The threat that cultural heritage faces in Beirut as a result of rising land prices and the scarcity of empty plots is a familiar theme. There seems to be no shortage of fresh cases to highlight and local and international media, as well as local NGOs devoted to preserving national heritage, are doing their part to raise the issue.
Over the last several weeks, Venus Real Estate has been in the spotlight over the discovery of what local news media has claimed is an ancient Phoenician port on “lot 1398”, an approximately 7,000-square-meter sitewhere the company is preparing to construct a luxurious three-tower high rise complex called Venus Towers.
“I haven’t seen the site; it is closed to the public and even to archaeologists — this is what happens every time there is an important discovery in the Beirut town center,” said Leila Badre, museum director of the Archeological Museum of the American University of Beirut. The Directorate General of Antiquities (DGA) has been carrying out work on the site since the discovery of the ruins by the Ministry of Culture nearly two months ago. At present, the ministry is consulting with local and international experts to determine the value of the site, and as of April 27 five reports had been submitted, signifying that a final decision is coming soon. “We found slopes going down toward the sea that can be interpreted in many ways,” said caretaker Minister of Culture Salim Warde. “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,” he said.
Over the month of April, An-Nahar criticized Venus Real Estate in two reports that cited numerous experts on the potential archeological value of the site. On April 27, Venus Towers issued an official statement to “clarify” the situation to the general public, threatening media outlets with legal action for making damaging accusations. The statement contends that the plot is too far from the sea to have been used as a port, and too far above sea level, but did not address any historic changes in sea level since the period when the ruins are thought to have originated from.
“The coast of Beirut today is not as it was over 2,000 years ago,” said Warde. “We know for a fact that over the last century this area was covered by stones at least four times. Before then, we don’t know how many times this occurred.” The last time land reclamation like this occurred was by Solidere, whose damage of historic sites was notorious during the post-civil war reconstruction boom. Disturbed by the situation and what he referred to as yet another challenge between the national interest and the private sector, member of Parliament Walid Joumblatt expressed his concern to Executive following the issuance of the Venus Real Estate statement. “I don’t believe a word they say; it’s all rubbish. They will find any excuse for the sake of a few square meters,” he said.
Prior to the publication of the statement from Venus Real Estate, Venus Towers spokesperson Wajih al-Bazri told Executive on April 25 that there was a great difference of professional opinion from archeological experts about the importance of the site. Bazri claimed that while local experts believe the site is important, the international expert brought by Solidere ruled the site unimportant. “The Ministry of Culture and Solidere are working together to get more opinions,” said Bazri. “There is no final opinion yet, but they are working to finalize as soon as possible to be able to go ahead with the project.” He added that the real estate company will abide by the ruling of the Ministry of Culture, whatever it may be. In the worst case scenario, “we will build around it,” said Bazri, explaining that the ruins only cover about 1,000 square meters of land, then adding: “The newspapers are making a bigger fuss out of this than it really is.”