JBEIL, Lebanon: The first floor of a two-story archaeological museum inside Jbeil’s Crusader castle has been closed since thieves broke in and snatched 46 items.
Containing historical artifacts excavated from the ancient city of Byblos, which dates back to the Neolithic and Roman periods, the museum is prone to burglaries. The walls, built by Crusaders in the 12th century, remain the sole security measure in place to protect the artifacts in the absence of further measures by the government.
Granted World Heritage status in 1984 and considered one of the most popular touristic sites in the country, the castle and the museum inside are not equipped with surveillance cameras or overnight security personnel.
After this week’s theft, sources with close links to the investigation launched by police said the unidentified thieves selectively stole at least 40 small- and medium-sized items.
But Culture Minister Gaby Layyoun, who condemned the robbery, told the The Daily Star that 46 items were stolen from the museum.
“Forty-six items were stolen, but none of them has any unique value,” said Layyoun. “The majority of the items are identical to those we have already stored in the depots of the Directorate of Antiquities. There is no need to worry.”
Museum sources said the missing items ranged from small granite statues to Roman-era pottery to ancient Egyptian flint jewelry, excavated from Jbeil’s sanctuaries.
Despite the minister’s claim that the stolen artifacts had no unique value, Layyoun said officials at the ministry had notified Interpol about the theft and an official investigation had been launched to arrest the perpetrators.
So far, no mention of any stolen items from the country was on Interpol’s website, which keeps a record of thefts of antique objects.
The issue of which jurisdiction museum surveillance lies under was unclear among officials.
The Culture Ministry claims the diplomatic security unit of the Interior Ministry is responsible for the museum, while Internal Security Forces say the responsibility lies with the Tourism Ministry. Others say the Municipality of Jbeil should ensure the museum’s safety.
Some half-a-dozen municipal staff members run the castle’s day-to-day affairs. Their tasks are limited mainly to issuing tickets for visitors at the gate and keeping the site clean.
The municipality’s staff and the Interior Ministry’s diplomatic security unit finish their shifts early in the evening, leaving the site unattended overnight.
“We asked the Interior Ministry for additional security [for the night shift] a long time ago, but we haven’t got a response yet,” said Layyoun when asked about museum security.
After passing official civil service exams, seven new security guards were appointed more than a year ago to keep a watch on Byblos Castle.
“They were part of 128 new personnel that still haven’t started work because of financial reasons,” Layyoun said.
As museum thefts are considered uncommon, Layyoun said that his ministry considered the site safe, until this week’s theft. “It is very worrying and dangerous that such theft has targeted Jbeil.”
While museum theft is uncommon in post-Civil War Lebanon, many of the artifacts displayed in the museum could be sold for thousands of dollars, according to antiquity experts.
“The buying and selling of artifacts has proved to be a very profitable business and there are many in Lebanon who even have an official trading license [to do so],” said an antiquities expert who asked not to be identified.
Layyoun said it was legal for traders to buy and sell artifacts found in the market, but insisted the stolen items had no market value in the country.
Echoing other officials at the Directorate-General of Antiquities, Layyoun believes that since the ministry has stored items identical to the ones stolen in safe depots, the missing objects are commercially worthless.
“Although these items have historic value, they cannot be sold in the market. Yes, many can buy and sell artifacts in Lebanon, but it is strictly illegal to export them outside the country,” he said.
Officials from the DGA, which is responsible for all Lebanese excavated artifacts, declined to disclose details or pictures of the items that have missing since Sunday.
“Of course the public should know about the items that were stolen in Jbeil, but the ministry requires a formal request to release pictures of the items to the public,” said Tania Zaven, a DGA official responsible for the Jbeil area.
When asked by The Daily Star if the DGA plans to try and stop the items from being sold, Zaven said: “All information necessary is now with Interpol.”
“We want our work to be scientific because some of the stolen items are 6,000 years old,” she said, adding that the items ranged from the Neolithic to the Roman period.
Due to the absence of security measures at the museum, it is unclear whether the artifacts were stolen overnight or in broad daylight.
Several eyewitnesses at the site told The Daily Star that a group of experts were visiting the castle the day before the artifacts were reported stolen and hinted they might be the culprits.
But officials at the DGA denied the items could have been stolen like this and said police had already collected fingerprints from the museum that they believe were left after an overnight break-in.
While arrests have yet to be made in the case, Ziad Hawwat, the mayor of Jbeil, urged police to follow up on the case. “Today the theft was a small one, tomorrow it could be big,” Hawwat told The Daily Star.
Echoing Layyoun, Hawwat said the missing items had no market worth but rather a symbolic value that should be preserved: “This is not a big case. The theft of these artifacts is a symbolic loss and we will do all we can to help secure the museum.”