Southern Lebanon's Archaeology
Alive and Free Again
Lebanese archaeologist Ali Badwi will never forget the night the Israelis evacuated Beaufort castle, west of Sidon. The troops drove off southwards at midnight and Ali was there by dawn, gazing up in awe at one of the most famous crusader castles brooding like an eagle on the edge of its eyrie. It was an emotional moment.
Ali, along with archaeologists and historians in Lebanon and from abroad, are rubbing their hands with anticipation over the prospect of the work to be done in the south of the country. The Israeli occupation ended in May 2000. It had lasted for twenty-two years, making the area largely inaccessible. Now, work can begin again in one of the most historically rich areas in the Middle East.
There is certainly much to do. When the Israelis pulled out of Beaufort castle, they blew up parts of it, despite a request by the Lebanese government to respect an already ravaged historical site.
Balanced on the edge of a ravine with sweeping views over the countryside, Beaufort castle (Qala'at ash-Shaqif in Arabic) once rivalled Syria's huge Crak des Chevaliers castle in size and strength. Beaufort is believed to originate from the Byzantine period. It was restored and added to by the Arabs who were later replaced by the crusaders. In 1138, the castle was captured from a local Druze prince, Sheha'b ed-Din, by Fulk of Anjou, King of Jerusalem. The castle was later besieged and captured by Saladin. In the seventeenth century, the Druze prince, Fakhreddine, used Beaufort as a base in his struggle against the Ottoman Turks.
In modern times, the castle was used by Palestinian fighters in the 1970s. Then, like all the invading armies through the centuries, the Israelis realised the castle's strategic importance in dominating the route between Tyre and Damascus and Beirut and Jerusalem. They made it their own for more than two decades. Regaining Beaufort was an important psychological step for the Lebanese.
"The castle has become the symbol of the liberation of the south of our country," explains Frederick Husseini, Director General of Antiquities in Lebanon.
The castle appears to be intact from a distance. Its walls, towers and battlements are silhouetted against the sky. But the interior lies largely in ruins. A first assessment of the conservation and renovation work needed is being carried out. A detailed study will then be made to prioritise what should be done.
The problem is money. Vast sums are being spent on the rebuilding of downtown Beirut. This includes uncovering and preserving the most marvellous sites dating back thousands of years from the Phoenicians to the Romans. Already, Beirut looks set to become one of the most historically integrated cities in the world.
The question is how to find the funds to explore the numerous and rich archaeological and historical sites that punctuate the south of the country. From Beaufort on a clear day, you can make out the shape of the crusader tort of Maroun. To the west are the battlements of the castle of Tibnin. This was used by Norwegian UN peacekeeping soldiers. They replaced the doors of the castle with a replica of the bronze gates that were removed to Jerusalem in the twelfth century.
Further to the east, is the Druze town of Hasbaya in the foothills of Mount Hermon, close to the occupied Syrian Golan Heights. Hasbaya was also in the area of Lebanese territory held by the Israelis until 2000. Now visitors can go to see the splendid eighteenth-century stone palace in the centre of Hasbaya, built out of the remains of a crusader fort. The palace was created in an Italianate style by the illustrious Sheha'b family. A descendant, Mohammed Ameen Sheha'b, still lives in part of the palace that has been divided into luxury apartments. This, says Ali Badwi, has largely saved the palace from ruin.
In all, twenty-one castles and forts south of Beirut have been catalogued. The jewel in the region's crown, however, is the ancient port city of Tyre, thought to date back to at least 2750 BC. Tyre was the chief port city of Phoenicia. Hiram, king of Tyre, sent skilled workers and cedar wood to build Solomon's temple in Jerusalem. The Assyrian king, Shalmaneser IV, captured Tyre, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon besieged it and Alexander the Great destroyed it. When the crusaders captured Tyre and established an archbishopric there - the remains of their cathedral still stand - it became one of the chief cities of the Latin kings of Jerusalem.
Despite this history, Tyre has never been the focus of great archaeological interest, unlike, for example, the Roman temple of Baalbek in the north-east of Lebanon where excavation work began a century ago.
Today, visitors to Tyre can explore the ancient Egyptian harbour with its beautifully preserved Roman and Byzantine remains of the city. This site emerged under the archaeologists' trowels out of the sand dunes after 1948. About two miles away and once connected by an ancient colonnaded paved road, which must still lie under the modern city, is the largest existing Roman hippodrome found in the world. This was only discovered in the 1960s.
Tyre was declared a World Heritage Site in 1979 in the hope of staving off the damage being done to its remains by the Lebanese war. The sites survived but very little work was done.
The World Bank has just made $8 million available for a project to rejuvenate the local economy and tourism in Tyre. This will involve renovating the dilapidated seventeenth-century souks, churches and mosques as well as the eighteenth-century port built over the ruins of the old Phoenician one.
A Spanish mission has been exploring a Phoenician graveyard. The Japanese are also offering their help and technical expertise. They specialise in underground radar and surveying equipment which they have used previously in Iraq and Syria. I met Professor Takura Izumi photographing a number of Roman glass bottles that had just been unearthed by Ali Badwi in tombs in the village of Qena outside Tyre.
`This is so exciting,' he said. `The area has so many archaeological sites to be explored, from the Middle Palaeolithic through to the Byzantine and Islamic times.'
After years of frustration, Ali Badwi, is anticipating a job of a lifetime. `In the past, we buried anything we found, like tombs for example. Proper digs need guards, protection, organisation. Now we can do it,' he says.
So far, archaeologists working in and around Tyre have never penetrated beneath the first Roman layer. Now the hunt for the origins of the city can begin.
`The Phoenician part of our history is still unclear,' says Ali Badwi. `The excavations don't equate with the history of Tyre, the Golden Age. In the tells around Tyre lies the secret, the key to our history.'
Another of the great Phoenician cities was Sidon just to the north of Tyre. The Lebanese diver Mohammed Sarji is convinced that he was on his way to a major discovery before he had to abandon his attempts because of attacks from Israeli gunboats off the coast.
In the eighth-century BC, the Assyrian king, Sennacherib, recorded his western campaigns. Inscriptions describe his march from the east and his attacks against Sidon. `Great Sidon and Little Sidon' are mentioned together with the `powerful fortresses, pastures, cisterns and fortifications' over which he gained control.
Sennacherib's successor Esarhaddon also recorded his expedition to suppress a rebellion. He called himself `the conqueror of Sidon which lies in the midst of the sea' and `the overthrower of its dwellings':
`Its walls and its houses I tore down and threw them into the sea and I destroyed its site. ... In another place I caused the city to be built.'
Historians believe there were several parts to ancient Sidon on the mainland and on the islands close by. The castle, which was built by the crusaders on the islet opposite the port, was built over a Phoenician temple. There is speculation that the island site destroyed by Esarhaddon and by later further earthquakes may have contained the palace of the Phoenician king and other Phoenician buildings and fortifications. It has never been located. But before he had to abandon his search, Mohammed Sarji believes that he found it and that the site is bigger than anyone previously thought.
`When I was diving, I noticed what looked like a wall close to a small island,' he said. `I found walls, plazas, stone columns, remains of buildings, stairways, statues, cisterns as well as reservoirs under the sea'
The Israelis have gone and work can begin - but there are still difficulties. Ali Badwi narrowly escaped being blown up by a mine when he was exploring a tell outside Tyre. His companion was killed.
Nevertheless, he is more hopeful now than at any other time in his career. He believes that the Lebanese government will find more funds when they realise the international interest in the south and the potential impact on tourism. He is also hopeful that more foreign archaeologists will go to Lebanon to lend their skills.
It looks as if some of the most important historical places in the Middle East can finally get the time and attention they deserve.