In Beirut, past races the future Pressure of time: Demolition caused by 16 years of war in the Lebanese capital has uncovered a treasure trove of archaeological information, which scholars are hurrying to gather and study before rebuilding begins.

SUN JOURNAL

October 29, 1995|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIRUT - Leila Badre clucked over her dusty holes in the ground, scolding this worker for using a shovel too big, shooing that one away from walking on a freshly dug patch.

Suddenly she froze, eyes glaring from beneath her broad straw hat at a dump truck on the hill.

"Damn them," the archaeologist muttered. "Every day they get closer. Every day I argue with them."

Dr. Badre and several teams of international archaeologists are in a race with the dump trucks. The trucks are bringing sand and gravel in preparation for rebuilding central Beirut, and the archaeologists are still hurrying to dig it up.

The ravages of 16 years of war in Lebanon have given archaeologists an unexpected opportunity. As shell-tattered buildings are torn down, the archaeologists can dig beneath to unearth Beirut's ancient history before new buildings go up.

They have been rewarded with the evidence of successive civilizations showing that Beirut is at least 5,000 years old, almost twice as old as anyone had previously proven.

"This is really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," says Dr. Helga Seeden, a colleague of Dr. Badre at the American University of Beirut.

Faced with a huge task and with skills admittedly rusty because of the long intermission for the war, the Lebanese archaeologists have brought experts from Germany, the Netherlands, England, France and Italy to help them. Americans are still officially prohibited by the State Department from traveling here, except with special permission.

The excavators have uncovered the walls of a tiny seaport used by Canaanites in 3,000 B.C. and by their successors, the Phoenicians, ambitious and wily traders who ranged the Mediterranean.

The Phoenicians bought cedar, raisins and wheat grain to Egypt, and they won such grudging respect as sharp dealers that the Greeks offered advice about counting one's fingers after a handshake with a Phoenician.

The Phoenician outpost in Beirut was barely a village; it covered an area perhaps no more than 200 yards long and 70 yards wide. But Dr. Badre and others have discovered that each civilization built on the plans of its predecessors with remarkable continuity.

Dr. Seeden, for example, has found that the busy market that thrived in Beirut until the 1975 civil war was laid out almost exactly on the lines of far older markets.

The Romans, who came to Beirut in the first century B.C., had a market there, and Dr. Seeder found that the Romans followed a street plan that was at least 1,000 years old when they arrived.

"We know now that Beirut is one of the most ancient cities in the world," says Dr. Hareth Boustany, a consultant hired by the government as a go-between for the archaeologists and the construction companies. "We are expecting to rewrite the history of Beirut."

When they began the work in 1994, Lebanon had only four archaeologists experienced in field work - little of it in the demanding methods of excavation in a city.

"We needed foreign teams," said Dr. Boustany. "We are very ignorant in urban archaeology. And in the war for almost 17 years, our archaeological students haven't been training."

Suddenly, they are using advanced technology. They make computer-assisted reconstructions and electronic measurements. They will "publish" their results on CD-Rom. Already the preliminary reports are going out on Internet's World Wide Web.

"In one gulp, we have gone into 1995 archaeology" techniques, says Dr. Seeden. "Before that, we were so far behind, we were behind the moon."

The excavations are the training ground for a whole generation of Lebanese archaeologists in both high-tech and in-the-dirt methods.

"Students haven't worked like this, digging in the dust with bulldozers, in the noise and heat," she says. She has corralled the foreign experts to give lectures to students on the site. "We have done more teaching in the last 15 months than I have done in 10 years."

And they have worked hard.

The teams have unearthed 3 million pieces of pottery, 7,000 coins, and 35 tons of building material to be analyzed. A specialist who offered to examine a few animal bone fragments was handed 90 pounds of them.

They have found Byzantine oil lamps (some with erotic etchings), Greek perfume bottles, Roman baths, medieval water and sewage pipes (some still carrying sewage), walls of a Crusader castle, blown glass from the Ottoman era and evidence of an early 19th century silk-weaving industry.

The archaeology teams work with reminders of the urgency of their job. Construction bulldozers and dump trucks trundle past the archaeology digs: The roar of the powerful machines seems to mock the little picks and shovels used in the archaeologists' painstaking work.

All around the ancient sites are buildings with the scars of war. The structures most badly damaged already have fallen to the wrecking crane.

But even those to be rehabilitated have a pox of bullet holes and missing walls from artillery hits.

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