Discover Beirut – Part II: Hidden Gems

Archaeology and urban development – a sensitive, and at many times, a contentious topic. Many debates have been had in modern cities across the world on what to preserve and what to remove to make way for new infrastructure. These sorts of discussions are rendered even more challenging in cities like Beirut that have been inhabited over prolonged periods of time and where more often than not, one is bound to hit an archaeological layer almost anywhere one breaks ground.

When that happens, archaeological authorities are faced with the important task of assessing and deciding what is essential to keep and what archaeology can be removed. The latter being said, it is important to remember that archaeological excavations today involve a rigorous recording process (through detailed descriptions, measurements, maps, plans, drawings, photographs, surface scans, etc.) and that all retrieved structures, materials and artefacts are stored in dedicated spaces. This ensures that the archaeology is “preserved”, albeit differently, and can be further researched in the post-excavation phase despite the remains being removed from their original find-spots.

Now, in situations where the archaeology is to be kept in its original location, authorities and developers are faced with the question of how to preserve it and how to present it to the general public. In some cases, all construction is permanently stopped to preserve and exhibit the archaeology as is (see Part I of this series). Other cases involve modifications in construction plans and building layouts to accommodate the archaeology kept in situ, while others still involve the dismantling and subsequent reintegration of the archaeology in the same or approximate location following the completion of the new construction.

This post will explore the latter two scenarios in the context of Beirut. It aims to showcase examples where compromises were found between the preservation of local archaeology and the (re)building of the city. While opinions may vary on the manner in which history has been preserved and presented, these are examples of how elements of the past can be preserved in a city continuously pushed towards (over)development. Our tour of the integrated archaeology of Beirut will start in its central district and end in Achrafieh. The map at the bottom of the page indicates the exact locations of the different sites.

1. Beirut Souks

The integrated archaeology in Beirut Souks spans multiple periods in antiquity, each of which is described in the subsections that follow:  

The Late Iron Age Quarter

Excavations in the northeastern area of the Souks uncovered a very well-preserved Late Iron Age quarter (550-333BC) consisting of 18 buildings and 5 streets. This sector of the city was built on the western side of the ancient harbour, on a rocky hill that extended over the quay at a height of 10.5m.

The buildings and streets were arranged in an orthogonal manner and the overall plan of the quarter was carefully adapted to the rough terrain. The unevenness of the rocky and sloping hill was addressed through the creation of three artificial terraces upon which the features were built. Additionally, sections of the streets that descended to the quay were replaced with steps dug into the bedrock to counter the steepness of the slope and facilitate movement. Some of these paths were cobbled while others were not, and their width varied according to their importance with the main axis leading to the harbour being the widest at 2.5m. A sophisticated sewer system was also established to drain off waste and rainwater from the buildings and streets, and specific architectural techniques were employed that enabled the walls to withstand frequent earthquakes.

While this new quarter was mainly residential, its proximity to the harbour gave rise to commercial and industrial activities as well. Four categories of buildings were identified that included (1) houses; (2) warehouses; (3) houses that also served as warehouses; and (4) houses that also served as artisanal workshops. Shops likely existed in different streets in the quarter, along the main street leading to the harbour, and on the quay itself.

A temple was also discovered that was most likely dedicated to the goddess Astarte/Ashtart. A large number of female figurines with outstretched arms and a betyl (sacred stone) were discovered in the central courtyard of the temple, both of which are elements associated with the goddess’s cult. Stone basins were also present that were possibly used for cultic activities.

Beirut during this period was under the dominion of Sidon. It enjoyed a vibrant economy through trade and artisanal activity, and maintained an active trading and fishing port. Part of this unique and multifunctional quarter can be viewed along Fakhry Bey Street.

Byzantine Mosaic

Other areas in the Souks revealed similar residential quarters, but dating to the later Hellenistic period and through to the Byzantine era.

The Hellenistic residences were modest townhouses with few high-status rooms and features. The early Roman period brought about a phase of reconstruction, during which new building techniques were implemented that improved the standard of the built structures.

Similarly, further enhancements were made in the Byzantine period. Here, the upsurge in construction activity led to a considerable alteration of the pre-existing buildings. Rooms were enlarged, water pipes and drainage systems were installed, and a variety of decorative elements were added. A large mosaic-paved portico, with shops at the back, was also built alongside the road traversing the city that approximately followed the direction of the modern Weygand Street. A total of 14 shops were uncovered.

The Byzantine era was notable for the large number of mosaics found, one of which was reintegrated in Beirut Souks*.

Byzantine mosaic reintegrated into the Beirut Souks (image source:https://www.beirutsouks.com.lb/attractions)

Medieval Town Ditch

Further testament to this area’s successive and prolonged occupation is a portion of a large medieval ditch extending from south to north at the westernmost edge of the Souks, parallel to the Patriarch Howayek Street. This ditch was associated with a fortification wall defending the western boundary of the medieval city. Although traces of the wall itself did not survive in this location, monumental masonry uncovered near the L’Orient/Le Jour building a short distance away suggests the presence of a large tower in the circuit of the city’s fortification.   

Al-Aintabli Fountain

Beirut Souks attempted to recreate the look and ambiance of the traditional souks of the city. Passages within the mall carry the names of the streets and alleyways of the old marketplace. Another feature – a fountain – was incorporated in the area of Souk Ayyas to preserve the memory of a popular sweets booth that stood by an Ottoman fountain that previously existed there.

The Aintabli family started a sweets business in the 1930s and would set their wooden pushcart with glass panels every day by the fountain. All sorts of Arabic sweets were sold here, including mughalabiyeh, meghli and kashtaliyeh, and juices were kept cool in a big block of ice placed within the fountain. Today, Al-Aintabli runs an ice-cream, dessert, smoothie and juice bar in Beirut Souks by this new fountain.

2. Parliament (Nejmeh) Square: St. George Crypt Museum

At the end of the civil war, the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of St. George was badly damaged. Ahead of its restoration, permission was granted to excavate the basement of the church. Excavations uncovered remains from the Hellenistic to the modern periods, and these were preserved in situ.

Similar to what was found in Beirut Souks, part of a domestic dwelling from the Hellenistic era was discovered here as well. The Roman period yielded evidence of a bathhouse as well as a small section of the Cardo Maximus, a larger portion of which was uncovered in the Garden of Forgiveness. The subsequent periods leading up to modern times involved the transformation of the area into a religious site.

The first church was established in the Byzantine period (5th c. AD). Archaeologists hypothesise it being the Anastasis church, which according to ancient texts was situated near the Roman Law School of Beirut (the exact location of the law school is still debated). The church was destroyed in the 551 AD earthquake that rocked the city, and remained abandoned until the Crusader period when a new church was constructed possibly in the late 12th or early 13th century. This church was used over a long period of time and a number of burials were excavated that were associated with it. The tombs consisted of pit graves lined with sandstones and covered with large slabs.

The medieval church was enlarged in 1715, but was in turn damaged by an earthquake in 1759. It was subsequently rebuilt and renovated three times in 1764, 1772 and 1783. The seventh phase of renovations took place in 1910, followed by the post-war restoration in 2003, and most recently in 2020, following the Beirut port explosion.

The crypt museum was inaugurated in 2011. The entrance to the museum contains showcases that exhibit a selection of artefacts found during excavation and dating to the different historical periods mentioned above. Visitors are then guided by metal walkways through the archaeology that was preserved in situ, including mosaic and paved floors, medieval apses and pillars, frescoes, and tombs.

This museum preserves the memory of this small yet historically rich area and allows visitors to explore its evolution across time. Part of the museum can be seen through a glass platform within the floor of the church. Likewise, visitors to the museum can look up into the current cathedral through the same glass ceiling, simultaneously experiencing both the past and the present.

3. Saifi: Roman Baths

A number of Roman bathhouses have been uncovered in Beirut, with the Saifi bathhouse being the most recently discovered. Unlike the larger bath complex situated at the base of the Serail hill, this bathhouse was located outside the city walls. In addition to the hypocaust and the labrum, a large mosaic floor was also uncovered here that demonstrates the elaborate decorations within these Roman thermae.

Each feature and element discovered on site was carefully numbered, photographed and recorded during excavation, and detailed plans were drawn. All structures were then carefully dismantled and, following the construction of the apartment complex, reassembled to their original form and integrated within the ground floor and in the courtyard of the building. The site is accessible to the public on a daily basis during dedicated visiting hours.

4. Chez Paul: The Classical City Wall

If you’ve ever sat in the courtyard of the Chez Paul restaurant or passed it by from the Georges Haddad highway, you might have noticed some low-lying ancient masonry. This stonework delineates the eastern boundary of classical Beirut.

An eastern wall was first built during the Hellenistic period that extended from the area of the tell to this location, before closing off towards the west. This eastern limit was maintained during the Roman period, but the city expanded further south. The main entrance to Roman Berytus was situated at the current Rue Gouraud-Georges Haddad junction through a monumental city gate.

5. Sofil: The Second Oldest House in Beirut

While the structure contained in the glass showcase near Centre Sofil may seem like a comparatively simpler feature that was preserved, this discovery is actually extremely significant because what you’re observing here is the second oldest house (so far discovered) in Beirut.

This habitation structure dates to the Chalcolitihic period (4th millennium BC). The walls of the room were made of stone, and the roof would have been supported by wooden beams and a central wooden column. The detailed excavation enabled understanding the function of the different areas within the house, which included a zone containing an oven and another dedicated to working and producing flint tools.

What makes this site so important is the fact that prior to its excavation, relatively little was known of Beirut’s settlement during this period. While evidence for pre-historic activity was previously attested in the city through the survey work undertaken by the Jesuits of the Université Saint-Joseph, at the time of the site’s discovery in 2012 only a few other archaeological sites in Lebanon had produced evidence of domestic dwellings from this era. The Sofil discovery now ranks Beirut among the places with the earliest human settlements along the Lebanese coast and confirms that Beirut has been continuously inhabited through the millennia.

Since then, other sites in the city have added to our knowledge of its prehistory, including the discovery of an even older house in Bechara el Khoury. These discoveries continue to highlight the importance of Beirut for better understanding not only local history, but also more broadly, the patterns and dynamics of early human settlement in the Levant.

Although the prehistoric structure itself has been almost fully integrated and may be viewed by passers-by, information boards are yet to be added. Hopefully this short summary will serve as a helpful guide in the meantime.

In addition to the above, a number of other structures are in the process of being integrated within new infrastructure in the city and an updated post will be released as soon as those projects are completed.

This approach to preserving the past is quite different from what was presented in Part I and it is expected to give rise to conflicting opinions. This Wandering Native, for one, would like nothing more than to unearth the past and live among the ruins! But that’s not always feasible (or realistic), and a balance must be met between modern construction and the preservation of local heritage. The integration of archaeology within the fabric of a new city or a building is one of the approaches local authorities have adopted in recent years towards the latter end.

Regardless of whether or not this is the ideal course of action for Beirut, or whether certain integrations could have been undertaken in a more well-thought-out manner, one cannot deny that this approach is serving an important purpose: that of preserving the spatial memory of the city and enabling the public’s interaction with its tangible past.

What are your thoughts on the integrated archaeology? Share your opinions in the comments below!

Map

*Due to the ongoing renovations in Beirut Souks at the time of my visit, I was unable to personally observe the Byzantine mosaic. I’ve come across conflicting information on it being a replica or the original. This post will be updated accordingly following my next visit to the Souks.

Sources:

Badre, L. 2016. The Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Saint George in Beirut, Lebanon: The Archaeological Excavations and Crypt Museum. Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology & Heritage Studies, vol. 4(1): 72-97.

Elayi, J. 2010. An Unexpected Archaeological Treasure: The Phoenician Quarters in Beirut City Center. Near Eastern Archaeology, vol. 73(2/3): 156-168

El Haibé, G., Choueri, H., Beaino, F. & A. Seif. 2019. Le Faubourg oriental de Béryte à l’époque Romaine. Dossiers d’Archéologie March-April (392): 24–27.

Perring, D., Seeden, H., Sheehan, P. & T. Williams. 1996. BEY 006, 1994-1995 The Souks Area Interim Report of the AUB Project. Bulletin d’Archéologie et d’Architecture Libanaises, vol. 1: 176-206.

Sayegh, H. 1996. BEY 010 Les Souks, Secteur nord/est. Bulletin d’Archéologie et d’Architecture Libanaises, vol. 1: 235-269.

Thorpe, R., Beaino, F., Beyhum, A. & S. Kouly. 1998/1999. BEY 007, The Souks Area Preliminary Report of the AUB/ACRE Project. Bulletin d’Archéologie et d’Architecture Libanaises, vol. 3: 31-55.

Lebanese Directorate General of Antiquities and the urban archaeology teams, with special acknowledgements to Mr. Hadi Choueri.


One thought on “Discover Beirut – Part II: Hidden Gems

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s