Minister of Culture “Dismantles” Beirut’s Roman Hippodrome
By: Bassam Alkantar
Published Tuesday, March 13, 2012
Despite an earlier preservation order, another of Lebanon’s archaeological treasures is to be “integrated” into an upmarket commercial development.
Shortly before Saudi monarch Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz’s visit to Lebanon in July 2010, former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri stood on the balcony of his downtown Beirut residence alongside his then Minister of Culture Salim Warde.
Hariri turned to Warde and told him: “I am supposed to receive his majesty King Abdallah on this balcony.” He then pointed across to property number 1370 in the Wadi Abu Jamil district, and asked the minister to have the department of antiquities clean it.
Weeds and trees had sprung up in record time and covered the site: Beirut’s Roman-era hippodrome, the second to be discovered in Lebanon after the Tyre Hippodrome. Lebanon’s hippodromes are two of the five known to be in the Levant – after those in Caesarea in Palestine, Jerash in Jordan, and Bosra in Syria.
Beirut’s hippodrome is considered the grandest of them all. Its amphitheaters are several meters high and its race track is more than 90 meters long.
The cleaning process around this structure was not without obstacles. The culture ministry required permits from the prime minister’s office, which referred it to Solidere, the Hariri-founded company for the reconstruction of Beirut. But Solidere had apparently denied staff from the ministry’s directorate of antiquities access to the site since it had been excavated – as it has done with all archaeological finds on its real estate.
The row between the culture ministry and Solidere over this particular property persisted, despite a decision in August 2009 by the then Culture Minister Tamam Salam to officially list the site in the general inventory of historic buildings. This followed a campaign involving archaeologists and others interested in preserving Beirut’s heritage.
Solidere, and the company that owns the property, Beirut Trade, did not recognize the minister of culture’s decision and continued to procrastinate over approving it. The minister ruled that the Roman hippodrome should be preserved in situ (kept in their original place) due to its archaeological, historic, and architectural significance, pending a decision to rehabilitate the site and open it up to public access as a tourist landmark – like others that have been preserved in downtown Beirut.
But what Solidere was unable to accomplish – even under Fouad Siniora and Saad Hariri – seems to have been accomplished under the government of Najib Mikati, and with the approval of Minister of Culture Gaby Layoun.
Leaked documents revealed that Layoun sent a letter to Beirut Trade declaring his approval of the company’s plans for “integrating” the archaeological finds at the site into its planned development there, which would mean partially dismantling the hippodrome.
This is reminiscent of the Venus construction company’s plans to dismantle the Phoenician port on a site close to Phoenicia Hotel.
Green Light Given
Regarding the hippodrome, the leaked correspondence shows that the culture ministry agreed to “the reintegration of the whole southern section of the ruins into the structure intended to be built by keeping it in situ, and the dismantling and re-installation of the central course and northern sections.”
Layoun vociferously defended his decision when he spoke to Al-Akhbar.
“What we did is an important achievement. It corrects the mistake by Solidere, which deceived property owners by not informing them that there were archaeological finds before buying the property,” he said.
Layoun pointed out that the general directorate of antiquities would oversee all phases of the project, from the planning stage, through to the documentation of the archaeological finds and their dismantling, storage, re-installation, rehabilitation, and presentation.
“We engaged in tough negotiations for six months with the company in charge of construction and the new architectural vision that was presented to us was sensitive to the important historical nature of the site,” the minister said.
“We followed-up on the smallest details including the style of windows on the the upper floors, so they would be consistent with the archaeological site which will be completely rebuilt under the structure that is supposed to be constructed,” he added.
Regardless of whether Layoun’s decision is sound, or his archaeological knowledge correct, his move is a violation of his predecessor Salam’s August 2009 directive, which placed the entire property on the protected historic buildings list.
Salam had earlier sent a letter to Solidere, on 20 November 2008, warning it of the move. Previously, former Minister of Culture Tarek Mitri had officially written to the company in July 2008 emphasizing the need to “preserve the ruins on the site where they were discovered until it is rehabilitated, displayed, and made a tourist landmark.”
In May of that year, Solidere General Manager Mounir Douidy communicated with the former director of antiquities, Frederic Husseini, noting that the Dutch archaeologist Hans Corvers had proposed transferring the unearthed ruins to the public garden in an adjacent property.
But the reports and conclusions of this Dutch “expert,” who has worked on many excavations in Beirut with funding from Solidere, have raised many suspicions. A record of excavations that he supervised revealed that they were all later bulldozed, under the rubric of “reintegration,” “dismantling and re-installation,” and similar notions unrelated to archaeology.
But the directorate of antiquities turned down the proposal to transfer the hippodrome and recommended preserving the archaeological finds in situ and then working on a scheme for rehabilitating the site.
Layoun, however, argued that the decision to list the property on the general inventory was invalid, as it was not followed up by a Cabinet decision to purchase the site.
So why doesn’t the Lebanese state do so now? Layoun answered: “This is not up for discussion. Our priority is the Phoenician Hill located next to the An-Nahar newspaper building. I will raise the request to acquire this site in the Cabinet, because we cannot squander the Phoenician archaeological finds there.”
And so, under the pretext that the state can not acquire the property in Solidere, the idea of “dismantling and re-installing” ancient ruins is being promoted. Layoun said the ground floors that include the ruins will be open to the general public and “golden towers” – as downtown Beirut’s pricey real estate is referred to – will be built over them.
Layoun added: “What we are doing is an achievement by all measures. On the one hand, you convince the property owner of the importance of preserving archaeological finds within his property. This gives the property an added value that raises its price. And on the other hand, you preserve the ruins in their place.”
But who decides where the state acquires property, where it agrees to “integrate,” and where it will refuse?
Layoun refered such questions to a Scientific Advisory Committee he has set up, comprising experts Samir Chami, Albert Naccache, and Hassan Sarkis.
It appears that this committee has made decisions related to many sites that are inconsistent with decisions made by a previous scientific committee formed by Warde when he was minister. This had included, Laila Badr, Janine Abd al-Masih, Nadine Banyout, and Anis Shaya, in addition to Laure Salloum and Asaad Seif from the directorate of antiquities.
But Layoun dismissed criticism of his scientific committee and argued that people in the directorate of antiquity were secretly working with his political adversaries to undermine his reputation.
He concluded by saying he had informed Mikati of his decision regarding the Roman Hippodrome and the prime minister welcomed the move.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.