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Culture : Bulldozers Unearth Treasures in Beirut : As the city rebuilds after war, archeologists scour sites. Phoenician wall is found beneath a movie house.

August 02, 1994|MARILYN RASCHKA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BEIRUT — There's a lot of history in, around and under the streets and buildings of modern Beirut, enough to get in the way of eager archeologists.

The most recent historical overlay is a definite pain. When peace finally came to the city in 1990, after 15 years of civil war, the first teams to start work were not academics but mine-disposal experts of the Lebanese army.

Once the military's work was done, the archeologists found they had to do battle with people more interested in building a new Beirut than in finding the old one.

The demolition of war-ravaged buildings downtown, as well as rebuilding, is the responsibility of the Lebanese Company for the Development and Reconstruction of Beirut Central District, known as Solidere, its French acronym. The company is also responsible for preservation of the area's archeological sites, including the ancient Phoenician port and the more recent Islamic city.

When Solidere's engineers announced that they would blow up the Rivoli movie house, the archeologists at the Phoenician site--just a firecracker's throw behind the condemned structure--began fingering their worry beads. On July 5, Solidere's engineers bored holes, laid more than 2,500 pounds of explosives and carefully aimed the blast so it pitched the theater forward, away from the Phoenician site.

As giant clouds of dust rolled off the pancaked building, the engineers scuttled alongside the groaning structure to the archeological dig. Grins showed under their yellow hard hats as they pronounced the site free of damage--other than a thick layer of modern dust settling on the 3,000-year-old walls of the Phoenician city.

The Phoenicians called their city Berytus. It was on the eastern Mediterranean coast at the foot of the Lebanon Mountains and became an important center of Mediterranean trade.

Through the centuries, the site was occupied by Romans, Arabs, Crusaders and Ottoman Turks, all adding to its archeological treasures, before Lebanon became independent in this century after French dominion. Until the past few years, there had been little archeological digging in Beirut because the city had been continuously occupied since Phoenician times.

So when bulldozers paired off with dump trucks in July to clear the Rivoli site, the archeologists buzzed with anticipation. They recalled rumors that ancient structures had been buried beneath the cement floor of the theater when it was erected in the late 1940s.

What was found, under the watchful eye of Leila Badr, an American University of Beirut archeologist, was a well-preserved Phoenician glacis (sloped wall) just 20 inches beneath the asphalt of a modern road.

Budgeting for a bulldozer had never crossed the mind of Helga Seeden, another AUB archeologist, when her team began excavating an Islamic site in downtown Beirut. Seeden had as much to learn about urban archeology--and its tools--as her students did when the dig began this summer.

Until the current digs, the history of Phoenician Beirut had to be pieced together from documents. The archeological sources remained largely untouched.

Important pre-Phoenician cut-rock tombs from Beirut's earliest days had been accidentally bulldozed in 1954 while workers dug foundations for a building. Fortunately, much of the funerary material was salvaged.

In this summer's digs, coffee breaks at the Islamic site took on a special meaning after a bulldozer unearthed a coffee cup dating to the 1940s, a recent clue to the earlier culture. The site--dating to 1517--was the sanctuary of an eminent Islamic religious authority, Abu Ali Muhammad ibn Iraq Dimashqi, who lived there until he left for Mecca, where he later died. His son returned to Beirut in 1540, with a newly popular drink called qahweh , which came into English as coffee.

During Dimashqi's time, coffee was viewed with suspicion by religious leaders, who forbade drinking it in Islamic Beirut. But in later eras, Beirut's port grew rich exporting coffee to European markets.

Seeden, head of the Islamic dig, says ignorance can be as destructive to a site as a bulldozer. She recalled the loss of the neolithic site of Kamed el Loz in the Bekaa Valley. During 20 seasons of excavations, German teams failed to explain their work to the locals. When the Germans left, before the Israeli invasion of 1982, the villagers tore into the site in search of treasure, badly damaging the dig.

The next stop for Beirut's bulldozers is an area behind three major downtown churches. From ancient texts, archeologists know that Beirut's renowned school of Roman law was in this area. Dr. Hareth Boustany, a consultant with Solidere on archeology and heritage, says the rulings and texts that issued from the school became the basis for European law systems in use today. In the 6th Century, Boustany says, a Greek historian wrote: "Until all the world follows the laws of Beirut, there will be no peace."

Peace has arrived in Beirut, but watching Seeden and her noisy bulldozers it seems some time may pass before there is quiet.

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