Losing Baalbeck’s Newfound Treasures

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Spectators arrive to attend a performance by Lebanese-born British singer Mika during the opening of Baalbeck International Festival in Lebanon's Bekaa valley 24 June 2010. (Photo: Reuters - Sharif Karim)

By: Rameh Hamieh

Published Saturday, October 20, 2012

People in Baalbeck are waiting for answers to the many questions they have about the fate of new archaeological finds linked to the city’s world-famous Roman temple complex.

Some months ago, a number of buried columns, capitals and stones were unearthed near the architecturally unique Temple of Venus located beyond the walls of the large temples. The discovery had nothing to do with the General Directorate of Antiquities (GDA), but was made by workers for the company contracted to work on Baalbeck’s Cultural Heritage and Urban Development Project.

Local people were thrilled with the find, hoping it would boost the dwindling numbers of tourists who visit. But they were dismayed to learn later that the GDA intended to reinter the ruins, ostensibly to preserve them and protect them from theft.

“The newly found columns could have been a big attraction for tourists and visitors,“ explained Ihab Raad, who owns the nearby Venus Cafe. To protest the decision to reinter them, a picket was held at the site of the discovery demanding that the new finds be incorporated into the temple complex. But “it did no good”, said Raad. “The GDA and culture ministry formed a committee which confirmed the need to re-bury without providing a clear explanation.”

Some days ago, contractors’ bulldozers began the process of burying the finds in preserving material on the GDA’s orders as local people looked on.

Baalbeck Mayor Hashem Othman had spoken of the columns being temporarily covered in plastic sheeting and earth pending the completion of various official procedures.

He said that when the columns and capitals were found, the municipality asked local GDA director Laure Sloum about what steps would be taken, and was told that a pedestrian walkway was planned as part of the Cultural Heritage Project between the site of the citadel and the temples of Bacchus and Venus, and that the new finds would be part of it.

After being informed of the burial of the ruins, Raad contacted Culture Minister Gaby Layoun, who told him the columns could not be preserved for a number reasons, including regulatory and bureaucratic obstacles related to urban planning and property acquisition, in addition to the fact that funding would be needed for such a project over the course of three years. The minister went on to tell the mayor that, given the budgetary problems faced by government ministries, he would have to undertake to fund the scheme himself, in full.

Many in Baalbeck have lost confidence in the Cultural Heritage Project, which is being carried out by the Council for Development and Reconstruction in collaboration with the municipality and the GDA with World Bank funding, partly because this is not the first time unearthed treasures have been reinterred. In 2006, two exceptionally beautiful sections of mosaic were discovered in Khalil Mutran Square, but the GDA re-buried them to create a car-park for tourists and visitors.

Locals are skeptical of the reasons for reinterring such valuable finds. “The stones that were taken from the site near the columns that were discovered were all sold,” said one resident. “Is that how you protect ruins?”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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