x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Lebanese heritage campaigners protest over destruction of Phoenician port site

The archaeological site, said to be about 2,500 years old, was demolished on Tuesday to make way for a US$500 million (Dh 1.8bn) project in Beirut's downtown.

Bulldozers dig the site of the old Phoenician port in Beirut's Mina Al Hosn coastal neighbourhood to lay the ground for a new building.
Bulldozers dig the site of the old Phoenician port in Beirut's Mina Al Hosn coastal neighbourhood to lay the ground for a new building.

BEIRUT // Lebanese cultural heritage activists protested in Beirut yesterday against the destruction by a development company of what they believe was an ancient Phoenician port.

The archaeological site, said to be about 2,500 years old, was demolished on Tuesday to make way for a US$500 million (Dh 1.8bn) project in Beirut's downtown - a move that campaigners said took them by surprise.

The project, known as the Venus Towers, had been on hold for more than a year after the previous minister of culture halted construction to protect the site.

However, the current culture minister, Gaby Layyoun, overturned the decision this week, saying the site was found to be of no major significance.

The Association for the Protection of the Lebanese Heritage (APLH) held a demonstration outside the culture ministry yesterday, with dozens of people calling for Mr Layyoun to resign.

Josef Haddad, one of the co-founders of APLH, said the decision to go ahead with the demolition appeared hasty.

"We were taken by surprise and when we realised and arrived on the site, 90 per cent was gone," he said. "We have been told that there could be some restoration of the site. But we are now preparing a case on the basis that this was done illegally."

A culture ministry source said that a recent re-evaluation had determined that the site was "not a national treasure".

"The minister declassified the site as it was not significant enough to be included on the national heritage list," he added. "The most recent report concluded 100 per cent that the structures on the site were not related to a harbour or maritime structures."

Campaigners responded that while they have archaeological findings that indicate that the ruins were those of an ancient port, the issue is not necessarily what it was used for but that it was an archaeological site that should have been preserved.

Hassan Jaafar, the assistant managing director of Venus Real Estate Development, rejected the notion that the site was of historical significance.

Work has been halted in the last couple of days as a judge sought to clarify the issue but Mr Jaafar said the company was looking to resume the project as soon as possible.

zconstantine@thenational.ae