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Culture Vultures

The struggle for Lebanon’s dwindling heritage sites

by Jeff Neumann

The endless struggle over what constitutes a cultural heritage site and what real estate developers can build over continues to spur heated debates in Lebanon. There are many sites at issue. Beirut’s Ottoman and French colonial-style homes, or at least the ones that survived the civil war and reconstruction efforts, are under constant threat. Several remnants of the area’s ancient past as a center for global commerce and culture are also at risk of being lost in the name of profit.

Land scarcity only heightens property developers’ appetite for demolition of sites that may or may not be under protection. Weak government regulations, mostly holdovers from the French mandate-era, have left countless loopholes open for exploitation.

The onus to protect these sites, by protesting against great odds, has fallen on a loose affiliation of activists, archaeologists and everyday citizens. And in many ways, real estate developers are simply taking advantage of rights set aside for them by previous governments, most notably that of former Prime Minister and real estate mogul Rafiq Hariri, although other governments did their part as well.

An ancient past discarded

One of the most controversial heritage issues of late is the Venus Towers project in downtown Beirut. The original plan calls for three luxury residential towers with the promise of “recapturing the traditional context of Lebanese housing in a new modern style”. After ground was broken what appeared to be an ancient Phoenician-era port was discovered, spanning some 7,000 square meters of prime real estate. The project developer, Venus Real Estate Development Company, says the site’s significance has been overblown. But archaeologists not associated with Venus Real Estate say the alleged port is a cultural heritage site that should have been preserved at all costs.

A fierce public debate over the site ensued, followed by at least five archeological reports, which were submitted last year to then Culture Minister Salim Warde. Last spring, Warde told Executive, “It might be a port, a shipyard, or even a quay, but it is surely something very interesting, and we are seeing how we can work with the owners of the land to save this site.” An official from Venus Real Estate told Executive in late June that the archaeologists and experts contracted by the company had recently finished their assessment and submitted a report to the Minister of Culture Gaby Layoun, and were waiting on a response. “It’s in the minister’s hands now,” the official said.

The next day, Venus Real Estate completely demolished the remnants of the site after gaining approval from Layoun.

Joseph Haddad, founding member and secretary of the Association for the Protection of the Lebanese Heritage, called the action “illegal” and promised to continue with protests. Announcing the decision, Layoun said in a statement, “The entire case involves no proof that points to the presence of a Roman or a Phoenician port and the trenches within the rocks could not have been used as dry docks for ships or their maintenance.” Media reports later stated Layoun had distanced himself from the decision and his office was not avaliable for clarification as Executive went to print. 

A similar dispute has arisen over a Roman-era hippodrome, also in the heart of downtown Beirut. Solidere built luxury homes directly on top of much of the site, one of which is owned by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri. The hippodrome is one of two in Lebanon, out of only five of its kind in the Levant. The second hippodrome in Lebanon is in Sour, and was added to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage list in 1979, long before the construction craze took hold across the country.

Solidere has proposed moving the remnants of the hippodrome to a site nearby, where a former Roman-era bath was also moved. However, this will do little to appease preservationists. “It is very easy to protect something,” says Jeanine Abdul Massih, professor of archaeology at the Lebanese University, and a proponent of keeping the hippodrome in its original location. “The problem is, it is also very easy to move it.” For its part, the Culture Ministry seems more intent on using the episode to publicly attack Hariri on television than to preserve the site.

Outreach efforts by preservation groups such as the Association for Protecting Natural Sites and Old Buildings in Lebanon (APSAD) have proved moderately successful, at least in attracting awareness. In late May the group held a ‘National Heritage Day’ with assistance from the Ministry of Culture, and with a focus on cultural heritage sites in Sour and Hermel.

Despite its efforts, APSAD says it is up against powerful real estate companies that are tough to counter. “Anything is better than nothing,” says Mona El Hallak, architect and executive committee member of APSAD. “Really it is in that desperate a state. They do everything to make buildings fall apart and then lobby to be able to pull it down.” 

LU’s Massih echoes that sentiment, saying, “We are all used to it. For 25 years we destroyed all of the history. The problem is patrimonial. Maybe the money at stake is too much, I don’t know. There must be something to do because the people cannot enjoy any of these sites.”

Foreign elements

While most preservation efforts are focused on specific buildings and historical sites in Beirut and surrounding areas, the sale of large swaths of land to foreigners across the country is also attracting the ire of activists and citizens. One example is a brewing fight over the sale of some 7,700 square meters of land near the Keserwan village of Dlebta to Saudi Prince Muqrin bin Bdul Aziz, allegedly without consultation with the local municipality. As Executive went to press, repeated attempts to contact the municipality went unanswered. A presidential decree, #7983, approved the sale in April and residents say they only learned of it once an announcement was made in the Official Gazette.

A campaign to revoke the sale has attracted attention, and local residents have mobilized. But some elements involved in protesting the transaction show hints of xenophobia rather than a genuine concern for the land. As it stands, a petition is circulating demanding the revocation of the sale and it appears that this, like other land issues, will not be resolved soon.

Past attempts at historical and cultural preservation have shown mixed results. A senior advisor to Minister Layoun, Michel de Chadarevian, touts the Sour hippodrome as a preservation success story. “The hippodrome in Tyre has been handled with great care and this is something that Lebanese should be proud of,” he says. But that effort was undertaken more than 30 years ago, and nothing approaching the level of UNESCO protection has happened since.


This article was published as part of a special report in Executive's July 2012 issue

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Jeff Neumann


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