Lebanon’s Most Exciting (unfinished) Archeology Projects

"..the golden period of archeology may have only just begun."

So omnipresent is the human footprint that it can seem like all of the great discoveries have already been made, as if the age of exploration has long since passed us by. But believe it or not, the golden period of archeology may have only just begun. Thanks in part to new technologies it is becoming easier to uncover lost civilizations and give a new life to those sites already unearthed. With this in mind SoBeirut spoke to Lebanon’s most active archeologists and architects to learn about some of the most exciting archeology and restoration projects going on today.

Number One: The Anfeh Excavation

In 2011 Dr. Nadine Haroun from the University of Balamand began a salvage excavation of the unsuspecting chapel of Saydet el-Rih is the sleepy little seaside town of Anfeh. Amazed by the results Dr. Haroun has expanded the project to include all 13 square kilometers of the town in what has become the first true archeological survey of the area.

Although progress is still being made, the project’s initial findings remain some of the most fascinating. Beneath the chapel Dr. Haroun’s team uncovered what she describes as an “unbelievable network of cisterns all carved into the bedrock,” which have been used and reused throughout their existence. With the discovery of this water management system, the chapel, previously thought to date to the Byzantine period, can now be traced back to the 4th century AD. Perhaps even more significant is the ancient pottery that was found behind the church. Prior to the excavation Anfeh was thought to have been founded around 1300 BC, but the pottery, which dates to 3200 BC, provides compelling evidence that the town was once a much older and significant city in antiquity.

In addition to numerous churches, cisterns and mosaics that have since been recorded in Anfeh, Dr. Haroun is also investigating a lost fortress on the seaside. With the aid of new technology she hopes to 3D map the ruins starting next month. The project, which includes ethnography, social studies and underwater scanning, could run for years to come with encouraging prospects for future discoveries.

Number Two: The Palace of the Emir Youssef Chehab

Few places hold as much significance in the country’s modern history as Deir al-Qamar, described as “the first capital of Lebanon.” Even among the historic feudal buildings in the town’s main square the grandeur of the Emir Youssef Chehab’s palace stands out. This 18th century estate once ruled the Chouf in opulent style with decorative inlays and ornate woodwork from Damascus. However, decades of deterioration and misguided repairs have shortened the palace’s lifespan to an estimated 10 years. Fortunately the palace’s first proper restoration effort is now underway, just in the nick of time.

Eight months in to the project a team of restorative architects have identified the building’s primary ailments, which often come down to humidity and other water damage. This is especially true of the main reception hall’s projecting bay windows known as a mashrabiya. The entire structure has been disassembled and will be reattached to the palace’s outer walls using a new waterproofing technique. Wooden structures like this will be refinished with natural acrylic-free coatings and old halogen lights will be substituted for less damaging bulbs. Still other parts of the building are being saved from previously destructive restorations. In several areas cement or lime paint had been used to reinforce weak joints but has covered up whole swaths of the palace’s ornamentation. This too is finally being stripped away and meticulously replaced with techniques in line with international best practices. Although the project will take much longer than initially thought, its success could preserve the palace for hundreds of years to come.

Number Three: The Baalbek Stone Quarry

Next to the magnificent temple ruins of Baalbek is a lesser-known but hugely significant artifact called Hajar al Hibla. This “Stone of the Pregnant Woman” is thought to be the largest single cut block ever made in the history of mankind. Until recently the block appeared to be located in a grown over backyard property but in 2014 archeologist Jeanine Massih started leading an excavation that exposed the Roman quarry in which the stone was buried.

Through the excavation the site astoundingly broke its own world record when even larger stone block was discovered underneath. The new megalith measures roughly 20 meters long, six meters wide and 5 meters high and was meant for the podium of the Jupiter Temple of Baalbek. Unearthing the rock quarry also shed light on the techniques the ancients used to move these massive objects. It is thought that transporting the block would have taken a force of about 10 tones. Further excavations of this and other quarries in the area are scheduled to continue in May.

Number Four: The Ancient Harbor Jbeil

Ancient writings speak of a substantial and prosperous harbor that served as a crucial trading hub in Phoenician society. “Historically its huge. Its one of the most important harbors in the whole Mediterranean in the second and first millennia BC,” explains marine archeologist Dr. Francis Martine Allouche. The most vivid account of the lost inlet was recorded on behalf of the Egyptian dignitary Wenamon around 1100 BC. At the Pharaoh’s request Wenamon ventured to Byblos to purchase wood for a vessel meant to celebrate the god Amon. Before his arrival however the Egyptian official was robbed of his riches thereafter leading the king of Byblos to mistake the emissary for an imposter. Six months passed before the king finally dispatched 300 men and oxen to log the hinterland on Wenamon’s behalf. Cedar and other exports like these developed the city into a thriving commercial center in antiquity, all enabled by the ancient harbor.

Many archeologists have endeavored to find the storied harbor including the Lebanon’s renowned underwater specialist and pioneer Honor Frost. Her fixation with the lost trading hub led her to search in numerous locations before her death in 2010. Dr. Allouche continued Frost’s pursuit using a new imaging technique called geophysics, finally locating the harbor in 2013 and bringing the 17-year-long search to an end.

It turns out that the harbor basin is actually 100 meters inland at an average depth of 3 meters underground. According to Dr. Francis-Allouche natural and human activity has actually advanced the shoreline further into the Mediterranean and even created a new shallow seabed. The harbor itself is huge at an estimated 1200 square meters with annals describing at least 21 large boats able to dock at the same time. Several additional artifacts, including anchors, have since been discovered on and offshore. As one of only a handful of Phoenician ruins left in Lebanon, Dr. Francis-Allouche looks forward to continuing her work both on land and at sea later this year.  

Number Five: The Castle of Smar Jbeil

Lebanon is full of hidden treasures and the unsung castle in the mountaintop village of Smar Jebil is one of the best. More than just another ancient stronghold the work that has been done on the site is a great example of what a community can accomplish when they work together to care for their heritage.

As one of the oldest towns in Lebanon it makes sense that its castle would be extremely old as well. Its initial construction is thought to have begun in 3000 BC. The Phoenicians and Romans used the castle as the residence of the local ruler. In the middle ages Maronites took refuge from attackers there and the crusaders built up the outer defences, adding bossed stonewalls and even a moat. In 1860 prince Nasser el-Khazen left the fortress after his son was killed inside during an earthquake and eventually the Syrians came to use the site during their occupation of Lebanon. One visit to the castle and it is easy to see why the strategic position was so coveted throughout history. On the precipice 500 meters into the sky its possible to see all the way from Byblos to Tripoli. Many of the castle’s inhabitants have left a variety of interesting features such as olive oil and wine presses, roman tombs and a labyrinthine network work of underground tunnels.

Until recently however the castle of Smar Jbeil was completely neglected. Its fortunes began to change when the village began hosting an annual summer festival, highlighting the importance of this local asset. In 2011 the castle was outfitted with lights, in 2012 an access road was installed. Each year now it has become village tradition to revive the castle in conjunction with support from the Director General of Antiquities and specialized architects. With any luck the castle could one day be restored like the epic reconstruction of Beaufort in the south.

Number Six: The Cultural Heritage and Urban Development (CHUD) Project

This is certainly the largest project on the list, meant to enhance economic development and protect cultural heritage across five cities in Lebanon. Over a 10-year period between 2007 and 2017 CHUD’s $61 million dollar budget will support numerous initiatives including archeological restoration. This massive undertaking requires the collaboration of the Council for Development and Reconstruction, the Agence Française de Développement, and the governments of France, Italy and Lebanon.

Lots of work has already been done to save ancient structures in cities like Tripoli from the effects of erosion, pollution and degradation. In Tyre old steel rebar was removed from a stone archway and replaced with a new carbon fiber to maintain its shape. In Baalbek efforts are set to begin which will help earthquake-proof the world’s largest stone columns. With so many activities the CHUD project will have Lebanon’s heritage will be looking better than it has in years.  

Number Seven: The Riad Al-Solh Excavation

Although often overshadowed by the ruins of other coastal cities Beirut’s long history means that the downtown area is host to an unknown wealth of archeological treasures. Recently, plans to construct a new commercial center in Riad Al-Solh enabled experts to investigate the property’s historical significance as is required by Lebanese law. It’s no surprise that archeologists found a rich cocktail of remains from an array of past civilizations.

Discoveries include part of the Roman city wall, Umayyad graves, a 4th century basilica and burials from Beirut’s Iron Age youth. The excavation sheds light on flourishing period of the capital’s past yielding insights into ancient roadways and drainage systems. Of all of these relics the most exciting might be a small, headless statue that, upon examination, embodies the Greek rhetorician Isocrates. The statue’s value lies not so much in its craft or condition but rather in its representation. Isocrates effigy serves as a clue, pointing to what some archeologists consider the greatest undiscovered treasure of Beirut, the most important law school of the Roman Empire. For those searching for the law school this is some of the strongest evidence so far that the edifice is close by.

Currently the Ministry of Culture is deciding the future of the property. Will the developer incorporate the ruins into their design? Will the ministry appropriate the land? Although more remains to be discovered this excavation is one of many that faces an uncertain future.  

Number Eight: The Saida Main Land Fortress and Museum

Unlike the previous entry the Main Land Fortress, College and Sandikli sites in Saida were set aside for research in 1960. When excavations began in 1998 archeologists could labor without the bedeviling pressure of construction in the back of their minds. After 18 years of digging the result is a meticulously unearthed display of Lebanon’s impressive heritage that’s increasingly unthinkable in urban landscapes today.

The area’s use as the ditch of the medieval city is actually a blessing in disguise, says Dr. Claude Serhal who has been leading the excavation. Due to its function few buildings were created in the area during the Byzantine and Mamluk periods. Less medieval architecture enabled Dr. Serhal’s team to quickly access remains from the 4th millennium BC up through the crusader era. They have found everything from temples and buildings to burned wheat and hippopotamus bones.

For all these discoveries a new, multistory museum will be one of the site’s most distinguishing achievements. The museum is to be incorporated into the excavated area itself so that visitors will be able to walk chronologically through the strata of history and better connect with the past. On the upper floor up to 1,400 artifacts will be exhibited along with videos of their excavation. With the help of funding from Kuwait Dr. Serhal hopes that work will be completed in the next three to four years.  

Report abuse


Articles Lebanon
Art Historical Attractions Museums

More features

Get updates on what's happening in Beirut, customise and review the content you want.
Sign up now! It's free!

powered by

Enterprise Content Management System