BEIRUT: Activists and a construction firm have been in a standoff for more than a year over a half-billion dollar development project and the fate of first Phoenician port discovered in Beirut, with cultural groups recently challenging new developments at the site.
Civil society activists fear that the construction firm would destroy an archeological treasure that is considered public property according to a 1933 Law. The construction firm Venus wants to go ahead with plans to erect three skyscrapers and a garden in its 7,500 square meter land.
That project has been halted by the city’s municipality and the Culture Ministry for more than a year now, but Culture Minister Gaby Layyoun has remained silent on the matter.
Dozens of activists demonstrated against the project at Mina al-Hosn last week and called on President Michel Sleiman to take urgent measures to protect the site.
When Venus first bought plot 1398 in Mina al-Hosn behind Hotel Monroe, a team from the General Directorate of Antiquities discovered an ancient Phoenician port dating back to at least 500 B.C.
Roman structures dating between the first and third centuries A.D. were also unearthed at the site, making up approximately 1,200 square meters of the land owned by the firm.
Among the findings were two large sandstones of a huge structure that archeologists said they believe were the foundations of a temple.
The name of the area Mina al-Hosn in Arabic suggests a “port of the fort.”
The Directorate General of Antiquities has also unearthed two canals at the site that archeologists believe are part of the ancient port. The precise date of the foundation of the port has yet to be determined.
Following the findings of the Directorate General of Antiquities in 2011, then Culture Minister Salim Wardy issued a ministerial decree that designates part of the land bought by Venus as an archeological site that should not be tampered with in any way.
Addressing the construction firm, Wardy said in a letter that Block B of Venus Towers conflicts with the area where the ancient port is located and called on the owners to make new arrangements for their project.
But Venus denies that remnants discovered at the site belong to an ancient port and has tasked its own archeologists with carrying out an investigation. Officials at Venus told the LBCI television channel over the weekend that the experts and archeologists they tasked in the investigation believe that there is no chance that the findings belong to a port because the land is far from the Mediterranean shore.
Venus has blocked access to the plot where the discovery of the port was made and is preventing anyone from entering and filming in the area.
Challenging the firm’s measures at the site, protesters climbed nearby trees and threw handmade paper boats reading “Hands off our Phoenician Port” over a wall built by Venus.
Civil society activist Raja Noujaim told The Daily Star that owners of project Venus Towers have completely stood against preserving the port even within their project.
“They want to get rid of the port.”
“They do not have the right to make secret arrangements for a land which has archeological treasures like this one, this is part of the Lebanese history,” said Noujaim. “But if they want to challenge us, we will take it to court.”