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Archaeological report: Razed ruins not Phoenician port
Protesters have described the Culture Ministry’s decision to demolish the Phoenician port as “terrorism.” (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)
Protesters have described the Culture Ministry’s decision to demolish the Phoenician port as “terrorism.” (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)
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BEIRUT: Beirut’s Minet al-Hosn construction site does not contain the remains of a Phoenician port as maintained by the Directorate General of Antiquities and the former Culture Minister, according to an archaeological report obtained by The Daily Star.

The Archaeological Assessment Report on the Venus Towers Site states: “While the site ... is intriguing, it does not fit the known parameters for a port, shipyard, or shipshed facility.”

The report, written by Dr. Ralph Pederson of Marburg University following an extensive investigation, maintains that there is nothing to connect the site to ships or shipbuilding.

“The trenches could not have functioned for sliding ships up and down, nor could they have functioned for ship storage or maintenance. There are no apparent features related to ships or things maritime within the site, nor do they fit current theoretical constructs and knowledge of ship facilities in the ancient world,” it says.

Pederson conducted his investigation at the behest of the Venus Towers Real Estate Development Company, which wants to begin construction on the site. According to Lebanese law, it is mandatory for developers to notify the Directorate General of Antiquities before they embark on any construction work in Downtown Beirut.

The Venus construction firm’s project was put on hold in April 2011, when then-Culture Minister Salim Wardy designated some 1,200 square meters of land owned by Venus as an archaeological site that should not be tampered with in any way.

Current Culture Minister Gaby Layyoun revoked Wardy’s decree Tuesday. An archaeologist with the Culture Ministry, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Layyoun based his view that the site is without historical importance on Pederson’s report.

Other archaeologists second the report’s findings. According to Lebanon-based heritage consultant and archaeologist Dr. Hans Curvers, “the size and location” of the site are at odds with other discoveries of shipsheds. Curvers told The Daily Star that, due to the Phoenician ships’ size, they would not have been constructed in the Minet al-Hosn site.

“Manufacture of ships inside the trenches is ... unlikely,” he said.

According to Curvers, “possibly we are dealing with a second century C.E. building project that was never completed. In a later period, another building was constructed at the site of which the fragment of a hot bath was excavated in 1996 near the Evangelical Church.”

Critics, however, are still adamant that the site is of historical relevance, and that Layyoun erred in giving Venus Towers the go ahead to build.

“The debate is not ... about whether it’s a port or not. It’s an archaeological site and it needs to be studied further,” said Josef Haddad, co-founder of the Association for the Protection of the Lebanese Heritage.

Haddad said that for this reason APLH intends to file a lawsuit against Minister Layyoun.

Haddad alleged that the Culture Ministry has started to avoid proper protocol in dealing with heritage sites after the legal decision to prevent the destruction of the Roman Hippodrome. This time, he claims, the ministry tried to pre-empt opposition.

He also leveled an even more explosive charge regarding the ministry’s position on the Minet al-Hosn site. “Maybe I’m not allowed to say that they were paid big money for that, but perhaps they were.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 29, 2012, on page 4.
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