Sacred, historic, ancient, and breath-taking. These are some of the first words that come to mind when you see the priceless antiquities and archaeological sites in Lebanon.
A country so rich in history, it has some of the most continuously inhabited cities in the world and Roman era archaeological sites. The country’s anthropological heritage tells a story of its rich history in the Levant, a history that today faces many challenges.
The country has problems in sectarianism, corruption, embezzlement and a highly turbulent region that threatened the status of archaeology in Lebanon.
A Brief History, French Mandate into Civil War
The conservation of archaeology and ancient settlements was ratified in 1933 under the French Mandate. This is known as the Law of Antiquities issued by the French High Commission in Syria and Lebanon.
The organisation known as the DGA (Lebanese Directorate General of Antiquities) was the cabinet in charge of conservation, archaeological recovery, anthropological data and museum curation. Only specialised institutions and universities can have permits for excavations and site surveys, such as the American University of Beirut, also known as AUB (Asor 2013).
Though field work has been conducted, permits have been rarely registered to foreigners and experts outside of Lebanon. This has led to problems of internal corruption and lack of accountability of heritage sites during the urbanisation and industrialisation of Lebanon post-independence.
During the civil war, Lebanon became stateless with political factions and local militias controlling their sectors and ultimately the rich history in their areas of control. The ancient city of Sidon and the Phoenician port of Byblos remained relatively unscathed, whereas the Phoenician and Roman sites of Baalbek and Tyre were heavily affected and ruined due to fighting and neglect.
The status of Tyre during the war in the 1980s became cataclysmic to the point where UNESCO stepped in to label the ancient Phoenician city as a World Heritage Site as a way to deter further damage to the settlements in the city (UNESCO). Many artefacts were looted during the civil war as black market profiteers looked to line their pockets with rich Lebanese history along with warlords who used the illicit trade to fund their militias.
Post-Civil War, Reconstruction, and 2006 War
Post-civil war, Lebanon underwent urbanisation across the country as vast infrastructure was left in a desolate state. Archaeological projects that were conserved in the field were periodically stored in museums founded in the modern era.
One of the DGA’s main priorities post-civil war was to rebuild offices across the country, continue to push for internal and internal donors for the national museums, and the recovery of stolen and hidden artefacts.
New excavations slowed and stakes with very few permits given during this time. As the Lebanese government focused on urban development, the DGA was left with its hands held.
Archaeological projects in Beirut had very little political support, minimal funds, and a shortage of qualified personnel, leaving numerous sites unfinished to this day. Only the Tell Arqa and Tell Kamid el-Loz excavations continued post-civil war as they had pre-war permits that didn’t expire.
Foreign organisations like the French Solidere were given contracts for the reconstruction of Beirut, to reinvigorate the city in an attempt to wipe out traces of the civil war. The results were disastrous as the reconstruction was built over monumental sites and older homes of antiquity.
The DGA has maintained a more closed off approach to the world. It has only given permissions and permits to Lebanese only and has alienated international scholars and foreign institutions.
Policies like these can backfire in regards to promoting tourism or Lebanese cultural heritage, as non-Lebanese are discouraged from the state’s archaeological research instead of being encouraged to travel to the country and pursue permits for research.
Rescue operations are entirely freelance due to the economic situation, which ultimately only local people (many experienced) conduct operations instead of more professional experts in and out of Lebanon.
During the 2006 Hezbollah-Israeli War, also known as the July War, there were fears of potential destruction of priceless antiquities during the conflict. As Baalbek and Tyre became Hezbollah strongholds since the civil war, these ancient cities also became targets with back and forth rocket and artillery fire.
The Roman Temple on Baalbek suffered cracks from ricochets of explosions and the ancient city of Jbeil in Byblos suffered extensive damage (according to a 2006 report by the Guardian). Fears of an even wider destruction of cultural heritage between the Hezbollah militia and Israel remain high as warfare evolves and weapons become more powerful.
Challenges today in an Economic Collapse
Today Lebanon has become a turbulent country in the Near East and is facing one of the biggest economic collapses in modern human history since the formation of various nations post-colonialism in the 20th century.
As the Lebanese Lira plunges and the living conditions become unbearable, scholars, intellectuals, and educators have left the country for more opportunities overseas. This has led to a shortage of conservators, archaeologists, and museum curators in a country where many archaeological discoveries and recoveries have yet to been made.
With the inflation of the lira and accusations of internal corruption (which includes hundreds of millions, if not billions of lost public funds), archaeological programs in universities along with the DGA are now underfunded. An unstable nation with little economic opportunities have raised fears that archaeological sites will slowly erode or decay without funds for conservation.
This also includes fears of a renewed black market trade of antiquities as locals or sectarian militias facing hardships may pawn off some of the rich history in the illicit trade that has heightened in the Middle East since the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.
As the lira has lost virtually 90% of its value and has rapidly demarcated since the Michael Aoun presidency, the Ministry of Culture has only received 1% of government budget for anthropological purposes (Agenda Cultural, 2020). It is clear throughout the modern history of Lebanon that old and outdated laws do not conform to the modern reality of the country to protect the extremely rich heritage.
With fears of complete collapse, corruption, claims of embezzlement, and a lack in trust of numerous governments that have formed and failed, prominent organisations like UNESCO and the International Council of Museums (ICOM) must step up to raise their voice in the battered country.
Funding to local and trustworthy organisations, non-affiliated with the failing government should increase from international donors and foreign institutions. Other potential solutions include a more hands on focus to prepare the younger generations of Lebanese against corruption and mismanagement, so that they can start taking leadership roles in conservation, as ultimately the fate of many antiquities will be on their watch.
As we see today, threats of cultural heritage have become widespread and not exclusively to Lebanon. Countries such as France, Mali, Ethiopia, Brazil, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and many others have had a loss in heritage in some sort over the past decade. History is doomed to repeat itself if Lebanon’s extremely rich history is not protected and cared for.
Written by Julian McBride
Julian McBride is a forensic anthropologist and independent journalist born in New York. He’s the founder and director of the Reflections of War Initiative (ROW), an anthropological NGO. He reports and documents the plight of people around the world who are affected by conflicts, rogue geopolitics, and war, and also tells the stories of war victims who never get their voices heard. Find out more
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