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French Version

Beirut cashes in on wealth of archaeological sites

As New construction unearths ancient treasures, the law says excavations must precede buildings

Passing through the many narrow avenues that make up Achrafieh, few would realize that major archeological excavations are under way all around them.

The Beirut neighborhood has been experiencing a development boom in the past few years, and construction projects are ongoing, yet in the midst of all this local archaeologists have been experiencing a boom of their own.

Construction companies clearing away old buildings to make room for new luxurious high-rises have unearthed the remnants of nearly 5,000 years of successive civilizations. Assad Seif, head of archaeological research and examination in Lebanon, said this includes layers of Ottoman, Roman, Persian and Hellenic civilizations.

"Based on previous and ongoing investigations, Achrafieh may very well be the Roman Necropolis of Beirut," said Seif.

The excavation currently taking place on Rue Liban has unearthed more than 60 tombs. Lucy Sheikho, who heads the dig, said she expected that many more will be found before the excavation is completed.

A similar dig taking place in the Furn al-Hayek district of Achrafieh has successfully excavated about 100 tombs.

The tombs have been identified as Roman and date back to the 1st to 3rd centuries AD. The Roman expansion in Beirut began in 31 BC and extended throughout the region in the following centuries.

"Beirut served as a pivotal place for the Romans," Seif explained. "It was the center of trade, a place where local industries flourished."

In Gemmayzeh, archaeologists have discovered the remains of what Seif identified as a Roman temple. "We are 100 percent sure this is a Roman temple, but at this point we cannot release any other facts about the find.

The Roman Empire in Lebanon did not topple till around 399 AD. An earthquake in 551 AD destroyed the majority of the remnants that were left behind.

The finds are significant on both the archaeological and socio-historical levels, Seif added.

"What we are now finding is part of our heritage. This is our unwritten history, and it is coming together with every new discovery that we make," he said. "Right now many people may not realize or understand the importance of such finds, but in a few years they may appreciate the value of these artifacts."

Beirut archaeology takes place in an environment that is rather different from typical settings. When construction companies discover evidence of ancient artifacts, they are obligated to immediately report their findings to the Antiquities Directorate in the Culture Ministry.

Construction cannot continue until work is completed by a team of archaeologists sent in by the directorate to excavate the site. "This can take anywhere from one to nine months on average," explains Seif.

As archaeologists working in an urban environment, those excavating in Beirut are very pressed for time and need to put in long hours each day. Every day they spend excavating is one more day construction companies are set back in continuing their work.

"The construction companies want us to leave as soon as possible, and we want to take as much information as possible. This is the clash," Seif said.

When archaeological ruins are found on privately owned land being cleared for development, the owners of that property are obligated by the state to partially fund the excavation.

The Council for Development and Reconstruction, which is sponsoring infrastructure recovery work in Achrafieh, has also been contributing funds to the local excavations.

In Beirut alone there are six excavations taking place and in Lebanon a total of 10. Seif explained that there were many locations right now that should be excavated and that "these locations have the potential to hold some very valuable keys to Lebanon's history."

One of the major obstacles currently facing archaeologists in Lebanon, Seif added, is a lack of manpower.

"In 2005 there were roughly four professional archaeologists working in Lebanon, and now that number has increased to about 30," he said.

"I hope this number continues to increase, because we need at least 100 professional archaeologists to deal with what we are discovering in Beirut alone. Currently we are stretched out."

Seif said he hoped that more archaeologists would emerge on the Lebanese scene in the years to come.

Artifacts that have been excavated are undergoing scientific research, Seif said. Items holding unique significance will be put on display in the National Museum in the months to come. Larger stone objects will be put on display on the site where they were originally found - once the construction is completed - as part of an open-air museum, Seif added.

Beirut 20-12-2007
The Daily Star

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