BEIRUT: An ancient Phoenician port in Beirut dating back to at least 500 B.C. was destroyed Tuesday after the culture minister gave a construction firm the green light to proceed with its project to build three skyscrapers on the site.
Civil society activists and the Venus construction firm have been in a standoff for more than a year over the firm’s $500 million development project. The controversy reached a decisive turning point this week when several bulldozers demolished one of the oldest ports in the country.
The Association for the Protection of the Lebanese Heritage has called for a demonstration in front of the Culture Ministry at noon Thursday to protest the demolition.
While officials at Venus welcomed Wednesday Culture Minister Gaby Layyoun’s decision, civil society activists told The Daily Star they would not stop until the minister and the firm stand trial for the destruction of the archaeological treasure.
Archaeologists and experts of maritime history tasked by the firm say the site’s distance from the Mediterranean shore and the nature of the findings indicate the site could have functioned neither as a port nor as ancient structures where ships were stored.
But the firm’s project had been on hold since April 2011, when then-Culture Minister Salim Wardy issued ministerial decree number 25 and designated some 1,200 square meters of the land owned by Venus as an archaeological site that should not be tampered with in any way, and is considered public property according a 1933 law.
The land, plot 1398, in Mina al-Hosn behind Hotel Monroe, is 7,500 square meters.
The decree was made after a team from the Directorate General of Antiquities discovered two ancient dry docks that were used for shipbuilding and their maintenance.
Archaeologists also discovered two large sandstones from an enormous structure that dated between the first and third centuries A.D.
Mina al-Hosn, the area where the discoveries were made, is Arabic for “Port of the Fort.”
But Wardy’s decree was revoked by Layyoun Tuesday. The decree signed by Layyoun denied that any of the findings of the DGA were of historical importance. “There is no evidence related to ships or any type of works related to maritime activity at the site,” Layyoun says in the decree.
“The entire case involves no proof that points to the presence of a Roman or a Phoenician port and the trenches within the rocks could not have been used as dry docks for ships or their maintenance,” he adds.
Welcoming Layyoun’s decision, Mohammad Kassem, managing director for Venus, told The Daily Star that his company started its work back up Tuesday after it received permission from the ministry.
“Former Minister Wardy never informed our firm about the ministerial decree and his team never visited the site itself,” Kassem said.
The managing director blames Wardy for the delay in construction. “He just made a decision ... but they did not provide any solid evidence that this port is a Phoenician one,” he said.
“We have gained the right to continue with construction because we have documents and evidence that they [the activists] do not have,” Kassem added.
He said that the land Venus owned was 8 meters above sea level, 230 meters from the shore and there were other newly constructed buildings between the property and the coast.
“How come they couldn’t find anything under those buildings before they built them?” Kassem asked, in reference to Beirut Tower and the Bay Tower buildings.
In response to Kassem, Wardy asked why the firm had halted construction for over a year if it was not informed about his ministry’s decision in 2011, adding that Layyoun and the firm “have committed a crime by destroying the port.”
“If we had not informed them of the decree, it means they had the right to continue work ... then why did they stop?” asked Wardy.
“My decision was based on a scientific report prepared by a group of archaeologists and marine experts ... they concluded the presence of dry docks dating back more than 2,500 years,” Wardy told The Daily Star.
In a letter addressed to Venus, Wardy had called on the firm to make rearrangements for their project to ensure the preservation of the Phoenician port.
“Block A and C did not conflict with the port, but I asked them to relocate Block B because it conflicts with the port,” Wardy added.