Lebanon's Archeological Heritage
Table of Contents
The Development of Cultural Heritage Protection in Lebanon
The Threat to Lebanon's Cultural Heritage
The Cases of Ba`albak and Tyre
Beirut: Past and Future
The World's resource base is made up of a natural and cultural heritage
left temporarily in the hands of present generations. Its management ranges
today from sustainable use, for the sake of conservation, to outright exploitation
and destruction. Cultural heritage includes the environment built and shaped
by man which records, for the future, surviving patterns of successive
land use and settlement, whether agricultural, domestic, ceremonial, funerary,
industrial, or defensive, and covering human development from prehistory
to the present. Examples of such integrated, man shaped cultural environments
abound in Lebanon, and serve to illustrate the enormous diversity and complexity
of its cultural heritage. However, the tasks involved in attempting to
document, preserve, and restore the most informative elements of this heritage
Human survival patterns are preserved in the prehistoric campsites of
Paleolithic hunter-gatherer societies. The only evidence of these societies
visible today is their stone-tool industry. Yet their environment, their
dwellings (including caves, rock shelters, and open-air homes consisting
of 'soft' architecture like shelters made of plants or skins), as well
as their diet and life style, can be retrieved if their sites are properly
Later rural and urban communities built more permanent settlements.
These include the many village and town sites now forming tells,
or hills, in the Biqa` Valley and along the Lebanese coast. Most of these
remain unexcavated. Excavated sites represent a particularly endangered
part of the cultural heritage today since they need upkeep and protection;
the neglected condition of the archaeological sites in Byblos, Beit Mery,
Tyre, and Sidon vividly illustrate this problem.
Lebanon's cultural heritage also includes the monumental, sites and
historic areas which are the country's major tourist attractions. The most
well-known sites are the Roman-period sanctuary precinct at Ba`albak, the
Umayyad site at Anjar, the hippodrome and necropolis in Tyre, the Mamluk
buildings still standing in Tripoli, medieval castles in Tripoli, Byblos,
Sidon, and elsewhere, sacred buildings of all religious denominations,
and the urban and mountain mansions and palaces of Lebanon's Ottoman past.
The much-damaged townscape, street pattern, and urban fabric of the historic
town center of Beirut forms a unique case of its own.
Finally, Lebanon's cultural heritage is made up of a vast treasure of
portable artifacts and works of art, all witnesses to human craftsmanship
and ingenuity. More generally referred to as 'antiquities,' they are usually
the legal and practical responsibility of national departments of antiquities
and ought to be taken care of, administered, and preserved in national,
regional, public, and private museums and collections.
Current research and management of Lebanon's archaeological heritage
is limited by two main factors: first, the institution originally responsible
for heritage management, the Department of Antiquities, established in
1937, is, as yet, not sufficiently funded or staffed to be able to deal
the multitude of problems heritage management faces in Lebanon today. Moreover,
it has still to be integrated within the newly created Ministry of Culture
and Higher Education. The present Director of Antiquities, the Camille
Asmar, has stated that he was in no position to open the National Museum
to the public as long as he could not assure the safe closure of the building's
damaged gates, windows, and roof.
Second, only a small number of qualified archaeologists still work in
Lebanon, most of them teaching at universities. Results of their recent
research have regularly been presented in the journal Berytus Archaeological
Studies published by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences of the American
University of Beirut. Founded in 1931, this is the oldest archaeological
journal in Lebanon and the only one which continued to be published throughout
the war. It regularly provides an overview of the particular problems Lebanon's
cultural heritage faces at the end of the twentieth century, reviews the
history of heritage sites, and examines the causes behind the tremendous
loss of these sites, their material, and the information they provide.
Training in archaeology is available at the Lebanese University, the
St. Joseph University, and the American University of Beirut. Only the
Lebanese University, which offers a degree based on an outdated French
History of Art program, has instruction in Arabic. In the 1960s, the St.
Joseph university offered a program centered on classical studies and the
staff included several outstanding scholars in the Greco-Roman and prehistoric
fields. Today, Archaeology at St. Joseph is taught in the Department of
History and Geography. Archaeology at the American University of Beirut
(AUB) is also taught in combination with history.
The first chair of Archaeology at AUB was held by the Danish scholar
Harald Ingholt (1896-1986) from 1932 to 1937. Ingholt, who founded the
journal Berytus, taught regular classes and substantially enlarged
the University's Archaeology collections. In 1951, Dimitri C. Baramki (1909-1984),
who was born and worked in Palestine until 1948, joined the AUB. His experience
in his country of origin taught him that in order to protect cultural heritage,
trained archaeologists were needed on site. Because higher education in
Archaeology was available only at the AUB, the first of its kind in Lebanon.
practical training was given priority. In 1956 he introduced field work
into the curriculum by opening the university's first training excavation
site at Tell al-Ghassil in the Biqa` Valley. Realizing the potential of
the university's heterogeneous Archaeological collections, he transformed
the AUB museum into a viable teaching collection for training local students
in the study of artifacts. In 1966, at the AUB's centennial celebrations,
he was able to open completely reorganized exhibits in a museum which had
doubled in area since its establishment.
The museum's collection still serves to familiarize students with various
types of artifacts common in the Levant. Nevertheless, the 1966 exhibits
are themselves in need of modernization in light of recent advances in
popular archaeology, and new concepts and techniques of presenting the
wider context of Archaeological artifacts to the public for educational
purposes. The average visitor finds the museum's holdings somewhat difficult
to assimilate because of the large number of items exposed and crowded
display methods. However, lectures, special exhibitions, and children's
activities, launched by the present curator, Dr. Leila Badre, have enhanced
the museum's popularity.
An activity center or ecomuseum creating public awareness of, and support
for Lebanon's Archaeological heritage still has to be conceived for Lebanon.
Such centers integrate a cultural heritage site in its environment, be
it a town or landscape, and offer lively popular information in the form
of models, games, animated reconstructions, or living re-enactments of
historical contexts and activities. While Syria and Jordan have made progress
by opening successful regional museums, and by sponsoring multi-disciplinary
field and research projects, Lebanon has to begin from scratch. If appropriate
modern concepts and expertise are applied, much lost time could be made
The Development of Cultural Heritage Protection
Up to late Ottoman times no institutions to officially protect heritage
sites and movable archaeological material existed in Lebanon and the Near
East. State collections in today's European and North American capitals
exhibit spectacular works of art from many cultures of the world, acquired
during the nineteenth century period of European expansion. They are expressions
of a desire to bring home material evidence of the exotic oriental cultures
visited by Westerners; and as prestige objects, the artifacts enhanced
the reputation of their owners. Following Western demands, antiquities
ranged high on the scale of gifts presented by Near Eastern rulers to their
foreign visitors. The often unequal power relations between visitors representing
the interests of Western nations and local Near Eastern potentates count
for much in the tremendous acquisition of Near Eastern antiquities by the
West. Paris, London and, after 1871, Berlin competed for supremacy,
not only in the rush for colonial possessions, but also for the valuable
art work of the ancient lands of the Near East.
The Western powers set the example; but soon, Ottoman Turkish officials
began sending to Turkey treasures acquired in "Syria and Lebanon.
Since then, Sidon's famous Persian and Hellenistic-period marble sarcophagi
have become the prize exhibits of the Archaeological Museum of Istanbul.
Ba`albak's only preserved large statue representing Ashtarte, the principal
goddess of the city. and tall enough to have stood in one of the city's
great temples, was divided into several pieces. To this day the body of
the statue is in Turkey and the head of one of the sphinxes of the statue's
throne is in Paris. Even though they are recognized as fragments of one
and the same art work, the pieces have yet to be joined together.
In this context, scholars, architects, and amateur archaeologists became
concerned with documenting and reconstituting the history of the past.
From the beginning of the century, Lebanon's prehistoric past was thoroughly
surveyed and excavated. Nearly five hundred prehistoric sites have been
surveyed in Lebanon as a whole, and around fifty sites in Beirut itself;
however many have since been totally obliterated. At a time when the sites
were still intact, prehistorians, foremost among them Father Henry Fleisch
and Father Francis Hours of the St. Joseph University, collected and recorded
material which permitted them to research the survival technologies of
local hunter-gatherer societies. Much of the material retrieved is kept
in a valuable prehistoric collection at the St. Joseph University. Although
it was closed down during the war, this collection is presently scheduled
for reassessment, rehabilitation, and exhibition. Hopefully it will become
an instrument for explaining the beginnings of humankind to the Lebanese
public, and for training local students in pre-historic and environmental
Archaeology. This will advance the work begun by earlier prehistorians
who documented and saved evidence of Lebanon's prehistoric heritage.
In 1929, during the French mandate, an exceptional man and scholar,
Henry Seyrig, was appointed to head the newly-established Directorate of
Antiquities of Syria and Lebanon. He had a vast and uncannily modern vision
of heritage protection, preservation, and restoration in situ, as
well as of the necessity for documentation of all types of heritage, from
monumental buildings to antiquities on the market. A typical Seyrig act,
for example, was the donation of his superb coin collection to the Lebanese
Department of Antiquities. Foremost on Seyrig's mind was the concern for
identifying Archaeological heritage within its context or place of origin.
As he saw it, Archaeological work had to take place on site in Syria and
Lebanon if the cultural resources of the region were to be understood and
preserved for future generations.
Seyrig also saw the need for the establishment of scientific research
institutes dealing with heritage questions. At the end of World War II
he created the Institut Français d'Archéologie de Beyrouth,
which he directed until 1967. He chose a superb nineteenth century
mansion as the location for the institute, and established there one of
the most complete research libraries on Near Eastern Archaeology and related
subjects of its time. His gift for attracting talented and dedicated architects,
philologists, and other specialists resulted in the documentation, publication,
and restoration of a great deal of the vast architectural and Archaeological
heritage of Syria and Lebanon. The institute's publications, the journal
Syria and the monograph series Bibliothèque Archéologique
et Historique, are important documentary achievements. The institute
acted as an open house for scholars from East and West, and is remembered
by many of them as a center for productive and imaginative cultural interaction.
Today, the institute's original premises, the Beyhum mansion on Beirut's
Georges Picot Street, stills stands windowless and dilapidated, a proud
example of Lebanon's architectural heritage, and deserving of restoration.
Henri Seyrig's conception of the protection of antiquities and sites
went into the formulation of the Law of Antiquities issued by the French
High Commission in Syria and Lebanon in 1933. This is the Law of Antiquities
Lebanon has today. It does not allow the illicit export or import of antiquities,
nor does it permit illegal excavations. Though it is perfectly adequate
on paper and could, in fact, put a halt to clandestine digs and the illicit
traffic of looted Archaeological materials, the law has not been adequately
implemented, especially in recent years.
In 1937, the National Museum of Beirut was built as the chief depository
of archaeological material excavated in Lebanon, and Emir Maurice Chehab
was appointed the country's first director of Antiquities. Since its foundation,
the Department of Antiquities has been in charge of the Country's archaeological
heritage and has undertaken a large number of excavation and restoration
projects at major and minor sites throughout Lebanon. Results have been
published or at least summarized in the Bulletin du Musée de
Beyoruth, the official journal of the department, which ceased appearing
during the war.
Two archaeologists at the national Museum and inspectors of the Department
of Antiquities regularly prepared their excavations for scientific publication:
the much regretted Roger Saidah (1930-1979), and Hassan Salamé-Sarkis.
Saidah published the results of an excavated Phoenician cemetery he had
rescued in the Khaldeh area near Beirut (1966), and an excavated Chalcolithic
settlement and Bronze Age tombs at Sidon-Dakerman. The final publication
of the rescue excavations at the important site of Khan Khaldeh was
interrupted by the archaeologist's untimely death in 1979. His colleagues
insured that the excavated and recorded information explaining this coastal
settlement in its economic, commercial, industrial, artisanal, and religious
context appeared in print.
Emir Maurice Chehab's most difficult experience in his long career as
caretaker of Lebanon's archaeological heritage was certainly the war years.
The National Museum was located on the dividing line between East and West
Beirut, and despite the emir's efforts, he could not protect the building
from occupation by militia forces. Until 1982, however, he did attempt
to salvage the museum's antiquities collections. Today, even though the
war has ended, the restoration of the National Museum and the Department
of Antiquities buildings is barely underway. At the same time, many of
the settlement sites in Lebanon have not been adequately surveyed. The
preparation of an archaeological atlas of Lebanon is one of the tasks awaiting
future teams of heritage managers in a reconstituted Department of Antiquities.
This will form the site data base for Lebanon which, together with a data
base for all antiquities, has to be established once the information and
the technological means become available to the Department of Antiquities
or the relevant ministry.
The Threat to Lebanon's Cultural Heritage
Given modern laws of antiquities and UNESCO charters for the preservation,
protection, and management of the world's cultural heritage, one would
assume that the era of treasure hunting is over. At the present this is
far from being so as the experiences of Lebanon and other countries in
the Near East prove. To this day, respected international museums acquire
looted antiquities. A look at their storerooms, however, will quickly show
their incapacity to properly study and publish information on the wealth
of foreign antiques they have accumulated since the early days of Western
Today's internationally-organized antiquities mafias are largely responsible
for the breakup and destruction of the cultural heritage of entire countries,
including Lebanon, Pakistan, Peru, and Mexico, to name but a few. The
demand for antiquities entails a disastrous perversion of the perception
of sites and antiques in areas where the robbing takes place. In the minds
of locals, archaeological sites are gold mines, meant to be bulldozed and
exploited. Antiquities are seen as 'worthwhile; if they sell well and if
they are 'museum pieces'. Yet a great deal of environment and context of
an archaeological site has to be destroyed to unearth the rare object that
qualifies as a museum piece. Any excavator or serious collector of antiquities
knows what this entails in terms of loss of information.
In the Lebanese countryside, entire settlements have fallen to the bulldozer.
The story of Kamid al-Loz in the Biqa` is typical of the trend. Excavated
between 1964 and 1981, ancient Kumidi, with its villages and agricultural
potential, was revealed to be the second millennium B.C. capital of the
Biqa'. It also controlled the main trade routes of the time, from Sidon
to Damascus, and from Egypt to Mesopotamia and Anatolia. In 1978, a small
collection of gold and ivory works was discovered there and was taken to
Germany for restoration and conservation. It was kept there in safety for
as long as the situation in Lebanon made a return of the objects to the
National Museum impossible. In the late 1980s the entire site was ransacked
by bulldozers in search of treasure. the local al-Safir newspaper
could write in 1991 that, since foreigners had walked off with artifacts
from the site, why couldn't local people do the same? The frantic destruction
of the site by antiquity robbers produced much less 'treasure' than the
looters themselves had expected. In the process, however, this important
Bronze Age capital, the only one known in the region, was substantially
damaged. Ironically, at the beginning of the excavations, villagers had
asked for a small museum to be built for them, but their request had not
been heeded. Neither the foreign excavators nor the Lebanese Department
of Antiquities were then considering the need for local site museums. The
result was an inestimable loss of heritage information.
The Sevso silver scandal ,by contrast ,involved a multi-million
dollar treasure which was to be auctioned off in New York by Sotheby's
in 1990. The objects 'magnificence seemed to fit the Roman-period temple
complex at Ba'alback, and it was argued by the auction house that the treasure
was found and exported from there. This story appeared in colorful sequels
in Lebanese newspapers, magazines, and on television and fired everyone's
imagination. Soon children were asking for tools to go out and dig for
treasure. Emphasizing only the glamour of the artifacts and their high
price, many reports ignored the initial robbery and subsequent fraud in
the scandal. Experts suggested that the artifacts dated from Roman times,
but had been manufactured in eastern Europe. After investigation, it was
revealed that not only the manufacture but also the origin of the silver
was probably eastern European, most likely Yugoslav. The artifacts had
been illegally exported to Switzerland prior to the Lebanese involvement
in the scandal. Two different sets of Lebanese export papers were produced
but their Validity was questioned. The sale in New York is still suspended,
and the Lebanese government has paid dearly for protracted lawyers fees.
More than one regional museum could have been set up with these funds.
No Archaeological heritage sites can be protected without the cooperation
of the people who live on or around them. Unless the public is informed
about the meaning of their past and their connection with it, they cannot
be expected to preserve and protect the archaeological or cultural vestiges
which embody it. Since prestige and money tend to play a more significant
role than the value of archaeological investigation when collecting antiquities,
it is important for all those involved in heritage conservation to provide
information to gain public support for their efforts. Lebanon's cultural
heritage today navigates dangerously between the Scylla of post-war
reconstruction and development, and the Charybdis of the illegal
The Cases of Ba`albak and Tyre
The Roman city of Ba`albak in the Biqa` Valley has been the primary
tourist attraction in Lebanon for the past two centuries. It was first
studied, documented, and excavated in Ottoman times, between 1898 and 1905.
Although the architects and archaeologists who participated in the initial
excavation did not survive World War I, their students and successors published
a comprehensive three-volume work on the classical Roman-period temples,
Byzantine remains, and the Islamic castle village or qal`a. Reading
these volumes one is amazed by the sensitive observations on the marriage
of oriental planning, building, ornament, and cult traditions with Western
architectural designs. More amazing still is the careful documentation
of the Islamic heritage of the qal'a. Other than publishing very
informative official Arabic inscriptions at the qal`a, there are
descriptions and reconstruction proposals for the medieval fortress village
with its houses, mosques, baths, and outstanding water system which provided
each of the courtyard houses with running water and a drainage system.
Later archaeological work, with different archaeological perspective,
removed practically all post-Roman remains from the site to free the monumental
buildings from later remnants considered comparatively unimportant. Thus
today, there exist only bits and pieces from an important period in the
town's history: the Ba`albak of the Middle Ages, often praised and described
by travellers and historians, and particularly relevant to modern inhabitants
of the region. Such hasty judgements by archaeologists on what is important
or unimportant have often caused considerable damage to the record of the
past. Still, Ba`albak will remain the favorite tourist site of Lebanon.
Enthusiastic Lebanese groups from all backgrounds and all regions visit
it regularly. An appropriate site-information center there would provide
better understanding of Lebanon's cultural heritage and hence of the need
for its protection.
Tyre, another site of legendary fame, was excavated by the Lebanese
Department of Antiquities between 1947 and 1975. However, comparatively
little is known and published of these excavations. Tyre today is a
bustling, sprawling town. It was declared a 'World Heritage' site in 1979
by a UNECO decree (Resolution 459), but nothing has been done there since
to rescue its archaeological heritage. A one-story museum was built but
it remains empty and closed. The 1990-91 clandestine discovery nearby of
material from a Phoenician cemetery led to the rescue of part of the finds
from the local and foreign antique market. This collection was returned
to the Department of Antiquities of Lebanon, its legal owner. The rescue
of the material was hampered by efforts possibly emanating from the antique
market, and a number of inscribed stelae were mutilated as a result.
Beirut: Past and Future
Finally, we come to Beirut - or Bi-ru-ta in the 3,400-year old
Amarna letters from Egypt, classical Berytus, or medieval and Ottoman
Bayrout al-Qadimat. Sporadically excavated during this century,
the results of which were indifferently published, the heart of modern
Beirut, which contains the city's archaeological core, is now facing the
perils of reconstruction. The rapid schedule set for this project would
worry even the most competent urban archaeologist; the major question,
however, is whether urban archaeologists will get a chance to conduct a
proper rescue operation in Lebanon's capital. Between reconstruction and
the antique market, time is running out fast. Archaeology may soon not
find enough to salvage for the future.
Awareness of cultural heritage promotes an understanding of the origins
and development of modern societies. Lebanese vernacular architecture,
whether self- or community-built, grew out of the environments, resources,
technologies, economies, and cultures of the various regions and survives,
here and there, within a mountain or plain ecosystem. Unfortunately since,
the 1950s real estate speculation and new construction have taken a heavy
toll on the architectural heritage of Beirut. The recent war years
destroyed traditional and more recent architecture indiscriminately. Now
Beirut is facing reconstruction, and the Beirut of tomorrow is an everybody's
Urban specialists and the public at large continue to participate in
the debate at the heart of which is Beirut's historic city center is
at the very heart of it. The old city center is still remembered by many,
and prewar color postcards of Beirut in the sixties are on sale everywhere.
Photographs, prints, and paintings of the old Beirut are in great demand
and appear in more and more homes and offices. Representations of medieval
Beirut, which are much rarer, are treated like high-prized treasures of
antiquity. The conspicuous classical-period archaeological remains continue
to arouse curiosity. Earlier towns and villages, however, going back to
the modest settlements of the first farmers and builders of houses, and
the shelters of prehistoric hunter-gatherers before them, are lost. The
story of Beirut's past, including some exquisite fragments of lost works
of art found in the downtown section of the city, have been presented comprehensively
in a popular book by Nina Jidejian.
Once peace returned to Lebanon, people flocked to the derelict Burj
Square, the premier downtown landmark existing in the memory of the Lebanese.
When, in the spring of 1992, whole-scale demolition was ordered in the
heart of the city, Beirutis, venturing there after the dust had settled,
were startled: nothing remained of the historical buildings surrounding
the square. Only the Mamluk mausoleum, which according to popular belief
was saved from demolition by a miracle, remains standing today in the
Professional archaeologists and a majority of the public in Lebanon
are in agreement that the salvageable historic and archaeological heritage
of downtowns Beirut must be rescued. There is disagreement, however, on
how this is to be achieved. This is where professional urban archaeology
is relevant. After the experience of the bombed-out towns and cities of
Europe, and through trial and error, urban archaeology has developed of
historic towns and cities. Indeed, the job of urban archaeologists is reconstruction.
They reconstruct and revive the memory of a town or city by rescuing evidence
from above and below ground. Urban archaeology helps reconstruction by
retrieving vital information to clear the way for building in the future.
It revives a dimension of the past in order to avoid creating alien spaces.
Urban development and archaeology have the same task: to build a city for
the people of today and tomorrow, which will not only function efficiently
but which will also have identity and meaning for its inhabitants.
A number of international experts in urban archaeology have recently
arrived in Beirut to develop an appropriate rescue strategy for the reconstruction
work, in cooperation with archaeologists, architects, and restoration experts
in Lebanon. Students are also receiving training to gain a first hand understanding
of what needs to be done. For example, the Museum of London Archaeology
Service, which has great expertise in urban archaeology, recently offered
a crash course to a large number of Lebanese students, archaeologists,
and architects. An urban archaeologist from Paris also visited Beirut to
discuss the terms of the project with Lebanese authorities. The Institut
Français d'Archéologie du Proche-Orient and the Museum
of London Archaeology Service have also offered to sponsor foreign
experts to cooperate with their Lebanese colleagues wherever necessary.
The beginnings of a rational rescue plan for Beirut's past is gradually
being put into place.
Modern technology and expertise in urban archaeology is expensive, and
the Hariri Foundation and UNESCO have allotted funds for the first phase
of the Beirut rescue project. If executed as planned, Beirut will be the
first historic city in the Near East to benefit from such a salvage program,
and the first city whose heritage information will be retrieved and reconstituted
to be made available to present and future generations. The human and technical
infrastructures needed to carry out the project are to be established in
Beirut. These will include an infrastructure for handling surveys, excavations,
and finds; data recording, conservation, and analysis; and relations with
and dissemination of information among the public at all levels. the Lebanese
Department of Antiquities plans to acquire a core service of trained heritage
managers, as well as an archive of information and finds. These are basic
prerequisites for future work countrywide.
In 1946, Michel Chiha wrote in Patrimoine et Lendemains, in reference
to the architectural and cultural heritage of the newly independent Lebanon:
At the moment when construction takes such an important position
in Lebanon, and furnishings must be produced in large quantities, it would
be inexcusable if we did not intervene forcefully to prevent the nation
from being content with the work of men without taste and skill, with ugly
and poor products.
In 1993, developers, sponsors, urban archaeologists, and concerned Lebanese citizens can contribute to the reconstruction of Beirut as a model city in more than one sense, and, indeed, in more than one tense.
*Helga Seeden is a professor of archaeology in the department of History
&Archaeology at the American University of Beirut. She is the editor
of the archaeological journal Berytus and the author of numerous
articles on excavations and heritage management in Lebanon and Syria.