The BBC recently published an article written by Habib Battah, blogger from The Beirut Report, about plans to demolish a hippodrome located in Wadi Abu Jamil of the Beirut Central District. However, since that report, Battah posted an update stating that the dismantling of the hippodrome wall has already begun. The hippodrome dates back to Roman times but also happens to be located on land that is estimated to be worth $60m. This prime real estate is being “protected” by Marwan Kheireddine, the minister and mogul who wants to turn it into a gated community. The project would effectively destroy the ruins of an archaeological site that is 2,000 years old. Wadi Abu Jamil used to be known as the Jewish quarter of Beirut and is now a restricted area that is home to the recently-renovated Maghen Abraham Synagogue. People need permission to access the grounds (as I learned from Ronnie during the WalkBeirut tour that includes a no-photos-allowed visit to this part of town).
The Association to Protect Lebanese Heritage, or APLH, are fighting the approval for construction that was granted earlier this season. I contacted them to ask a few questions to get some more information on their initiatives. Another blogger had insinuated that religious sites get more attention when it comes to preservation so I asked APLH on that too.
1. Beirut, and Lebanon, has a history for erasing its history. Why do you think that is?
A) We have been merchants way back since Phoenician times, where we sold our Cedars’ timber. Our current god is Profit, and this is how we see a Ministry of Culture approving a private project to the detriment of public domains like the invaluable archaeology being found underneath Beirut.
B) We have insufferable individualism and no community spirit binding us. When a society is not bonded and has forsaken its culture, traditions and roots, nothing prevents its individual elements from doing what they feel like doing. In short, our behavior is selfish and emotional rather than
rational. Every one of us has a different opinion and vision of Lebanon. Without consensus we can’t achieve any goal.
C) This problem is not only seen in Lebanon. Wherever a society is in decline & trades its cultural values for global vagueness, you will see heritage as the first victim of the ‘new’ paradigm (a Mayan temple was ‘mistakenly’ razed in Mexico a few months ago). Of course, this doesn’t happen overnight, you’ll need a few decades to notice the damage done.
A) Our officers are working relentlessly with a team of benevolent lawyers in stalling demolition permits (this project included) threatening our archaeology. I cannot give names for the sake of protecting our sources and the people who help us. Because our work is being done in the courts of the Shura council, very few people know about our fight and its magnitude. While people are busy surviving the daily Lebanese tedium, there are people working (for free) to keep our heritage from disappearing.
Rampant governmental and municipal corruption, and the disconnection of the Lebanese citizens in general (not talking about the very few exceptions) make our task a thankless, but a necessary one.
Far from that, let us look at the vandalized hideout cave of Mar Maroun in Hermel: it is covered with tags and graffiti. Many medieval religious sites all over Lebanon are falling into disrepair due to lack of funding and motivation to restore them. The current geopolitical situation in Lebanon has a lot to do with our disintegrating economy, so we turn to the Lebanese diaspora, as this is our only hope in safeguarding our collective memory for future generations.
5. What do you think the youth of Lebanon could do to help?
– Form community taskforces in their respective towns, neighborhoods, villages, etc. from people they meet at school, at church, etc. Those taskforces should have rotating leaderships who are responsible for alerting their respective municipality or APLH about threats to their neighborhood’s heritage, mobilizing citizens for a sit-in, and calling us so we alert the media should the threat persist
– Organize environmental days (taking the trash off the roads, planting trees, etc)
– Undertake small repair jobs around their community (repainting some wall, flower decoration, creating a meeting place for the neighborhood’s youth)
– If a town has a specific specialty or trade, its people should organize seasonal events to showcase the unique produce or tradition of their town
The above undertakings help create a sense of pride, belonging, community, and more awareness and organization in the case of a threat to their community (heritage demolition, environmental threat, shrinking of leisurely places in favor of parkings, etc) Without this sense of responsibility, we will sink into bleakness without understanding how it came to be. The APLH is one such taskforce, but with a legal platform that enables us to sue the faulty party. We ask the people to team up with like-minded friends, and be responsible for the protection (and beautifying) of their own
home, building, backyard, neighborhood, so that the difference can be made and sensed on a national scale.
This incident is one of many that has been occurring across the country for decades. So much of our history and cultural essence is disintegrating or deliberately lost at sea. I don’t think I need to express my feelings on the matter – I have done so enough this past year. I’ll tell a story instead. Back in the 6th grade, when we were being taught of the first civilizations, I developed an unexplainable obsession with Ancient Egypt. Please ignore the fact that I disregarded my own ancestral roots to Phoenicia and/or Mesopotamia. Right then, I had decided I was going to apply to Brown University upon graduation and study archaeology (Egyptology, to be specific). While that did not end up happening due to my sudden shift to interest in the sciences (yes, I was always scatterbrained), it was also the impractical choice when it came to studying something that would enable me to be successful in the digital age of technological innovation.
The sad conclusion that so many people make, and perhaps with some conviction, is that the past is not a money-maker nor is it the way of the future. What they forget is that the past is what makes us human.