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Volume 45, Number 2March/April 1994

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A Heritage to Restore

Written by Kerry Abbott
Photographed by George Baramki Azar

In the Place des Canons, the center of town that for years served as a dividing line between East and West Beirut, two large, shallow rectangles have been carved into the soil at either end of this now barren patch of ground. It is hard to imagine that a five-lane road, clogged with cars and buses, once surrounded this square and served as the main thoroughfare between the capital and the countryside. In fact, the square is again serving as a link, this time between Beirut's past and present—a link in the search for precise clues to the city's Phoenician, Roman and Arab past.

The holes, archeological sounding in the centre-ville , are the first of several assays into the realm of urban archeology. They mark but one phase in the restoration of Lebanon's more than 5000 years of cultural heritage. Those millennia have been so full of history that the entire country is dotted with landmarks that tell of intrigue and intervention, from the pharaohs of Egypt to Alexander the great, onward to the Franks and Amir Fakhr al-Din II, and onward still. As civilizations everywhere build on their predecessors' ruins, reusing the stones of destroyed castles, temples and cities to build new ones, so has modern Lebanon been constructed on, and of , the layers of bygone eras.

Most cities never have the opportunity to discover what clues to their past lie buried beneath their skyscrapers. But Lebanon's post-war construction program (See Aramco World, January-February 1994) involves razing entire quarters of the war-torn capital, giving archeologists and historians a unique opportunity to search for answers to questions long pondered.

Foremost among those campaigning to include cultural preservation on the agenda of the developers redesigning Beirut's central district is Dr. Helga Seeden, professor of archeology at the American University of Beirut and one of the few Western who stayed in Lebanon throughout the years of war. With the assistance of UNESCO specialists in urban archeology, she will supervise whatever excavations take place, relying largely on volunteer labor by her students. The extent of the survey depends both on construction schedules and on the availability of funds.

Eager to erase the memories of war, many developers are pressing to rebuild Beirut as a new and glittering modern metropolis. Older residents, warmed by their memories of the city's past glory, want simply to restore the downtown area to its prewar state. But Beirut's heart and soul lie deeper than either glass skyscrapers or mellow limestone and red tile roofs: When the Place des Canons was first modernized in the 1950's, a bulldozer uncovered a sphinx—the first of countless treasures discovered during that phase of construction. In fact, more than half of Beirut's residents today were born after the war began in 1975, and thus have no emotional attachment to the city that haunts the memories of their parents. Thus Seeden plans instead to establish a museum of the city and series of  "memory trails," illustrated pathways that will let visitors journey back to the Beirut of generations past.

As they dig, Helga Seeden and her team could unearth traces of the law school that made ancient Berytus a famous Roman colony until an earthquake leveled the city in 551. Or they might find the Roman baths or hippodrome: Clues to their location exist in t he scattering of columns on view near Parliament Square. A wealth of Phoenician items was recently uncovered in the southern coastal city of Tyre, which boasts a luminous record as a principal trading center of antiquity. While much of interest to archeologists has been salvaged from the sea off Tyre, the recent finds have been on land: cinerary urns from a tophet, or cemetery for children, just on the edge of one of Tyre's major excavations of Roman ruins. Seeden recovered the potter urns and engraved stelae after a student alerted her to their presence on the local illegal-antiquities market. The artifacts are now on display at the Bank of Lebanon in Beirut, along with a narrative text about the Phoenician letter found carved into some of the stones, and an explanation of why infants may have been cremated and their remains preserved in this way.

Just how many other unique discoveries of this kind find overseas buyers before they are noticed remains matter of speculation. It is certain, though, that the loss of Lebanon's archeological heritage by illegal excavations has far exceeded the damage caused that heritage by war. Nearly every corner of the country shows signs of treasure hunters, most of whom have no other source of income, and know that they can uncover artifacts almost anywhere they sink a shovel into the earth. Their choicest finds are quickly snatched up by profiteers who resell them for sizable sums to collectors abroad. Although all licenses for dealing in antiquities have been revoked, the trade continues, and untold treasures slip away from the country that needs them most.

The discovery and preservation of Lebanon's cultural heritage offer a way of teaching its people about the series of past civilizations that make the country the extraordinary and vigorous hybrid it is today. Suzy Hakimian, curator of the National Museum, believes that this cultural awareness must be taught in the schools, now that students are able to travel throughout their country and see sites that were inaccessible during the war. In the past many people cited the country's history in defense of their own politics. Archeological evidence confirms that Lebanon's history is too rich to be interpreted in only one way, and that the Lebanese in their experience and their genes, are the product of a many-peopled past.

While the civil war spared few areas of Lebanon, only the south of the country faced the waves of devastation so well known in Beirut. That region's two principle cities, Sidon (Sayda in Arabic) and Tyre (Sur), were important in the days of the Phoenicians, and have on view many more relics of previous eras than does Beirut.

The journey from the capital to Sidon takes less than an hour, but the short distance takes the traveler into another way of life. Despite widespread construction, this seaport city retains the two-lane, dusty roads of a small town. Little recall the famed Phoenician trade center of the Mediterranean that existed under the pharaohs. Defeated first by the Cretans, and later by the Philistines, Sidon was eventually surpassed by Tyre as Queen of the Seas. But the rivalry among the Ptolemies, the Assyrians and others for control of the coastal towns continued. Sacked and burned by the Persians after its residents revolted, Sidon thereafter submitted to its invaders: first Alexander the Great, then alternate Seleucid and Ptolemaic rulers .Roman republic, Byzantine bishopric, Sayda of the Arab conquest-this patchwork of identities in one place typifies the influences that molded Lebanon's coastal cities. One of four baronies of the Frankish kingdom of Jerusalem, Sidon's ramparts were razed by Saladin in 1187 to forestall the crusaders' return. But they did return, twice and the land and sea fortifications of French King Louis IX remain as a token of all the invasions endured.

At the end of Sidon's promenade lies the sea castle, so often captured in silhouette in Orientalists' engravings over the centuries. Built by Louis IX as a crusader fortress in the winter of 1228, only its original foundations remains. Most of what now stands was reconstructed by the Arabs after 1291, when the crusaders abandoned Sidon for good. The gray cylinders in the facade are granite columns from the roman period, engaged here as binders. Today, fishermen cast their lines into the sea from the castle's walls, and young boys ride their bicycles over its rugged ocher stones.

Across from the castle, at the entrance to the suq, lies the Khan el-Franji, under reconstruction as a cultural center with funds donated by Sidon's most famous citizen, Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. This most captivating of all the khans, or caravanserais, constructed by Fakhr al-Din II was home to the French consul in the 17th century, at a time when good relations between France and Syria brought the city the honor and wealth of being the port that served Damascus.

Farther along the harbor road, a massive retaining wall encircles the old town. Behind it lies the Great Mosque, built on the site of the 13th-century crusader church of the Hospitalers of St. John, the walls of which remains. Next to the mosque stood Fakhr al-Din's palace. Further inland lies the castle of Louis IX, once his residence but today a stone palimpsest of the civilizations that passed across this coastal plain. It was built with stones from Greco-Roman times, and refortified and altered by successive waves of invaders who used its hilltop promontory and towers as a defensive position; excavations indicate that the site was a Phoenician necropolis in the 17th century BC. According to Homer, the Sidonian craftsmen were "skilled in all things," which made their city a coveted jewel throughout ancient history.

Tyre, also once a famed Phoenician trading center, lies further south on the same coastal road from Beirut. Like Sidon, it had a fortified harbor, most of which has crumbled into the sea or been buried under accretions and administrative center, was located. For centuries protected by the Egyptians, Tyre-like Sidon and like Byblos in the north-prospered as a commercial center. The city was famed for its shipments of cedarwood, as well as of dye from the murex shell, which produced the renowned Tyrian purple. Its traders traveled throughout the Mediterranean; its fallen aristocracy followed Dido to found Qart Hadasht-the city of Carthage.

Successive battles, invasions, defeats and reconstruction mark the history of Tyre. Since Phoenician king Hiram first joined two rocky isles by a causeway to the shore, its residents resisted sieges and blockades by rulers from Nebuchadnezzar to Alexander the Great. The original peninsula of some 16 hectares (40 acres) is today more than three times that size, as layers of sand have been deposited on the shore over the centuries. Untold riches, from the gold and emerald columns of Hiram's temple treasures of every subsequent era, remain buried under the modern city.

Two comprehensive excavations have uncovered much from Tyre's Roman and Byzantine periods as well as evidence of the Phoenician layer underneath. The city excavation, initiated by Amir Maurice Shihab in the 1940's, when he was director of antiquities, now sits on the edge of a bustling neighborhood. Still guarded by government employees, the site is surrounded by flowers and lush foliage and dotted with pieces of column, rows of cisterns, bath-house tiles and scarred mosaics. Signs posted by UNESCO remind us this is cultural property, to be protected, in the event of armed conflict, under the Hague Convention of 1954.

Pierre and Patricia Bikai, who for years conducted excavations in Tyre (See Aramco World, November-December 1972), once calculated that the whole city could have been bought in 1984 for $160 million and preserved as national heritage site. Today, as directors of the American Center for Oriental Research in Ammun, the Bikais concede that is no longer a possibility. Pierre, who is Lebanese, supervised construction of a museum for documenting and preserving archeological finds in the Tyre area. It remains closed; the finest of Tyre's treasures, including its sarcophagi, are hidden in the National Museum in Beirut. But much remains to be seen. The magnificent colonnade to the sea, the monumental arch and countless other ruins and relics discovered at every turn make Tyre one of the region's foremost archeological sites.

Lebanon's largest and most famous temple preserved from the Roman period dominated the city of Baalbek, about a two-hour drive east of Beirut into the Bekaa Valley. Once the site of a Phoenician temple dedicated to the sun god Baal, it was renamed Heliopolis by the Greeks in honor of the triad Jupiter, Venus and Mercury. Julius and Augustus Caesar planned it to its current scale, and while subsequent Syrian emperors added embellishments, the Byzantines attacked the temples as idolatrous. Fortified for warfare and crumbled by earthquakes, the complex was reconstructed in this century, including temples to Jupiter, Mercury and Venus. One temple, commonly attributed to Bacchus, served as the back-drop for the annual Baalbek Festival (See Aramco World, May-June 1972), which was halted by the civil war.

Once visible from afar, the Roman ruins are now obscured by the expansion of the modern town, which boasts a variety of small temples and shrines and an old suq. Current construction to meet the housing and social needs of the city's inhabitants means that more artifacts are being uncovered, and a museum is being established in the Mamluk tower at the corner of the Temple of Bacchus where some of these discoveries can be preserved and displayed. This step is part of a movement to create regional museums in Lebanon that will encourage local resident to take pride in and preserve the cultural heritage that has been and is being unearthed. Baalbek remains Lebanon's most popular tourist site, and its citizens have come to realize that an item sold has limited value, whereas an item displayed reaps continuing benefits.

Not far away, at the foot of the Ant-Lebanon mountains range, lies the Umayyad place of Anjar. Probably founded ion the late seventh century, it was built with elements taken from Roman and Byzantine buildings-creating confusion for some time as to the palace's origins and purpose. It is now believed to have been constructed by Mu'awiyah, appointed governor of Syria by the second caliph 'Umar, near an 'ain Jariyah, or flowing spring, which gave the palace its name. Not only does the site hold a princely palace whose arches still dramatize the horizon at sunset; it once held over 600 shops, making it a major caravanserai on the route between Tyre and Damascus. Pieced together from an assortment of columns, bases and capitals from other ruins in the region, the buildings were assembled with alternate layers of brick and stone, a Byzantine technique that rendered them more resistant to earthquakes. Anjar was laid out in quarters on typically Roman ninety-degree axes, and had broad avenues, covered arcades and a tunnel that functioned as a sewer. Well-preserved as an archeological site, Anjar is uniquely Arab in a uniquely Lebanese way-built with materials and techniques from three earlier civilizations.

Another palace that combines styles, in this case from Italian rococo to the Oriental motifs of Constantinople and Damascus, is the former residence of the Druze, amir Bashir al-Shihabi II at Beiteddine. The amir's reign did more to unify the country than that of his famous predecessor, Fakhr al-Din II, Whose capital at Deir el-Qamar had been the traditional home of the amirs from the 16th to the 18th centuries. Nonetheless, Amir Bashir moved on up the mountain, building and embellishing his palace at Beiteddine over three decades, until he was deposed in 1840. Thereafter, the palace served as the Seraglio Beiteddine, inhabited by Druze ruler, until 1918, when Allied forces occupied it. The french high commissioner made it the "Caza of the Chouf." Upon independence, it was handed over to the government to serve as the summer residence of the president of Lebanon.

Today, the network of buildings has been opened to the public as a museum, dubbed the "Palace of the People." Outside the palace itself, with its ogival colonnades, wooden ceilings elaborately painted by Syrian artists and variety of calligraphic designs, the former stables now house a rich collection of Byzantine mosaics, salvaged from churches at Jiyeh. Indeed, one richly ornamental pattern has been relaid on the lawn, looking deceptively like an oriental carpet.

The two most spectacular parts of the Beiteddine palace are the oldest: the reception hall of the salamlek ('men's side" or "official side" of the palace) and the haremlek ("ladies' side" or "residential side")' whose entrance is a masterpiece of engraving and mosaic inlay. The Turkish bath inside has colored-glass cabochons fitted into the cupola. This traditional area helps to recreate life as it was in Lebanon's Ottoman past. Nearby, on the same mountaintop, are the palatial residences Amir Bashir gave to his sons. One of them, restored as a hotel named the Mir Amin Palace, is today a favorite retreat from the summer heat and a luxurious location for celebrations of all sorts.

If Tyre can be considered as evidence of the parade of Lebanon's history in the south, Byblos (or Jbail) holds this honor for the countryside north of Beirut. Unlike the coastal towns of the south, Byblos escaped the destruction of war and today sits as a perfectly picturesque town, a model of urban archeological planning. Camille Asmar, director of Lebanon's Department of Antiquities, is credited with the careful regulation and oversight that made the town a beautiful blend of ornamental and functional, of monument and modern city.

The golden sandstone buildings of the suqs, with their heavy, dark wooden doors and ironwork grilles, the cobblestone streets, the cascades of grapevines and bougainvillea that drape over every wall and descend form unseen crevices—all this, surrounded by carefully outlined historic landscapes that reach to the sea, makes Jbail the ideal of what cultural preservation can contribute to the restoration of national pride and the reconstruction of the country.

Byblos is said to be the oldest inhabited city in the world, the source of the first Phoenician letters that gave us our alphabet. From the Amorites of the Syrian desert and their haunting obelisk temple, to the Egyptians, whose hieroglyphs were later transformed into letters, to the Greeks, whose corruption of the world "Papyrus" gave byblos its classical name, to the crusader castle and church—all influences have been carefully preserved in a harmonious integration of the legends and traditions that make Lebanon the eclectic blend it is today.

If byblos has the feel of a town frozen in time, Tripoli, farther north, has the bustle of a city that never stops. It must be at the top of the list for renovation and cultural preservation, because Tripoli—in antiquity the seat of the Phoenician confederation of Tyre, Sidon and Aradus—is today the repository of the country's best Mamluk monuments. Still designated by the dark blue French Mandate Plaques that identify them as historic sites, the various madrasahs (schools) and hammams (baths) are easily singled out by their distinctive black-and-white patterned arches and stonework. This city's skyline is marked by the domes and minarets of baths, suqs and mosques still in use. The crusader castle of saint Gilles, on the highest hill top, was rebuilt centuries ago by the Arabs, who have repeatedly manned it as a defensive position in various wars. Today, it is occupied by Lebanese soldiers who, along with visiting school-children, gaze down at the harbor, el-Mina, the reason why the city was first established.

Tripoli's old city has several khans that served soap merchants and soldiers and tailors; the best of them, the Khan Khayyatine, or Caravanserai of the Tailors, was recently reconstructed by a German foundation. Tailors still occupy its shops, displaying their abayas, sirwals and even cabaret dance costumes. But everywhere one turns in this city, there lies a monument from the past. Two toned Mamluk towers stand guard at the port; a dervish chapterhouse skirts the river's edge; parks and arcades, shops and mosques all crowd together to give Tripoli a visual splendor that Beirut long ago forfeited in its rush to build highrise apartment blocks. If the same judicious planning evident in Byblos is applies to Tripoli, it can be revived to a level of grandeur befitting the capital of Lebanon's north.

Thus, the restoration of Lebanon's cultural heritage is a project that touches every corner of the country. Many sites, such as Tyre, Baalbek and the National Museum, are the focus of a group of patrons, who try to raise funds to pay for their protection and preservation. A most urgent case is the National Museum, which throughout the war straddled the main, crossing point of divided Beirut and was repeatedly in the line of fire. As curator Hakimian points out, many Lebanese know the mathaf, or as the only open passage between the eastern and western sectors of the city. A whole generation has not been inside the museum, and has never seen the internationally renowned Phoenician, Greek, and roman sarcophagi, the obelisk statues from Jbail, or the world's richest collection of Phoenician and Arab jewelry.

Before they can do so, the gaping holes in the museum's facade need to be repaired to assure that the collection can be securely displayed. Water in the basement storerooms poses a threat to items deposited there; many of the museum's large pieces were simply sealed in massive blocks of concrete for safekeeping, or hidden away until their safety and security can be guaranteed. To retrieve the more delicate pieces may require prohibitively expensive laser technology. And as the building, a strategic site, was continually occupied by soldiers during the war, the interior is in need of renovation. In any event, over the past 20 years the techniques of museum design have changed. The restored structure will have research and documentation facilities necessary to process and log all new finds, will coordinate its work with regional museums, and will actively work to educate the pubic about the role of archeology in the life of a young nation.

Another museum housing part of Lebanon's cultural wealth, the Sursock Museum of Art in the Ashrafieh section of Beirut, has just completed its renovation and is again a proud white palace, with its ornate stained-glass windows shining in their elegant arched frames.

Despite the grass sprouting in the cracked mosaics of Tyre, or the chipped marble columns in the yard of the National Museum, or the illegal trafficking in antiquities, most of the country's cultural wealth has survived the ravages of war. With a bit of cleaning and polishing, it can be restored to much of its former glory. From Tyre, the Queen of the Seas, to Beirut, the Lady of the World, from the Phoenician to the Franks to the amirs, Lebanon has been a witness to history, with the scars as proof-and the heritage as reward.

Kerry Abbott is a development strategist specializing in conflict regions, and has been based in East Jerusalem since 1982.

This article appeared on pages 32-39 of the March/April 1994 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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