Business, Finance & Economics

Lebanon builds on its ancient past ... literally


BEIRUT — Assad Seif drove an ambulance for the Red Cross during Lebanon's 15-year civil war. In those days, Lebanon's National Museum of Antiquities sat on Beirut's "green line," a barbed wire and landmine-filled no man's land that ran between the opposing militias of east and west Beirut.

The thick stone walls of the old museum had been converted into a sandbagged, front line fortress overlooking one of the few crossings from one side to the other. It was here on a day in 1990 that someone started shooting at the ambulance as Seif drove through no man's land. He had to find shelter, and fast.

"The only solution I could find to get out of this shooting was to drive on the stairway of the national museum," he said. "I was even ready to go break a sarcophagus if it meant saving my life."

It was not an easy option to consider, for Seif had just received his degree in archeology.

Nearly 20 years later, Seif's job involves saving ruins rather than lives, and he sits in an office in the same museum that helped shelter him.

As head of Archaeological Research at the Lebanese Directorate General of Antiquities, he's charged with protecting the country's ancient heritage.

But Beirut is in the midst of a building boom, and the real estate developers are building dozens of luxury high-rises. Seif likened the situation to a clash of two worlds.

"We value things by heritage and cultural value, they value things by their investment and money value," he said. "And it's very different way of seeing things."

As real estate prices in Lebanon have soared over the last five years, those diverging worldviews have sparked conflict. Just about every time a builder digs a foundation in central Beirut, ancient monuments are uncovered.

At a site on a once quiet street now filled with noisy construction cranes and bulldozers sits the location of what will be a 23-story, $35 million luxury high rise called Saifi 616.

But for now, there's an acre-sized hole in the ground. At the hole's center sit the largely intact remains of a 2,000 year old Roman bathhouse.

Fady Beayno, a site coordinator with the DGA, says it's just one part of a massive building that once occupied nearly three acres of land.

"What we are doing here is excavating a monumental building, going back to the Roman period," he said. "They started building it at the end of the first century A.D., and the occupation of this monument we think lasted until the sixth century A.D."

The site also contains a 20-ton marble fountain, a giant mosaic and altars with inscriptions dedicated to Jupiter, Venus and Mercury.

Under Lebanese law, all archeological discoveries belong to the Lebanese state, including the property they're built on. That means the developer can't do anything until an excavation of a discovered archeological site is inspected, documented and cleared of any valuable findings. The process can take several years.

Sometimes the state can expropriate the property if the site is deemed to be historically important, which recently happened when a developer ran into an intact Roman Hippodrome about a half mile away.

But Beayno says instead of either destroying the site after excavation, or expropriating the land, a compromise has been reached so that the bath, the mosaic and other parts of the old Roman structure will be installed in the main lobby of the new luxury building.

"We have found a compromise to preserve the history of this space," he said. "We will put plans, explanations, and photographs of what used to be in this area, which makes it great."

For the investors, it's not so great.

A Kuwaiti company called Al Massalah is the main investor behind Saifi 616. It is paying for almost the entire archeological excavation, including workers and archeologists, at a cost of around $600 thousand, which is required by Lebanese law.

Samir Bey, the senior project manager for Massalah in Lebanon, says construction was supposed to start in July 2007 . His project, his says, has been delayed by 15 months, at least.

"It's catastrophic for an investment," he said. "But it's a pilot project in Lebanon. So maybe it will be the pilot project for all this area, because it's rich in archeology materials."

And Bey says the addition of the bath and mosaic in the lobby of the building will add a little charm and maybe even some "value."

"When you go inside the building, maybe you will feel you are in the museum," he said. "This is very important. And very elegant."

Archeologist Seif says he sympathizes with the plight of developers and investors, who have millions of dollars at stake, only to find their building held up by old stones.

But he doesn't lose any sleep over it. He compares the compromise between him and the developers akin to that of environmental laws in some countries.

"It's like within the domain of the environment. The people who do pollution, they pay for the pollution they do," he said.

Seif says the solution arrived to with Massalah for Saifi 616 will serve as a model for future developments. He hopes this site, and eleven other sites nearby, will eventually be a kind of walking museum for future Lebanese, complete with panels and pictures documenting the ancient history of the area.

"This is very important, because memory is usually very short in this country," he said. "What we're trying to do is preserve the spatial memory, so when future generations pass by, they will look at panels and say this is our history, our heritage, and the people who found this archeology at that time took care of it and preserve it for us."


Other stories from Lebanon:

Dreams of return buried in Gaza rubble

Beirut's unruly roads

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