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Volume 23, Number 6November/December 1972

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A Wedding in Tyre

"Do you dig me?" asked the archaeologist. "I do," replied the archaeologist.

Written by Diane Willman
Photographed by Khalil Abou El Nasr

The two archaeologists just couldn't agree. All of Patricia's calculations indicated the buried Crusader church had to face south. Pierre insisted emphatically that it faced east.

So she dug.

And he dug.

And they discovered the church—right where Pierre said it would be—then another one beneath it. By that time they had three churches, so they decided to get married in one.

And last June they did. But the story of Patricia Cecil, an American archaeologist working in Lebanon, and Pierre Bikai, Lebanese director of the Roman city excavations in ancient Tyre, began many months before, back in June 1970.

They'd first met at a "dig" outside the village of Sarafand, on the Mediterranean coast between Beirut and the harbor town of Tyre. Patricia, a graduate student in archeology at the University of California at Berkeley, had been offered a place on the Sarafand team of the University of Pennsylvania's Dr. James B. Pritchard. At first she turned the job down because she hates flying, but a verbal shove and a goodly supply of tranquilizers from her mother finally got her on the plane to Lebanon. Of course, Mrs. Cecil had no way of knowing then that she and her husband would be taking that same flight to their daughter's wedding barely two years later.

Pierre, who studied at Beirut's Institut des Beaux Arts, serves as architect at the four-year-old Sarafand excavation when the dig is underway each spring. The rest of the year his job is directing the unearthing and reconstruction of the Roman level at Tyre, one of a number of periods being uncovered at the vast site, a painstaking task that could eventually take decades.

With the two young archaeologists working on the same dig at Sarafand, a historically important site, but a small one, it was inevitable they come into daily contact. But when they did they always discussed archaeology—naturally. It wasn't until a mutual friend happened to invite them both to dinner that Pierre asked Patricia for a date. And where does a boy archaeologist invite a girl archaeologist when they go out?

To a "dig" of course.

So they drove south to Tyre and wandered through the Roman city excavations, then over to the nearby necropolis. Beside it stands the most complete reconstruction of an original Roman hippodrome anywhere. At one end a group of Lebanese army officers posted in the area were training their horses to pull replicas of Roman chariots in preparation for a planned tourist festival in the ruins. Patricia sat on an immense stone slab which was part of the restored grandstand and watched a scene reminiscent of one Roman officers and their ladies must have witnessed from those same stones some 2,000 years before. The chariots swept down the long, straight run, a pall of dust rising up to the banks of seats as they rumbled past, then on to an arcade of columns at the far end of the hippodrome where they wheeled sharply about. The noise of chariots, men and horses echoed down the centuries.

"When a man orders up a chariot race in a real Roman hippodrome just for me, I'm won," Patricia says today, grinning. "That was it." A few months later, Pierre flew to Los Angeles to meet her family. Word soon got around that he would like a word with Mr. Cecil, "in private, please." That Christmas, the couple became engaged.

In Lebanon, meanwhile, the Department of Antiquities was considering a proposal to restore the Greek Catholic church of St. Thomas at Tyre, a well-proportioned stone structure of uncertain age tucked away behind latter-day dwellings and shops at the end of the peninsula not far from the sea. The historic church was still in use, but in a poor and weakened condition. Early in 1972 Pierre and Patricia were chosen as a team to supervise the restoration job, which at first consisted mostly of chipping off the vast quantities of bilious-pink plaster added to the fine interior stonework over at least two centuries. Then the department's director-general, Emir Maurice Chehab, decided that as long as the church was being torn up anyway, it would be a good time, perhaps the last opportunity for a long while, to have a look at what lay beneath St. Thomas'. In the Middle East, temples, churches and mosques are frequently built on sites held sacred by numbers of earlier civilizations, and in Tyre there is some relic of the past under practically every modern building in town.

Patricia did some reading and found St. Thomas' had attracted the attention of an 18th-century English traveler to the Holy Land. In his Description of the East and Some Other Countries, published in London in 1745, Richard Pococke noted that when he visited Tyre he found it shriveled from the grandeur of Phoenician, Greek and Roman times, little more than an obscure fishing port.

"I saw also," he wrote, "some granite pillars which they say are the remains of a church dedicated to St. John; and near it is the ruinous church of St. Thomas, part of which is repaired, and serves as a church for two or three Christian families that are there." But the present St. Thomas' church, Patricia reasoned, would hardly have been built by two or three families. It was too elaborate, too grand. When it was decided to take a sounding in search of earlier foundations, a process involving digging a narrow hole straight down, Patricia suggested digging just outside the south wall of the church. Pierre disagreed.

"The trouble with this method of exploration is that if you happen to sink a hole in the middle of a buried building you might never find a trace," Patricia explains. "But since you usually can't afford a general excavation you make a shrewd guess, take several soundings and cross your fingers. That's what we did."

In one shaft they uncovered an archbishop who had been buried sitting on his throne. Then inside, under the sanctuary of the church they found another five archbishops buried in one big crypt, a discovery which led to much theological to-ing and fro-ing by local church dignitaries before it could be decided what to do with the remains. Meanwhile, much of the modern church's stone floor was removed and excavations went on carefully around the archbishops. Finally, with a good deal of pomp, they were disinterred and placed temporarily in a simple wooden coffin which Patricia helped ready at the last moment, an unusual task for an archaeologist.

"I was still spraying on the last of the black paint from a spray can when the dignitaries arrived for the ceremony," Patricia remembers.

The explorations continued until it became clear there was indeed a Crusader church under St. Thomas'. The foundations faced east, exactly as Pierre had predicted. That argument settled, the two decided this was most probably the church Pococke had seen and described, rather than the present church. The St. Thomas' of today, they now believe, was probably not built until about 1760. As digging continued and the entire floor was stripped away, it became clear that the later builders had known about the Crusader church and had used part of its walls for their foundations.

What remained of the earlier church slowly emerged from the earth. In the excavated debris they found Crusader inscriptions which included interesting details on passing pilgrims who had happened to die in Tyre on their way to or from the Holy City of Jerusalem and were buried in the church. Eventually some of these inscriptions will be given a place in the restored modern church. Digging continued slowly until the earth began to show traces of water.

The sea was not far beneath their feet.

Then the two archaeologists uncovered an altar which suggested still another church lay below, this one almost certainly Byzantine. Later they came upon a number of exquisite frescoes in beautifully preserved coloring. (After restoration, some of these, too, will find a place in the church above.) But now the water was seeping into the excavation and starting to rise, so digging at the Byzantine level had to stop long before their curiosity was satisfied.

"Either Tyre has subsided or the sea level of the Mediterranean has risen since Byzantine times," Patricia explains. The team brought pumps in to enable them to continue their work for a while, and although these were strong enough to hold the water level steady they were never enough to drain the lowest church completely. When antiquity department engineers said they couldn't justify the cost of installing permanent pumping equipment at the site, the archaeologists decided reluctantly that they would have to fill the Byzantine excavations with sand to strengthen the foundations of the two upper churches. On the last day of digging Pierre, Patricia and a group of workmen stood knee-deep in water groping in the sediment. Out came handful after handful of Roman mosaic, fistfuls of little colored tiles. Then the lower level was abandoned and filled.

The seepage from the sea continued slowly for a while, however, stopping only after it had reached the lowest sections of the Crusader church. A new, elevated concrete floor was then poured at the modern level, leaving the damp Crusader level as an excavated cellar. There, water covers some stones, still and deceptively clear in the half light of electric bulbs strung down from the church above. In other parts, away from the thick stones which the Crusaders knelt upon, the sand is squelchy. Before visitors to St. Thomas' will be able to explore these sections there are problems of light and air to be solved. Then the Department of Antiquities will build a stairway down from the back of the present church sanctuary.

Above, at the modern ground level, Patricia and Pierre then proceeded with their original task, the restoration of the 18th-century church. Slowly its original grace and beauty began to re-emerge. Today St. Thomas' soars up in a scallop of arches, and the slender stone columns emphasize the lofty dimensions of what is actually a quite small building. The first and most lasting impression is the natural light, the combined effect of pale stone and numbers of glassless windows. Each blond stone is streaked with soft yellows, gingers and creams, yet each is solid, rough-textured, individual. High in the barrel-vaulted roof the tiny, barred windows let the bright Mediterranean sun pour in.

Once their restoration work was nearly—but not quite—finished, Patricia and Pierre decided that for them surely there was only one possible place to be married, the 18th-century church of St. Thomas, which sits above the Byzantine church they had uncovered and then filled, and which has a Crusader church in its basement.

Three days before the ceremony, a team of workmen was still carefully re-laying the stones of the 1760 St. Thomas' atop the new concrete floor, heavy marble diamond shapes fitted unnervingly slowly into each other and crisscrossed with contrasting black lines. On June 25, the day of the wedding, masses of flowers and branches were strewn around the outside of the church to hide the loads of earth and rubble piled up where an arched colonnade has yet to be restored.

But the wedding came off on schedule in the brand-new church which had taken centuries to build. A stranger among the assembled family and friends watching the impressive Greek Catholic ceremony that day could not have guessed what lay beneath his feet, and that the young handsome couple at the wedding in Tyre had so recently helped to strip this lovely church to its bones, arid put it back together again.

Today Pierre is back at his major task, helping to reconstruct the Roman city, and Patricia, now Mrs. Bikai, is planning a series of soundings in Tyre to try to discover the legendary Temple of Melkart, which is said to have been built to honor the ancient Phoenician city's god by Biblical King Hiram, who is known to have supplied Cedars of Lebanon to his friend King Solomon. If the temple does exist, Patricia thinks, some of its massive stonework may lie undiscovered beneath the Roman city her husband is helping to restore. The two young archaeologists may be arguing about where to dig for many happy years ahead.

Diane Willman, an Australian radio journalist based in Beirut, has covered the Arab world for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation since 1969.

This article appeared on pages 20-23 of the November/December 1972 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1972 images.