martyrs' Square; part of the Hellenistic city's fortification wall, farther east; and, north of the square overlooking Beirut's modern harbor, part of the Bronze Age and Early Iron Age Phoenician cities.

James Wiseman is a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY and is professor of archaeology, art history, and classics at Boston University. The author thanks Patricia and Pierre Bikai, Leila Badre, and Helga Seeden.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America