TRIPOLI, Lebanon: A heritage campaign to preserve Tripoli’s antiquities says that recently discovered artifacts are being threatened by the construction of a new school, while the accused parties argue that the allegations are “exaggerated.” A crown made of stone and 11 granite columns, two of which are more than 3.5 meters in height, are among the newly excavated items. The artifacts date back to the Phoenician era.
The ruins were unearthed by bulldozers initially digging to set the foundations for the new International Antonine School of Our Lady of Salvation, on Farah Antonin Street, next to the historic St. George Church in the Mina neighborhood of Tripoli. The site has a total area of 350 square meters.
Campaign members have expressed outrage over the hasty decision made by the General Directorate of Antiquities to let the owners of the school remove the artifacts and resume construction, including casting the concrete foundations for the new building.
They have also slammed the decision of the municipality of Mina to grant the school a license to remove the columns, without commissioning a committee of experts and historians to examine the site first to determine the historical significance of the artifacts.
The campaign accuses the General Directorate of basing its decision solely on the opinion of the Department of Antiquities in north Lebanon, which commissioned an unspecialized employee of the Tripoli castle to move the columns using ropes and huge cranes. The campaign says this damaged the artifacts and the archaeological site.
In a recent statement, the campaign appealed to Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai and school principal Father Shokri Khouri to preserve the archaeological discovery. It also pressed the Culture Ministry to revoke the General Directorate’s decision and stop the ongoing construction at the site.
The statement also noted that during the 1980s, several construction workers had come across similar artifacts, which were now being exhibited in the playground of a school in Mar Elias.
The campaign also said that the discovered items were not being handled with care, as the columns and the stone crown were placed haphazardly in the inner courtyard of the construction site.
It also asked the school administration not to be hasty in constructing over the area, because the preservation of the heritage site could add value to the school by turning it into an important touristic site.
Khoury responded to the campaign’s accusations, saying the school did acquire a license before the digging process.
“The school administration didn’t initiate the digging process until after it acquired a license, because the region is rated 13 in Mina’s historic zone, so we were obliged to agree to daily monitoring by a representative from the General Directorate for Antiquities,” Khoury said.
He accused the campaign of “exaggerating the issue” because of its vendetta against the directorate.
“The columns found on the property were arranged in a chaotic manner, proving that they were brought here during the war and buried at the site,” he said.
“This was confirmed by a statement issued by the Culture Ministry.”
According to the statement from the Culture Ministry, digging at the site began two months ago, under the direct supervision of the ministry. No archaeological relics had been recovered, the statement said.
“The granite pillars date from the classical period and were brought to the area from an unidentified place during the war and placed at the entrance of the site. During the digging process, the relics were relocated and taken to the Antonine School, for protection,” the statement said.
The Culture Ministry is currently investigating to learn about where the antiquities originated from, the statement added.
The head of the Architectural Department at the municipality, Amer Hadded, agreed with Khoury’s assessment.
“During the digging process, the 11 columns were found buried in a chaotic way and they were pulled out, and this was officially documented,” he said.
“Such columns can be found in abundance in the old city of Mina which was the historic city of Tripoli.”
“The school administration acted in line with the regulations and we hope that those who pretend to be concerned for the antiquities will work to protect them in a more realistic and serious manner,” Haddad added, referring to the campaign.