BEIRUT: Culture Minister Gaby Layyoun violated state protocol when he gave permission over the telephone to a construction company to demolish an ancient Phoenician port in Beirut two days before the decree was published in the official Gazette, former Culture Minister Salim Wardy said Wednesday. In the most recent stage of the controversy over last week’s destruction of the site, Wardy said Layyoun had violated state protocol when he rushed to inform the construction firm Venus last month about his decision allowing construction at the site to proceed.
“No sane person would imagine that it is possible to give an order over a telephone to a company to demolish the site, and that the company would be ready with bulldozers to carry out the destruction without waiting for the decree to be published in the official Gazette,” Wardy said in a news conference at his home in Hazmieh.
Several months after the discovery of two ancient dry docks at Plot 1398 in Mina al-Hosn by a team from the Directorate General of Antiquities, then-Culture Minister Wardy issued decree 25 designating the land owned by Venus as an archaeological site.
The DGA team was made up of a number of local and foreign archaeologists and maritime experts who concluded that the dry docks were part of a port that was unique in Lebanon and the region.
But Layyoun adopted the reports of two Dutch archaeologists, who had been hired by the construction firm, casting doubt on the accuracy of the DGA team’s reports.
According to the reports by the firm’s archaeologists, the distance of the site from the Mediterranean shore and the size of the slipways indicate that the site had only been a quarry and not a port.
Wardy questioned Layyoun’s intentions in adopting the Dutch archaeologists’ conclusions.
“Since there were conflicting opinion between the ministry’s experts and the others, the minister simply adopted the two [Venus] archaeologists’ [reports] and got rid of the others [those of the DGA],” said Wardy.
The former culture minister also criticized Layyoun’s outright rejection of mediation offered by UNESCO and the International Council on Monuments and Sites.
A month before the ancient port in Beirut was demolished, ICOMOS sent a letter to Layyoun offering the ministry a group of international experts to examine the site.
On June 13, Layyoun responded to the letter and said that information conveyed to ICOMOS on the discovery of a Phoenician port in Beirut was politically manipulated.
“With regard to your concern for the safeguarding of our heritage, I would like to note that the information that you received from different sources all have hidden agendas or political interests,” Layyoun said in a letter to ICOMOS’ president Gustavo Araoz.
In the same letter, Layyoun also said that he trusted Lebanese archaeologists to protect the country’s heritage. “On the other hand, the Lebanese specialists who deal with different issues concerning archaeological sites and historical monuments are fully competent and we have full confidence in them.”
Commenting on the letter, Wardy asked why the minister based his decision on two foreign archaeologists instead of local ones.
“If the Lebanese experts are proficient then why did you take the claims of two foreign experts, Ralph Pederson and Hanz Curver?” Wardy asked.
During the news conference, Wardy also disclosed a letter written by Asaad Seif, the director of DGA and the coordinator of archaeological research and excavations in Lebanon.
In a letter to the Culture Ministry in April of last year, Seif endorsed the discovery of the dry docks at Plot 1398 and called for their preservation.
According to Seif, the uniqueness of the discovery of the dry docks in Mina al-Hosn is significant and would allow the study of Beirut during the Phoenician era, and specifically prior to 100 B.C.
“There is no doubt that the discoveries are important,” he said in the letter.
Seif also said that Lebanon should preserve the dry docks and its surrounding area and provide fair compensation to Venus.
“We need to preserve this site and its surrounding block, which would require the construction firm to carry out the appropriate modifications to its project,” he added.
The firm’s $500 million mega-project is set to build three skyscrapers and a garden. Construction was stopped after the Association for the Protection of Lebanese Heritage asked the judiciary to intervene and stop the construction that demolished the ancient port on June 26.