Protest called to protect Lebanese ancient ruins

Published Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A Lebanese NGO has called for a protest on Saturday over government failure to protect ancient ruins in Beirut, after a ministerial decision to integrate a Roman hippodrome into a new development.

The Association for the Protection of Lebanese Heritage (APLH) said via a Facebook announcement that it was seeking to reverse the government decision on the hippodrome, as well as raise awareness on several other sites under threat from major developers.

"Plan of action is mainly an awareness campaign to make the people more involved with what's really going on because ... the city is disappearing," Josef Haddad, APLH spokesperson, said to Al-Akhbar.

Lebanese Minister of Culture Gaby Layoun reneged on a previous government decision upholding a Roman hippodrome in Beirut as a heritage site, protecting it from development plans drawn up by real estate giant Solidere.

Layoun's decision will allow Solidere to integrate part of the hippodrome into a new development project, compromising the ancient ruin's foundations.

But Layoun defended his move in an interview with Al-Akhbar last week.

"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.

A Phoenician port discovered in the Lebanese capital has also drawn the interest of property developers, prompting activists like APLH to intensify their campaign to preserve Beirut's rich heritage.

"We just need to point out that these two sites need to be protected and the decision to build over them must be reversed," Haddad said.

Haddad urged locals to take more interest in their heritage, and force the government to protect ancient sites in the country.

"It's really all about people taking things into their own hands. The problem is that people don't care and we need to get them to feel responsible," he said.

Leila Badre, Director of the Archaeological Museum at the American University of Beirut, agreed on the importance of preserving the historical sites, not simply to restore Lebanese heritage, but also to promote tourism.

"[The Phoenician port] is a very rare case where we find not really the harbor, but the place where they drew the boats to dry on the mainland. We don't have many Phoenician [ruins] in Beirut," she said.

"It is important because this is how you develop tourism if you have several points to show," she added.

The core problem, according to Haddad, is the power of real estate firms and property developers in Lebanon, and the tacit support they receive from political elites.

"Real estate companies have the support of political figures and it's really all an interconnected machine that we can only face by popular demand," he said.

"Popular opinion should influence politicians and real estate companies they are covering to look [for property] elsewhere," he added.

But property to develop in Beirut free of archaeological ruins is scarce, Badre argued, adding that the entire Lebanese capital – over 5,000 years old – is virtually built on heritage sites.

"The city is built on an archaeological underground. So whenever there is a development or a project, it's doomed to have this problem because the whole underground is archaeological," she said.

"Any developer who is buying [in Beirut] should expect to face such a problem," Badre said, adding that Lebanese law requires developers to excavate sites before construction.

The problem, Badre said, was not excavating sites before development, but finding a means to preserve the ruins while allowing new projects.

"Of course once they (developers) have paid their money they don't like to see their project stopped," she said.

The government's decision to allow development on such heritage sites baffled Badre.

"Three consecutive ministers have protected the sites but I don't know what made this change. I don't know what are (Layoun's) reasons." she said.

While property developers are in no shortage of political support, Haddad claims his NGO is working on its own.

"We're pretty much on our own and we try as much as we can to keep ourselves distant from political parties," he said.

Haddad is expecting at least 500 people at the rally in Beirut on Saturday despite the short notice, but hopes more Lebanese will take to the streets to protect their history.

(Al-Akhbar)

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