Unesco secretary-general Federico Mayor announced yesterday an initial $100,000 contribution to the campaign to save the ruins of Tyre, a welcome international boost to a nationwide crusade to preserve ancient history while developing contemporary culture.
Mayor, in Beirut for the regional Unesco conference on higher education, spent yesterday in Tyre, touring ruins dating back to 3,000BC with a crowd of officials celebrating the launch of the campaign.
On hand were speaker Nabih Berri, culture and higher education minister Fawzi Hobeish, economy minister Yassin Jaber, and Randa Berri, chairperson of the National Association for the Protection of Heritage in South Lebanon (NAPHSL).
“Tyre has often been coveted and envied,” Mayor said. “Yet it has always managed to maintain its identity. Today, again, Tyre is in danger. As with all historical sites, it is threatened by the erosion of time; it is also threatened by a modernisation process that has little consideration for historical monuments.
“Destruction carried out in the name of construction road development, clandestine diggings and sometimes uncontrolled urbanism accelerates the decay of stones under the effect of pollution and threatens to eradicate the final witnesses of a rich past,” he said.
Mayor praised government efforts to preserve Tyre through a Paris-based non-governmental organisation, and the establishment of NAPHSL.
He said that of the $100,000 donation to begin initial preservation works, $75,000 comes from Unesco and $25,000 from the World Monuments Fund.
Mayor called on all countries and institutions and “particularly all those who maintain a bond with the heritage of humanity and wish to participate in the promotion of a culture of peace, to join us and make their contribution, whether in money, material or services, so this great task Lebanon is undertaking will be conducted well.
“By joining this effort, I am convinced each of us shall find the path to a more united world, which our society is in urgent need of on the brink of the third millennium.
“We must not forget that according to one Greek mythology’s most well-known legends, Tyre is behind the origins of Europe’s name,” Mayor said, referring to the mythical Phoenician princess Europa, who was carried off by Zeus.
Besides Mayor’s announcement of the Unesco donation, Berri disclosed his intention to contribute LL25m and Jaber LL15m to the effort.
Faysal Sayegh, governor of the south, said the occasion was special for several reasons. “The location is Tyre, city of ancient glory and a living witness to the history of Mediterranean civilisation. The time is reconstruction of Lebanon and its arising anew.
“It’s as if the resurrection of Tyre’s civilisations, sleeping under the earth, is the awakening of Lebanon so it can play its cultural role,” he said and called the event “Unesco’s recognition of the city as an international source of culture”.
The area’s ruins include two Roman sites, as well as “Maritime Tyre”, believed to cover the Phoenician city which flourished during the first millennium BC. Another smaller site discovered by accident in 1995, may reveal a fourth century church.
Randa Berri said that just offshore, even more glimpses into the area’s past await discovery.
“Local photographers have brought us amazing pictures of an astounding amount of accumulated treasures… as if someone had grasped the city a number of times and shaken it into the waters,” she said.
The head of the professional divers’ association, Mohammed Sareji, told The Daily Star that at a depth of 10m lie an “amazing” number of ancient columns.
An earthquake which struck the city in 551AD was the most likely explanation for their present location, he said adding that some of the ruins lying on the surface are covered by columns 8m high and 1.2m in diameter.
Hobeish stressed that only a national effort would ensure a successful campaign. “I address this call to the south and to the people of all Lebanon, entreating them to support the campaign in moral and material terms, so it can continue.”
Before the trip to Tyre, Hobeish and Mayor presided over a seminar on the Arab book at Unesco headquarters in Bir Hassan. Mayor commented that Unesco was “the only institution in the world whose first paragraph of its founding charter guarantees the transmission of thoughts through pictures and writing”.
The secretary-general described Beirut “a symbol of renaissance and resurrection, not just for the Arab world but for the entire world”.