Will Archeology Become Another Fatality of Lebanon’s Dysfunction?

Tuesday, January 11, 2022
Opinion by Jean AbiNader

It’s hard to walk about Beirut, Sour/Tyre, Byblos, Tripoli, and the Bekaa and not be impressed with Lebanon’s archeological heritage. Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Arab, Muslim, Ottoman, French, and other cultures have left their imprint on the land and its people. Much of that material legacy is just lying around, especially in the homes of private collections and museums outside of Lebanon as a result of the pilferage, smuggling, and outright theft of Lebanese antiquities.

According to the Library of Congress, “The area now known as Lebanon first appeared in recorded history around 3000 B.C. as a group of coastal cities and a heavily forested hinterland. It was inhabited by the Canaanites, a Semitic people, whom the Greeks called “Phoenicians” because of the purple (phoinikies) dye they sold.”

This rich antiquity has thankfully left a rich cornucopia ranging from pottery, glassware, and sculptures, to monuments, brass, coins, and valuable stone inlaid articles. Yet, it often seems that people outside of Lebanon are more interested in preserving that patrimony on behalf of the Lebanese in contrast to the citizens who have profited from the more than two centuries of trading in stolen items. A recent note in The 961 covered the recent repatriation of a few items from New York that had been acquired illegally from a private dealer who purchased them from thieves. As mentioned in the article, “Lebanon, a land rich with archeological artifacts and lacking proper control and care by the state for its antiquities and ancient temples, has long been a target for thieves and smugglers of its rarities.”

One might blame the state of turmoil in Lebanon over the past few years as a cultivator of the illegal trade, but the reality is that these thefts have been going on for decades, becoming more frequent during the civil war and after it ended in 1990. A recent article in Heritage Daily explained that during the mandate period the challenges of archeological studies were so well known that The French High Commission ratified the Law of Antiquities in 1933. “It set up the DGA (Lebanese Directorate General of Antiquities) to take charge of conservation, archaeological recovery, anthropological data, and museum curation. Very few organizations have permits for excavations and site surveys, which have inhibited both discovery and defense of Lebanon’s heritage,” the article mentioned.

It also said that, “Though field work has been conducted, permits have been rarely registered to foreigners and experts outside of Lebanon. This has led to problems of internal corruption and lack of accountability of heritage sites during the urbanization and industrialization of Lebanon post-independence.” A number of studies published by the American University of Beirut (AUB) and others have outlined the scope of the problem as well as its possible solutions, which unanimously start with actions on the government level such as the implementation of registration codes over artifacts and sites, collaboration with museums worldwide on the global registry of antiquities, and enforcement of anti-smuggling laws.

For those projects that do exist, there have been numerous finds that have expanded our knowledge of Lebanon during various ages and periods. Just last year, a 5,000 year old Roman temple in Tyre was described as “spectacular, ” raising even more interest in what Lebanon was like during the Bronze and Iron Ages, which is historically significant not only for Lebanon but also its surrounding regions that were also part of the Roman Empire.

This follows the 2020 story of an excavated Roman-era wine press, the 2021 discovery of mass 12-13th century Crusader graves, and a Roman mosaic that was found in Beirut that same year. For more details on the finds, consult Archaeology magazine which has a section on Lebanon.

Yes, Lebanon’s heritage is not limited to just Baalbek, Byblos, Sidon, and Tyre. Its heritage of historical riches is grounded in so much more and yet our knowledge of it has only gotten us a few layers deep. Without concerted efforts by the national and municipal governments, this trend of depriving Lebanon of its many roots will continue.

Since tourism is one of the top three pillars of foreign currency inflows, the government needs to take Lebanon’s cultural heritage seriously and view its preservation as more than sports and mezze. Not enough is being done to prevent the departure of Lebanese antiquities and cultural material, regardless if sold by uncontrolled smugglers or destroyed by the August 4th explosion that has yet to be fully investigated. It is time for the era of misusing the country’s public land, institutions, and public spaces to end, and time for a new Lebanon to usher in the respect and pride its heritage deserves.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon, a non-profit, nonpartisan leadership organization of Lebanese-Americans.