BEIRUT: Activists have organized a march in protest against the Culture Ministry’s agreement to allow the remains of Beirut’s Roman Hippodrome to be incorporated into a new building development. However, a representative from the ministry said there was no way the decision will be reversed.
Arranged by the Association for the Protection of Lebanese Heritage, the peaceful march will kick off Saturday at Mina al-Hosn, behind Hotel Monroe, the site of remains of an Ottoman port, also set for reconstruction.
Al-Akhbar newspaper reported last week that Culture Minister Gaby Layyoun reversed a previous ministerial decision to designate the Roman Hippodrome – the remains of which lie in Downtown Beirut, near to the synagogue – as a protected heritage site.
Former Culture Minister Tammam Salam this week urged the Cabinet to reject the about-face, and slammed Layyoun’s decision as “an unacceptable crime against the Lebanese to generate private gains.”
At a news conference Tuesday, Layyoun defended his decision on the property. His adviser, Michel De Chadarevian, told The Daily Star that the only way for the remains to be preserved was for them to be incorporated into a new structure.
“In order to preserve the antiquities in the Hippodrome we have to act exactly as we are doing,” he said. “This is not Baalbek: it is small stones. There will be erosion by the elements.” The decision reached by the Culture Ministry last week stipulates that none of the current remains be moved, he added.
The owner of the land “can build, but on condition that everything will be kept in place.” The ground and first floor will be turned into a museum, according to De Chadarevian, with open air sidewalks allowing visitors to walk around the ancient site.
But for Pascale Ingea, president of the APLH, “it’s not a question of making a museum or not. Why was this decision reversed? That is the main question here.” The site should be kept completely open air, she said, and retained as a touristic site.
“The Hippodrome was classified as a heritage site 10 years ago. So why has this decision come after all these years, when the three previous ministers agreed to protect the site?”
De Chadarevian said that the opposition to the reconstruction was political, as the site falls directly next to Saad Hariri’s residence. However, Ingea stressed that Saturday’s march had been completely apolitical. “It’s not a political march. We are a non-governmental organization and our mission is to protect traditional buildings,” she said.
The NGO’s Facebook event for the march adds, “History, Culture and Identity over Politics: Thank you for NOT bringing along any visual or slogan related to any political, religious or commercial affiliation ... Politics have no place in our meeting. This is a gathering of Lebanese, paying tribute to their rich ancestry.”
De Chadarevian acknowledged that Layyoun and his Free Patriotic Movement have been solidly anti-Solidere. “If we could destroy the Solidere region to bring back archaeological things, we would do it,” he said, “[but] we will not change our mind. We believe in private property.”