Artozia: The Many Ruins of Nahr al-Bared

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An excavator operates at the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp near the port city of Tripoli, northern Lebanon on 27 October 2010. (Photo: AFP - Sharif Karim)

By: Joanne Bajjaly

Published Sunday, May 20, 2012

The discovery of an ancient city beneath the destroyed refugee camp became, like everything else related to Nahr al-Bared, a political minefield.

When the rubble removal operation began in Nahr al-Bared Refugee Camp, teams from the Lebanese army found granite columns and their crowns as well as huge sculptures and oil presses that are part of the ancient city of Artozia.

The camp residents, eagerly awaiting the reconstruction of their camp, lamented their misfortune. All they need is archaeological relics to add insult to their injury and prolong their wait.

In principle, their perception is erroneous. The discovery of archaeological ruins presents an opportunity for their area to be developed and their situation be improved.

However when the issue was politicized, it became evident that the residents’ fears were not misplaced. The opportunity turned into a nightmare, first for the archaeologists whose scientific decisions were manipulated and second for the camp residents because of the delay in the reconstruction of their camp under the pretext of the discovered archaeological monuments.

Artozia is an important archaeological site that could be on a par with Tyre’s archaeological remains. It is a Roman and Byzantine city situated on the ancient caravan route. It enjoyed special commercial and political status and printed its own currency that depicted a temple for the goddess Astarte built in the city.

The Directorate General of Antiquities began overseeing excavation operations on the site. It became evident from the first thousand square meters excavated that the city had waterways for bringing drinking water, which was further proof of its vastness.

But the scientific fieldwork did not last long. As soon as news spread that there were archaeological digs, the political scene was up in arms. Supporters of the rights of Nahr al-Bared residents protested against Artozia, holding archaeologists responsible for the delay in returning the displaced refugees to their homes in the camp.

Political tensions escalated. In April 2009, the prime minister’s office asked the ministry of culture to look for a radical solution that would allow the refugees to return to their original homes without changes being made to them.

It seemed a strange request because the archaeologists had proposed to the cabinet that the agricultural land surrounding the hill be bought and the camp be moved there so archaeologists could finish what they had started and work on uncovering Artozia’s landmarks, turning it into an archaeological and tourist landmark in Akkar.

The suggestion was firmly rejected by the prime minister’s office, supposedly because at the time Prime Minister Fouad Siniora had “promised” the Palestinian committees that they would return to their homes and so that was what was going to happen.

The Ministry of Culture then offered a bizarre “solution” that entailed unearthing the ruins and registering them, then covering them up with soil and 30-50 centimeters of concrete so that buildings could be constructed on top of them.

Burying ruins is an internationally recognized technique for preserving monuments when they are in danger. A time-resistant fabric is placed to isolate the ruins at the modern ground level and the archaeological discoveries are then covered up with sand or soil. This technique is used to bury rooms or mosaic floors. But this is the first time in the world that a whole archaeological site is being buried. Lebanese politics have imposed new methods in the field of archaeology.

Citizen (not the leader of a parliamentary bloc or MP) Michel Aoun filed the first lawsuit before the State’s Judicial Council requesting a “review” of the cabinet’s decision to bury the ruins in Nahr al-Bared, paving the way for its nullification.

According to the lawsuit, Aoun requested the preservation of the ruins in Nahr al-Bared because they are important for Lebanon first and for humanity second.

The Council rejected the legal challenge because Aoun did not have the requisite legal capacity and his interest was indirect, in other words, the decision did not affect his personal interests.

This political maneuvering shoved the issue of Artozia’s ruins into a maze that no one could have imagined. Some political parties that believe Palestinians “were the reason behind the civil war,” claim that today they are the reason an archaeological site has been lost.

The Palestinian reaction demonstrates that this issue has reinforced their sense that preserving archaeological ruins takes priority over them. One of the officials in charge of the camp’s reconstruction said: “Artozia waited 2000 years, surely it can wait a little longer until we return to Palestine.”

The archaeologists have tried to separate their work from the hot political controversy. They never left the site. They continued to carry out their duties in silence and away from the media so their work won’t be politicized more than it already is.

In the areas where the rubble is removed and the relics become visible, archaeologists come, take pictures, document and then bury. In the areas that have not been uncovered, they carry out a geophysical survey of the surface which shows developed archaeological landmarks. They document and leave so that construction bulldozers, whose work they never impeded in spite of how they have been portrayed, can come and do their work.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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