BEIRUT: A large collection of ancient Roman columns left by Beirut’s waterfront face an uncertain future as the Directorate General of Antiquities offers blurry plans for their relocation. The latest find of at-risk archaeological remains were reportedly originally stored in a waterfront warehouse close to where the columns are now piled. But plans to renovate the area by real estate giant Solidere forced the warehouse to shut down, leaving an estimated 400 to 500 hundred pieces of Roman columns scattered near BIEL.
The DGA’s failure to quickly move the columns to a safer, more permanent home has drawn fire from politicians and the public.
“Why did the culture minister say they [the ruins] were being moved? ... Daesh did the same thing in Syria, removing ancient ruins and destroying them,” Kataeb leader MP Sami Gemayel said on Voice of Lebanon (100.5) radio Wednesday afternoon.
Sarkis Khoury, the director-general of the DGA, told The Daily Star that criticism over the recent “relocation” of the ancient remnants was a product of unclear media coverage. Plans for proper relocation were in the works, he assured.
“What is being shown in the media is not what’s happening, we are trying to make a project with the Beirut Municipality to put [the artifacts] in some [parks]. It will not be done today, but we are working on it. It will take time,” Khoury said via phone.
A separate source from the DGA, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the plan to place some of the items in parks around Beirut had already begun. The source added that there were further plans to move some other items from the collection to Horsh Beirut.
Attempts to reach Beirut Gov. Ziad Chebib to confirm the relocation were unsuccessful.
Regarding the apparently haphazard placement next to the sea, the source insisted there was no cause for worry. “They’re all in good shape; they’re granite, so there will be no danger putting them near the sea,” he told The Daily Star.
Erasure of historical buildings and sites in Beirut has been a long-simmering issue. In addition, Solidere – responsible for the entire reconstruction of Downtown Beirut – has faced heavy criticism from academics, the public and politicians for destroying many of the city’s archaeological finds since the company began reconstruction of key sites around the Lebanese capital.
Hans Curver, archaeological heritage consultant for Solidere, told The Daily Star that the value of the remnants has been largely misunderstood by the public. “It’s really important to know where these columns are found. They were mostly integrated into Ottoman or 20th-century foundations, so they’re considered as stray finds,” Curver said. “For me, as an archaeologist, studying the stratigraphic remains, the value for these [items] is rather low. But for the general public, it’s quite something to come across the Roman elements.”
Helen Sader, professor of archeology at the American University of Beirut, corroborated that some Roman ruins found in excavations around Downtown Beirut were not found “in situ,” having been reappropriated by later generations, rendering their place in world history unclear. This, she said, greatly diminishes their original cultural value.
“Roman columns were reused by the Crusaders, they were reused in many buildings, inserted in their walls to strengthen them. So it’s likely that these were pieces found and reused, but not in their original context,” she told The Daily Star
Nevertheless, Curver openly admitted that the archeological finds posed logistical issues for the real estate company seeking to expand its project.
“Solidere doesn’t want all of these things on their land ... it’s a nightmare for every column to find a place of storage,” the consultant said. “Solidere is ready to pay for the trucks, the DGA just has to define the final destination.”
Meanwhile, Mira Wakim, a political bureau member of the Kataeb Party who has been vocal about the issue, told The Daily Star that regardless of what happens to these columns now, their preservation was crucial given that a lot of Lebanon’s cultural history has been lost through inaction. “The ruins need to be placed somewhere adequate where they can be protected and classified,” she said. “From Tripoli to Tyre, what’s happening to our culture is a shame. This is ... a scandal to Lebanon’s history.”