BEIRUT: If archaeologist Ibrahim Noureddine is right, sunbathers at Byblos' beaches may one day find themselves next to a Phoenician port.
The underwater archaeologist is currently working on his doctorate about ancient ports, trying to figure out whether people in the Bronze Age built their harbors or used the natural foundation. It is not an easy task, as Noureddine does not even know for sure yet where to dig for the old harbors.
He presented his findings in a lecture on Wednesday at the French Cultural Center (FCC), which was part of a cycle of archaeological lectures presenting new research in Lebanon.
The current Byblos port could never have harbored Phoenician ships, Noureddine said. "It is too small."
He is almost certain of this because ancient Egyptian rulers kept track of what they bought, such as cedar wood from Lebanon. The most famous of such records is the Palermo Stone, which lists events during the first five dynasties (2925-2325 BC). On it, the Egyptians noted that Pharao Snefru ordered 40 ships filled with cedar wood from Byblos, each ship being 100 cubits, or about 50 meters long.
"How could you have fit them into this tiny fishing harbor?" Noureddine asked. The current harbor is only 2.8 meters deep and couldn't have been deeper 4,500 years ago, because the ground is solid stone.
Another reference to the ancient port, Noureddine said, is the diary of Wenamoun, from the 12th century BC. The Egyptian envoy was robbed on his way to Byblos, where he was supposed to pick up Cedar logs. Without anything to pay, he had to wait 29 days in front of the port until the prince of Byblos, Seker Baal, agreed to meet him.
After he was finally received at the royal residence, he described that from the palace he was overlooking the sea. "It is logical that the prince would have wanted to overlook the harbor to have control over his subjects," Noureddine said.
Archaeologists have never found this royal residential area, which makes it probable that it was located south of the city. "The area overlooking the current port was excavated," Noureddine said. "The only area not excavated is south of the city."
Thus, he believes the harbor must have been where today's Paradise Beach is located. The sand beach could have formed over thousands of years from sediments created by the Fidar River, which flows into the sea north of the beaches, creating a 490-meter deep-sea valley. While traces of a harbor should be found under the sand, Noureddine suspects a graveyard of Phoenician ships in the sea valley. "But we would need submarines to find out," he said.
Noureddine, who is one of the few underwater archaeologists in Lebanon, has been diving in front of the beaches where he found several ancient anchors - flat stones with three holes in them - again supporting his theory.
"All this is based on the theory of Honor Frost," he said, referring to the British underwater archaeologist who, now in her 80s, still occasionally comes to Lebanon.
Yet, some people in the audience at the CCF challenged his conclusions. "Why not north of the port?" someone asked, referring to the area below the parking lot on the way to the fishing port. "That's a cliff," Noureddine said. "How could people have gotten from up there down to their ships?"
In the area he has located, he would like to dig boreholes in the sand taking samples, which would tell him more exactly where the harbor was located. If he could find traces, the Department of Antiquities would surely support him in digging out the harbor, he said.
As for the beaches, he said there would be no problem. "If there is an ancient harbor (next to the beaches, the owners) would make more money," he said, dismissing the view that archaeology is bad for business.
The lecture series on "New Lebanese Research in Archaeology" runs until June 30, each Wednesday at 6pm at the French Cultural Center (mostly in French, some in English).