BEIRUT: Amid the towering building projects dotting the cityscape of Beirut, that ancient city where Poseidon was worshiped millennia ago, a battle rages between the guardians of the past and the developers for the future.
A number of the capital’s real estate developers, all anxious to get their projects up and running as soon as possible, are voicing their frustration over the delays brought on by protracted excavations by archaeologists at sites planned for development.
Tourism-related activities and real estate seem at odds at times in this country of both modern and ancient.
Real estate in Lebanon, and particularly in the capital, is one of the country’s most lucrative sectors. With the average square meter of land worth $3,500, Beirut often ranks among the world’s most expensive capitals.
And, with relics strewn across the country and potentially undiscovered ones only a few meters below the surface, Lebanon is also both a treasure trove for archaeologists and a leading tourist destination in the region.
Sporting three U.N. World Heritage Centers – Baalbek, Byblos, Sidon or Tyre – countless tourists flock to Lebanon annually hoping to get a glimpse at the myriad of civilizations that have left their imprints on this small country on the Mediterranean.
These two aspects of Lebanon have proven to be a boon for the economy in recent years.
However, a distinct problem arises when the work of salvaging ancient relics or preserving them happens to take place on lands planned for development: delays.
These delays, and particularly in the capital, can drag on from a few months to several year, say developers. They cite several developments of ritzy apartments, fancy offices, and mixed-use commercial buildings in the upscale area of the capital that are already behind schedule because basement excavations have yielded archaeological finds that, in this city, can easily be two or more millennia old.
Real estate developers are reluctant to go on the record with information on the value of the affected projects and the expected rates of financial returns that they had promised their investors. But they lament that archaeology-related project delays are costing them millions of dollars every year. They also claim that these real-estate-development delays have a negative impact on the Lebanese economy.
While not in total agreement with claims made by developers, some experts in the field of archaeology and preservation acknowledge that the work on the project sites is often progressing slower than it could. This sluggishness at times, they add, has to do with a shortage in the number of qualified professionals which the Culture Ministry’s Director General of Antiquities, the government agency responsible for the issue, can call upon.
PRESERVING THE PAST
In central Beirut, the conflicts of interest potentials between real estate development and reclamation of history is most pronounced. This is because central Beirut represents the rare case where a densely developed urban area built up on top of historic ground become available for new construction projects after the 1975-90 Civil War left many blocks of buildings in Downtown unsalvageable.
According to Lebanese law, it is mandatory for developers to notify the DGA before they embark on any construction work in Downtown Beirut.
The DGA then will have supervisory authority of the site throughout the excavation period, and if ancient ruins are found, it steps in to excavate, map and document the dig site and salvage any significant antiquities that may have been discovered.
When a construction project does unearth signs of ancient artifacts, the DGA appoints archaeologists to undertake the necessary excavations and the site developer is responsible for financing their work, according to Assaad Seif, coordinator of Archaeological Research and Excavations at the DGA.
Hans Curvers, a Dutch heritage consultant who has been working in Lebanon for over 16 years, told The Daily Star that the problem in such excavations lies in the intricate work conducted by the few qualified archaeologists operating at the DGA.
“Archaeologists have always been a pain in the neck for developers,” Curvers said. He added that developers were abiding by the law and acknowledged that archaeological excavations were affecting them.
HIGH HISTORICAL VALUE
There are currently over 10 sites under construction in the Beirut Central District; a development area the DGA considers as of high historical value since this expanse of land near the ancient port has been habituated for millennia.
The DGA says its work is crucial to piece together a mosaic picture of Lebanon’s rich history and emphasizes that previous archaeological excavations in Downtown have yielded thousands of artifacts dating back to the “Bronze Age, Roman period, and Byzantine Empire.”
When an artifact is found, the directorate has four possible options. The first is to transfer their finds to a dedicated location such as the National Museum; the second is to reincorporate the finds within the building and maintaining public access to it; the third is to integrate the find into the design of the building, and the final option is that of acquisition by the DGA depending on the value of the discovery. The latter case usually means a total halt to any further real estate development on the historical site.
At one prominent real estate development company’s projects in Downtown, archaeologists discovered the remains of what they hypothesize to be an early Roman Christian church.
The project had to be stalled for almost a year while archaeologists carried out excavations.
The development firm says it loses approximately $150,000 a month due to extended periods of excavations.
“Excavations are a lengthy and frustrating process that costs us and investors a lot of money,” a senior representative at the development company said, fearing investors would pull out from investing in real estate projects in central Beirut because of the delays.
ARCHAEOLOGY VS. SKYSCRAPERS
The shortage of qualified archaeologist in Lebanon dates back to the early 1990s when the government imposed a recruitment freeze on archaeologists, deciding to hire contractors instead, leaving 12 archaeologists, including Seif, overworked on projects nationwide.
Developers also allege archaeologists within the DGA carry out their work at a slow pace to secure a continued flow of income. Seif denied this, saying: “It’s unnecessary for archaeologists to do that since they already have plenty of projects to work on.”
Seif says the real reason behind the long duration of excavations is the sensitive nature of the archaeologists’ work, especially in terms of deciding on the value of discovered antiquities.
Whereas price calculations per square meter of built-up area in Downtown can be done straightforwardly and allow for substantial profit margins, determining the historic value of antiquities is usually a tedious task that is also often subject to disputes within the academic community.
“Archaeologists have a monopoly over whether something is valuable or not and it is very difficult to decide on such value,” Curvers said.
The question is how much long-term cultural and also monetary value a city can derive from excavating and documenting testimonies of its heritage and exhibiting some spectacular antique treasures.
Seif believes that the main problem between archaeologists and developer lies in Lebanon’s flawed value system which favors real estate development at the expense of Lebanon’s history.
“Why do we have to put development ahead of history and heritage?” Seif asked. “Heritage is what defines us, not development. When people come to visit Lebanon; they want to see our heritage presented in the archeology, not our skyscrapers.”
Some developers have joined the flock of appreciators of history and, with over years of experience working with DGA archaeologists on their sites, have come to terms with the impediments that are part of the privilege of building in Downtown Beirut.
“At first we didn’t understand the complexity of archaeologists’ work, but after many experiences with the DGA, we have adjusted our work to allow sufficient time for archaeologists,” Atallah Hayek, engineer at Hayek Group engineers and real estate developers, told The Daily Star.
An archaeologist working for over a year on a construction project in Gemmayzeh, just outside Downtown, said that archaeologists had been able to convince developers of the profitability of archeological integration.
Antiquities were discovered at the Gemmayzeh site. Some were removed and could in future be “showcased at the National Museum,” while the rest could be integrated.
At the Downtown construction site, 50 percent of the remains have been removed. The rest is planned to be integrated with the design of the building, costing the company an additional $200,000. Yet engineers like Hayek say they would take on such costs in order to help preserve history since archeology is of great importance, “regardless of the expenses.”
“We all need to understand that archaeological excavations are necessary,” a contractor at the DGA said.
Archaeologists suggest that developers should hire their own archaeological consultants to oversee the work of the DGA archaeologists and keep them on a fast-paced track.
“Such a move forces archaeologist to stick to a certain timeline and developers would be more comfortable,” Curvers said.
Seif’s proposal for reducing friction between the DGA and developers is to recruit fresh graduates and use the man-power Lebanon already has. This would mean removing the recruitment freeze at the ministries.
Caretaker Culture Minister Salim Warde has previously spoken about the lack of archaeologists within the DGA. However, amendments to the freeze can only be made through Parliament, a source at the Culture Ministry said.
“The question is whether the new minister will propose this amendment after the formation of the new government,” the source added.