Following Up on Beirut’s Soon-To-Be Destroyed Roman Hippodrome and The Best Way To Save It

Lebanon isn’t a place where much changes in a year. Seriously, if you look at where we were last year around this time and where we are today, you’ll see a lot of similarities. The only exception, perhaps, to our Lebanese reality is real estate, especially when it comes to all the contracting taking place in Downtown Beirut.

More than year ago, I wrote about the Roman Hippodrome that was soon to be destroyed in Beirut (link), in Wadi Bou Jmil next to the Jewish Synagogue. A lot has happened in a year. So courtesy of a piece (link) by Habib Battah, an LAU professor, published by the BBC, an update on Beirut’s Roman Hippodrome is in order:

  • The developer who wants to use the land is Marwan Kheireddine. Sounds familiar? He is a minister in Lebanon’s current government. Way to go for transparency.
  • The project that will see the destruction of the hippodrome is a gated community where only “elite” Lebanese will enter. In other words: you and I are off limits. Unless you can afford paying millions for a Downtown Beirut apartment.
  • According to Kheireddine, the site is not worth preserving. How does he know this? He hired an archeologist who said so. Yes, because such matters are most transparently handled by the people you buy into your service.
  • Kheireddine is offering 4000 squared meters of the land to turn into a museum of sorts that people could access. Because a Roman Hippodrome was meant to be contained within the parking lot of a building, right?
  • Plots around the site in question are said to contain other parts of the stadium and need to be properly excavated as well.
  • There is an immense shortage of archeologists in the country. The job of those archeologists is to make sure such transgressions never happen. But the government doesn’t seem to care about such an issue.
  • Beirut is not the only place where Lebanese archeological heritage is being destroyed left and right carelessly. In fact, what’s happening outside of Beirut in lesser known areas might be worse.
  • Concerned activists are trying their best to halt the development. But there will come a time when they won’t be able to do much anymore.

I remember back in 2005-2006 when a local cafe in Batroun was being built. The initial digging site revealed a Phoenician burial site, sarcophagi and all. People flocked to see what the site was all about. The following day, nothing survived to tell the tale. Today, instead of that entire burial site lies a cafe known for its shisha and its July 2012 drug scandal.

The Best Way To Save The Hippodrome:

Earlier in 2013, hell broke loose twice over ancient ruins in Beirut. The first time was because some henchmen at District S assaulted the same person who wrote the aforementioned BBC article over him taking pictures of the ruins they were busy dismantling to open up Beirut into the new Dubai-esque age (link). The second time was due to Lebanon’s possibly oldest Church getting discovered at another site where a Jean Nouvel hotel was to be built (link).

The discrepancy between the fate of sites one and two is striking. The former is still operation. The latter has been halted. Churches can do miracles? Believe, people.

Arguments about how priceless a monument is, how irreplaceable it is, how silly it is to replace it with a building, how rare it is to find such a thing in Lebanon, how economically profitable it would be to keep it and turn it into an attraction are all useless simply because most people don’t connect to them on a primal level, enough to get them rallied up.

The only way, apparently, to get to a result, force government to get involved and save such sites in Lebanon is to infuse a dose of religion in the stones. The more religious those stones, the more people get rallied up, the less our government can stand quiet as bulldozers raze through the field. Unfortunately for the hippodrome, there doesn’t seem to be an ancient church in its ruins as of now. Let’s hope that changes soon.

The following pictures are all courtesy of the BBC:

Beirut’s Roman Hippodrome is Being Dismantled by Lebanese Ministry of Culture… Against The Law

Our lovely minister of culture just doesn’t let up. A few days after he authorized the destruction of a one-of-a-kind Phoenician Port in Downtown Beirut, he’s at it again.

This time, he’s defying a law by the Shawra Council, whose jurisdiction supersedes that of the minister, which doesn’t allow any works to be done inside the estate of the Roman Hippodrome, which I spoke about back in March.

MTV has gotten exclusive footage from inside the hippodrome, which is sealed off for the public, in the Wadi Bou Jmil area showing the dismantling process in full swing. It’s still in its early stages by the looks of it but this is downright unacceptable. And if a law can’t keep the real estate mafia from eating away at whatever heritage Beirut has, you can’t but ask: what will?

This is our history. This is something that makes Lebanon unique in a way since not all countries have hippodromes stranded on their land. This is something that we should be proud to have. This is something that we should turn into a public venue.

But no. The minister has other plans. The best use for the hippodrome would be the parking lot of a high-rise. And you know what the sad part is? Some people will ask: what’s the point behind a hippodrome? Should all of the ancient monuments in Beirut be kept?

And the sadder part is that the beyond evident and deafening “YES” to second question is not as evident and common as I had originally thought.

Minister Layoun should resign because the only ministry he’s being in charge of is the ministry of  un-culture. Let’s help strip whatever identity Beirut has and cash in a few millions in our bank accounts. Those will surely come in useful when he stops being minister and he leaves to some other country with his family.

I’d say I’m disgusted. But at this point, in this country, I’m simply amused. Destroy away. Destroy away. If your brain can’t tell you that you’re doing something wrong, how will anyone convince you?

Just a question though. How do these people reach power? Also, don’t you just love change and reform?

Save Beirut’s Heritage: The Roman Hippodrome To Be Demolished

Discovered in 1988, the Roman Hippodrome in Beirut 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 to be destroyed.

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. It spreads over a total area of 3500 m2.

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 of which we name Tarek Metri, Tamam Salam and Salim Warde. In fact, Tamam Salam had even issued a decree banning any work on the hippodrome’s site, effectively protecting it by law. Salim Warde did not contest the decree. Current minister of culture Gabriel Layoun authorized constructions to commence.

When it comes to ancient sites in cities that have lots of them, such as Beirut, the current adopted approach towards these sites is called a “mitigation approach” which requires that the incorporation of the monuments in modern plans does not affect those monuments in any way whatsoever. The current approval by minister Layoun does not demand such an approach to be adopted. The monument will have one of its main walls dismantled and taken out of location. Why? to build a fancy new high-rise instead. Minister Layoun sees nothing wrong with this. In fact, displacing ruins is never done unless due to some extreme circumstances. I highly believe whatever Solidere has in store for the land is considered an “extreme circumstance.”

The Roman Hippodrome in downtown Beirut is considered as one of the best preserved not only in Lebanon, but in the world. It is also the fifth to be discovered in the Middle East. In fact, a report (Arabic) by the General Director of Ruins in Lebanon, Frederick Al Husseini, spoke about the importance of the monument as one that has been talked about in various ancient books. It has also been correlated with Beirut’s infamous ancient Law School. He speaks about the various structures that are still preserved and only needing some restoration to be fully exposed. He called the monument as a highly important site for Lebanon and the world and is one of Beirut’s main facilities from the Byzantine and Roman eras, suggesting to work on preserving and making this site one of Beirut’s important cultural and touristic locations. His report dates back from 2008.

MP Michel Aoun, the head of the party of which Gabriel Layoun is part, defended his minsiter’s position by saying that: “there are a lot of discrepancies between Solidere and us. Therefore, a minister from our party cannot be subjected to Solidere. Minister Layoun found a way, which is adopted internationally, to incorporate ancient sites with newer ones… So I hope that media outlets do not discuss this issue in a way that would raise suspicion.”

With all due respect to Mr. Aoun and his minister but endangering Beirut’s culture to strip away even more of the identity that makes it Beirut is not something that should concern him or Solidere. What’s happening is a cultural crime to the entirety of the Lebanese population, one where the interests of meaningless politicians becomes irrelevant. Besides, for a party that has been anti-Solidere for years, I find it highly hypocritical that they are allowing Solidere to dismantle the Roman Hippodrome.

The conclusion is: never has a hippodrome been dismantled and displaced in any parts of the world. Beirut’s hippodrome will effectively become part of the parking of the high-rise to be built in its place. No mitigation approach will be adopted here. It is only but a diversion until people forget and plans go well underway in secrecy. But the time for us to be silent about this blatant persecution of our history cannot continue.

If there’s anything that we can do is let the issue propagate as much as we can. There shouldn’t be a Lebanese person in the 10452 kmthat remains clueless about any endangered monument for that matter. Sadly enough, this goes beyond the hippodrome. We have become so accustomed to the reality of it that we’ve become very submissive: the ancient Phoenician port is well behind us, there are constructions around the ancient Phoenician port of Tyre and the city itself risks of being removed off UNESCO’s list for Cultural Heritage Sites.

The land on which ancient monuments are built doesn’t belong to Solidere, to the Ministry of Culture or to any other contractor – no matter how much they’ve paid to buy it. It belongs to the Lebanese people in their entirety. When you realize that of the 200 sites uncovered at Solidere, those that have remained intact can be counted with the fingers of one hand, the reality becomes haunting. It’s about time we rise to our rights. Beirut’s hippodrome will not be destroyed.