Light shed on mystery Beirut dig

beirutgraffitiA few days ago, investigative journalist Habib Battah posted a report on his (excellent) blog, describing a nosy around one of the many fenced-off plots in central Beirut. Click the link to have a quick read, first, if you haven’t already.

Since I read that, I’ve also been asking around, and have come up with the following, from a source I trust – an archaeological expert who wants to remain anonymous.

This person says the Wadi Abu Jamil area was – as Battah suggested – Beirut’s hippodrome in Roman times. It is currently being excavated by Hans Curvers, a Dutch archaeological consultant. Curvers has published papers on Beirut’s hippodrome here, and was interviewed by the Beirut Daily Star in 2011 on exactly this subject.

My source continues that the site photographed by Battah is closed off because work is currently being done there by a Marburg University team led by Professor Winfried Held. There’s a ceramics expert examining material from what is thought may be a theatre (perhaps predating the Roman era), alongside an architect, a photographer and a draftsperson. It is described as a “post-excavation research deal”, initially running for three years, perhaps to be extended thereafter. There is, I’m told, very little of the hippodrome architecture left, hence the requirement for a multi-specialist team to help the excavator figure it out. “Very sensible,” my source remarks.

A person closely connected with historical and archaeological research in Lebanon (sorry about all this anonymity) tells me: “We should be pleased that the site is now well-guarded. The original site in 1994 was used as a public toilet until Solidere put a fence around the entire Beirut Souks site. All has certainly not been destroyed by the building companies, and we should be wary of false bad publicity.”

I’m also told that Solidere has fifty large-scale, multilingual public noticeboards, printed (somehow?) on stone, ready to go up in the BCD explaining the history and archaeology of downtown Beirut.

It’s perhaps understandable that historians and archaeologists with an interest in Beirut resist criticism of Solidere – after all, work, funding and, perhaps, career prospects depend on maintaining good relations with the company. It’s also regrettably clear why nobody wants to put their name to any remarks, even positive ones.

Not everything Solidere does is bad.

But then again, I’d argue Beirut is clearly worse off for Solidere and what it has done over the last 20 yearsprevious post by Battah, critical of Solidere, sparked much debate about the company. Prominent blogger Mustapha Hamoui gave this trenchant response, unnecessarily shielding, it seems to me, an opaque, grossly over-resourced, excessively powerful, profit-driven entity that has emasculated the BCD, simply because it’s not the only thing that’s bad about Beirut. True, it’s not. But, let’s face it, Solidere is a mighty big thing that’s mightily bad.

That said, though, with the impossibility of rooting the company out, I’d rather that it fenced off areas of historical interest to allow the archaeologists to work than, as has happened far too much already in Beirut, blithely bulldozes them for redevelopment.

The problem comes with, in Lama Bashour’s words, “this new photo fascism in Lebanon, where anyone with half an ounce of power orders you to stop taking photographs in public spaces.” That, perhaps, is the most telling takeaway from Habib Battah’s original, fascinating post.

But that’s a disease not confined to Lebanon…