(AFP) – Oct 16, 2008
BEIRUT (AFP) — Ancient history is getting in the way of construction in Beirut's building boom as new archaeological discoveries delay the springing up of long-planned high rises.
And the delays can be long, frustrating and expensive.
Construction on a luxury 23-storey residential building in the heart of the Lebanese capital, for example, has been stalled for 15 months after excavators stumbled on a 2,000-year-old Roman bath house.
"Imagine a developer waiting a year and three months without any progress being made on his building," says Samir Bey of Saifi Crown real estate development company that owns the 1,144 square metre (12,313 square foot) plot of land.
This latest discovery of the ancient bath house is considered "a peripheral archaeological site for Beirut. It is not a landmark," says archaeologist Asaad Seif of the Directorate General of Antiquities (DGA).
The price of expropriating the site, located next door to a trendy Beirut restaurant, was too high and the action deemed unnecessary, he told AFP.
Instead, archaeologists and architects came together to devise a plan which would allow the preservation of the artifacts and at the same time permit the tower construction to proceed.
Under the plan, the three-roomed bath house is being taken apart piece by piece and will then later be rebuilt in its original form on the ground floor of the tower when it goes up.
"We are preserving it, but we are preserving it in a different way," says Seif.
"Since we are going to integrate it on the ground floor of the future building, we will not be losing the information or the spatial memory of this place," Seif says, labelling the measure a "mitigation solution."
"This is the first time this is being done in Lebanon and the Middle East," he explains.
Architects are now busy making redrawing their designs to allow for the changes.
In the meantime, archaeologists are working to dismantle the structure's columns, once used to hold up a marble floor, to allow for four levels of underground parking.
The team -- about a dozen archaeologists and 25 support staff -- are also working behind a red metallic fence on the dig, taking measurements and sifting through sand for small finds that comprise everything from coins, pots and nails to human teeth.
"Every detail, every object will tell us a story about how things were done and we can discover trends," Seif says.
"The objects are meant to help us see and understand the dynamics of how it got built, how they used it, why it was destroyed and why it is abandoned," he explains.
Lebanese law requires developers to work with the DGA to find solutions when artifacts are found during building excavations. But the solutions don't come cheap.
"We had to reach a compromise. The people who are going to build here are disturbing this archaeology... So they have to pay a tax," Seif explains.
"This tax is used to pay the archaeologists to remove the information in a proper way. Everyone has to assume their role," he adds.
Saifi Crown is absorbing the major portion of the costs of the excavation, including thousands of dollars to remove, package and transfer a 110 square metre (1,184 square foot) mosaic from the site.
The mosaic will later be erected as a backdrop to the bath house when it is restored in the tower building.
"This creates a large burden for the developer. However, we as Lebanese understand that Lebanon has archaeological treasures that shouldn't be taken lightly. We want to preserve them," says Saifi Crown's Bey.
The task is not without its complications. There is the question of moving the 18-tonne basin or labrum that once served as a source of fresh water for people in the "hot" room of the bath house.
Ways also have to be found to keep the antiquities from being harmed by slight movements coming from the parking garage below.
Plus, there is the issue of how to make the restored bath house publicly accessible.
"Though every person has a right to see it, it's a residential building, not a museum. There are problems of security," Bey says.
The floor plan, therefore, is to include glass windows for passers-by to be able to peek at the artifacts from the outside. Visits inside the building can be coordinated with the DGA.
In a city whose history spans over 5,000 years of Canaanite, Phoenician, Hellenistic, Roman and Ottoman civilisations, it's not surprising that many traces of antiquity lie below the surface.
Another Roman bath and an ancient Roman road are among the ruins preserved within Beirut's city centre but there are others too.
When excavation began for a commercial and residential complex near Beirut's synagogue in Wadi Abu Jmeel, a Roman hippodrome was unearthed.
The historic find prompted the culture minister to send an official letter to the developer saying the land was of "national heritage value" -- effectively freezing the project.
"The hippodrome in Beirut is a landmark. We cannot in any case remove it," says archaeologist Seif, explaining why the project was frozen.
Though the site is still not open to the public, procedures for expropriation of the property are underway.
Digs in other neighbourhoods have turned up ancient human remains. A worker on a construction site of another residential tower said work had been held up for four months to allow archaeologists to scour the site.
"All they found were bones," he said
According to Seif, this isn't surprising.
"We know that the periphery of Beirut was a necropolis, or city of the dead. So when building excavation begins there, we know what they'll find."
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