Beirut is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the Middle East, and archaeological excavations have over the years uncovered remains dating to various periods of its occupation. The ancient city of Beirut was restricted mainly to the current downtown area. Although some historical remains had been exposed earlier, the most significant archaeological work in central Beirut took place ahead of reconstruction projects following the end of the civil war, in the 1990s.
While the majority of ancient layers and finds were dismantled and removed, some vestiges were kept in place. So, if you’re ever in Beirut, make sure to visit these heritage spots and to think of all the people who inhabited the city at different points in time, experiencing it in each of its different forms. Below is a short guide to the ancient city. The purple stars on the map at the very end indicate the discussed locations.
1. The Pre-Classical City (Bronze Age & Iron Age): Tell Beirut (3300 BC – 333 BC)1
It is during this period that Beirut first emerged as a city and was referred to as Biruta or Bi’ru in ancient sources. Through excavations on the tell, archaeologists were able to determine the limits of the ancient city by uncovering its multiple and successive fortifications that included massive walls, a glacis (defensive slope surrounding the tell), and a monumental entrance. Settlement features on the tell included chambers, cisterns, storage rooms, a well, and burials. As importantly, the material finds, namely the imported pottery vessels, indicated that the city had well-established trade relations with the Mediterranean, particularly with Cyprus and the Aegean coast.
The city was initially limited to the area of the tell and was in the shape of an arc facing the sea. Later in this period, the town expanded to include areas at the base of the tell. The upper town was nonetheless maintained as a fortified citadel.
Unfortunately, due to the current situation in Lebanon, the site is not very well maintained. The tell is covered with vegetation and cannot be easily accessed, nor the structures easily seen. However, plans are underway to build a new museum in this area, the Beirut City History Museum. The tell, situated right next to the planned museum, will constitute an open-air extension and its upkeep will certainly improve. In the meantime, you can observe some of the finds from the tell on display at the American University of Beirut – Archaeological Museum.
2. Hellenistic Defensive Tower2
Along the eastern border of Tell Beirut, atop its glacis, two superimposed semi-circular structures were uncovered. These features date to the Hellenistic period (333 – 83 BC), and constituted part of a defensive tower erected at the entrance to the city. A coastal road, which coincides with the current Weygand Street, was present in this location that led to and traversed the ancient city. At this point in history, Beirut was named Laodicea in Canaan or Laodicea in Phoenicia.
3. Garden of Forgiveness3
The Garden of Forgiveness is a large space that contains edifices stretching from the Hellenistic to the Ottoman period. These include arched foundations from Ottoman buildings; public and residential halls and rooms from the Medieval and Byzantine periods; and houses, mosaic floors, workshops, and streets from the Roman and Hellenistic eras.
Nestled between a prominent mosque and two churches in central Beirut, the plan was (and still is) to create a public space at the heart of the city where people from different backgrounds can come together and slowly heal the social rifts created during the civil war. This public garden and archaeological park would put into perspective the long history of this city and help nurture a common sense of identity and belongingness. Unfortunately, and similar to the tell project, the Garden of Forgiveness initiative has been put on hold due to the persistent instability in Lebanon. Currently the Garden is inaccessible to the public, but can still be observed from a number of vantage points in downtown Beirut. The short video below explains how this project came to be and the purpose behind it. It features Alexandra Asseily who conceived the idea of the Garden of Forgiveness in 1997.
4. Roman Period: Cardo Maximus4
At the eastern limit of the Garden of Forgiveness, running parallel to the modern Ma’rad Street, lies the Cardo Maximus. Roman cities and colonies were organized in a grid layout, i.e. roads running parallel and perpendicular to one another. They also often received two main roads that intersected at what would be the heart of the city, the forum. These roads were the decumanus maximus (running east-west) and the cardo maximus (running north-south).
As a Roman colony, Beirut – or Berytus as it was known then – also had these two thoroughfares. The cardo maximus discovered in the Garden of Forgiveness had a maximum width of 14.00 m, and the road was lined with columns reaching heights of almost 8 meters. Shaded walkways were found on either side of the road.
5. The Roman Baths
Baths were staple features in Roman cities. Multiple baths of different sizes were uncovered in Beirut, one of which is located at the base of the Serail Hill. A cistern to collect water; different bathing rooms; a round stone basin (labrum) which would have contained cold water to cool and refresh oneself in the hot room; and hypocausts (under-floor heating system that served to heat the hot room) were discovered there. Roman bathhouses were not only a place for bathing, but also a space where people regularly socialized.
6. The Medieval Period: Crusader Castle and Basilica5
Remains of a Crusader castle, dating to the 12th century, are found north-west of Tell Beirut. The medieval structure was damaged by Russian naval bombardments against the Ottomans in 1772 and 1773, and by the British fleet during the Turkish-Egyptian Crisis in 1840. However, the total destruction of the castle, as well as a significant topographic change in this area, came about with the construction of the modern port of Beirut at the end of the 19th century. Only a small part of the castle still survives.
Beirut, or Baruth as it was referred to then, was conquered by the Crusaders in 1110 AD and remained under Crusader control for a total of 171 years (with a 9-year interlude). Another important structure built during this time was the basilica of Saint John the Baptist. This structure was converted into a mosque in the late 13th century and still stands today (Al ‘Omari Grand Mosque).
7. Mamluk Period: Zawiat Ibn ‘Arraq al-Dimashqi6
This zawiya (prayer corner) is one of the few vestiges from the Mamluk period found in Beirut. It was built in 1517 as part of a house and a travellers’ lodge (ribat) by Ibn ‘Arraq al-Dimashqi, a religious leader born in Damascus. He chose this location for its proximity to the former residence of the prominent and revered Imam ‘Abd el-Rahman al-Ouza’i (8th c. AD) in Souk el Tawilé. The standing structure would have opened up to rooms and courtyards on all sides. Following Ibn ‘Arraq al-Dimashqi’s death in 1526, his house continued to function as a madrasa (school for the study of Islam) and a zawiya for his followers.
8. Ottoman Period: Petit Serail7
The Petit Serail was bulit in 1883-1884 as an Ottoman administrative building and remained a governmental building during the French Mandate. The building was demolished in 1946 with a plan to open up the public square to the sea. However, the Rivoli Cinema was constructed across the street instead, which blocked the view of the sea once more. The theatre was in turn destroyed in the early 1990s, and excavations in the area uncovered the arched foundations of the court of the Petit Serail. These foundations were preserved and can be seen at the northernmost end of Martyrs’ Square.
While these foundations are the main visible structures, it is worth noting that this area contained dense archaeological layers that spanned from the Persian-Achaemenid to the late Byzantine period, which produced important features that have greatly added to our knowledge of the ancient city.
The video below includes shots of the Petit Serail and the old streets of downtown Beirut in the 1920s.
Beirut Heritage Trail
As you walk in downtown Beirut, you will notice round metal plaques on the pavements that depict a dolphin entwined around a trident. By following this sign, you will be led to the different heritage points in the central district. This symbol is also particular to Beirut and its significance will be discussed in a separate post soon.
- Tell Beirut:
Badre, L. 1997. BEY 003 Preliminary Report: Excavations of the American University of Beirut Museum 1993-1996. Bulletin d’Archéologie et d’Architecture Libanaises vol. 2: 6-94.
Sader, H. 1997. “The Localisation and Setting of Ancient Beirut”, in Finkbeiner, U. & H. Sader (eds.) BEY 020 Preliminary Report of the Excavations 1995. Bulletin d’Archéologie et d’Architecture Libanaises vol. 2: 114-166.
2. Hellenistic Defensive Tower:
Karam, N. 1997. BEY 013 Rapport Préliminaire. Bulletin d’Archéologie et d’Architecture Libanaises vol. 2: 95-113.
3. Garden of Forgiveness:
Saghieh, M. 1996. BEY 001 & 004 Preliminary Report. Bulletin d’Archéologie et d’Architecture Libanaises vol. 1: 23-59.
4. Cardo Maximus
Saghieh-Beydoun, M., Allam, M., Ala’Eddine, A., & S. Abulhosn. 1998/1999. BEY 004: The Monumental Street “Cardo Maximus” and the Replanning of Roman Berytus. Bulletin d’Archéologie et d’Architecture Libanaises vol. 3 :95-126.
5. The Medieval Structures
Jidejian, N. 1997. Beirut through the Ages. Beirut: Librairie Orientale.
Kassir, S. 2010. Beirut. University of California Press, Ltd.
Sader, H. 1997. “The Localisation and setting of ancient Beirut”, in Finkbeiner, U & H. Sader (eds.) BEY 020 Preliminary Report of the Excavations 1995. Bulletin d’Archéologie et d’Architecture Libanaises vol. 2: 114-166.
6. Mamluk Zawiya
Kassir, S. 2010. Beirut. University of California Press, Ltd.
Sobhi, M. 2001. L’Imam al-Ouzaï. L’Orient-Le Jour. [https://www.lorientlejour.com/article/330978/L%2527imam_al-Ouzai.html]
Lebanese Directorate General of Antiquities – Ministry of Culture.
7. The Petit Serail
Aubert, C. 1996. BEY 002: Rapport Préliminaire. Bulletin d’Archéologie et d’Architecture Libanaises vol. 1: 60-84.
*All images, unless stated otherwise, are copyrighted material of the author.