What to do when you stumble onto a Roman 'city of the dead'? Call in the antiquities cops

BEIRUT: Over the past 10 years, reconstruction efforts in the city of Beirut have swung, pendulum-like, between the ultra-modern and the ancient. Every time a developer breaks new ground for a corporate-style, high-rise office building or towering luxury residential complex, there is an inevitable moment of tension - will construction proceed without incident or will archaeological remains be discovered down in the deeper layers of earth, stone, and soil? That tension gets weirder still when what's found are burial sites, funeral buildings and a score of perfectly preserved, but nonetheless ancient, skeletons.

The spate of recent real estate ventures in Beirut has triggered numerous archaeological excavations that have, in turn, given robust flesh to the city's 5,000-year linear history, revealing invaluable details about how life was lived in Beirut's many layers of civilizations - Canaanite, Phoenician, Roman, Byzantine and more. Of course, along the way, these finds have sparked heated debates - especially among archaeologists, urban planners and commercial developers with vastly discordant priorities - on how to deal with the city's cultural heritage, to preserve or extract the ruins, to celebrate archaeological artifacts in situ or to scurry them into a museum, a research facility, or worse, a warehouse.

Because so much bulldozing and building has taken place in and around the Beirut Central District (BCD), archaeologists working with Lebanon's Directorate General of Antiquities (DGA) have, for the most part, been concentrating their efforts on the downtown area, laid over the ancient center of what was once a Roman city. But a recent discovery of archaeological artifacts and structures in the neighborhood of Gemmayzeh may well shift that focus eastward.

On a small side-street parallel to Gouraud Street, across from Saifi Village and behind the new, so-called "feng shui" gas station, Karim Bassil, general manager of the contracting company La Constructa, is building a luxury apartment complex called Convivium 3. Bassil and his team began working on the site in August 2003, but in March of this year, they had to halt their work when they found remnants of a marble column, 1.2 meters in diameter.

La Constructa contacted the DGA, which sent in a team of archaeologists, along with a group headed by the University of Amsterdam's Hans Curvers, to spend nearly six weeks conducting research and excavations on the site.

"We were expecting to more or less define the extension of the Decumanus Maximus - the east-west road," says Assaad Seif, an archaeologist who was educated at the Lebanese University and the Sorbonne in Paris, and has been working with the DGA since 1996.

From previous excavations, archaeologists have determined the general outline of the old Roman city. "It's like a puzzle," says Seif. "We start with a white board and we begin to fill it up. Already we have an interesting picture of the urban setting. Now we are starting to fill in our knowledge of a culture."

Roman cities, suggests Seif, are usually built along two main axes, with walls delineating the city's outer limits. "The Decumanus Maximus is usually well built from the gate inward. But from the gate out, it becomes a normal, narrower road."

On the site in Gemmayzeh,  he says they "discovered part of this road, which was robbed in a later period." All that remained were a few large lime stones that indicated the orientation and limits of the road, along with the mechanisms of its drainage system.

"What's important about this discovery," explains Seif, "is that it gives us insight to the extension of the city to the east. Previous discoveries in that area were part of a Hellenistic wall at Chez Paul, which is now reconstructed in the garden (outside the popular bakery). This area is closer to the outer limit of the city."

But what is even more important is what archaeologists found on either side of the road. Previous excavations in Achrafieh and Gemmayzeh had suggested that these neighborhoods were once the site of a Roman necropolis, or city of the dead. This discovery confirms that thesis.

"To the southern end of the road we found remains of funerary buildings from the Roman period," says Seif. "We found pottery (and) some coins that will help us in our study. But the important discovery we made was part of a Hellenistic necropolis." Seif knew he would likely find remnants of the Roman city of the dead, marked by elaborate burial sites. But he didn't know the Hellenistic city of the dead would be there as well, below the Roman necropolis, characterized by simpler and sparer graves.

On the site in Gemmayzeh, DGA archaeologists found the remains of 20 skeletons, buried in sand with funerary deposits consisting of small ceramic perfume bottles.

"This was the ritual at the time," explains Seif. "On the analysis and interpretation level, this is what's interesting. ... The information (we have) comes from Pompeii, from texts. Archaeology helps us in Lebanon to discover the things not written, the traditions with local sub-traditions. Burial customs are not the same everywhere. There are small changes in the mainstream."

In addition to the skeletons, Seif believes that the marble column found on the site belongs to an important structure, perhaps a mausoleum, which has yet to be fully discovered. "Usually in Roman cities," he says, speaking about a pattern of ancient urban development he's witnessed in such Lebanese cities as Tyre, where "the cities of the dead are usually found off the eastern entrance of the city. A necropolis can remain so for thousands of years. When the city grows, it builds over it."

In the end, the DGA excavated all the archaeological remains. They are now being cleaned, stored and set aside for future research. The process set La Constructa back in its building schedule. But as Karim Bassil says: "It's an honor" to have such an important discovery made on one's construction site.

"I was concerned that we lost six weeks," he says. "But the DGA made everything smooth." Convivium 3 should be completed by December 2005, according to Bassil, and all the units have been pre-sold. Though he has never come across archeological remains before, Bassil says he believes it is inevitable the closer one gets to downtown Beirut.

All inconvenience aside, as Seif suggests, "this more or less reshapes our agenda for future research. We will be able to inspect more of this area as there is more building activity."





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