To my Beirut

Á mon Beyrouth…

Beirut Heritage murdered by the silent Ministry of Culture – And a follow-up to the Minister’s ridiculous defense


What do you say when the Ministry of Culture in your country allows rich investors (local and foreign) to destroy a national heritage?

A 2500 year old Phonecian Port in Beirut that was said to also contain the foundations of a temple was destroyed by Venus Towers a few days ago.

Although the owners of Venus Towers say that there is no archaelogical finds there, they did not allow anyone to trespass or film the plot.

This is the article posted by the “Daily Star

"BEIRUT: Activists and a construction firm have been in a standoff for more  than a year over a half-billion dollar development project and the fate of first  Phoenician port discovered in Beirut, with cultural groups recently challenging  new developments at the site.
Civil society activists fear that the construction firm would destroy an  archeological treasure that is considered public property according to a 1933  Law. The construction firm Venus wants to go ahead with plans to erect three  skyscrapers and a garden in its 7,500 square meter land.
That project has been halted by the city’s municipality and the Culture  Ministry for more than a year now, but Culture Minister Gaby Layyoun has  remained silent on the matter.
Dozens of activists demonstrated against the project at Mina al-Hosn last  week and called on President Michel Sleiman to take urgent measures to protect  the site.
When Venus first bought plot 1398 in Mina al-Hosn behind Hotel Monroe, a  team from the General Directorate of Antiquities discovered an ancient  Phoenician port dating back to at least 500 B.C.
Roman structures dating between the first and third centuries A.D. were also  unearthed at the site, making up approximately 1,200 square meters of the land  owned by the firm.
Among the findings were two large sandstones of a huge structure that  archeologists said they believe were the foundations of a temple.
The name of the area Mina al-Hosn in Arabic suggests a “port of the  fort.”
The Directorate General of Antiquities has also unearthed two canals at the  site that archeologists believe are part of the ancient port. The precise date  of the foundation of the port has yet to be determined.
Following the findings of the Directorate General of Antiquities in 2011,  then Culture Minister Salim Wardy issued a ministerial decree that designates  part of the land bought by Venus as an archeological site that should not be  tampered with in any way.
Addressing the construction firm, Wardy said in a letter that Block B of  Venus Towers conflicts with the area where the ancient port is located and  called on the owners to make new arrangements for their project.
But Venus denies that remnants discovered at the site belong to an ancient  port and has tasked its own archeologists with carrying out an investigation.  Officials at Venus told the LBCI television channel over the weekend that the  experts and archeologists they tasked in the investigation believe that there is  no chance that the findings belong to a port because the land is far from the  Mediterranean shore.
Venus has blocked access to the plot where the discovery of the port was  made and is preventing anyone from entering and filming in the area.
Challenging the firm’s measures at the site, protesters climbed nearby trees  and threw handmade paper boats reading “Hands off our Phoenician Port” over a  wall built by Venus.
Civil society activist Raja Noujaim told The Daily Star that owners of  project Venus Towers have completely stood against preserving the port even  within their project.
“They want to get rid of the port.”
“They do not have the right to make secret arrangements for a land which has  archeological treasures like this one, this is part of the Lebanese history,” said Noujaim. “But if they want to challenge us, we will take it to court.”

This is an example of the continuation of the murder of our heritage, our nature and our land, by and for pompous, greedy lawbreakers (many of which supposedly “lawmakers”) who seem to think that Beirut has the capacity for ostentatious projects like Dubai. Building disgusting buildings that are no reflection of who we are or what our history is and destroying whatever was left after the war, and whatever was left after the scramble for these projects after all these years.

Without wondering what bought the silence of the Minister of Culture, certain people seem to be ignorant of the fact that everything will suffer when you continue to kill the soul of the city and when you continue to pretend that old architectural buildings need to be torn down to make way for flashy projects, an opportunity that was snatched by real estate investors after the collapse of the building in Ashrafieh last year, making money off the tragedy. What will be left of Lebanon for its tourists when you run down the trees, expand the thousands of illegal quarries in the mountains, pollute the sea and food and create and wipe out the existence of our culture.

To be honest, in whatever war that comes to Lebanon in the future, near or far off. I will not be one to mourn the demise of your hideous constructions.

The Association for the Protection of Lebanese Heritage are now preparing to draft a case against Minister of Culture Gaby Layoun, who till now is silent on the matter, while the protesters are calling for his resignation. Though it is doubtful that it will happen, legally he must be held accountable for his crime against his people, for denying them the right to what is rightfully theirs, and abuse of his post, which he has dishonored so flagrantly.

This article was quoted by The Examiner (pasted below)

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A follow up

In his defense against his critics, which include former Ministers of Culture Tamam Salam, Tarek Mitri, and Salim Warde the only answer he came up was this:

“Since [I] took charge of the Culture Ministry, a committee of political  dignitaries was formed to incite [against the ministry], and the three [former]  ministers are part of it,” Layoun said, adding that “this committee has misled  public opinion, especially the civil society organizations which are concerned  with heritage issues.”

It’s too early to start saying “huh?”

“Was [Warde’s decision] to include the site in the heritage list [taken]  innocently or as a preparation for a well-planned hostile campaign?”

So basically instead of getting to the actual point of what concerns his country’s heritage, he decided to turn it into a political motif (the usual ridiculous 14 and 8, as if we care about them anymore), because he believes that he is being set-up against a “hostile campaign”. (Somebody pass me a tissue please!)

He then added that he would like to “file a lawsuit against anyone who releases a statement against the Ministry of Culture or himself.”

Bruised ego = Denying people’s right to express themselves. Interesting. Hope he reads my blog.

“He then asked everyone to not pay attention to misleading rumors” 

Misleading rumors? He agreed to also destroy the Hipporome and is asking us not to pay attention to misleading rumors. Let’s not pay attention to what he is doing at all. I am sure he would be rather pleased with such an arrangement.

It was also said that “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”

Tasked by the firm = Paid off by the firm. It is the state that tasks people to decide, not the “firm”. But I guess in this case, “the firm” bought the state. Suddenly Gaby Layoun knows more than the UN and university archaelogy professors and archaeolgists themselves that he decided it was of no importance to maintain the site, even though the case had been going on for a year.

There are times when it is good to attempt to defend yourself. Unfortunately, more often than not, it is best that you had said nothing at all.

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Beirut: Ancient Phoenician port sacrificed for skyscrapers by ‘Culture Minister’

Examiner piece by Rhonda Parker

What may have been an ancient Phoenician port in Beirut dating back to at least 500 B.C. has been destroyed after a construction firm says they received go-ahead from the Lebanon’s Culture Minister to proceed with its project to build three skyscrapers on the site.

While officials at the Venus construction firm welcomed Culture Minister Gaby Layyoun’s decision and wasted no time this week letting lose their bulldozers on the site (see photos), civil society activists are saying to press they “will not stop until the minister and the firm stand trial for the destruction of the archaeological treasure.”

View slideshow:Beirut citizens to Culture Minister and developers: Stop destroying our heritage

Now almost completely eradicated are not only what UNESCO, historic preservation activists and archaeologists say is an ancient port – with remnants of two ancient port canals also uncovered – but according to archaeologists, the site also featured Roman structures dating between the first and third centuries A.D., as well as two large sandstones that were part of a huge structure archeologists believed to be the foundations of a temple.

The site of what archaeologists say a 2,500 yr. old Phoenician port and shipyard was bulldozed today by Layyoun''s permission
The site of what archaeologists say a 2,500 yr. old Phoenician port and shipyard was bulldozed today by Layyoun”s permission
      Photo credit:
       Photo courtesy of the Facebook group Stop Destroying Your Heritage, the citizen’s group APLH at  http://www.protect-lebaneseheritage.com

The Venus construction firm has been in a standoff for more than a year over the firm’s $500 million development project – with the controversy reaching a decisive point this week when activists and journalists showing up for a protest found the site leveled and bulldozers continuing their destruction.

The Lebanese newspaper, The Daily Star, is reporting today that the construction company is now preventing press from photographing at the site.

Meanwhile, an organization called the “Association for the Protection of the Lebanese Heritage” held a demonstration in front of the Culture Ministry at noon to protest the demolition.

Josef Haddad, one of the co-founders of APLH, told press the decision to go ahead with the demolition appeared hasty.

“We were taken by surprise and when we realized and arrived on the site, 90 percent was gone,” he said. “We have been told that there could be some restoration of the site. But we are now preparing a case on the basis that this was done illegally.”

In a letter sent in March 2012, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) confirmed the site as being an old Phoenician dry dock of historic and regional importance. UNESCO – stating the site’s pre-occupation and historic and cultural significance – the letter invited the Lebanese government to “take the necessary measures for the preservation of this exceptional site.”

View a UNESCO youtube video documentation of the site, pre-destruction

Said one blogger at Blogbaladi.com, “Of course our dear Lebanese Minister of Culture, Gaby Layoun (sic) knows better about Phoenician ports than the UNESCO, so he decided to give the green light for destroying it to replace it with modern residential buildings… If this guy has any decency, he should step aside right away for the crime he just committed.”

Posting on Twitter, Hala Chaoui, had this to say, “The horrible ignorance, one more hunky slab of cement is planned to replace a historic site in overbuilt Beirut.”

Identified only as “Ted”, another Londoner responded to an article posted on reddit about the ancient site’s destruction, “(It would) seem like an easy way to make the building pay for itself – turn the first floor into a museum of what was found.”

How awesome would that be? All these old cities and all these old buildings, each with their first floor dedicated to preserving and displaying these things.

The construction project had been on hold since April of last year when then-Culture Minister Salim Wardy issued a ministerial decree and designated the site – 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 decree was made after a team from the Directorate General of Antiquities discovered two ancient dry docks that he said were used for shipbuilding and their maintenance. Wardy said in a letter to the Venus firm that Block B of the proposed three towers, (designed for luxury condos and time-shares), conflicts with the area where the ancient port is located and called on the owners to make new arrangements for their project.

But Venus at that time denied that remnants discovered at the site belong to an ancient port and has tasked its own archeologists with carrying out an investigation.

Officials at Venus told the LBCI television channel over the weekend that the experts and archeologists they tasked in the investigation believe that “there is no chance that the findings belong to a port because the land is far from the Mediterranean shore.”

Venus has blocked access to the plot where the discovery of the port was made and is preventing anyone from entering and filming in the area, a Daily Star report said.

Outside the site today, protesters climbed nearby trees and threw handmade paper boats reading “Hands off our Phoenician Port” over the wall of the site.

Civil society activist Raja Noujaim also told Lebanese press that owners of project Venus Towers “have completely stood against preserving the port even within their project.”

Nujaim said, “They want to get rid of the port, (but) they do not have the right to make secret arrangements for a land which has archeological treasures like this one. This is part of the Lebanese history.”

Noujaim added, “If they want to challenge us, we will take it to court.”

Meanwhile, the decree by former Culture Minister Wardy was shot down by Layyoun on Tuesday, and in his own decree, Layyoun also 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, adding, “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.”

However, Layyoun says little in the decree to back up his position.

Mohammad Kassem, managing director for Venus, also told Lebanese press that his company started back to work on the site on Tuesday only after receiving permission from the ministry.

“Former Minister Wardy never informed our firm about the ministerial decree and his team never visited the site itself,” said Kassem, who 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.”

“We have gained the right to continue with construction because we have documents and evidence that they [the activists] do not have,” Kassem said, and in reference to the nearby Beirut Tower and the Bay Tower buildings, he added, “How come they couldn’t find anything under those buildings before they built them?”

In response to Kassem’s insistence that the firm didn’t know about the earlier decree, Wardy asked why the firm had halted construction for over a year if it was not informed about his ministry’s decision in 2011.

He also stated that Layyoun and the firm “have committed a crime by destroying the port.” Another significant Beirut archaeological site in peril is the Roman Hippodrome, which is situated in Wadi Abou Jmil, next to the newly renovated Jewish Synagogue in Downtown Beirut. This monument, dating back for thousands of years, now risks being destroyed, activists say.

The hippodrome is considered – along with the Roman Road and Baths – as one of the most important remaining relics of the Byzantine and Roman era in the Beirut area. It site spreads over a large area of 3,500 meters.

Requests for construction projects in the hippodrome’s location have been ongoing since the monument’s discovery, but were constantly refused by former ministers of culture – including Wardy. In fact, another former Culture Minister, Tamam Salam, had issued a decree banning any work on the hippodrome’s site, effectively protecting it by law – which Wardy also upheld, but now, current minister Layyoun has authorized construction on that site to commence.

Lebanese writer Natasha Choufani also entitled her blog today in To My Beirut, “Beirut Heritage murdered by the silent Ministry of Culture.”

Wrote Choufani, “This is an example of the continuation of the murder of our heritage, our nature and our land, for pompous, greedy lawbreakers…”

Choufani blasted what she called “greedy government officials and foreign investors” further for construction of what she called “ostentatious projects”, and buildings that she said are “no reflection of who we are or what our history is.”

“(They are) destroying whatever was left after the war, and whatever was left after the scramble for these projects after all these years,” Choufani concluded, adding, “What will be left of Lebanon for its tourists when you run down the trees, expand the thousands of illegal quarries in the mountains, pollute the sea and food and create and wipe out the existence of our culture?” she asked.

Bonus links:

Report on the port site from the “Hummus for Thought” blog, reported and translated by Joey Ayoub

More about the Phoenicians: ancient shipbuilders and Sea Trade

UNESCO Courier PDF download: The Great Ancient Trade Routes, includes much information on the Phoenicians, who were known as great merchants, shipbuilders and explorers

Beirut and Lebanon’s rich layers of history

Phoenician boatbuilding is not dead! See an accurate construction by a Tyre boatbuilder, and the ship’s maiden voyage

Stay informed: Join the Facebook campaign to save Beirut and Lebanon’s heritage sites

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One comment on “Beirut Heritage murdered by the silent Ministry of Culture – And a follow-up to the Minister’s ridiculous defense

  1. Pierre
    June 27, 2012

    I’ve read it about today in Al Akhbar too. And it’s just horrible!

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