Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Special Report Volume 49 Number 4, July/August 1996

Beirut Digs Out
by Marilyn Raschka

Developers vie with archaeologists over the future of a 5,000-year-old city.

According to Lebanese folklore, Beirut was destroyed and rebuilt seven times during its 5,000-year history. When the recent civil war ended in late 1990, the Lebanese army took possession of the downtown or "old city" where much of the fighting had taken place. The old city center was, along with the social fabric of Lebanon, was in ruins, its historic churches, mosques, and public buildings ravaged by 15 years of warfare. Last January, I returned to see first hand how archaeologists and developers were progressing in the rebuilding of Beirut. The finds have been fantastic, providing an unbroken archaeological record of the city's past. But the losses have been staggering: a 20-foot stretch of the Canaanite city wall destroyed, Crusader fortress walls earmarked as an archaeological area bulldozed, Iron Age shaft tombs in the way of infrastructure removed. Politics and money are playing a disproportionate role in the rebuilding of Beirut, and will continue to do so.

The Price of Progress
by Albert F.H. Naccache

How short-sighted government policies favored development at the expense of archaeology

Since November 1994 the Lebanese press has reported, on a nearly weekly basis, the wrecking of mosaics, walls, columns, and other archaeological monuments in Beirut. Working around the clock for more than a year, bulldozers dug into the city, filling dump trucks that promptly emptied their loads into the Mediterranean Sea. More than 7 million cubic feet of ancient Beirut have been lost forever. The digging is for sewers that will not be operative until they are linked to a purification plant that will not be built for a few years; two parallel boulevards, separated by only a hundred yards, that will not be linked to the metropolitan road network for many years; and an underground parking lot for 2,700 cars. These are the altars on which were sacrificed the old markets, which preserved Beirut's 2,500-year-old urban grid, and the ancient tell with its unique treasures. The bulldozers were still digging in January 1996 when it was announced that the "archaeological excavations were nearly completed." In a span of 14 months the bulldozers had utterly destroyed much ancient Beirut. Soon nothing will be left of it. No provision has yet been made for the archaeological study of the private lots, which are already being sold, and the Lebanese Antiquity Law is still being circumvented.

© 1996 by the Archaeological Institute of America